7 Lessons Learned In My Year Away From Church

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Photo Credit: Inna Yasinka Photography / Check her out at http://www.innayas.com and @innayas 

It was one year ago today that I walked out of a Sunday morning service and made a conscientious decision to unlearn old patterns of thinking and choose a different path for my life. It was a time of wrestling with the things I thought were important and allowing myself to be okay with being confused and not having all the answers. Looking back, it was the right decision. The unlearning made space for exploration, and in the process, I’ve also learned a few things.

1. The earth is a beautiful place

I’ve read about the heavens declaring the glory of God and the earth proclaiming his handiwork, but I never fully experienced it until I got my face out of the book and took my body outdoors for walks and hikes and easy days at the beach. These are things I didn’t have time for when I was busy or exhausted with churchy things like volunteering and leading and caring for people with every free minute of my week. Creation is beautiful. And I’ve never appreciated it more than in the past year.

Since my Sundays are now agenda-free, I’ve spent many of them outdoors, taking in sky and ocean, trees and grass, clouds and dirt. When you grow up thinking that God is eventually going to destroy the earth anyway, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to be bothered about it. And if you see Creation as “fallen” from some higher ideal, then it’s hard to find any reason to care for it. But I find a greater, deeper, more meaningful experience of God and his glory when I come face to face with all the beauty in the world around me. God is in the ladybugs. God is in the wind. God is in the minutia and all the “earthly things”.

2. God really is everywhere

Like for real, folks! I like to use the analogy of a fish tank. Once you leave the fish tank and realize that there are oceans and streams and rivers and creeks and lakes and seas out there, going back to fish-tank ways of thinking are not an option. My understanding of God has shifted so significantly in such a remarkable way. When Paul talks about living and moving and having our being in Christ. Wow. I thought I understood that before. But that whole idea blows my mind every day.

We really kid ourselves into thinking that if we somehow seek harder, only then will God be found. But God is everywhere. There is no running from him. And there is no searching for him. He is already everywhere you might think to look. Even when you think you’re hiding from God, you’re actually hiding in God. I could selah that from here to kingdom come.

3. You can choose

I’ve stopped over-spiritualizing the decision making process. I think we worry and fret and lose sleep over what is and isn’t “God’s will”. We wait around forever, pray, ponder, talk to “leaders”, second guess ourselves, and basically participate in this parade of piety that often leaves us more confused than when we started. So I’m here to tell you: You can choose. Yeah, you. Can choose. That career, that spouse, that house, that hair colour, those friends. And it will be okay.

God is not and will not be mad at you. Everyone who has made a bad decision thought it was a good decision at some point. And everyone who has made a good decision has second-guessed themselves and wondered if it was a bad decision at some point. So let’s just all take a collective deep breath, and do our best to live life fully and wholeheartedly. Let’s pay attention to our heart, our leanings, and our intuition instead of debasing these good and godlike traits of our humanity and personhood.

4. You can have community without the trappings of congregation

It’s funny how as humans, we like to classify and categorize and file everything into their respective boxes. But the thing about the church is that it’s a dynamic, living organism. It’s a tragedy that we’ve turned something so beautifully organic into an organization. Instead of connecting with our neighbors, we drive across the city to connect with the ones who think like us, believe like us, and oftentimes even look like us and talk like us. We spend our money paying for lights and sound and a bigger building, leaving nothing to help our friends or those in need.

Church is not a building. And God isn’t confined to the four walls of your congregation. I have found that you can have a community of sisters and brothers, people who care about you and who you care about in a completely natural, unforced way. Yes, God is building his Church in the world. But it is not some exclusive, password protected organization for those who have prayed the magical prayer and accepted the free gift of fire insurance to escape the end of the world. It’s SO much more.

We have missed the point if we’re willing to dig a little deeper in our wallets to pay off a building or attend a concert, but settle for “thoughts and prayers” when a brother or sister is suffering. You can’t turn the upside-down kingdom right side up and slap a God-label on it. God isn’t building a building. The reality is that there is probably more “church” happening at Saturday morning brunch with your girlfriends than your nearest local pew.

5. Church attendance does not indicate spiritual growth

And spiritual growth is not the same as behaviour modification. Turns out that the Gospel is actually the Good News. Imagine that! If your faith has become all about behaviour modification disguised as “holiness” or “purity” or “pleasing God”, rest assured you’ve missed the point. But don’t worry, because the invitation to taste and see still stands. It is not an invitation to sin less. It is an invitation to accept the finished work of the Cross. Because it is always God’s kindness that leads to a change of heart. Because mercy always triumphs over judgement. And because love always wins. This is the Good News. And any other gospel is no gospel at all.

When I stopped trying so hard and learned to relax into the grace of God, I found true freedom. But here’s the thing: When you move away from the sterility of perfection towards the messiness of courage, the status quo will accuse you of witchcraft. This is because they prefer the subdued, disempowered, rule-bound, anxiety-ridden soul, rather than the thriving, empowered, unapologetic, unconventional soul. Is it any wonder though? The latter is more difficult to control. So I’m not after goodness or purity or holiness. I’m after that which moves my soul in ways that my mind cannot comprehend or resist responding to. And sometimes that looks and feels messy. But it always turns out beautiful. And that, my friends, is spiritual growth.

6. God really is Love

This is by far my favourite lesson learned. It was less a lesson and more of a soul-level realization. I want to come at this point from a very personal and unique angle. You see, I am a woman, a first-born daughter, to Malayalee Indian parents, who immigrated to North America, and found fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. I have to hand it to my folks for assimilating so well into the community they became a part of, but it has not been an easy road. So despite being taught that God is love, I was petrified of him.

I have carried the weight of my gender, tied into my sibling order, coupled with my culture, jammed into my religion, and all of the burdens and expectations that accompany my social location. The message of purity, obedience, and high standards came from both church and culture. Be pure. Be obedient. Be an example. Because I am a girl, I was never allowed. Because I am a girl, it might not be safe. Because I am a girl, I have to protect my reputation. I had to be the example. I had to be responsible. I had to be pure. I had to be obedient. And you better believe that religion was so tied into this overarching oppressive message that it’s near impossible to see where religion ends and patriarchy starts.

It’s no wonder anxiety has been a problem for me for most of my life. Social anxiety. Performance anxiety. General anxiety. I worried about everything from whether my parents would divorce, to whether my siblings would grow up to be good people, to whether I would make my parents proud, or whether I would fulfill my purpose in life, or whether I would miss the rapture, and an overwhelming number of other worries. I developed serious, life threatening physical conditions directly related to my anxiety and sported a robust and emotionally numbing amount of denial to mask the problem. And yet, it was a problem.

It took moving away from my family and finally leaving the church to one-by-one unlearn the bullshit and actually find out that God really truly is Love. That God likes me, just as I am. Not the good and perfect me. Just me—faults, failures, flaws and all. I learned that I am formed in the image and likeness of Love. My true self is formed by Love, in Love, and with Love. Not sin, not wretchedness, not evil. But Love. When I came face to face with this revelation, I became a changed person. I no longer felt the need to be the moral police, or split hairs on what is sin and not sin.

One last point, if the God you think you serve doesn’t look like the Jesus you read about in the Gospels, you can be certain that your theology is fundamentally flawed. God looks like Jesus, talks like Jesus, acts like Jesus, and is one with Jesus. Brian Zahnd says it best: “God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus. We have not always known this—but now we do.” It doesn’t matter what Bible verses and historical precedents support your view. If your theology doesn’t look and feel like Jesus, then it simply isn’t Christian.

7. You are allowed to love yourself

In the Christian world, we perversely glorify self-sacrifice, a good reputation, absolute obedience, and denying oneself to the point of abuse. Looking back, I realize how these concepts were used by those in authority to maintain power and control. I grew up never learning how to care for myself and my own needs and serving and giving until I was completely spent. I would feel guilty when I did something for myself. I have lived most of my life trying to please everyone at the cost of my own well-being. It was a toxic way to live and it wasn’t long before I was burnt out, fatigued, and angry.

Learning to love myself and coming to the understanding that God actually liked me was revolutionary. I learned that Jesus didn’t die to make me perfect. He died to set me free from the system that demands my perfection. Love frees me to be me authentically. And the new me, operating in a new reality, of this beautiful, upside-down, cruciform Gospel of the Kingdom of God, is so much better than the rule-keeping, people-pleasing, slave-to-my-reputation me.

So the lesson? Love yourself. Freely and fiercely. We tend to forget that at the heart of the Golden Rule is one’s relationship to one’s self. If you don’t believe me, go read it again. The love revolution doesn’t start with awkward, forced, random acts of kindness towards strangers. It starts with self-love and self-compassion. When I can love myself, then I can love the world. See, we like to call each other “sinner” or “saint”. But God? He calls us “beloved”. Because you, darling, are so worth loving.

In closing, you might say, “Beni, these are lessons you could have learned by going to a better, healthier church.”  Maybe you’re right. But that’s not how it worked for me. I grew up in church. I’ve been deeply involved with every church I’ve ever called home. I’ve been on committees and leadership. I’ve led worship and taught Sunday school. I’ve gone to conferences and camps. I’ve launched youth programs and ushered. I’ve even laid low and just attended. These are not lessons I learned in any of those positions or places. I can’t speak for the world, I can only speak for myself. I needed to leave. I needed to wrestle. I needed space. And I haven’t figured it all out yet. I’m still learning. Still wrestling. And still asking questions. And I’m okay.

P.S. 7 Reasons to Leave a Church, The Shunning, The Universe Washed My Feet,Letters to Brené: On Leaving a Cult, and follow me on Instagram!

© Copyright Benita Grace Joy 2016

 

Go To Church They Said


“Go to church,” they said. But it had been over seven months since I had stepped foot in a church on a Sunday morning. I’m still recovering from my last “church” experience. And it has been a messy and beautiful healing process. But having been admonished to “go to church” more times than I care to count, I thought that surely by now, since I had taken some time away from it all, I could probably deal. I was wrong.

I woke up excited that morning and found my Sunday morning groove easily enough, perfected over a lifetime of practice. Donned a suitable outfit, make-up on point, and felt reasonably positive about turning a page into a new chapter at this new place that came with high recommendations. And off we went. Needless to say, the whole experience should have come with a trigger warning for Religious Trauma Syndrome. Yes, that’s a real thing. Spiritual PTSD.

There’s no way I could have prepared myself for what happened. Stepping into the auditorium, neatly lined rows of seats, packed with people, I felt the first pang of anxiety hit my gut. The vibe was stiflingly familiar, uncomfortable, claustrophobic. I swallowed and reminded myself to breathe. Slow inhale. Steady exhale. Someone helped us find a seat as I tried to maintain composure. My partner leaned over asking if I was okay. I couldn’t even make eye contact when I stiffly nodded yes. I wanted myself to be okay. I wasn’t.

The “praise and worship” part of the service was musically astute, but I couldn’t help but wonder if all of this really even meant anything. I was in tears. And not because “the spirit was moving”. I was experiencing what I now know to be an anxiety attack. Try as I may, I could not get myself to relax. The style of music, the songs, the set-up of the stage and auditorium, everything was like the ghosts of services past coming back to haunt me.

The mini graduation for their in-house ministry school triggered memories of my own Bible College graduation service. The pastor praised some of the more seemingly devoted graduates with “prophetic words” about how they were going to make an impact and reach India for Christ. Fundagelicalism 101 jargon. Nothing I hadn’t heard, or said myself, a thousand times before. I felt my stomach slowly fold into itself.

The pastor preached a wandering, theologically obtuse message, pulling from various scripture verses clobbered together to prove his point, lacking any discussion of context. I’m no theologian, but I’m also not biblically illiterate. I was uncomfortable and fidgety, counting down the minutes to when the service was supposed to end. The tears were hot and pressing but I kept blinking them back. I was frighteningly shaky inside. I could feel the growing tightness in my chest, quiver in my lips, and lump in my throat, and hoped no one noticed how distraught I was.

The service dragged on past the listed end time, and then some. I was floating in and out of various dissociative states. I willed my mind to wander to more pleasant places. When that didn’t work I stared at my phone hoping the urge to get out of there would somehow subside. My mind was reeling. I felt sadness and rage, betrayal and hopelessness, shame and anger. The tears kept blurring my vision and slipping down my cheeks as I wiped them as inconspicuously as I could. I was visibly shaky, unsteady, and borderline nauseous.

The closing prayer turned into the pastor praying for people with birthdays and anniversaries, students starting exams, the sick, visitors, and random other people as he “felt led”. And it wasn’t one prayer that stretched on. They were individual prayers complete with people asked to go up to the stage, issuing prophetic words, and a congregational “Amen!”, before starting again. The language, the posturing, the emphasis on certain words and phrases, the predictable “prophesies”, the patronizing way in which it was done, it was all unbearably familiar and bothersome to me.

When it finally ended, we were invited up to the terrace for chai (apparently an after-church tradition in India). I quietly followed my partner because my voice was lost in the grief that had turned into a lump in my throat. Several awkward minutes rolled by. Not one person stepped up to us to say hello or introduce themselves. We finally decided to leave. Walking away, I kept heaving cautious sighs of relief as my agitation slowly died down and the weight lifted off my chest and I could breathe again.

Even though I work in mental health and am familiar with the symptoms of trauma, it took a while before I could even put into words what the experience was like. It has taken almost a month after the episode to even get to the place where I could reflect and write about it. And six months after the fact to even be able to hit publish on this post. I didn’t know who to talk to. Who would even understand? That was a very lonely place to be. The severity of my reaction even confused my partner, and trying to talk about it and make sense of it all was difficult. It still is.

It wasn’t until I spoke to one of my friends who had been through the cult/church experience with me last year that I started to feel better. When I explained what had happened, I was surprised to find out that she had been experiencing the same sort of reaction while trying to find a new church home with her partner. She hadn’t been able to talk about it with anyone either. I hadn’t realized just how deeply we had been hurt until this episode.

I know I’m not where I used to be. I’ve tried to put the whole cult experience behind me. But coming to India landed me in the middle of a cauldron brewing fundamentalist evangelical insanity with a vision to spread the madness all over the country. Quite frankly, it is scary. The last thirty or forty years of American missionaries to India have solidified fundamentalism’s chokehold on the Indian Christian community, complete with the same shallow traditions that have been the downfall of American evangelicalism, divorced from the deeper historic roots of Christian tradition and orthodoxy.

Leaving fundamentalism and the evangelical movement behind has been beautifully freeing and healing for my soul. And people’s admonishments to “go to church” have been entirely unhelpful to my healing process. If you’re where I am, please take heart. Grieve. Stay close to the friends you trust. And don’t make any rash decisions. You will find your way back, or onward, when you’re good and ready. And if you’re one of “those people” who are quick to diagnose that someone is “backslidden” and should “turn back to God” or to “go to church” or whatever, just STOP. You’re not helping. And in fact, you may be doing more harm.

I will find my way. Slowly. Cautiously. But surely. Until then, I am where I am.

[Please note that the purpose of this post isn’t to point fingers at any specific church, and as such, I did not name names. A lot of charismatic evangelical traditions are very similar in their vibe, make up, and beliefs. I am sharing from my own personal experience. It may not be your experience, and that’s OK.]

P.S. 7 Reasons to Leave a Church, The Shunning, The Universe Washed My Feet, Letters to Brené: On Leaving a Cult, and follow me on Instagram!

© Copyright Benita Grace Joy 2016

My Angry Feminist Poem

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I began identifying as a feminist before it was cool to do so. I have felt the weight of my gender for most of my life. And I have fought it every step of the way. But being back in India for the past few months brought that fight to the forefront again. And my gut response to my oppression and my oppressive culture was anger. I see anger as a legitimate response. Better anger that spurs action than dejection and surrender to the pitiful state of affairs. And sometimes, I can take the anger and turn it into something more, something better, like art. I might not win an award for it. But it might strike a chord with a reader or two. And that’s better than having it burn a whole in my brain. So here is a piece I wrote well over three months ago. I call it “My Angry Feminist Poem”. 


I am more than a vagina or the size of my breasts
More than your evaluation of “hot or not”
I am not “the helper” or “the weaker sex”
And I will not fit into your imaginary box

I am more than the shade of my skin
More than my sexual orientation
More than a stereotype, label, or diagnosis
And more than a fleeting first impression

Don’t limit me to gender roles
To kitchen duties and laundry loads
Don’t downplay my wit and intellect
Don’t tell me I’m emotional and mess with my head

Don’t make shit up about how I am “nurturing”
I may not see motherhood as my “high calling”
I am more than my education or ambition
More than “career-minded”, “homemaker”, or “super woman”

Don’t reduce me to your assumptions
Or whatever signals you think I sent because
At the party, on the train, at the office, and in bed
My silence does not mean consent

Don’t speak for me, let my voice be heard
And pay attention to my words
Your attitude and platitudes do nothing for me
Oppressively upholding the plague of patriarchy

I am more than daughter, mother, sister
More than girlfriend, fiancé, and wife
I am not your slave, maid, prostitute, or secretary
And no, as a matter of fact, you can’t decide for me

I will not make myself small to protect your ego
Don’t expect me to live in your shadow
I refuse to be ashamed, terrorized, or patronized
And I refuse to let your ignorance slow my stride

I am earth and I am heaven
I am a story still being written
Wild heart, free spirit, untethered soul
I am a complexity, imperfect perfection

P.S. Have You Never Met A Woman, Let Them Stare, and follow me on Instagram.

© Copyright Benita Grace Joy 2016

The Post I Didn’t Want to Write


“India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters. I love my country, and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage. I shall always strive to be worthy of it. I shall respect my parents, teachers and all elders and treat everyone with courtesy. To my country and all my people, I pledge my devotion. In their well-being and prosperity alone lies my happiness.”

–The Indian National Pledge of Allegiance

It’s a Wednesday morning in April. It’s already summer in Mumbai and these few morning hours are the only comfortable moments of the day before the humidity settles in like a thick, heavy cloud that covers the city. There aren’t enough handkerchiefs to wipe the perspiration that forms large droplets along the temples, between the breasts, or flowing down the small of the back. The heat has a decidedly authoritarian air about it, demanding that all succumb to its debilitating force. The brain struggles to keep up as the body focuses all its resources on cooling itself. Decision making suffers. Irritability becomes second nature. And escape? Ha!

Roadside vendors find shade under trees, makeshift shelters, or large umbrellas. Caste staring back with every passing glance. Street dogs take to napping on small patches of shadow. Even rickshaw drivers pull over to snooze. The sun is a friend and the sun is an enemy. Pollution hangs in the air as industrialization rages on. And the mounds of garbage on every street corner make social progress look next to impossible. All the while, the haves retreat into their high rise flats fitted with air conditioning units and wealth that affords them the luxury of ignoring the disparity of a growing class divide.

Over the five months I’ve spent here, I’ve been asked about my caste, blatantly, on three separate occasions. The most peculiar episode was when I got into our building’s elevator and a woman who lived a couple floors above stepped in with me. She asked if I lived in the building and then asked me point blank what my caste was. I told her I was Christian and she told me she was a Christian too. I scratched my head and looked back at her dumbfounded. She didn’t seem to notice anything ironic about that.

So here I sit. Sipping what remains of my lukewarm black tea. Laptop whirring quietly. I can’t help but think about how the last five months have changed me. In moments of frustration, I have voiced the sentiment: I love India. But India doesn’t love me. I am protective of India. But India isn’t protective of me. I want progress for India. But Indians don’t seem to care for progress any more than the stray cares for dog treats. So let’s just be real, tell the whole truth, and sit with it in all its yuckiness.

First, this whole idea that India is so welcoming and hospitable? Well, it is. If you have loads of money or are perceived to have loads of money. If you have fair skin. If you’re male. If you can make threats or appear authoritative. Or if you’re somebody’s somebody or connected. Or if you are a good little human that fits into your place, status, and function in society. For example, an unmarried woman living alone is already problematic. But most importantly, if you’re white. India’s so called “hospitality” is a testament to its internalized and overt racism, classism, and dare I say it, self-hate.

Self-hate is such a strong word, you might think. But how else would you describe a nation with a multi-billion dollar fairness industry? How else do you describe people that go gaga over foreign dog breeds but can’t take care of their own strays? How else to you describe a nation that is racist towards its own Northeasterners who are said to have (yes, this offensive and derogatory word I’m about to type is still in use) “mongoloid” features? How else do you describe those situations in which the person shouting the loudest gets served first? How else do you explain the militant staring? How else does the sexual assault of women in the general compartment of the Mumbai local train become a “normal” thing?

Most importantly, how else do you explain raving reviews about hospitality and kindness from Caucasian tourists while tourists from African nations are met with discrimination and straight-up hatred, and some are even jailed for crimes they never committed? How do you explain the disdain I face every day because my Hindi isn’t up to par, while a white person in the same situation still gets treated like a VIP? And how do you explain the rampant and ridiculous VIP culture that this country is cloaked in?

And the thing about caste is this: if you can’t value the perceived lowest among you, you aren’t valuing yourself. Because the “lowest” caste is just as much a part of you as you are a part of them. How else do you explain the common refrain: “But this is India” and “India is like this only”? All this is not to say that progress isn’t occurring. In fact, I think it is, for sure. But it is slow. And the growing global disparities in wealth distribution make social progress feel like a pipe-dream at worst and a grim hope for the future at best.

As dismal as this post reads, I have to say, I love this country. It has always evoked the closest thing to patriotism for me. Maybe it’s a connection with the earth here. Something about belonging to the land. And maybe it is precisely my love for this place that gives rise to my anger and indignation about its state of affairs. And I salute the few and far between who are working towards social progress in various areas. What am I doing about it? Well, I’m saving that for my next post.

P.S. Let Them Stare, Have You Never Met A WomanCreative Sabbath, Navigating New RealitiesThe Adventure Heart, and follow my travels on Instagram!

© Copyright Benita Grace Joy 2016

Have You Never Met A Woman


Does my loudness offend you?
Does my confidence make you squirm?
Have you never met a woman who refused to conform?

Does my wisdom unnerve you?
Does my intelligence trigger your insecurity?
Have you never met a woman who could think independently?

Are my opinions too much to handle?
Do my questions make you upset?
Have you never met a woman who could speak for herself?

Are my bare shoulders a “stumbling block”?
Are my legs too much for your repressed sexuality?
Have you never met a woman who was comfortable with her body?

Does my light shine too brightly?
Are you pissed about my radical rebirth?
Have you never met a woman who recognizes her own worth?

Is my ambition so unsettling?
My drive and passion a threat, or worse?
Have you never met a woman who knew the world was hers?

Do you have it in you to support my dreams?
Or do you prefer that I stay low key and “help”?
Have you never met a woman you saw as equal to yourself?

© Copyright Benita Grace Joy 2016

P.S. Let Them Stare

Let Them Stare

I wear running shorts when I run. So edgy right? Well, depends who you ask. I know this wouldn’t be that fantastical of a statement usually, except, I’m currently in India. And I’m a grown woman. And here, even in the bustling cosmopolitan city of Mumbai, in 2016, the general fact remains that women don’t wear shorts.

Women exercise in a variety of different outfits including leggings that cover the entire leg, or that go below the knee, or even a kurta and churidar, or other traditional wear, often paired with jogging shoes. But a woman wearing running shorts to run,or even shorts in general, is not a common sight. (Side note: I don’t know what it’s like at gyms and exercise clubs because they are way too expensive for the average person to join. Another blog on that coming soon.)

I’m not saying that women never wear shorts. I’m only saying that it’s rare (other than at marathons and similar sporting events, I would assume), which to me is fairly odd. Now, I wouldn’t have an issue with this if it was a phenomenon across the genders. But the fact is, men wear shorts all the time. And they often wear typical gym wear when they run. Women, on the other hand, are relegated to the mores of propriety and conservatism. Couples exercising together are a strange sight because the man will be wearing comfortable gym shorts and a tee and woman will be in clothes that cover anything and everything remotely offensive. Odd right?

So, I will give you that I am really no one to judge what people wear and how they decide to live their lives. However, I will argue that this general way of things reflects the underlying misogyny that is prevalent in this society. That being said, the point of this post isn’t other people’s wardrobe choices. It’s about my own experience of trying to make exercise a part of my routine. When I jog or run, I wear running shorts that fall a couple inches above my knees paired with a comfortable t-shirt.

The only problem is that the staring is dreadful and incomprehensible. The men are terrible. The women are only slightly better. It’s so bad that I’m usually more exhausted psychologically from the staring than from the physical exertion of running. It’s exhausting when I try to ignore it. It’s even more exhausting when I try to give those people staring my stink eye. Yeah, I typed that right. Sometimes, I give them my stink eye. Or my “What’s your problem?” look. Because I refuse to avert my eyes. Why should I be ashamed when I have done nothing wrong?

These aren’t passing glances or even second looks. I’m talking about full on staring me up and down. If they catch my stink eye, they’ll usually look away. Some look away nonchalantly in an effort to play down the nasty violation they just engaged in. And some look away with the discomfort of being caught ripe on their faces. Yet others will begrudgingly peel their eyes away, only to glance back half a second later with that weird, even scary, animal-like look in their eyes that exposes a sexually repressed society.

I know I’m going to get pushback from well-meaning people who say that I should “respect the culture” and not impose my values on them and to be wise about which fights to pick. But here’s the thing: I’m not imposing anything. And if shorts aren’t part of the culture, why do the men get to wear them? So this whole women-don’t-wear-shorts policy isn’t any kind of cultural issue. It’s a sexism issue. It’s a systemic oppression issue. Furthermore, I don’t think I need to remind anyone of India’s recent history of violence against women that regularly made international news. The militant staring might be a soft violation, but the gang rapes are simply the other end of this same continuum. The only “cultural issue” here is misogyny, sexism, and the objectification and oppression of women. And I’m not sure I owe it “respect”.

And so, here’s what I have to say to the utterly unenlightened men who have no shame, no respect for women, no self-respect, and no sense of common decency and boundaries: You don’t get to win. You don’t get to decide how I feel about myself. You don’t get to control what I wear. You don’t get to take my freedom from me. So take a good look. This is what a woman who is exercising looks like: sweaty, powerful, and unashamed. Not to mention, here’s the bigger picture: this is what a woman in shorts looks like. She has legs—surprise!

To the women who stare, I say: Take a good look, sister. And allow me to let you in on a little secret: You can be free too. You can say no to patriarchy and misogyny and discrimination and the backwards notions that have held you down for so long. The metamorphosis itself can be uncomfortable, but when you finally taste the sweetness of freedom, oh darling, there’s nothing that can stop you.

I’m going to keep doing my thing, and take the advice a couple of my best girlfriends gave me a few months ago: Let them stare. I know I’m breaking convention and shaking up status quo. And I’m okay with that. I’d rather introduce people to a new way of living instead of crawling back into the oppressive box I worked so hard to break out of.

So let them stare because their eyes are opening to a new and beautiful reality. Let them stare because they have nothing better to do. Let them stare because ultimately they want to be you. Your body is nothing to be ashamed of.

© Copyright Benita Grace Joy 2016

P.S. Creative Sabbath, Navigating New Realities, and follow my travels on Instagram!

 

Letters to Brené #1: On Leaving A Cult

[Note: I wrote this very personal piece somewhere around October 2014 in the wake of all that took place mid last year. I couldn’t post it when I wrote it because everything was still spinning and it was too early to sort through the barrage of emotions crashing on every side. I feel like the time that has passed since, and the physical and emotional distance, has allowed for *some* healing. But I will admit that there is a long way to go. However, I do feel somewhat ready to put this particular piece, vulnerable as it is, out there. There will likely be future posts on the ups and downs that come with the healing process. For now, here’s an unsent letter I wrote simply as an exercise to try and process scary emotions.]

Dear Brené,

First off, I hope you can forgive me for using just your first name and leaving out the respectful title. Chances are you will never read this, and that’s okay because it’s simply an exercise to help me process emotion and not much more. Secondly, thank you for writing your incredible book on shame and vulnerability. “Daring Greatly” changed my life and continues to change my life.

Today I want to tell you about something really painful that I went through when I very publicly left a “church” that I had been a part of for close to five years. I put church in quotations because they are actually a cult. Shortly after I left, the “pastor” of this group was criminally charged with sexual offenses involving another ex-church member. The cult continues to maintain his innocence, but I wouldn’t expect anything better from that group anyway.

I feel so many emotions connected to this experience, but one of the strongest emotions I have been feeling over the past few months is shame. I keep wondering why I feel shame when I didn’t do anything wrong and when they are the ones who should be ashamed for how they scam and take advantage of people. And yet, within this process of healing and creating a new life for myself, there are still moments of overwhelming shame, embarrassment, humiliation.

I feel ashamed because I couldn’t see it for what it was. I feel ashamed that I told others that they should be a part of this “church”. I feel embarrassed that I threw myself so sincerely into something so twisted. I am embarrassed that I defended the crazy practices advocated by its leaders. I feel humiliated that I fell prey to the con because I would generally consider myself an educated, smart, intelligent person. Not only did I join, but I allowed myself to become consumed with it, thinking that I was “serving God”. I can’t believe that I even declined other opportunities to do amazing things because I thought this was where I was meant to be, where God wanted me to be. A big part of me feels like people will now think I am stupid or foolish or gullible and question my ability to think clearly in the future. Ultimately, I’m embarrassed that I even have to write this and that I’m sitting here heartbroken and having a pity party about my own foolishness.

There were times when the shame was so debilitating that I hardly knew what to do with myself. I found myself isolating and withdrawing from all social activities. I let text messages and emails pile up without responding. I didn’t call my friends or reach out to anyone. Overall, I felt pretty depressed and estranged from everything that I thought was my life. In some ways, I needed the distance, a break from what was, so I could think clearly for the future. But then, my “break” turned into full fledged isolation and avoidance. Then again, who’s to say how long such a “break” needs to be. In any case, it was a whole lot of guilt and shame and fear all wrapped up in self-pity.

At first, I couldn’t name the shame. That took some time. But once I was able to call it for what it was, I could at least figure out what to do next. So I pulled your book off my shelf and found your 3 steps to overcome shame:

1. Practice courage and reach out

2. Talk to myself the way I would talk to somebody else

3. Own the story

And so, that’s what I’m doing. I started talking to my brother, my sister, and a few trusted friends, some of whom had been through a similar experience. I thought about how I would have supported another person if I knew they were just coming out of a cult, which led to a very healthy level of self-compassion. And I’m learning to own my story. I’m refusing to be a victim. I’m practising vulnerability, and pressing on. Writing helps. But I’m taking my time with publishing these short reflections. I remember what you said about waiting to share a story until it has been processed in a safe way.

Thank you for sharing your wisdom with the world.

BGJ

P.S. 7 Reasons to Leave a ChurchThe Shunning, and The Universe Washed My Feet

© Copyright Benita Grace Joy 2016

Oh Hello Water Buffalo

Last week, I had the opportunity to take a mini vacation with my love and his band mates to a little town called Igatpuri, located just over 100km outside of Mumbai. Igatpuri is a picturesque little hill station in the Nashik District of Maharashtra. It was so perfect to get away from Mumbai for a couple days and escape to the silence and simplicity of rural India.

The road trip there in the back of a Mahindra Thar SUV was both exciting and relaxing at the same time. There’s something magical about open road, the sunset at your back, and the thought of spending time out in the country that is enough to recalibrate your inner compass. (Excuse the blurry photos below. They were taken out of a very shaky moving vehicle.)

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Photography has always been sort of a latent curiosity. More recently though, I’ve decided to dabble and explore. So phone camera in hand, I venture out in search of inspiration at every turn, on every corner, behind every door, and through every window (and I mean that quite literally, as you will see below).

Off-roading into the hills of Igatpuri was a dusty experience but one that I won’t quickly forget. We parked the vehicle and decided to trek higher up. Trekking isn’t what I would normally consider “hiking” in North America, which usually happens along a cleared off trail. Here, there was no “trail” except the one we were making up as we made our way across the hillside (think: the final scene of The Sound of Music except maybe not as epic). Breathe in too deeply and you’ll get a lung full of dust. But it was worth it because the view on top was breathtaking. (Get it? Lung full of dust, breathtaking? But seriously, it was beautiful.)

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After trekking up into the hills, we went for the swim in the lake. So, the “lake” looks pristine in these pictures, but it was actually quite muddy. But the whole crew of us jumped in anyway and swam the better part of the afternoon away. I have to admit that I was a bit grossed out by how murky the water was, the little insects around, and all of the tiny water snails and other creatures at the bottom. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, the water was too hazy to see anything below the surface. But the murky water wasn’t the most disturbing part. Not long after we decided to call it a day and dry off, we saw a herd of water buffalo wade in to bathe, in what looked like something straight out of National Geographic or the Discovery Channel. (I didn’t take any pictures of the water buffalo, but I did take some of the cows grazing in the area.)

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I was thoroughly unnerved at the thought that I had basically gone swimming with water buffalo. In fact, I was equal parts disgusted and fascinated. I have to say though, I was also proud of myself for not chickening out. It was good times. And I took an extra careful shower immediately afterwards. Best part? I now have another wild story for the books.

So much more happened in our two days away than I have written about here. But it was fun to share a glimpse of it. Grace and peace everybody! Go forth and embrace life!

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P.S. Creative Sabbath, and follow my travels on Instagram!

© Copyright Benita Grace Joy 2016

Creative Sabbath


It has been two and a half months of questioning my sanity since I left everything familiar to crash headlong into the chaos of Mumbai. My nomadic history means I’ve accrued a staggering number of past lives but this particular shift has been the most blatantly daring of them all. Toronto was perfect for me in many ways: I had a kick ass job, an amazing friend circle, my highly prized independence and the freedom to be me in all my weirdness. Toronto was a bold move in 2009. This move to Mumbai, on the other hand, can more aptly be referred to as curiosity on steroids.

Since the question is buzzing in everybody’s mind, let me be frank. I moved here for two reasons: love and love. First, love. Yes, seven long years of the most epic romantic saga of Hindi movie proportions that you never heard of because the world wasn’t ready for us. I’m not even being sarcastic. But we’re officially tired of  doing the long distance thing and we’re ready to take the next step. Second, love. I was born in this city and fell in love with it as a 12 year old and then again as a 24 year old, and have wanted to come back ever since. I’m only sorry I couldn’t make it happen sooner.

The other question most people are more comfortable asking is some version of “What are you doing now?” To which I shrug and unconvincingly respond: “Nothing?” My success rate on killing viable conversation material is 100%. Clearly, I need a better response, but it’s hard to figure out what to call this thing, this in between, this neither here nor there. Because it isn’t “nothing”, and it has taken a while to figure out the something that it is. But I finally have a name for it. I’m calling this space my Creative Sabbath.

A Sabbath is essentially a period of rest. My reasons for wanting to take some time off are complex and personal, but I will say that it often feels like I’ve lived an entire lifetime in my thirty years. Sabbath means adopting a lifestyle of rhythm and respite, contentment and calm. In making space for rest, I find myself naturally drawn to creative pursuits, reverting to the passions and curiosities of my childhood and picking up a few new ones along the way. I’m rediscovering the creativity that was sidelined in a mind that has become all too pragmatic and technical over the years (see A Letter to Creativity). And it has been wonderful.

Creative Sabbath means that I’m reading, writing, walking, thinking, picture-taking, podcast-listening, daydreaming, adventuring, praying, contemplating, meditating, rediscovering Jesus, finding a better pair of interpretive lenses for reading the Bible, learning Hindi, and dabbling in randomness, among other things. I’m learning to trust love. I’m learning to trust my instincts. And I’m learning to just be. Most importantly, I’m learning to sit with the tension long enough to find that, at its core, is peace that passes all understanding.

Mumbai is the kind of city that makes you want to punch somebody and write poetry all at the same time. Strangely enough, that place of feeling slightly unhinged is where creativity often begins. The vibes are intense. The feels are all there. And this is how I know that when things get hard, escaping isn’t the solution. Fear can make you do all kinds of “safe” things. But fear will never take you where you need to be. Because in the middle of this chaos, when I close my eyes and find my center, there is a distinct sense of peace in knowing that I am walking my path as authentically as I know how. And that slightly unhinged feeling doesn’t scare me, because it is where I feel inspired, creative, more alive, and more open to life and the possibilities.

So here’s to officially inaugurating my Creative Sabbath. I’m excited to finally have an answer for when people ask the question. More than that though, I’m excited to see where this path leads.

Grace and peace, dear ones.

P.S. Letter to Creativity

Dear Mr. President

[This is a guest post by a very good friend and absolute sweetheart of a girl, the one and only Priyanka Thaddaeus. It’s a letter to President Barack Obama that she sent him last year. In light of all the negativity towards him from certain groups, I thought it would be good to share something lighthearted and positive.]  

Dear Mr. President,

I have been meaning to write to you ever since I arrived in the United States for my postgraduate degree in 2012. I’m sorry I never really got down to it until now. Over the past seven years, you must have received thousands of letters similar to mine. I don’t expect for mine to warrant a reply, but I just wanted you to know, as an international student who came here aloft the conventional American dream – the reality of which has been everything I’d hoped for! – I am truly grateful for your presidency.

Thank you, President Obama.

Thank you for taking up office with the sole purpose of working for the people and keeping up that vigor for two entire terms. Thank you for holding and maintaining the honor of this office. I wish you could stay longer! As hard as gratitude is to come by today, I am so thankful for having been educated in an America that has been free, just, safe, and equal under your leadership.

Thank you for balancing justice and equality and knowing which goes where first. Thank you for always allowing human values and love to trump religious segregation and constructs. Thank you for showing compassion and standing strong when everybody goes against you. Thank you for your steadfastness in helping combat climate change. It saddens me that more often than not all the good you do goes unappreciated. What you’ve taught us is so important, and I assure you sir, history will be kinder to you.

But most importantly, Mr. President, thank you for being a leader with an exemplary family life. Watching you, Mrs. Obama, and your daughters gives me hope in the humanness of people, irrespective of the posts we hold. Thank you for your humility.

I’m 24, and when I see the grace with which both Malia and Sasha conduct themselves, I cannot help but comment on the impeccable upbringing imparted to them. They are strong, beautiful women – you must be so proud!

I extend this gratitude to your entire team in office who work hard every day to make the lives of people easier in ways big or small, and to your family. I do hope I get to meet you, Mrs. Obama, and your daughters someday!

Sincerely,

Priyanka Thaddaeus


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I’d like to think of myself as an open-minded free thinker. With a long way to go! Professionally, I’m a passionate but slightly procrastinating Aviation Safety ENFJ, and when I’m not knee-deep in safety reports and aircraft investigations, I’m reading or listening to the very real human experiences of people, which continue to peel away at my 24 years of ‘religious (in)stability’. When I’m not being obnoxious about why I affirm evolution, climate change, LGBTQ/animal/women’s rights, and my pro-choice way of being, I’m working on living as an example of Jesus who’s prime commandment was to love—no questions asked (and certainly trying not to judge). And when I’m doing none of the above, I’m traveling, gorging on good food, petting someone’s cat, craving chocolate, poring over my Google Nexus, being thankful for my family and life, or refusing to confine the magnificence of God within the four walls of the Bible. Our universe is too beautiful, too intricate, and too volatile for that!