Our Stories: Clara Kelley
by Janet Meyer
Clara is a true local – she grew up in Louisville, just around the corner from the Fellowship. But she took a winding route to get from her childhood faith to the UU faith she embraces today.
Clara’s family were members of a small (about 40 member) fundamental non-denominational Christian evangelical church. “It was a huge part of our life. Jesus was coming back any time and we had really important stuff to do before then.”
Her father was a scientist who studied the Quaternary (a period of time that began 2.6 million years ago and continues to the present). So, even though they were “super conservative Christians,” the family believed in evolution because he knew that it exists. “Science is important to our family. We were raised to value questioning things, being intellectual, being really smart, except just not church things – don’t question those things. The message was, ‘Be curious, find out about the world, learn about things, but Jesus is the way, the truth and the light.’”
Day to day life felt good at the time. The congregation was small, Clara knew all the kids there, it was community. She was exceptionally good at being good and was smart. “I had read my bible three times by the time I was halfway through high school. I knew what was in there, for good or for bad. I was very devoted. I’m really great at believing things; I’m an excellent believer. So, I had no doubts as a kid. I was very faithful and religious.”
Even when she went to the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley to become a teacher, she remained very very Christian. However, “I did a lot of growing up, and the older I got, the more liberal I got.” She was exposed to people with different backgrounds, ideas, assumptions. She was in a constant state of questioning, but assumed she would end up as a pretty liberal Christian. A pivotal moment came soon after 9/11, when a pastor gave a sermon on “just war.” As she sat there, she realized she was not convinced–the first time when she thought, “this may not be for me.”
During college, she attended an evangelical church in Northglenn, largely because she hoped to attract the affection of a boy who went there. Although he never returned her interest, she did meet her future husband at that church. Shaun was not much of a believer, but attended due to parental pressure. When her conservative friends at that church objected to their dating, she had to make a choice. For Clara, the choice was clear. “I was in love. Actually, it turns out love is awesome and way more satisfying than religion.” But she did lose a lot of friends, some of whom still will not be friends with her. “It was hard, it was really hard.”
“The irony is that, if I hadn’t stupidly spent my entire four years of college not dating anyone, chasing some boy I thought God had told me was destined to be mine, going to his church, I would never have met Shaun. I spent a lot of time being sad, and not doing the things my peers were doing, dating people and having fun. I missed out on a lot, but I did end up with an extremely good husband out of the deal, so I’ll take it.
That was the end of one part of her life and the beginning of the next one. She had to figure out what she did believe, which, as a good UU, is still a work in progress. “I knew I didn’t want to be the same kind of Christian I had been. I was looking for a more liberal version. I tried Episcopalian first because I knew that they were ordaining gays. That was the church I got married in. We had a fantastic, open-minded minister! He had a bumper sticker in his office that said “God is too big for one religion.”
After that, she wasn’t sure. She visited a lot of churches. And then she took the beliefnet.com quiz online, which asks a lot of questions about what you believe. “When I got done, it said, “99% Unitarian Universalist.” And I said, what is that?! I had learned all about the cults as a Christian high schooler and that one hadn’t come up.”
Soon, she went to Jefferson Unitarian to try it out. Although she attended for about a year, Clara didn’t speak to anyone or get involved in anything. She was an open wound. “I didn’t have anything to give, I was hurting. … I sat there and took it all in and healed.” In the end, she felt that, although these people were “kinda mostly” her people, the size was intimidating.
It was a few years later. Clara was lonely and wanted community when she visited the Fellowship for the first time. Her daughter Maeve was 2, and Clara was anxious to be with adults. It happened to be Lydia’s last week before going on a 7-month sabbatical. But just one sermon was enough to tell her that ‘this is it.’ “I was ready. Within a year, I got involved in choir. Choir was my gateway drug to everything else.” From there, she got involved with Neighborhood Connectors. And then quickly got sucked into leadership with Member Engagement and then Committee on Shared Ministry.
Even though Shaun has completely left religion of all kinds behind, he’s completely supportive of Clara’s involvement with the Fellowship, and he knows that Maeve enjoys coming. With all the challenges, there was a lot of good stuff for Clara in being in a youth group. She looks forward to Maeve going through COA and the middle school youth group next year.
On Twitter, Clara is connected to other “ex-vangelicals” who, like her, are deconstructing their evangelical upbringing, and trying to get to the deeper subconscious stuff associated with that, like purity culture and attitudes about sexuality. It comes up as she is raising a daughter on the cusp of puberty, “I’m like, “Wait. Do I care about that? Or do I not care about that? Is that acceptable to me, is there a reason beyond my upbringing that feels bad to me?” Trying to be a sex positive parent has been challenging.
“My therapist has said that she thinks that raising Maeve has been healing for me and I think I agree.” It gives her a chance to go back and do the things that her parents didn’t do, or not do the things they did. “There are so many things that religion robbed my whole family of. I don’t look on it that kindly. I understand people who believe that way, because I remember what it felt like. I remember the comfort of feeling loved by something that was in charge of the whole world. When I’m explaining sad things to my daughter, I feel sorry that I can’t say that to her, don’t worry about it, it will be okay. I certainly miss that sense of being loved. But I do believe that I can love myself enough to feel loved, that it doesn’t have to come externally anymore.”
It was a long and winding path that lead Clara to the Fellowship, and we are so glad she found Unitarian Universalism. Obviously, we are lucky to have her as part of our community.