The First Time I Went to Church Was Traumatic

When I asked my parents, “Why don’t we celebrate Christmas?” the answer was, “Well, because we’re Jewish!” We lived in a predominantly Gentile neighborhood, and we dealt with some antisemitic neighbors. I wasn’t brought up with any strong spiritual or religious foundation—it was more like, “You’re Jewish, which means you don’t go to church.” Even though we weren’t particularly religious, it was clear to me that we were proud to be Jewish.

I grew up with lots of friends who celebrated Christmas and Easter, but we never had any discussions about our beliefs. I remember being pretty young and hearing friends talk about Sunday school classes that they were taking to prepare for their “first communion,” but I had no idea what that meant. I don’t remember ever being invited to go to church with anybody, but I doubt my mom would have let me go if I had been. In high school, I had some friends who would joke about how they were going to “convert” me, but still, I was never offered a serious invitation to their churches.

Years later, I fell in love with a Christian man. Daryl’s faith didn’t bother me. Honestly, I was less afraid of him being accepted by my family as a Christian than I was of him being accepted as a Black man. Though there was friction with my family, I felt that Daryl and I could make it work. I thought that he could go to church on Sundays and that could be his thing, and I could do my own thing, just tagging along on holidays or special occasions. I had an aunt who had married a Gentile, and they celebrated both holidays and seemed fine.

I didn’t want to give up that part of me that made me special.

But pretty soon it became obvious that Daryl wasn’t fine with us simply “doing our own things.” He thought we should be on the same page spiritually and wanted me to embrace Jesus. But for me, being Jewish and believing in Jesus were mutually exclusive. My heritage was what made me unique and remarkable, and our people had suffered so much. I didn’t want to give up that part of me that made me special. It felt like I would be betraying my people. But I loved Daryl, and I wanted to put some effort into understanding his perspective and making our relationship work. So I agreed to go to church.

Attending church for the first time was absolutely traumatic. Not only was everything foreign to me as a Jewish person and uncomfortable to me as an introvert, but Daryl also happened to attend a Black Baptist church. I was surrounded by very friendly people who didn’t look like me, and they knew when to sit, when to stand, all the lyrics to all songs, and they were all very excited to be there. I felt like I didn’t belong. It was the perfect storm of discomfort.

On top of all of this, I was overcome with feelings of guilt and anxiety at the end of the service. The pastor called everyone to the altar, saying things like: “Don’t leave here today without making a decision for Christ!” and “Tomorrow is not promised.” I felt this pressure to make a choice when I wasn’t even sure what I believed. I was afraid of the implications of making such a move. Would I lose myself?

It was overwhelming, and I didn’t want to keep going to church. I didn’t want people to think I was a Gentile. Daryl just got to the point where he said, “You know, we can’t get married if we don’t share the same beliefs. So, we might as well end it here.” He broke off our relationship after two and a half years together, and even though we stayed in touch and remained friends, I was devastated by the loss.

I finally realized that my naive philosophy of “he can do his thing, and I can do mine” was never going to work. For Daryl, being a Christian was about so much more than going to church on Sundays; it was about seeking a relationship with God every day.

In a last-ditch effort to save our relationship, Daryl’s grandmother introduced me to a Messianic Jew. It was the first time that I had ever met someone who was Jewish like I was, but who was also a follower of Jesus. I learned that many unfamiliar aspects of Christianity—like communion or even baptism—had their origins in familiar Jewish rituals. I began to slowly realize that embracing Jesus may not mean giving up my Jewishness.

I wanted to trust that my life was in God’s hands, even if it meant heading down an unknown path.

I was still mulling all of this over a few months later when I was suddenly hit by extreme anxiety. It was the night before I was supposed to fly to Las Vegas for my parents’ vow renewal, and I just had an awful sense: what if something happens to me on this flight? What would my death mean? Was there an afterlife? I wanted to have a deep knowledge and trust that my life was in God’s hands, even if it meant heading down a path that I had never thought was for me. Right then, I called Daryl, and he prayed with me as I accepted Jesus as my Messiah.

One week later was September 11, 2001. I grieved deeply for all those who lost their lives in the tragic plane crashes of that day, and I wondered if any of them had had spiritual thoughts like mine before they boarded those planes and drew close to God in those unexpected final days.

Daryl and I have now been married for nearly 17 years. We have three daughters who we have raised to fully embrace their African American heritage, faith in Jesus, and their Jewish culture. We now work within a church to help bring a message of unity within diversity to the Christian community. My hope is that people of all different backgrounds would discover a culture of inclusion among followers of Jesus, whether it be within the walls of a church or simply in a conversation with a friend.

Stacy McKillian lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Daryl, and their three daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, testing online baking recipes, and binge-watching television series. Listen to her and Daryl share their full story with Jewish Gentile Couples.