written by Lee Ann Pomrenke
I do love a good novel, but spiritual memoir is my go-to genre for reading. Anne Lamott and Sara Miles’ adult convert voices from the margins, Lauren Winner’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism then to Christianity, Kathleen Norris’ experience as a Benedictine oblate; their journeys have expanded my own faith and understanding of the continuous journey we are all on, being drawn towards God. Even if all their books are not specifically labeled as “memoirs” so many elements of their own stories are intertwined, they might as well be on that shelf.
But awhile ago I realized something. All of my favorite spiritual memoirists are white women. The church communities that welcomed them are largely mainline Protestant ones (Kathleen Norris excepted). Those are, unsurprisingly, markers of my own identity. As influential as their voices have been in my own self-understanding, I might be identifying with these authors more than I am being stretched by my listening in. Now more than ever, reading is one of the best tools we have for expanding our faith and perspective, especially during a pandemic when gathering in-person carries such high risk. It also does something different to my brain than watching a TED Talk, to commit to following someone’s innermost thoughts through an entire book. So, I committed to expanding my faith by diversifying the picks I reach for within my favorite category.
Reading someone’s spiritual memoir is not just about building empathy, but that is an important function of the genre. I read so that I would know another’s experience and that would impact how I behave in the world. Austin Channing Brown, in her 2018 book I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, not only introduced me to the term “micro-aggressions” but described what those recurring cuts look and feel like for a person of color working in a predominantly white faith-based environment. White Christians like myself need to know that our actions have not only sociological consequences, but spiritual impacts on the faith of others.
Kaitlin Curtice’s new spiritual memoir Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God – which I’m halfway through at the moment – is treating me differently. Curtice, in re-claiming her Potowatomi roots while holding onto her Christian faith, reveals a holistic approach toward prayer that I yearn for in my own faith. The relationship with the natural world and the awareness of people who have lived on specific land which she cultivates as part of her Potowatomi identity, also gives me some faith envy. I am feeling not only the losses to her people from all the ways Indigenous people’s beliefs have been systematically demonized and erased in the name of Christianity, but also the loss to all American Christians from excluding this approach to the Earth from our faith. Would we allow pollution and destruction of the Earth in the name of progress, if the kind of “de-colonized” faith Kaitlin Curtice is working through became more mainstream?
Next I’ll pick up where I left off 50 pages into Karen Gonzalez’s The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong. I need to be reading the Bible with different companions, if I ever want to hear it differently. Gonzalez weaves her own and other immigrants’ stories together with those of immigrants in the Bible. In my experience, authors like her are not only faithfully speaking of their own experiences, but amplifying the voice of God as Scripture does. Perhaps you too will faithfully reach out to different conversation partners, inviting a new companion on your journey. Who knows where such a commitment might take our faith?
Lee Ann M. Pomrenke is an interim pastor at All Saints Lutheran Church in Eagan, MN. Her first book, “Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God” is available for pre-order from Church Publishing, Inc, releasing in September 2020.