Point of View

A trip, via the heart, through God’s open door

December 14, 2013 

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PIALHOVIK — Getty Images/iStockphoto

We recently had our 13-year-old son and 8- and 10-year-old daughters baptized in the Presbyterian Church we joined two years ago. Our children initially protested. “Only babies are baptized,” they argued. “This is embarrassing. Why didn’t you have us baptized as babies?”

Why, indeed, didn’t we?

Being born in the South into families who followed their forebears to the local protestant congregation, we were both baptized as infants, grew up attending Sunday School and church most Sundays, went through confirmation of our faith at the age of 13 and actively participated in youth group and service projects in the summers almost up until we left for college. What happened?

Like many of our peers, when we left home for college, we left behind many of the traditions we had grown up with as we went in search of our own. As echoed in recent surveys as a top reason people leave a religious affiliation, I found it hard to reconcile my blind childhood faith in a higher being with what I was learning in my college science classes as well as through relationships with peers who had grown up in entirely different religious traditions.

My husband and I fell solidly in line with the “nones,” the 20 percent of Americans who self-identified themselves as having “no religious affiliation” in the 2012 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. Yet, when it came time to marry, while we didn’t belong to a church ourselves, we still wanted a ceremony that reflected the significance of the commitment we were about to make. The minister of my childhood church was kind enough to oblige.

Well, we married, moved out to the West Coast, had a few children, moved abroad and eventually made our way back to our home state, this time as parents.

Several years after we had resettled, my younger brother and his wife had their infant son baptized. Our immediate family crowded into the small sanctuary in Charlotte, where my minister grandfather had, over 40 years before, flown in at enormous expense from Finland to officiate my brother’s baptism. On this recent day, however, it was our childhood minister who held my new nephew Leo up, while walking down the aisle, asking the four generations gathered there to promise to raise Leo in faith and in love. We all promised.

My mother had been encouraging me for years to do the same for our own children, backing up her pleas with research on the benefits of some kind of religious tradition. I had resisted. It was an impasse we had painfully learned not to discuss.

What she had not understood was that the way to the spirit is not through the head. At my nephew’s baptism, I suddenly got it. Deeply. Viscerally. In my heart. And she was right. I should give my children a tradition.

So my husband and I set out to find a church that our family could grow to feel at home in. Two years ago we joined one and, through attending, began to slowly seed the relationships and traditions that make life meaningful and rich. And not long ago, in front of four generations of our own family, as well as the wider church congregation, our minister dampened the foreheads of our three, almost grown children with holy water, following a tradition that has been performed many, many, many times over the last 2,000 years.

We’re arriving late to religion, grateful that the door is still open.

Liisa Ogburn teaches documentary at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, produces work and writes.

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