As a child, I accompanied my mother to every worship service our church offered each week. There were four, starting on Sunday morning with a formal program, complete with Bible verse reciting and a brass plate to pick up monetary offerings. By Friday night’s prayer meeting, folks like my mom were just looking for a safe space to pray out loud and commune with the Holy Spirit.
To say my mom is a devout Christian is an understatement. She entrusted me, her only child, in God’s hands so completely that she didn’t bother taking me to a pediatrician for regular checkups.
When I came down with chicken pox (I was probably 4 or 5, as I hadn’t started kindergarten yet), she prayed and asked God to heal me quickly. And, of course, we still went to church — scabs and all.
The way my mother believed in God’s ability to take care of her and her loved ones wasn’t lost on me. She talked about him like he was her invisible best friend. Once, I came home from riding my bike with friends to find her sitting outside in our backyard. I felt sad that she was by herself, and told her so.
“You don’t have to worry about me,” she replied, smiling. “God’s always with me.”
As I grew older, I began to believe in God with the same kind of fervor. It’s one of the most significant lessons I learned growing up in a Christian household: That no matter what I do, God is looking out for me. If I just have enough faith, he will be there with me in everything.
It’s a belief that’s touched every important decision of my life: from what college I attended and who I chose to date to decisions around my career. It’s also why I decided to go back to graduate school, even though I couldn’t afford it.
In 2009, the newspaper industry was brutalized by the recession, and my company filed for bankruptcy. This was the first place I worked after graduating from college: I’d taken a leap of faith just three years earlier to move to North Carolina for a part-time copy editor position, intending to find another part-time gig to help pay the bills. Within days of starting work at that newspaper, I was offered a full-time position with benefits.
As my mother pointed out, God provided a way.
So, when newspapers started shutting down left and right, and my boss admitted even he was looking at other options, I convinced myself that I needed a backup plan for work. Maybe I can teach if this journalism thing doesn’t work out, I thought, albeit naively, at the time. I borrowed the maximum amount federal lenders offered me to use toward pursuing my master’s.
On some level, I knew how irresponsible I was being, especially since I didn’t have any kind of guarantee that I’d be able to earn enough money to pay the loans back. But owing tens of thousands of dollars didn’t scare me then like it does now. Instead of facing reality — how financially successful could I really be as an English professor without a terminal degree? — I told myself that, as my mom put it, God would provide a way.
One of the most profound messages from the biblical story of Jesus dying on the cross is that suffering yields reward: He sacrificed his life to take on our sins so that those who believe in him can have everlasting life in heaven.
In other words, good things come to those who believe.
Although my application of that timeless lesson was muddied by my own selfishness, I believed God would help me figure out how to take care of this new financial burden. By the time I graduated with a Master of Arts in English, I had accumulated more than $60,000 in student debt.
I was too swayed by my mother’s lifelong devotion to her faith. She never hesitated to trust in God for both the big things and the small — especially when it came to me. When I was sick with a cold, she put her hands on my back and prayed. When my face started breaking out during my teen years, she added “clear skin” to her list of things to pray about. She even once told me she knew I was going to be successful in life because not only did she talk to God about me every single day, but she donated money to the church’s building fund in my name.
If my mom could have that kind of unwavering belief that everything in my life would turn out OK, I thought I should, too. No matter what the circumstances.
And I did, for a while. Shortly after graduating, I was promoted to editor of the newspaper at which I’d started my career. With the position’s increased salary and some part-time work teaching freshman English at a community college, I earned enough money to cover my household bills and make my monthly student loan payments.
But in 2015, for a few different reasons having to do with my work life and family, I took another leap of faith and decided to quit my full-time job to freelance.
“It’ll all work out later,” I told myself again.
Three years down the road, however, I’m starting to wonder if it really will. Today, I barely make enough money to cover groceries, child care and my credit card debt. If it weren’t for my partner, I don’t know where I’d be.
Meanwhile, I haven’t made a single payment on my student loan debt since I left my staff position, and the amount I owe increases with interest each month. The good thing is that I haven’t incurred any penalties because I’m on an income-based repayment plan.
I find myself scrolling Indeed again. Should I try to fit in a part-time bartending gig or return to teaching adjunct between my freelance writing, being a mom, and managing the care of my elderly dogs? Every month, the weight of my debt grows heavier.
My faith has also faltered. I hardly ever go to church anymore. When my mom asks why, I tell her it’s because I have a kid now, and I don’t want to stick her in child care when she can barely talk. It’s easier to say that than the truth: that I’m just not sure what I believe anymore.
It’s not just that God hasn’t shown up for me like I expected. So many of my political beliefs as an adult contradict the religious ideas drilled into me as a kid. For instance, I don’t believe that God would shun a person because of who they love. “Homosexuality is a sin” rhetoric makes me want to run as far away from religion as possible.
Despite my waning connection with organized religion, there’s still a part of me that clings to the hope that God will take care of me and my family. And, sometimes anyway, I wonder if my lack of faith has anything to do with my current financial struggles.
I do hope to one day find my way back to a personal relationship with God ― the one who made me feel safe and protected all those years. For now, though, my Sunday mornings are reserved for working. I’ve got bills to pay.