Written by Daniel Hazard
Caught? Or taught? Those two words describe how one's Christian faith can be formed.
For some, being raised in a Christian environment means that they absorb the faith as naturally as rays from the sun and wear it like their own skin. For others, someone else—or a community of faith—helps them understand the basics of the faith before they decide to make it their own.
That was Kiely Todd's situation.
While Todd was in her teens, living with her family in Billings, Mont., she unabashedly described herself as an agnostic.
"I knew there was something to believe in," she says. "I just didn't know what. I couldn't find a church I felt comfortable with, but that was fine with me."
Then she met Ann Hanson.
At the time, Hanson was the volunteer leader for the Sunday morning youth group at Mayflower Congregational UCC. In 1995, when Todd was 18, the Rev. Jeff Barton, Mayflower's pastor, wrote a letter to the editor of the Billings Gazette supporting the rights of gays, especially in the church. He wrote that all persons were welcome into his church, no matter what their sexual orientation.
After reading the article, Todd's father experienced a connection. If a pastor would take the time to write a public letter proclaiming Mayflower's position on this tough issue, then this might be an ideal church for him and his family.
So Todd and her father went to church for a "test drive" one Sunday. While her father mingled with other worshipers, Todd sought out the youth group and found a half-dozen teenagers conversing with Ann Hanson. She stayed to listen.
"We talked about personal or religious issues," says Hanson, "any problems they had or simply what they did over the weekend. They learned from me and I learned from them. It was a mutual sponge."
Today Hanson is Minister for Children, Families and Human Sexuality Advocacy with the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries. As she reflects on how one's faith is formed, she says a mentor can help a young person's faith journey by being willing to listen and by sharing his or her own faith story.
"But even before that," she says, "for Kiely and her dad, the initial invitation was in the pastor's letter to the editor. We need to do more evangelism like that."
Todd flourished at Mayflower.
"I'm a passionate believer of justice and human rights for everybody, not just a chosen few," she says. "If I was ever going to join a church, I had to be true to myself. I knew I would never be a member of a church if I felt the least bit unwelcome."
At Mayflower, two things happened: Todd's faith grew and she and Hanson became close friends.
Even after Todd went off to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., she kept Hanson's teachings at heart.
"Ann opened up all possibilities to me," she says. "I knew I could do and be anything and all things as college prepared me. Ann and I stayed in touch constantly by phone, visits and e-mail." The friendship continued after Hanson relocated to Cleveland.
While in the Twin Cities, Todd began attending Minnehaha UCC in Minneapolis. Here she says she has found "real people making real differences and decisions on things in their lives."
Currently Todd is studying for a master's in religion and theology at UCC-related United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, Minn., and a master's in public policy at the University of Minnesota.
Next year she will be married. Her fiancé is a chemist and a Roman Catholic. The service will include a UCC pastor, a priest and Hanson.
From being unchurched to attending seminary, Todd knows she has done a 180 degree turn-around. One thing Todd is sure of since her days of labeling herself an agnostic: "I now know that I am a Christian," she says.
One thing Hanson is sure of, too: None of this would have happened if a pastor had not had the courage to speak out against injustice and a church had not embraced a stranger who came asking questions.
"There are other ways through the door to a journey of faith," she says. "But for Kiely those two things made all the difference."