This I Believe: Kristen Daniels (2021)

I remember the very first time I felt truly alone. I’m sure there were times before but this one sticks out in my mind and was different. It wasn’t anything extraordinary. I was driving at the time, probably 17 or 18 years old, and was driving home from dropping off a friend. This was a new friend who lived clear across the St. Paul/Minneapolis metro area from where I lived. I’m talking Woodbury to Champlin Park. I was returning home and got turned around. I don’t really understand how it happened but I found myself in a neighborhood where I couldn’t find the main streets and I had no idea of which direction to go. This was in the time before cell phones and GPS. I really don’t know how I ended up getting out of there but I think I just kept going in one direction. I knew I would hit 94 eventually. I remember finally seeing signs and feeling such relief. I don’t think I was scared – I just felt so far away from everything I knew.

I mention this story because over the last few months I feel like I’ve had that same feeling so many times. Gathering the thoughts I’m about to share was like driving around that night, I really didn’t know where the main road was, or if there was one at all that I might run into.

I was raised in the Lutheran Church. My story is not a story of running away from a bad relationship with church, thank goodness. Actually, my experience was quite beautiful and I know that a lot of things I believe are a direct result of the structure of religion and the beautiful rituals and traditions I experienced as a child and young adult. I loved the cadence of the church service and was proud when I finally could participate in the Eucharistic hymn from memory. “This is the feast of victory for our God. For the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign. Alleluia. Alleluia.”

Easter was always our favorite holiday. The horns. The triumph. “Christ is risen” “He is risen indeed.” I still have a special place in my heart for this.

So the church was so good for me. Structure. Stories. Guidance. Meaning. Seasons.

One of the biggest things in my life that impacted who I am today is where I went to high school. My parents decided to send me to a local, private Catholic school.

As a student, we participated in Catholic mass regularly. The Catholic Church has pretty strict guidelines about who receives communion so as a Lutheran, I found myself in a curious position. Sometimes I would appropriately decline communion because I wasn’t a baptized Catholic and other times I would take communion and see it as my own private rebellion, my own relationship with God outside of the rules of my school and the Catholic Church.

My experience at this school was amazing. I was a part of the theater program where I did over 25 shows during my time there. I am so very grateful for this experience – I learned about set construction and was taught how to use the tools in context of the work that needed to be done. Drills, hammers, staplers and paintbrushes mostly. But we were also taught about being on time, trusting one another, and taking a risk. I spent long days at school; sports or clubs immediately after school, a quick dinner and then late nights of rehearsal. Sure there were shenanigans but it was here that I learned how to work hard, be a part of something beautiful and fleeting. Performance art.

The fall of my senior year we did Godspell for the fall play. It was a small cast. We worked hard, as always. The show is one where the entire cast is on stage throughout the show. Typically, the fall shows at school were not musicals but Godspell was definitely a musical, according to Wikipedia “a series of parables, primarily based on the Gospel of Matthew. The parables are interspersed with music set primarily to lyrics from traditional hymns, with the passion of Christ appearing briefly near the end of the show.”

This show had a huge impact on me. I know for a fact that while working on the show, I was really listening to the stories shared as a part of the show. Of course acting requires getting into the mindset of the character and in this case, the characters were primarily learning from Jesus throughout the show. The last part of the show depicts the Last Supper, Judas’s betrayal and the crucifixion. I know I was acting but with all of the emotion from my castmates and the music, I was always very moved by the crucifixion scene, as well as the dramatic re-entry of Christ as a symbol of the resurrection. To this day, I think the stories found in the bible are beautiful and offer great insight into living a life of love and devotion.

I never really understood the trinity. Even during Godspell, I may have believed that Christ was the son of God, but I never understood the holy spirit, and even saw the resurrection as a symbolic story. I have always been grounded in science, and have spent many hours in my life playing out different scenarios where the body of Christ had been removed from the tomb by a group of scheming men. Even then I was more of a Unitarian than I knew.

When I was a junior in high school there was a new religion teacher and she captivated me. For two years, my Junior and Senior year, I learned more about the work of Christ, the call to serve, and social justice than ever before in my entire life. Michelle was young. She was so real with us. She wasn’t one of the types of people to do something because she should. She served so authentically and helped me to see the people first, the people we were serving. People with a different story. People with a different background.

My senior year she took a small group of kids on a mission trip to Above Rocks, Jamaica. She and her husband, John, had been there a number of times before, living and serving at St Mary’s College, a Catholic secondary school in the town. Well, this was a whole new experience for me. First, the dark skin color of the Jamaicans. I was from Woodbury. The food, the climate, the flora and fauna, the feeling at night with Bob Marley was playing across the humid valley with the sweet smell of ganja infiltrating the night air. Michelle prepared all of us for the types of interactions we might experience not only as white people but as women. She talked very openly about our role, not only before the trip but daily and regularly throughout the trip. The people of Above Rocks were so poor. I took all of this in.

One day during a group reflection, Michelle asked our group if anyone wanted to go with John the next day to the funeral of a young child. My memory of how she described it at this point is fuzzy but I let her know I wanted to go.

The next afternoon, I joined John and my classmate, Jeff. I think we took a truck out to the family’s home “in the bush.” If you can even imagine two 18-year-old high school seniors trying to be respectful and show reverence while at the same time taking in the fact that there was a tiny purple velvet casket that held little baby Lamar’s body sitting in the hot Jamaican sun. Lamar died of dehydration. It’s that simple. Lack of water.

So if you’re wondering at this point what that whole experience looked like. There was a hole in the ground when we arrived. There were only six or seven people there; two or three family members, two other men (maybe there to dig the grave in the family’s yard and also maybe to say some words?), and the three of us, John, Jeff and myself. There were a few prayers. I do remember Lamar’s mom grieving, beside herself crying, overwhelmed. The purple velvet casket was placed in the large hole that had been dug and the two shovels were passed around.

“A little more oil in my lamp, keep it burning. Keep it burning ‘til the break of day.”

I don’t know how long we sang that song and I’m sure there were other songs but this one I’ll remember.

A shovel was passed to me. I shoveled dirt on the casket.

Of course this experience had a huge impact on me. I remember thinking on that trip about the reach of Christianity across the world. I remember thinking about people across the world who may have no idea about Christianity. And I couldn’t imagine how a loving God would turn them away from the gates of heaven. I am sure this was my self-sown seed of Universalism.

My exposure to people and worlds different than my own grew significantly when I moved away to go to school in Chicago. My dad always used to (jokingly) blame my liberal attitude on “that liberal school” – Northwestern. Little did he realize that the seeds of social justice had already begun to take root, planted from the campus ministry office under the stairs at my Catholic high school.

In addition to attending a very diverse university with people from different backgrounds and beliefs, I learned of the Baháʼí faith as there was a Baháʼí temple in the area. I had never heard of such a thing – a religion that teaches the essential worth of all religions and the unity of all people. Although I didn’t explore this much at the time, it definitely expanded my idea of the different religions in the world.

After going to school and living in Chicago for a number of years, my husband and I learned we were expecting our first child *Tehya – I felt an immediate pull to return to Minnesota where my family was. As an educator with one year under my belt, I was able to get a job at my alma mater. It was great. Over the 8 years I worked there, I met the most amazing people who became life-long friends. Ironically, most of them were religion teachers who worked in campus ministry. These were the Christians I understood. Humble before Christ. Seeking a deep relationship with God. Authentic. Never pompous.

But I also began to recognize more acutely, the hypocrisy of the school and the religion.

To this day, it is the experience of one of my closest friends and teaching colleagues, that solidified my perspective on the Catholic religion. As a lesbian, she was unable to share anything about her home life at school. Suddenly the large, concrete sign outside the front entrance of the school, “All guests welcomed as Christ” didn’t seem true.

So I guess, what I believe is that religion is a man made construct to help us understand the world, to provide structure and guidance.

I do not believe in heaven or hell. I do not believe in an afterlife. I had a moment recently, maybe in the last 5-10 years, where I came to the conclusion that THIS is it – it’s the only moment we have. There is nothing after this life. And from this I concluded that this is also our only chance at heaven on earth.

I believe Jesus was a real man, an amazing man. Not the son of God, nor son of a virgin, but an amazing teacher. If Christians would truly follow his lead, we would be living in a different world.

I believe in science. The world is full of mystery. Some of it we understand, and curiosity and discovery is certainly what distinguishes us for other beings, but there is so much we do not know and should never presume to understand. This is the great mystery. It’s also the reason I find myself to be extremely humble, and agnostic.

There are significant people in my life that I love to wonder with. I have had great conversations about the world, the mind, limitations, possibilities, reality, perception.

But above all else, I believe in people. I believe that we are all yearning for the same things. My favorite UU hymn, “This is My Song,” reminds me of this in a beautiful anthem, Finlandia.

But I will leave you with the only poem I have ever memorized. It was a poem that was written by one of my dad’s strange friends. He used to come to our house every Christmas morning, when my parents welcomed all guests as Christ. He would play the piano and tell the story of how this poem came to him one night in a bar, when he asked the bartender for a pen, “I feel a poem coming on” he said, and convinced us that he was simply writing it down as it came to him.

Beyond the clouds – Beyond the stars
Beyond the man who holds the moon
Standing still without a sound
Will he be coming soon?

The truth one said would set us free
And lead us to eternity.
But where is truth and where is false
Compared to relativity?

Oh far out – oh far in.
Who produced the shape we’re in?
The shape we find is what we know
And we reshape it as we go.

And were the end to come at last,
Is that the vision we hold fast?
Or – could it be that life is grand
If we but hold it in our hand?

And set our sails for better things
While knowing love will give us wings
To fly beyond our earthly ways
And so with love let’s spend these days.