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An Atheist Childhood

My parents were raised Catholic before the Second Vatican Council, and both left the faith during the upheaval in the 1960s. The Vietnam War and the women’s movement were factors, but additionally both of them and others we knew had been personally hurt through their local Catholic parishes. Before they met each other, my parents had become atheists. They married in 1970, and I was born seven years later in Wisconsin. A few years after that, my sister came along. My parents were respectful, thoughtful, and intellectual people who dedicated their lives to making the world a better place. My father taught night classes at a community college and my mother was a doula. As a doula, my mother volunteered countless hours, including many nights, weekends, and holidays trying to make the transition to motherhood less traumatic for hundreds of teen moms, pregnant incarcerated women, and other women in crisis.

College and “The Church in Pittsburgh”

In college, religion intrigued me. There was an emptiness in my life that friendships, parties, and school couldn’t fill. During my sophomore year, I was struggling. A student in my English literature class befriended me. Before long, she invited me to a prayer meeting. I was skeptical, but at the same time open to new experiences. It was the strangest thing I had ever attended. My friend and her family were members of The Church in Pittsburgh, which was part of the Local Church movement (also called The Lord’s Recovery), founded by Witness Lee and Watchman Nee in China during the 1920s. The Local Church movement eventually came to the US, and it flourished here during the 60s. This movement has an idiosyncratic style of prayer and their own version of the Bible called the Recovery Version.

The Local Church is anti-clerical and anti-liturgical, although I didn’t know those words at the time. It also teaches the heresy of modalism (which denies the Blessed Trinity). My friend and her family were so kind to me that I became more involved with The Church in Pittsburgh, even after I began to suspect that things were amiss. Having grown up without religion in my life, I lacked a spiritual foundation to discern red flags. I had no idea which parts of their teachings were in line with evangelical Christianity and which parts were not. For the first time, I began to read the Bible, and I developed a simple, yet genuine relationship with Jesus. I was baptized by full immersion in a pool in the back yard of their house church on a warm summer day. For the first time, I felt like I did not need to be ashamed of my mistakes because I knew that Jesus loved me.

Still, I knew that something wasn’t quite right in The Church in Pittsburgh. There were constant divisions over matters of theology and practice. The church taught that if you pray about an issue, the Spirit will give you an answer. But what happens when two or three individuals pray regarding a particular issue and come to different conclusions? We had long meetings, and if people didn’t agree, everyone was told to go home and pray more, followed by more meetings. After I was baptized, The Church in Pittsburgh began pressuring me to spend more time with them, and they wanted to be involved in every aspect of my life. Something that started out really beautiful and sweet began to make me increasingly uncomfortable. It felt like my friend had initiated our friendship just to evangelize me.

When I was a junior, I met the official Protestant campus minister, an outgoing United Methodist woman. I left The Church in Pittsburgh and attended the ministry group for students on campus who belonged to mainline Protestant denominations until I graduated from college. In 1999 I graduated cum laude with a double major in English literature and mathematics.

The Worst Year

The year after I graduated from college, I rented a small apartment while working towards an additional bachelor’s degree in nursing to become a Certified Nurse Midwife and working a couple of part-time jobs. Not long after I had moved into my apartment, a neighbor asked me out. He was a friendly, good-looking guy, a couple of years older than me. He lived in the building next to mine, and he told me that he was a nurse at a local hospital. When he came to pick me up for our date, we stepped into my apartment so that I could get my purse and a sweater. I wouldn’t normally let a stranger into my apartment, but he was my neighbor. He already knew where I lived, and it seemed rude to make him stand on my porch while I grabbed my purse. Once he was inside my apartment, he attacked me. I was terrified. He was bigger and stronger. I lived alone and nobody knew that I was going out with him that night. He forcibly kissed me, he groped me, and he managed to unbutton and unzip some of our clothes. Without going into details, he molested me and attempted to do even more. At that point it must have been clear that I was going to put up a fight.

I asked him again to leave, and a few minutes later he left. Like many women, I didn’t know how to label what had happened to me. I thought at the time that the guy had been “a real a-hole,” but that what had happened was an unfortunate side of dating. I told my friends what happened, and they were supportive, but I’m not sure they grasped how upsetting it had been, or how frightened I was to live alone in my apartment afterwards.

It wasn’t until nearly 20 years later that I looked back on the event in a new light. My neighbor had sexually assaulted me, and the incident affected me much more than I realized at the time. It completely altered the next several years of my life. After the assault, I stopped showering regularly, and I shaved my head. It seemed safer to make myself as unattractive and un-feminine as possible. I felt stupid and revolting and tried to make my exterior reflect how I felt about myself on the inside.

How could I be so stupid to think that a nice, attractive, professional young man might want to take me out on a date? How could I be so dumb as to let a strange man into my apartment? I wrestled with who was culpable. The man who had assaulted me was still my neighbor. Living in my apartment alone for the rest of the year was terrifying, but I was too ashamed and humiliated to tell my parents that I needed to break my lease. I no longer trusted my ability to read social situations or judge if a person was trustworthy. My strange behavior negatively affected my social, academic, and professional life for a long time. I dropped out of the nursing program without finishing the first semester. My faith had been fragile before the assault, but afterwards it was nonexistent.


The minute my lease was up on the apartment, I left Pittsburgh and moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where I shared a house with my sister and worked a series of low-paying, dead-end jobs for the next several years. I rarely thought about the assault, but it still profoundly influenced my self-perception, my behavior, and my life choices.

Today, with 20 years of perspective, I see my reaction to the assault as a sign of strength and resilience. I found a way to heal. I got a kitten. My hair grew back. Bit by bit, I began to piece together a measure of self-worth. I didn’t have any romantic relationships for several years, but I relearned how to make friends and developed meaningful relationships with both men and women. I joined a small United Methodist church around the corner from home. They were incredibly kind and accepting, never pushy or overbearing, unlike The Church in Pittsburgh. Slowly and tentatively, my faith began to grow again. I met the man who would become my husband, and I started nursing school again in 2004.


When I met Mike, he was in his first year of seminary, preparing to become an Episcopal priest. My friends and family, who were mostly non-religious, were surprised that I was dating a seminarian, but when they saw that we had a healthy relationship, they accepted him with open arms. Our relationship developed slowly, in part because he was in seminary an hour away, and in part because I needed to take things slowly. He invited me to Easter Vigil at the seminary. Mike gave me a Book of Common Prayer, and I loved it.

In June 2005, Mike graduated from seminary and moved to New Orleans, where he had obtained a position as a curate (assistant) at a large parish. I had to take some summer classes to finish my RN degree, so I stayed in Wisconsin for the summer. In August, Mike was ordained as an Episcopal priest in New Orleans. I finished school in Milwaukee, and we got married at Trinity United Methodist Church in Madison, Wisconsin, on August 20, 2005. On August 29th, Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans. We were still in Wisconsin when Katrina hit, but Mike’s apartment — the apartment we were supposed to spend our newlywed year in — was a total loss, and he lost his position as curate. There was no parish to go back to. The whole neighborhood was literally under eight feet of water. We were broke, homeless, and within a few weeks, I was extraordinarily ill with morning sickness.

Becoming a Clergy Family

I loved Mike and had wanted to marry him, but I didn’t particularly want to be a clergy spouse. But I decided that it would be an adventure, and I would just figure it out! When I was about five months pregnant with our first child, we moved to a small town in rural Mississippi where Mike would be the vicar of the Episcopal church. The Southern church ladies tried to be kind, and I did my best as well, but the cultural differences made things difficult. I was a vegetarian, not a lifelong/cultural Episcopalian, and was a Midwesterner and city girl through and through.

To make everyone in the parish as uncomfortable as possible, we had a homebirth in the rectory using a midwife. We had a beautiful, healthy baby boy who unfortunately suffered from colic. He was an unusually sensitive baby, cried a lot and rarely slept for more than an hour. One day, a church lady asked to hold the baby. I told her it was not a good time for anyone but me to hold him. He would have a complete and total meltdown that would take hours to settle down from if anyone but me held him. I’m not sure that church lady ever forgave me. She thought I was being rude. This event became a turning point in how I saw my role as a clergy spouse. I knew that my son’s health was a higher priority than her feelings. I was doing the right thing, but it didn’t always endear me to my husband’s parishioners.

We spent two years in Mississippi before moving to central Louisiana, where Mike accepted a position as a curate at a large parish. Shortly after we moved, I gave birth to a daughter. On our third wedding anniversary, we had a newborn and a toddler. I wanted to be more involved in church life, but it just wasn’t possible. Aside from Sunday morning services, most church events were not conducive to bringing small children, and we couldn’t afford to get babysitters all the time. I also found it difficult to connect with most people in the congregation because many of them were quite wealthy, while Mike and I were barely making ends meet.

I remember one night that Mike and I were expected to attend a social dinner at the most expensive restaurant in town. We really couldn’t afford to pay for a babysitter and pay for dinner at a fancy restaurant, but we did it anyway and tried to make the best of a rare night out. The conversation revolved around a trip one family had taken to New York City, where they had seen a show on Broadway. Another couple chimed in, “We saw that show in London; it was wonderful.”

I didn’t want to be rude or antisocial, but there was literally no way for Mike or me to participate in the conversation. We listened and ate silently. Those were the years I barely left the house. The baby napped from 9 to 11 a.m., the toddler napped from noon to 3 p.m., and the baby napped again from 3 to 5 p.m..

Spiritually, my faith was strong, but I was in a dry spell. To further complicate things, Mike was becoming increasingly interested in Catholicism. I contacted a Roman Catholic priest to see if he could help me locate a spiritual director. I wanted to learn more about the Catholic faith. Initially, the Catholic priest wanted to talk to my husband about the Pastoral Provision (a way Anglican/Episcopal priests can convert and become ordained as Roman Catholic priests). Local bishops are not required to accept candidates under the Pastoral Provision, and the local bishop did not pursue this option with Mike. It was a disappointing part of the journey. (Due to the sensitive nature of conversion and the struggles for married men to find fellowship within a clergy so defined by celibacy, the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith now requires two years to elapse before the question of the PP can be asked or considered.)

The Episcopal Church was changing during this time, and Mike and I were beginning to feel like there were fewer Episcopal churches that would welcome an Anglo-Catholic priest like him. After three years in Louisiana, we moved on, hoping that Mike could find a long-term position in a church that would be a better fit for us before our oldest child started kindergarten.

To the Border

In 2011, we moved to the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas, where Mike was the priest of a small mission church. Even though the church was small, they had very strong lay leaders. We hoped to stay in Texas until the kids were in high school. Mike and I bought our first house. The folks at our church were friendly and easy-going. I gave birth to another daughter. Sadly, it was less than a year into our time in the Rio Grande Valley before some pretty big cracks began to emerge in the parish.

One by one, the wonderful group of lay leaders at our church moved away or stepped back. There weren’t many laypeople left in leadership by the time Mike and I had unpacked our bags. We were willing to go anywhere God called us, but it can be difficult to find priests who will move to the Rio Grande Valley, so the church had been without a priest for some time before we arrived. The lay leaders were tired, which is understandable, but when Mike came, they were so relieved to have a priest that they wanted him to take over everything. Unfortunately, that is not how healthy churches function.

There were many things that we really loved about living in the Rio Grande Valley. We lived just a few miles from the border, and the region has a vibrant and unique culture. I learned to cook authentic Mexican food. The kids were able to attend an amazing Episcopal school at a neighboring parish. I made friends with our next door neighbor. The cost of living is low compared to many other parts of the country. I was welcomed into a support system in the group of clergy spouses. We had tamales at Christmas, and for every birthday we bought a gigantic piñata. Our church had problems, but Mike worked hard, and we hoped that everything would come together.

The Issue of Life

I had grown up in a pro-choice family. As a young woman in the 1990s, I thought it was absurd to assert that an embryo or fetus under 12 weeks had value or could feel pain. I thought that both men and women had a right to enjoy their sexuality in any way they saw fit, as long as it was between consenting adults. It seemed horribly unfair that women were forced to pay a much higher price for this freedom than men, in the form of contraceptive side effects and unplanned pregnancies. First trimester abortion seemed like an imperfect, but acceptable method to help rectify some of this inequality — as long as I didn’t think too hard about the babies.

I was revulsed by pro-life leaders like Randall Terry. As far as I could tell, they did not care about women’s mental or physical health. I found it insulting when pro-life people would nonchalantly toss out the line “choose adoption” as a solution for women facing unexpected crisis pregnancies. In addition, I had seen pro-life people use pictures of dead fetuses mislabeled with inaccurate gestational dates. I concluded that pro-life people were liars. I had even worked briefly at a Planned Parenthood family planning clinic (not an abortion clinic) after moving back to Madison after college.

I never thought to reevaluate my beliefs about abortion until I came across a documentary about the pro-life movement on Netflix one day while we lived in Texas. I began to see for the first time that there is a much more nuanced and compassionate way to look at the issue of abortion. It is possible to genuinely care for pregnant women facing difficult circumstances and care deeply for the lives of the unborn. Caring for people is not a zero-sum game.

I saw for the first time that the pro-abortion movement itself lies, claiming “it’s just a clump of cells.” Once my eyes were opened to the reality that unborn babies deserve human rights beginning at conception, not at some other arbitrary stage of development, I couldn’t continue my previous stance. By this time, I was a mother of three. It now seems absurd to claim an embryo or fetus under 12 weeks has no value.

Things Fall Apart

After working hard at our church in the Rio Grande Valley for four years, the situation hadn’t improved. The parish never seemed comfortable with Mike’s Anglo-Catholicism, even though he had been open and honest about who he was before they called him to be their priest.

My mother died in 2015 after a short, terrible fight with cancer. Just two months after her death, I suffered a miscarriage. The tension that had long been simmering at our parish continued to grow. I suspect they might have suggested to Mike that he needed to move on earlier, but they didn’t feel like they could do that to us while my mother was dying.

The Episcopal Church encompasses a broad spectrum of theological viewpoints. Some people see this as a strength. I began to see it as a drawback. You can ask ten Episcopal priests the same question and get ten wildly different answers. Parts of the Episcopal church are theologically liberal; others are theologically conservative. Some are high church (smells and bells), some are low church (praise band). The various Episcopal seminaries vary widely in what they teach and how they form seminarians. Between 2002, the year Mike entered seminary, and 2016, the Episcopal Church changed significantly. When it became clear that we would have to sell our house and leave our church in the Rio Grande Valley, we weren’t sure that Mike would be able to find another parish that would be receptive to a theologically conservative Anglo-Catholic Episcopal priest. If we weren’t going to become Catholic willingly, God just might drag us in kicking and screaming.

Entering the Church

In the summer of 2016, we sold our house, got rid of 75 percent of our belongings and moved our family back to Madison, Wisconsin, where we made plans to enter the Catholic Church. We told very few people what we were doing; we wanted to leave the Episcopal Church quietly. It was an enormous leap of faith.

Mike was unable to secure a secular job before we moved, so we trusted that we would be able to figure out something after we got to Madison. It proved to be incredibly difficult for Mike to transition to a secular career path. He had given up the Episcopalian priesthood to become Catholic but struggled to find a career that made good use of his gifts and experience. Today he works at a drug and alcohol treatment facility. It is a challenging field, but he has the opportunity to use his skills which he gained in the ministry to help people in our community. 

Confession was another obstacle that I had to overcome. Just as I had worked through my issues with the Church’s teaching on abortion, study and practice of the faith helped me to overcome my doubts about the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In the end, I was completely shocked and surprised by this Sacrament, which continues to yield grace and peace. To describe the change in me fully, I would need to spill another thousand words. Suffice it to say that I no longer harbor doubts about the graces that one can receive when he or she submits to what the Church teaches and dives fully into the faith.

Meager Provisions, Ample Grace

My mother had passed away less than a year earlier, and my dad offered to let us stay with him until we could get on our feet. We moved during the summer so that the children wouldn’t have to change schools mid-year. Mike and I and our three children entered the Church in September of 2016. We were 39, and we assumed that our baby days were behind us… but we were wrong! I discovered in October that I was pregnant, and I gave birth to another son the following spring, just weeks before my 40th birthday.

During the 11 years that I was a clergy spouse, I always felt a little bit (and sometimes a lot) like an outsider. One of the best things about becoming Catholic is that I know that I can walk into any Catholic Church in the whole world, and I belong there. I began to realize I could trust this Church to teach the Truth. I don’t need to read a dozen books and consult multiple priests and then form an opinion on every imaginable area of theological minutia. My husband and I like to joke that we are always doing things The Most Difficult Way Possible. We always end up where we are supposed to be, but we have never once taken the easy path. Our family made significant financial and personal sacrifices when we left the Episcopal Church, but now that we are Catholic, we feel like we can live out our conscience, and that is the better portion.

Becoming a Christian didn’t make my life easier. It gave me the gift of grace and provided my life with a spiritual foundation. As a Catholic my spiritual life feels like climbing a spiral staircase. As the liturgical calendar spins around and around, my faith grows richer with each step.

Lydia Bertrand

Lydia Bertrand lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and their four children. Her husband works in a 30-day inpatient drug and alcohol treatment facility. Their children were born in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Wisconsin. She can be reached at [email protected].

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