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New Traditions ~ Emily Johnson

Back at home in Wausau, WI, my family is a part of a medium-sized Presbyterian church. It’s your classic Midwestern church with lots of old white folks who have lived in the area for decades, people who sing old hymns with the organ, and at the end of service getting donuts in the lounge. My brother and I spent a large portion of our childhood there. I loved going to the fun activities like Youth Group, Vacation Bible School, and Venture Crew (a family boy-scouts). This was one of my main communities. I grew close to many of the people, particularly the elders as there were few people my age.

Though I’ve had memorable experiences with the church, I’ve never truly felt myself. My parents aren’t very “devoted” Christians so Sundays are a hit and a miss for attending service. I only knew the main stories such as Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, Jonah and the whale, and, of course, Jesus (but mostly the birth and resurrection). I never practiced Lent, only Christmas and Easter. The contrast was even more severe with my dad’s Catholic family. Thanksgiving was a little awkward when 40 people were reciting a long prayer doing the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and my brother and I were awkwardly silent.

Additionally, the church I grew up in did not have a specific political leaning. Some may think this is good as it doesn’t choose sides. In my experience, it actually makes it worse. For instance, when people need guidance in understanding how to navigate police violence or abortion, we do not address it. Sermons will focus more on broad concepts. The most common was to “spread the Word.” But what was “the Word?” From what I’ve learned, it’s converting indigenous peoples through cruel assimilation to become “pure and civilized,” where parents disown their kids because they are a part of the LGBTQIA+ community, where women must be breeders of strong men, where children are sexually assaulted by their religious leaders, men must hide their emotions, BIPOC people are silenced of their truth, and science is ignored.

With all of the positives came this chaos. How could I belong in a place where I felt so afraid? I’ve wrestled with my faith because of this as well as the constant question, “Is God even there if I’ve never met Him?”

When I came to UW-Madison last year, I wanted to try a new perspective on religion. That’s when I found Pres House. When I went into this building, I found a whole new Bible. This one was not about oppression, it was about helping those who need it. This new Jesus did not discriminate, He loved and cared. This was a man who said, “Come sit at my table. I know you’re suffering. So have I. That’s okay. I love you no matter what. Want a piece of bread and some grape juice? It’s delicious. Tell me about yourself. Let us talk about everything and ponder as friends do because you are mine.”

One of the best things about Pres House is that everyone is welcome here. I did not come from a passionate religious background where I can recite all the prophets and Jesus’s miracles. I’m not a “devout” Christian where I read the Bible every day and have a lengthy prayer to the Lord before meals. I have plenty of questions. No matter what people say, I will still argue with the Book. And that’s okay. I’m so glad to have people who encourage my questions, especially Nii Addo and Erica.

I would like to leave you with this new perspective. For Council, all members were assigned this book called “Inspired.” If you’re like me, definitely give it a shot (shout out to Anna and Emily who are doing a book club this semester *wink* *wink*). In the book Genesis, Jacob wrestled with a figure. Though Jacob’s hip was hurt, he would not give up against the man. The man, who turned out to be God, stopped and told him, “You shall no longer be named Jacob, but Israel.” Israel, He who wrestles with God. Wow. The holy land was built on the idea that no person is perfect, nor should be. We are messy humans who have this lovely brain that likes to think. God not only accepts the curious but encourages it. It was that sentence that made me realize that being a follower of Jesus is not just about believing in the Bible, but always having second thoughts. So when you ever come upon a passage that doesn’t sit well with you, know that God accepts you and loves you for that. Thank you.

Emily — a.k.a. “EJ” — is a sophomore studying environmental studies and communication arts (radio, tv, & film). She offered this reflection during our “Building a Home” series in the fall of 2022.

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