We Are Members of One Another

Healing from religious trauma and taking what we need.

Risa Dickens
Feb 21, 2023
5 min read
AncestorsEmbodied Magic
Photo by Prometheus.

Many people come to our Missing Witches coven meetings with hearts broken by Christianity. For some, it's because a parent or guardian used religion to justify abuse. For others, it's because their church tried to tell them that their own children — their sweet kids who are just kids trying to be honest about who they are and what they feel and who they love — were evil, no good, going to hell. Others lived the violence of racism in their churches where the "whitemalegod" sat in distant judgment. Fuck all of this, obviously. We deserve better.

"As a child, I would sit in my grandfather’s church, a fairly large church. And the image of Jesus would not only be a white male, but it would also be distant for me, up there on the altar away from me. And if I’m good enough to have a reason to be up on that altar, then I can be close to him. The immanence of the Sacred Black Feminine sort of reverses that whole idea, and she comes to me. There’s nothing I need to do to belong on that altar. There’s no altar between us. I am an altar." Christena Cleveland

I Am An Altar.

I was brokenhearted by the church too. In 1992 I watched Sinéad O'Connor on Saturday Night Live sing War, rip up a picture of the Pope, and tell the truth to the world about the ongoing mass sexual abuse of children by the church. I watched all this from the basement of my Irish Catholic step-grandparents' place in Queens, NY. I heard their shock and disgust as the news picked up the story and they all turned on her. A small, brave, fierce, tortured woman who threatened their reality with ripped up lies.

It would be 9 years before the Pope would confess that what she said was true.

By then I was done. My childhood faith couldn't withstand the waves of truth about the behavior of people who had wielded the bible and the institution of the church in order to brutalize other people. Getting to the truth was like ripping stinking bandages away, obfuscations that had tried to cover up a wound, making it rot rather than heal. Layers of lies from the church about child rape — the ways priests who were known abusers were moved into unsuspecting communities to abuse again and again — combined with my growing understanding of the church's role in the murder of thousands of people under the banner of Inquisition; and the way the right has used "texts of terror" from the Bible to justify violence against women's bodies and trans and queer bodies and the subsequent brutalization of our hopes and lives and chances at happiness all around the world; and the role of the church in colonization and slavery, used to justify the genocide of indigenous people in Canada and all around the world. I was done, I was done, I was done. So many of us are.

But I insist on keeping what is beautiful and ennobling for me from the religion I grew up in. I insist on the powerful spell that is telling the truth, though it feels like an endless process of pulling my scales off the get to that truth. To let it breathe. The truth is that Christianity has been a tool of brutal violence and of hate against people and the Earth. It's happening today. The truth is also that there are messages in the bible that I love and I'm going to keep. I think hippie anarchist Jesus who loved and sat as an equal with sex workers and flipped the tables of capitalists would have liked our coven. I am a magpie, a reader, a searcher; like Zora Neale Hurston, "I want to collect like a new broom."

I'm going to take what I need.

There was (and maybe still is?) an iconic fundraiser event series in Montreal called Taking What We Need that distributed money directly to low-income trans women. I loved these events and love the title. We are not waiting for permission, we are here together taking what we need to be ok. I think about it all the time, it's a very witchy ethos: I am not begging at the altar of a distant white male authority, I am an altar.

I hung out with my ancestor altar today. I have photos of my complicated, imperfect, beloved ancestors on a wall in front of candles, carvings, stones, and shells from my travels all gathered together in assemblages of meaning that shift with the tides of my hopes and fears. I like to look at them, to talk out loud to them, to thank them for my breath, my bones, my kid, my love. For the road as it rises up to meet me, and for the doors that close sending me in wild new directions.  

I have a small bible on my altar these days, I got it from Sherry Shone in a gift box with her book Hoodoo for Everyone, and I keep it in front of a picture of my grandfather when he was a young man.

My grandfather loved the bible, he played organ in the church and sang a perfect tenor and that's why my grandmother says she fell in love, though he was a poor farmer. My grandfather's family were settler colonizers who struggled to farm land they didn't understand. His mother was a sharp woman who butchered the animals herself, and who told him there was no money for school, or for him to stay in the family house, so he couldn't be a school teacher as had been his lifelong dream.

My grandfather got tangled up in a version of the church that is a pyramid scheme.

People came to my great-grandmother to have their tea leaves read, so maybe she foresaw the torment that would come into his life from that painful decision. The way he would spend his life looking for a quick fortune, trusting the wrong people again and again, desperate to prove his worth. My grandfather got tangled up in a version of the church that is a pyramid scheme — through Amway and that whole Devos-family Reaganite Republicanism — a pyramid endlessly collapsing along the foundation, ruining lives with prosperity lies.

My grandfather used the bible to tease me and provoke me into defending my ideas. He loved me, and he loved watching me think through things even when we disagreed. He was gentle, and he got scammed again and again and it broke my heart. He had so much dignity throughout, and so much kindness. For Christmas he would make donations in our name to different charities he knew we'd love. He believed in his deepest heart that we are all one, all loved, all deserving of love.

Today at my ancestor altar I picked up the Bible from where it sits, in front of my grandfather, and opened it to Ephesians 4:25:

"Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth, for we are members one of another."

I need this piece and I'm going to take it:

Tell the truth, because we're members of one another.

Tell the truth, because we're members of one another. 

We are all multiple. Within the complex identity that is me there are all of you. This club has a membership that is vast. We are all They/Thems full up with each other.  

To care for that multitude, to heal our ancient wounds, and to conjure together a future that is ripe with all our joy and possibility, we have to cast that most witchy and biblical spell: Tell The Truth, Tell The Truth, Tell The Truth. We owe it to ourselves, and to all our members.

Blessed Fucking Be.

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