Style Wise has always been about building a community of people centered around a common goal of buying and living more ethically. Because of that, it’s never been a priority to share the more intimate inner workings of my values system. And, more than that, it’s kind of terrifying.
My blogger friend, Hoda, recently shared post ideas that helped her blog grow and one of them was sharing more personal stories. I love that she is passionate about fair trade and sustainability issues in the clothing industry, but I really appreciate that she is an American Muslim who isn’t afraid to enlighten people to her reality in a clear and compassionate way.
In that same strain, I thought it could be useful to share my back story. So, here goes.
I grew up in a conservative Evangelical Christian tradition called the First Church of God. They’re not too different from most Evangelical churches in the US, but they do ordain women to be ministers, which is somewhat unusual. I became a Christian when I was 6, reciting the Sinner’s Prayer, and got baptized before middle school. I tell people I could have been the poster child for my high school youth group. I was involved – sometimes it felt like I lived at church – and passionate about living Christianity correctly. I was morality driven thanks to a father who had always been involved in political engagement on issues of abortion, education, and climate change. The family spent many nights at home watching the news and discussing world issues. We also read the Bible together several times a week. It was useful in fostering spiritual discipline and rhetorical confidence, but it wasn’t all good.
I convinced my best friend to become a Christian in the fourth grade by telling her she would go to Hell if she didn’t. I alienated a friend in need in high school by practicing an attitude of moral superiority in almost everything I undertook. I didn’t realize until college that my unwillingness to hear people out continued to affect the people I had unwittingly abandoned in their time of need years ago.
In tandem with that realization, I became quite interested in studying Religious Studies at my state university. I had always wondered why, if half of the Christian Bible was Old Testament, we didn’t take more time to understand the context and culture of ancient Hebrews/Israelites/Jews. So, I plunged right in to the program, taking classes on the Hebrew Prophets, David, and Job. I loved this literary and historical approach to the texts I’d grown up with but had always found boring. I discovered the humor and depth of the narratives simply by acknowledging them as art rather than cold, hard fact. This concerned my family, who had always believed in Biblical Literalism. They were afraid I was on my way to false belief or even atheism. For the sake of brevity, I’m understating the emotional devastation this period in my life brought as I began to question my belief system and came to terms with the fact that the hyper-structured Christianity I had grown up with just wasn’t cutting it. It wasn’t answering enough questions. It wasn’t giving enough grace.
I wasn’t quite ready to leave Evangelicalism, but in the end, I felt I had little choice. I spiraled to a dark place, feeling unsupported by my church community and unable to speak the language of faith I had been fluent in for most of my life. The tropes and phrases and expressions no longer rang true for me. I left the church for about a year and a half, during which I never stopped struggling to understand what I believed, where I stood before God, and how to move forward. It was an extremely gradual process that carried a lot of uncertainty, anger, and isolation, but things did get better.
I spent about two years wondering if God existed, wondering if a church so opposed to change could actually change the world. During that time, I began to take an interest in fair trade issues. I always knew that my particular perspective could not have arisen without my faith tradition and without my journey through doubt and darkness. Even on days when God didn’t seem very useful, the life of Christ impacted me. Jesus demonstrated impartial grace. It’s not a love that glosses over problems, but a love that exposes the darkness and works to make it light.
The way I live is deeply impacted by this narrative, by his model, and it would be ignorant to suggest that I could be who I am now without this religious reference point. This model of “being light” is useful because it means I’m called to cast away my reservations and give joy and hope to others. I’m also called to lighten people’s loads by extending grace and working beside them. It’s a call to work! Jesus solved people’s immediate problems before talking to them about intellectual or spiritual goals. In the same way, I believe the best charity models seek to alleviate pain and need first and foremost. To be like Christ is to do work without expectation of personal payoff. I think the mission of his life speaks for itself and that the best evangelism I can do is love, accept, and welcome all people. That’s why I talk about issues without talking about Religion. I don’t seek to hide it, but I want the hard work of living ethically and intentionally to get done regardless of my faith tradition and whether or not others share it with me.
Now I belong to a local Episcopal Church (The Episcopal Church Welcomes You – that’s their motto) and have found a great deal of support and Christ-like love in my faith community. Living according to a value system is important and having people who can help propel you forward by asking hard questions and lending a hand is vital.
I hope that this blog can help support you on your journeys to live more ethically and I know that some of you have really helped keep me going on this path.
Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.