The Believer: Erin White’s memoir explores faith and love

  • Erin White, seen here outside the West Cummington Congregational Church, has written a memoir about her spiritual journey and her life in the Valley. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Erin White, seen here in the West Cummington Congregational Church, has written a memoir about her spiritual journey and her life in the Valley. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Erin White, seen here in the West Cummington Congregational Church, talks about her memoir about faith and love, “Given Up For You.” GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Erin White, seen here in the West Cummington Congregational Church, has written a memoir, “Given Up For You,” about faith and love. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Erin White, seen here in the West Cummington Congregational Church, has written a memoir, “Given Up For You,” about faith and love. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Erin White’s memoir, by University of Wisconsin Press, is “Given Up For You.”

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 08, 2018

Some of Erin White’s earliest memories of Catholicism — or at least some of its trappings — go back to her early childhood. She remembers the times her mother’s parents, devout Catholics, would visit her home in Colorado and she’d crawl into bed early in the morning, squeeze in between her grandfather and grandmother, and play with their rosary beads.

It wasn’t until she was in her early 20s, though, by then living in Philadelphia, that White became truly enamored of Catholicism — a religion and tradition that at the time “seemed magical and lush,” she said. “There was just such a richness to it, something so emotional.”

But White, who now lives in Williamsburg, faced a dilemma. She had also fallen in love with a woman — and the church that entranced her made no bones about its absolute opposition to homosexuality.

The clash between her personal/sexual life and her spiritual one became an unresolved issue that nagged at her for years, eventually sending her on extended emotional journey to try and define her true values and make herself whole. It’s a story White lays out in her first book, “Given Up For You: A Memoir of Love, Belonging, and Belief,” by University of Wisconsin Press.

The book began on a very different note, explains White, who today has two daughters — Grace, 13, and June, 10 — with her wife, Chris. When June was a toddler, White began writing a memoir about motherhood, particularly lesbian motherhood, as a way “of writing my way back into narrative” (White had first moved to the region in 1999 to get an MFA in writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she studied with novelist John Wideman, among others).

“I was writing about the tensions of motherhood, the deep desire you have for a child along with the desire you still have for a separate self, a career, things you want to do,” she said. “And in doing that, I realized I still had this desire for a religious life that was unfulfilled. That was complicating my experience of motherhood, this ability to have a relationship with my children and with God.”

Probing those feelings sent White, 44, back to examining her past, her coming out as a lesbian, and why she had felt so drawn to the Catholic Church. And in telling that story, she also explains how her faith evolved — how she and her family eventually found a home at the West Cummington Congregational Church, a more ecumenical setting than the one she was used to but still an embracing one, rich in community.

The connection stemmed from Chris’ involvement with a post 9/11 peace and justice study group that met at the Cummington Creamery; one of its members was Steve Philbrick, a poet and writer who’s also the minister of the West Cummington Congregational Church.

“I looked at myself and said ‘I’m a married lesbian mother with two kids out in the Hilltowns of western Massachusetts — where will I find God here?’ ” White said. “And the answer was ‘I’ll do it here with Steve and these people I love so much, in this less mysterious but no less magical place.’ ”

A search for God

White, a freelance writer who has also worked as a writing instructor, grew up in Colorado in what she describes as a “very progressive, very liberal” home; both her parents had been raised Catholic but had moved away from the church. The family occasionally attended a Protestant church, and White got an occasional taste of Catholicism through spending time with both sets of grandparents, especially on her mother’s side.

After graduating from Grinnell College in Iowa, she moved to Philadelphia, where she worked for a community organization that lent educational materials and toys to childcare providers and preschool teachers short of resources. She lived near a large Catholic church, walking past it every day; she noticed people regularly going into the church’s chapel, accessible through a side entrance, and one day went in herself.

She found it immediately appealing; in retrospect, she says she was likely attracted by the church’s pageantry and sense of mystery, from the stained-glass windows to the statues of Jesus and various saints, and the candles other visitors had lit. “I was certain — absolutely certain — that I had found what I was looking for,” she writes.

She was also reading about Catholicism and religion, everything from “The Seven Storey Mountain,” the autobiography of the theologian Thomas Merton, to work by Dorothy Day, the Catholic convert who in the mid-20th century led an effort to aid the poor and work for peace. “When I was too tired to read, I would lie in the darkness and think of Jesus,” she writes.

“There was something so emotional about all this, and it was an emotional time in my life,” said White. “I was also wrapped up with therapist I had who encouraged me and was instructive in some ways to push in that direction.”

But then she met and fell in love with her future wife, Chris, and her therapist, who had previously encouraged her to end a relationship with a boyfriend, told her she wasn’t ready to pursue her interest in religion and in Chris; he then admitted to her that he disapproved of same-sex relationships.

All that threw White for a loop, and though she ended her relationship with her therapist, “I carried him with me a long time.”

Looking back, she figures her largely secular upbringing, and the fact she didn’t come out as a lesbian until she was in her 20s, likely didn’t prepare her for the conflicts she faced between her spirituality, her sexuality, and the fact that Chris, who had been raised Catholic herself, had little interest in religion.

“I was aware of the [Catholic] church’s view on homosexuality,” she said. “It was deeply complicating and confusing because I hadn’t been raised Catholic, and I hadn’t absorbed that homophobia. I also hadn’t grown up as a lesbian. I felt I could be an exception to both of those worlds, that I should still be able to be Catholic.”

“Given Up For You” follows White as she moves to the Valley for graduate school and afterward is joined by Chris; the couple lived in Worthington for many years before moving to Williamsburg. She recounts becoming a mother — she gave birth to both the couple’s children — and how the initial fulfillment she felt as a parent eventually gave way to a sense that a “longing still remained in me, although I could not yet discern its shape.”

Along her spiritual journey in Massachusetts, White would re-examine her attraction to Catholicism by sometimes attending services in the now-closed St. Mary’s Church in Northampton, spending time at an interfaith retreat in the Berkshires and talking to a Catholic priest in Boston. But she also kept building her ties to the Congregational Church in West Cummington — even if, as she wryly writes in her book, she would sometime say to Chris after a service there, “I would like a little more Jesus.”

“I had to make peace with the idea that when I became interested in Catholicism, I was very young and became infatuated with some fairly lofty ideas about God,” she said. “If you’re going to have a spiritual life that has real reach, that will be able to grow and sustain you and be real, it has to be about something else.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Erin White will read from her memoir March 22 at 7 p.m. at Amherst Books.