“Falling.” That’s the title of the first chapter in Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome, Reba Riley’s 2015 book about what could be termed religion recovery, and unfortunately for her, it aptly sets the stage for an intense year of seeking and stumbling. At 29 she found herself confronting an integral part of her identity—her faith in the Pentecostal-leaning church of her childhood—while also suffering from a chronic illness that would descend without warning, leaving her exhausted and miserable. Rather than sink into hopelessness, Riley set out on a voyage: Visit 30 religious institutions before her 30th birthday, with the hope of finding peace in a new understanding of Christianity. The resulting memoir is one part quest narrative and one part confessional, and it paved the way for a very particular version of redemption.
What’s your personal history with the church? Jesus wasn’t part of our life, Jesus was our life, and everything else was auxiliary to that. I was going to be a minister! But I walked away from all of it—God, everything—for the better part of my 20s. I never stopped believing in something greater, but I wanted nothing to do with it.
What prompted that break? I was deeply steeped in religion, so I was handed a very specific version of God with all of the rules. And that stuff is stacked like a Jenga tower, and your relationship with this God is at the top. And the problem with a religion that is set up like that is when you start messing with that stuff—you start going I’m not sure about this, I’m not sure about that—then it all falls down and you’re not allowed to have a relationship with God at all.
Are you still religious? Yes. I’m spiritual and I’m religious. The things that most interest me about religion are the things that you find in all traditions: You find silence, you find meditative practices, mindfulness, the use of light and water. Being spiritual is [about] grappling with something bigger—it’s the urge to grapple.
What did you learn during that year? A huge lesson in my journey was stepping back from judging people who are judging me. I don’t begrudge anyone their certainties because we all have them in our different ways at different times. I hold my own conclusions with a very open hand and a very open heart. If there is going to be love and forgiveness in the world, it has to start with me.