Illustration: Leif Parsons
One winter, in the middle of a particularly painful breakup, I wished I were religious. Raised in a family of scientists who consider religion to be, at best, a comforting illusion, I saw my longing as a weakness. But as I sat alone in the apartment I'd barely inhabited during the two years I'd been with my ex, the feeling persisted. I wanted significance. I wanted to trust that my sadness would pass, that everything would turn out fine; I believed faith might help me recover.
My sadness did pass, more through the curative power of time than anything else, but the desire to explore religion lingered. When my gay coworker Clarence complained about the fire-and-brimstone, homosexuality-condemning sermons at his African-American Baptist church, we began a search together. Each Sunday we scoured New York City for a religious community that felt like home.
Clarence and I liked the sermon at a Unitarian church, but later, over scrambled eggs, we agreed that its allusions to boarding school presumed a lifestyle that felt too exclusive for both Clarence, raised by a single mother in the Bronx, and me, a native Texan who taught writing to foster teens.
The funky crowd at a Unity church put us more at ease, but my allergy to New Age practices flared when the minister told us to hold hands and sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
Then we met Clarence's friend David at his sun-drenched Quaker church. Over postservice pancakes, David talked about forming a group to talk about spirituality, a kind of book club meets pilgrimage. I got excited—what I'd come to like most about our church-hopping was the conversations that followed our visits, in which we tried on the dogma of the week as though it were an elaborate feathered hat, admiring the parts that fit, critiquing those that were all wrong.
Soon Clarence, David, I, and a handful of others formed what came to be known as Our Spiritual Chat Group. Each month we read a book exploring a particular religion or spiritual practice, then discussed it. I was uncomfortable at first. People got personal fast, skipping the small talk, diving into heady talk of God, soul, and childhood. And we seemed unlikely to gel into a group: Jennifer was the daughter of a strict Methodist minister; David's parents celebrated reincarnation with raucous “Come as You Were” parties. But we shared a compulsion to question the religious beliefs (or lack thereof) we each grew up with, while looking for personal ways to lead reflective lives.