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How do you use religion?

Picture it. August 15th, 2015. Our immediate family and closest friends spend the weekend with us at the Mansion at Noble lane in PA, where our ceremony will take place. Everyone is happy and in good spirits on Friday Night the 14th. EVERYONE is in great spirits the morning of the ceremony, eating breakfast, taking pictures enjoying the weather and the beautiful grounds. Wedding ceremony begins... late ( a whole other story). Upbeat fun music begins. Everyone dances down the aisle...joyfully. Music changes to something more ethereal.  I come down the aisle feeling like I'm floating on cloud 9. I gaze into the eyes of my future husband and resist the urge to kiss him right there. Then we turn to completely face the audience  and we look into the faces of two family members in the front row, with arms folded and scowls on their faces, pressed lips, rolling necks, etc. Anything that one could do to make it obvious that they were upset or angry was done, and not the least bit subtly for a full 30 minutes. Audible comments, and grunts of disapproval are made to one another during the ceremony. Every effort to try to make us feel uncomfortable and ruin this moment was made. It was quite a performance. These family members were close enough to have been in our family pictures. During that time they didn't speak to either me or Andre and had the facade of a smile just for the seconds it took to snap a few shots then immediately walked away from us, in silence, like we were shit under their shoes. I received the silent treatment for the remainder of the weekend from both parties. One of them cried and saught the comfort from as many people as possible for their "sorrow". "I'm so upset." they cried. "They didn't say God or Christ one time during the ceremony!".

Before I get started, this is not a blog post about our wedding day or individuals. It's a blog post that's been brewing in my mind for years about a sub-culture that I'm fed up with. The events that transpired on our wedding and since, sparked my desire to get these thoughts off of my chest. ALL OF THEM. 

Let's rewind. Andre and I both grew up Christian... very Christian. Church was a weekly ritual sometimes more often. Being Christian was a defining characteristic for both of us well into adulthood. Andre was a Christian hip hop artist as a young adult and I was a vocal soloist at my church. As I continue, please know that I don't intend to try to convert anyone into believing or not believing what I believe, And I have absolutely no intention of debating religious doctrine with anyone. Not because I'm not completely equipped for that kind of discussion but because, that's really beside the point, I'm just going to discuss my experience. 

In my mid twenties, there were a variety of things about Christianity and religion as a whole that didn't sit right with me from the hypocrisy I witnessed  in individuals, to the biblical stories that started to seem implausible, to the role it's played in history, especially the history of brown people. I am a person who fully believes that as intellectual beings it is our right and responsibility to challenge, question, dissect, and explore EVERYTHING. Considering the history of this world and particularly this nation, relying on politicians, so called experts or high ranking religious figures as your sole source of information on a given topic is foolish and can and has been lethal. The powers that be depend on our willful ignorance on a wide variety of subjects to keep the masses docile, compliant, in the dark about facts that they all readily know and to keep the balance of power steadily in the same hands. I read A LOT on a wide range of topics so trust that I'm not just talking out of my behind here. 

With that said, despite my complete faith growing up, I felt it was time to research and read about religions, not just Christianity. I started this journey promising myself that no matter what I learned, that what I wanted was the truth and I would accept it, even if that meant shattering something that was central to my existence. I wasn't beginning my research in order to validate my current belief system. After the things I read in books and watched in documentaries which I then fact checked to ensure their accuracy, over a period of months close to a year,  I knew that it was time for me to leave the church permanently. It was no longer something that I could continue to follow without feeling like a complete impostor. This was around age 25-26.

Andre and  I met around this period of transition for me. He was still a church boy at heart but was no longer attending church because he was questioning things himself. However, me not being a typical christian girl was a bit of an issue for him at this point, and an even bigger deal for his family. This was among a series of reasons that justified some family members obvious disapproval of me,  and even giving me the silent treatment when I was around. I tolerated/ ignored this for years without ever saying a word, in order to keep the peace. Things improved slightly over time. At least on the surface. 

I never forced my views on Andre. As I do with most people whose religious views are different than mine. I simply listen quietly/respectfully without much of a response. I don't give my view point unless I'm explicitly asked.  I just figured that I liked him but it would never get too serious because this is a pretty big issue to not see eye to eye on. This barrier as well as the fact that certain family members made it clear that "I wasn't the one", in their opinion was a contributing factor for us breaking up in the beginning stages. 

While we were apart Andre was going through his period of questioning, challenging, reading. Each time we got back together, over the years it seemed that our views on religion were coming into alignment naturally. We had discussions at length and thought so similarly on the subject at some point that I couldn't imagine finding someone else who shared my views so completely on this and many other subjects.

Fast forward nine years and we're engaged and decided to have a non-denominational officiant perform our ceremony. We didn't feel like any religious official would perform a ceremony that would be authentic to us. The events that transpired that day left me with a bunch of questions about the role religion plays in people's lives. Shouldn't it be a positive force in one's life?

One of the the morals that I hold highest and consistently above all, is being considerate about how my actions will impact another person. I have a high level of patience and forgiveness that has often been questioned by people. "How did you stay so calm? If that was me I would've..." and so on and so on. I always try to consider why a person behaved the way they did before spazzing and jumping to conclusions. That's not because the bible told me to love my neighbor as myself or to forgive 70 times 7. It's because my life experience has shown me that not doing these things has put me in bad situations and left others or myself to feel like shit. I'll be honest with you. I HATE being wrong. And apologizing is difficult for me. So I learned long ago to avoid putting myself into that situation by thinking long and hard before acting. I often write my thoughts before speaking them. That's led me to have very few regrets in life, especially when in comes to my dealings with people. I believe that if every person on the planet considered how their every actions impacted someone else then the majority of the world's issues from starvation to poverty to global warming would be solved. 

I have absolutely no issues with any person of any religion who isn't judging me or mistreating me or others. However, when you rep your religion so hard that it somehow authorizes you to treat other people like shit who don't follow your religion, I question you. When you can quote religious doctrine out the wazoo, have "Stay blessed" or "God Bless" on your voicemail and email signature and you say "mother flower" instead of cursing consistently but very few of your ACTIONS (that actually matter)  demonstrate the qualities or morals of that religion... I question you. If you have multiple kids, with multiple daddies, and no husband but condemn gay marriage... I question you. In other words, if you're a religious hypocrite, your whole existence is questionable.  Let's be clear, I don't condemn my friends with kids and no husband. We all make choices or in some instances mistakes. My ring bearer was my gay best friend since age 13. I've gone to gay pride and partied in gay clubs.  I've cursed more times in this blog post than some of you do in a day. I admit all of that because according to my belief system none of those things fall outside of my moral standards, but do for religious people.  However, it's typically people who fall in the category of "sinful" based on religious doctrine that want to come at someone like me based on religious doctrine, because I choose not to go to church, or because I don't consider Christ to be my savior.  HOW DARE YOU? The  people who wear their cross on their sleeve or wave their religious flag in everyone's face, can generally get read... really easily, just based on casual observation of their lives. So why is it always these people who want to go there? 

So back to the question... how do you use religion? Do you use religion to provide a source of stability and strength in  your life? Do you use religion as a moral compass to keep you and your family on a positive path? Do you use religion as an access point to a higher power that heals and uplifts your soul? Do you use religion as a vehicle to congregate with other like minded individuals who share your belief system?

OR 

Do you use religion as an evaluation system of someone's worthiness in this world? Do you use religion to elevate your social standing by stepping on others? Do use use religion because it's the only place where you have a respected status (deacon, prayer warrior, choir director) because you haven't reached any respected status outside of your house of worship?  Do you use religion as a shield to protect you against the judgement of others on your past mistakes? "I've done x, y, and z, in the past BUT I'm saved now so you can't say jack, mother flower". Do you use religion to justify the mistreatment of others, claim their land, or deny them their rights as humans?   Do you use religious laws or commandments to condemn someone's actions but break another religious law in order to penalize that person or group? 

You have my complete and total respect if religion plays a role of uplifting the lives of you and the people you love. If you live your religious life in a way that commands respect and admiration cause you radiate positivity,  the light of your God and your life exemplifies the morals that your religion teaches, while maintaining respect and even loving those that may not share your beliefs...I bow down. However, I will call you out for the impostors you are if you use an ancient book as validation for condemning, judging and/or  mistreating those who don't fit neatly into the box YOUR religion has decided is "right". I can't recall one story of Jesus using his status as the son of God as a justification for malice. If he didn't do it, what in the world gives his followers the right?? If you call yourself following the life of any of the prophets while being outright ugly in your actions you are a fraud. Period.

In the end, our day was not ruined. We had family and friends working over time to shield us from all negativity. We had people sending us their positive vibes and other people holding us up in prayer. We absorbed it all. We respected it all. 

I will continue to be thoughtful and even methodical about my actions and their impact on others. I will continually be self-reflective as long as I live on how I can improve myself and how I can positively influence the people around me through my actions. Never again will I check a box to define me as an individual, as part of a group. My morals align with that of many world religions, but I don't need religion to be a moral person. It's been made abundantly clear to me that religion doesn't make people moral. Being saved doesn't make you Christ-like. Identifying as being Christian doesn't exempt you from actually putting in the effort it takes to be a good or even a decent human being. Morality is a choice. It is a conscious action. It is not a box you get to check.

I choose love, I choose light. I choose positivity, I choose actions. I choose individuality.  I choose honesty. I choose positive influence. I choose growth. I choose to forgive. I choose to remember. I choose consideration. I choose to work at it. 

 

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Untraditional Wedding

Andre and I are traditional in some ways but untraditional in many others. In addition to our unique way of seeing the world and also to avoid drama we did our wedding our way instead of the way it's "supposed" to be done. Who decided what's supposed to be done? 

We didn't have a formal bridal party. No maid of honor, best man or any of that. I never knew whether or not I'd get married but I knew that if I did, I'd have to have something alternative because my best friend since 14 years old is a gay male. The traditional role of maid of honor or bridesmaids left no room for him. And we'd been through a lot together. He had to be part of it in a special way. Additionally, when I started doing some research on the history of these roles, its all so ridiculous and based on European Traditions that have no relevance to our lives. No shade to anyone who chooses to follow these traditions but I do think it's important to at least know why you're doing what you're doing and not just doing it because everyone else does it. I apply that to every aspect of my life. 

Groomsmen were to protect the bride and her dowry to and from the ceremony. Bridesmaids dressing the same was to confuse evil spirits. Something old something new, etc. good luck charms. Throwing the garter was to serve as a distraction from people tearing away at the bride's dress which was considered good luck. Giving away the bride was literal because she was considered property. My dad actually approached me about not wanting to do this because he didn't believe he was "giving me away" cause he doesn't own me. 

In any case, I did some research and found a lot of articles on alternative weddings. "Off-beat Bride" was a great resource. The idea of an "I do" Crew surfaced, I ran it by Andre and we went with it. We asked our closest friends and family to be part of our crew. We asked them to wear colors from a color palette but didn't dictate their wardrobe in any other way. They spent the Wedding weekend with us in the Mansion at Noble Lane. We asked them to walk down the aisle to upbeat music but we had no rehearsal. It was super casual and fun. No stress for anyone. 

I walked down the aisle myself and instead of being given away, the officiant asked both families if they accepted the bride and groom into their respective families. 

For a variety of reasons that would likely be another post, although raised Christian, Andre and I have distanced ourselves from all forms of religion. We wanted a secular service and found a woman from "Journeys of the Heart" who helped us put together, what was described by many regardless of faith, as the most unique and beautiful service they'd ever witnessed. It was truly us.

We included poems about love read by members of our crew. My best friend, Vaughn, and Andre's nephew handed us the rings. We had a sand ceremony based on a Native American Tradition, where we each poured sand of a different color into a vessel. It represents the blending of souls never to be parted. It created a beautiful piece of art that we will cherish forever. The original vessel broke before the ceremony, so we ended up putting it into a mason jar. We did another celtic tradition called a "caim". The officiant spread flower petals around us before we took our vows. It created a sacred space where love, peace, and light are kept in and fear, hate, and darkness are kept out. This was one of my favorite moments. I can't wait to see the professional photos because it really was beautiful. Andre and I wrote our own vows as well. 

We had our rings passed around amongst the crew before we placed them on each other. This was a time that they were to silently say a prayer or send us their well wishes. We also had the entire audience take a vow and say " I do" to supporting us throughout our marriage starting that day. that was another favorite moment. 

Though very traditional, I am changing my last name and not hyphenating. That's more about convenience. I love my middle name, which is a combination of my parents first names. And I don't want four names. I had a bit of anxiety about the change. But once we got to Mexico for our honeymoon and I was called Senora Jackson all weekend, I felt kind of excited about sharing a name with my new husband. We are officially family!

 

Below I've included a few direct quotes/ info from our ceremony. 



Officiant: Do you support your child's decision to join together in the union of marriage with Andre, and do you vow to receive him as a member of your family from this day on?

Parents: With love in our hearts for both Joy and Andre we joyfully do. 


Poems:  From The Prophet - Kahlil Gabran and I Love You  by Roy Croft


There is a lovely Celtic tradition called a caim... creating a circle with flower petals that will surround you as you exchange your wedding vows. This circle is drawn as a circle of unity… creating the sacred space where you will to give voice to what is in your heart and the promises you make to one another today.

 You are encircled.   Keep love within, keep hatred out. Keep joy within, keep fear out.

Keep peace within, keep worry out.Keep light within, keep darkness out.

May this be a circle of care and hospitality for one another and for the world around you.

Within it, may you dream and work, hope and love.


Officiant asks guests: Now that you, beloved friends and family of Joy and Andre, have heard them recite their vows, do you promise, from this day forward, to encourage them and love them, to give them your guidance, and to support them in being steadfast in the promises that they have made?

Loved one Responds: We do! 


As we move into the ring exchange, we have an opportunity to participate as the community of support for Joy and Andre in a sweet way. Their wedding rings will be passed among the “I Do Crew”, each person holding the ring for a moment along with their blessings and wishes for Joy and Andre. As this is happening, I would ask that each of you take this moment to hold Joy and Andre with your own quiet blessings and wishes for them.

 They will wear these rings every day of their lives. And as they do they will be reminded of the love and the support that come to them through this wonderful community of family and friends.


Joy and Andre, you have two vessels of sand here, two different colors… to honor the beautiful individuals you each are, the unique gifts you each bring to our world… and certainly the gifts you each bring to this partnership. This gesture celebrates your decision to join your lives in marriage… as well as honors the ways in which you have already learned to allow your individuality to be contained and supported in this partnership.

In the Native American tradition, the mixing and shifting of sands signifies the convergence of two souls. As you pour these individual containers of sand into this third vessel, these individual colors of sand will mix and shift… blending into a new creation, whole and impossible to separate! So my you be joined in body, heart and spirit.

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