Why I Left, Why I Stay
The complex reasons people join the church and remain in it are as complicated and various as the reasons others leave it.
WHY I LEFT
In 1992, I quit my job at my local newspaper and moved to Nome, Alaska, to join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. I was only twenty-seven but felt jaded and hopeless in the face of the problems I wrote about in my hometown of Jersey City—AIDS, toxic waste, political corruption. I never seemed to make a dent.
The motto of the JVC is “Ruined for Life”—the idea being that once you join, you’re fundamentally changed, eager from then on to make a difference in the world.
I had been raised Catholic but felt estranged from the church because of its positions on the gay community, birth control, women’s roles—the usual liberal lament.
But I knew the Jesuits had a reputation for being forward-thinking, and I thought a year spent at a radio mission might just renew my faith. I thought I could bring some change by working with the 3,000-person community of Nome, where alcoholism, domestic abuse, and suicide were common problems.
On my flight in, an older man sitting in front of me turned around and asked, over the seat, “Where you headed, honey?”
Honey? “I’m one of the new KNOM volunteers,” I said. KNOM was the voice of western Alaska, the glue that held Alaska Native villages together. The man only gave me a wooden stare. “You know,” I said. “KNOM? The radio station?”
“I’m familiar with KNOM,” he answered. He paused again. He reached a hand out to shake mine. “I’m Father Jim Poole.”
Before I’d left Jersey City I’d received a package from the KNOM station manager that included a tape of the first broadcast and a history of KNOM (MONK spelled backwards), with a biography of the station founder—Fr. Jim Poole.
He no longer ran KNOM, having moved to the Lower 48 back in the late 1980s.
The station was now run by Tom Busch, a former volunteer, and his wife, Florence, an Alaska Native from St. Mary’s, the village on the Lower Yukon where Poole had worked back in 1959.
Poole had rigged up a makeshift radio station there, a PA system from the Jesuit mission over which sermons, a nightly recitation of the Rosary, “Eskimo” stories, and pop music were delivered. (All this was still part of KNOM’s programming in 1992.)
The PA line was extended to the village of White Mountain and then to all the villages of western Alaska in 1970, when the station in Nome was built.
Poole’s real voice wasn’t much different from the booming radio voice I’d heard on tape. I was surprised I hadn’t recognized it. Maybe it was the “honey” that had thrown me off. Poole said he was visiting KNOM for the first time in years. Then he went back to his Alaska Airlinesmagazine.
I could hardly believe it: the founder of the station, in a seat near mine, on my first flight in. Maybe it was a sign of good things to come. An omen. Or a Nomen. (KNOMers were full of puns.)
In many ways, that year in Nome was a revelation. Most of the JVs lived in a new house next to the station called Luella—named after Poole’s mother, who had been KNOM’s first volunteer.
I covered local legislation, corruption, and Walrus Commission meetings. Between shifts, my friends and I partied a lot in the local saloons, worried a bit that we might be damaging KNOM’s reputation.
The following spring, I covered a referendum in the village of St. Mary’s, where Poole and KNOM had gotten their start. There was a sadness hanging over the village, as in Nome, which I attributed to the high rate of alcoholism. But it was also a magical place.
The ice had just begun to separate on the Andreafsky River and sounded like chimes as it pulled apart. While there, I met Frances, a young Alaska Native woman who’d gone away for college but had recently come back.
“When I was sad in the city, I just stayed sad,” she said, explaining her return. “I tried throwing my sadness away, but it bounced off the big buildings and came right back. Here,” she said, waving her arm at the river and the trees, “I toss it out and it keeps going.”
I was starting to feel a little like Frances, having space for my sadness to fly in a place as lovely as St. Mary’s. I was beginning to feel a little closer to the church.
While I was in St. Mary’s, Peter Hans Kolvenbach, the Black Pope—the head of all Jesuits worldwide—flew in. No one had mentioned to KNOM that he was coming.
I did an impromptu story and asked to interview him, but the Jesuits declined. They told me he was there to meet privately with the village elders. But I attended his Mass, where the congregation sang quiet hymns in Yup’ik.
It was a beautiful and solemn ceremony. A few months later, I flew back to New York—my volunteer year over, my spirits slightly revived, my head partially cleared.
That summer, the JVC decided to pull out of KNOM. The new volunteers would be the last. Some of us worried our partying in Nome had something to do with the decision.
Only much later did I learn the real reason. By then I’d returned to the church; I had children, had them baptized, and was taking them to Mass. But in 2004, when my daughter was still an infant, the news came that, for decades,
Fr. Poole and some of his fellow priests had been molesting Alaska Native children. The allegations were just beginning to break that spring when I was in St. Mary’s—which now I realized probably explained Kolvenbach’s visit with the village elders. Yet by then, the church already knew of Poole’s history.
He had been banished from St. Mary’s in the 1960s for abuse and was sent to Oregon, where the abuse continued. He was then sent to Nome and eventually to Barrow, where he molested a six-year-old.
He landed in Nome again, where he opened and manned the station until the 1980s, when he was run out once more and sent back to the Lower 48.
Because no one at KNOM knew about the allegations, volunteers continued playing Poole’s sermons and, using a signature machine, signing fundraising letters with his name.
Not only I, but dozens of others, were made complicit in the church’s actions. I had pushed the button on Poole’s homilies and prayers, broadcasting his booming radio voice over the airwaves into the homes of his victims. I added to their pain by reminding them of him on a daily basis.
After reading news of the lawsuits brought against the Diocese of Fairbanks and the Oregon province of the Society of Jesus, I left the church for good, a decision mixed with guilt and anger.
Guilt that I hadn’t dug deeper while working as a reporter in Alaska, anger over not being the slightest bit aware of something so horrific unfolding around me.
When people ask why my kids never made their First Communion, or why I don’t go to church anymore, I tell them the story of a disillusioned woman in her twenties who went to Alaska to find something besides herself, not even knowing what the word “disillusionment” could mean.
I tell them about the aurora borealis and skiing on the sea ice and hearing true silence for the first time out on the snowy tundra. Then I tell them about Poole and how the diocese covered up his actions, pretending he was still an active leader at KNOM to help raise money.
I tell them how Poole molested one of his previous victims while she was in Nome’s hospital recovering from a suicide attempt. I tell them the story of the woman who says Poole raped her when she was nine, even as he carried on an affair with her mother, who eventually committed suicide.
The victim who said Poole’s own mother—Luella—caught him masturbating in front of young girls and did nothing to stop it.
And then I say that Poole wasn’t the only one, that attorneys know of 345 cases of molestation in Alaska by twenty-eight different pedophile priests, brothers, deacons, and others associated with the church.
Sometimes their reaction is visceral. I see them cringe. I tell them I think the church should not only pay every victim of abuse, but should also be charged with racketeering for decades of lying and abetting some of the worst criminals in the country.
I once covered the Mafia for my newspaper, but the church was far worse. Gangsters never pretended to be anything other than gangsters.
Poole was never criminally prosecuted because of the statute of limitations, but the church and its insurers paid more than $100 million in settlements to Alaskan victims.
Until recently, he was living comfortably in Spokane, supposedly under twenty-four-hour supervision. I sometimes fantasized about knocking on his door and sucker-punching him, for all those victims. And for making us all walk away from the church we were trying so hard to be part of.
Last spring, Poole died. I’m still angry at him. I’ve tried throwing my anger out, like Frances described on the beautiful banks of the Andreafsky River. But when I do, it just keeps bouncing back.
Helene Stapinski is the author of three books of nonfiction, including 2017’s Murder in Matera, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times.
WHY I STAY
It was somewhere in the process of explaining transubstantiation to my skeptical seven-year-old that I taught her the phrase “Go big or go home.”
I hadn’t intended to bring up transubstantiation, or religion, or anything at all—we were just trying to make it through a rare sit-down post-church brunch (we usually do more of a perching coffee and pastries), helping the two-year-old balance scrambled eggs on her spoon, when my older kid asked, pretty much out of nowhere, “The cracker and the wine…they’re not really the body and the blood of Jesus, right?”
Even though my husband attended Catholic school for five years and has sat through more theology classes than I have, I’m the actual Catholic, so I was fielding this one.
I grabbed the moment as best I could to explain that yes, well, actually, the craziness of that idea was the point. The whole idea that something could literally transform before our eyes.
That we could, daily if we wanted to, eat the body and drink the blood of a two-thousand-year-old man, alongside a billion other people across the globe. She raised her magnificent eyebrows. “Okaaaaaay.”
And, I should explain—we don’t do a lot of imaginary-type stuff in our household. I know moms who carefully write notes in glitter pens from fairies that they leave in tiny backyard fairy houses.
I know moms who do Elf on the Shelf. The children of these moms, I should add, are delightedby this stuff. It’s delightful. But it’s not really me.
In our house—on the theory that there are only so many times you can convince your kid that a bearded man in the sky is watching and evaluating his or her moral choices—I downplay Santa Claus into a perfunctory nothingness.
When I suggested to my daughter that she might want to put her fallen tooth under a pillow for the Tooth Fairy, she did some quick mental math and decided it was worth a dollar per tooth to hold on to her former body parts in a little plastic jar, thank you very much.
So, I didn’t have, let’s say, a large arsenal of semi-magical things to draw upon when trying to explain the whole body-and-blood thing. We’re not whimsical, really. Just religious.
Which is why I landed on the phrase “Go big or go home.” It means, I explained, when you decide to do something because it’s enormous. Because it’s crazy. Because it doesn’t really make sense. That’s how you know you believe.
And, look, I explained to her, lots of people think that the bread and the wine or the cracker and the grape juice are metaphors. That they stand in for the idea of Jesus sacrificing himself. And, honestly, that makes a ton more sense and it is way easier to wrap your head around.
But for me, well, I’m not getting up on a Sunday morning and wrestling two kids into Mary Janes before nine o’clock for a metaphor. The enormity, the impossibility of the idea, is the whole freaking point.
The bigness of the Catholic Church has struck me again, recently, of course. Its bigness means a large and cumbersome and opaque bureaucracy. Its bigness means that when there is sin, it is sin in epic magnitude. Its bigness means parish after parish after parish where “bad apples” could be shuffled, and child after child after child who could be harmed.
The bigness means wealth and power, the exact traits of this world that Jesus seems so clearly to warn against. The bigness means vanity. It means pride. Which means we’re now clearly facing destruction and fall.
I understand people leaving the church. I also understand people leaving Hollywood. I even understand people leaving America. And, if any of my friends told me they were considering one—or all—of those choices, I don’t know that I’d make a particularly impassioned case to them to stay.
But for me, there are things I get out of the Catholic Church that I don’t get anywhere else. And a lot of them also come from the bigness. A diversity in my parish that looks like the diversity of Los Angeles (and not the diversity of your average writers’ room).
A heft that can be mustered on behalf of the vulnerable. A community that stretches all over the globe, which means that wherever I travel, I can—more or less—follow along when I go to Mass.
A longevity that matters to me these days, maybe more than it ever has before. America is feeling extremely young right now. Democracy is feeling extra fragile.
Things about this country that I thought were pillars are turning out to have been more like Tinkertoys in drag. I feel wobbly. I want something old. I want heft and ritual and inevitability.
I want the chance to punch myself in the chest and say sorry and mean it.
When I think about climate change (and I think a lot about climate change), the only way I can imagine getting through it would require such a massive disruption to our established systems of power that I can’t see it happening without a miracle. I want miracles.
When the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was being investigated, back in 2012, I pulled back from the church for the first time in my adult life. Between that and the Fortnight for Freedom, I felt alienated from the church as a woman.
I felt ignored and unseen and unappreciated. I saw the work that women (both lay and religious) did to keep the church running every day and I couldn’t believe that we were the ones being lectured.
I stopped going to church. But I missed it. A lot. I emailed priests for advice. I read a book about Ignatian spirituality. But it wasn’t the same.
Finally, one Sunday, I went to an Episcopal church in the neighborhood I lived in then. It was, it should have been, perfect for me. Small, modest, housing a refugee- and immigration-services organization on site.
So, I gave it a shot. And, after a lovely service by a lovely female priest, I went on a walk with my husband and collapsed in tears. It wasn’t the same.
Something wasn’t the same. Communion wasn’t the same. I missed my church. Flawed and beautiful and impossible and massive.
I can’t tell you rationally why I went back. It doesn’t make sense. All I can say is that I went big—and came home.
Dorothy Fortenberry is a playwright and screenwriter. She is currently in her third season as a writer and producer on Hulu’s award-winning adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Her play Species Native to California recently received its world premiere at Iama Theatre in LA. Other plays include Partners, Mommune, and Good Egg. Her essays have been featured in publications including Real Simple, Pacific Standard, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
This two-part article first appeared in Commonweal Magazine as part of a series of essays by converts, practicing cradle Catholics, and lapsed or ex-Catholics.