I was raised Christian, as Christian as any of my other friends growing up. My family attended church on some holidays; we’d say grace at the dinner table. We said our prayers at night. My father was the religious building block that kept us saying our prayers as a family, and once he suddenly passed away about a month after my 19th birthday, the tower of blocks fell. Each of the remaining five in my family gathered our fallen blocks, without certainty how to reassemble. It was me who had the hardest time reassembling. I won’t go into detail, but both of my brothers found God—each in very special, memoir-worthy kind of ways. My mother and sister also found solace in my father’s passing in their relationship with God. I found I could move forward with my friends’ support, and even though none of them had a personal connection with God, I wasn’t sure that was what I was even looking for.
People in my life outside my family seemed to compartmentalize religion, something I think more people do than they realize. Compartmentalization, to get technical, is “the unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid the mental discomfort caused by a person’s having conflicting values or beliefs”. This seems right. We’ve allowed religious beliefs to live in protected compartments, keeping them from interacting with conflicting ideals. No one ever wants to talk about religion—it’s “inappropriate”. “I was raised Christian” was the most I ever got from anyone. Without any real dialogue that I could use to understand religion, I was left desensitized to my spirituality. Until I met my roommate, Mary Alice.
I met Mary Alice as Mary Alice Hull. Daughter of John Hull, former Canadian pastor and forever spiritual leader and Sharon Hull, the most supportive and positive woman you could ever be in a room with. Mary Alice is a product of her parents’ upbringing. The Hulls raised Mary Alice and her brother, Andy, outside of “the Christian box”, encouraging them to reserve judgment of others while supporting their children creatively. When it came to raising their family, The Hulls refused the problematic “Spirituality Complex”, the fake-it-to-fit-in acceptation of religion. The Hulls had complete faith in their children, and even though it would inevitably be tested as all faith is, they had the patience and faith to let go and give grace.
When I met Mary Alice, we were both freshly into the world post-college. It was my first day and Mary Alice’s last at an Atlanta-based public relations agency internship, and we were working a fashion show VIP check-in together. All of our young adult experiences were supposed to be amounting to something, and yet neither of us really knew what we were doing. Our solution? Move in together and not have any idea what we were doing together.
After I settled into her apartment, Mary Alice and I got to know each other. I learned about how she studied at Bible College in England, and met her soul sisters and best friends. I learned about her Canadian roots, and how she kind of gets weak for poutine and what was that bubbly hot chocolate called again?
If you’re going to get to know Mary Alice through me though, I’d like to be emphatic about something—to some this will feel like a fairy tale, and that’s the compartmentalization talking. Mary Alice and her boyfriend, Robert McDowell, of 10 years—yes, that puts their first date at age 14—shared similar values, and chose to wait until marriage to give each other their gift of purity.
Maybe you’re in disbelief or have doubt, which is, again, your protected ideals gasping for air. Well, about two months ago I watched as they danced together for the first time as husband and wife—purity in tact.
“Not everywhere in my life do I live perfectly,” Mary Alice might tell you if you gush over her and Robert’s spiritual gift to each other, as I often do. “But this is something I could choose for myself—that we chose for each other.”
Mary Alice would tell you how none of her friends have ever judged her decision, even though not all of them have chosen the same path. In fact, they are supportive and talk often about the McDowells’ inspiring true love story. Compassion is de-compartmentalizing; a thing of beauty.
Before she and Robert became The McDowell’s and we were roommates, we would work through the problems of life together. We’d cry together over work struggles or boyfriend drama. But helping her through her struggles helped me, because she knew of something I didn’t: grace.
No matter the struggle, grace was always top of mind. Mary Alice taught me something about religion that I could finally understand: that grace is a gift from God:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
I went through a lot of personal disasters, with my boyfriend, job and family. Mary Alice and I worked through them together on our living room couch, where she told me to give grace when my boyfriend didn’t understand my choices or to my family when we didn’t see eye to eye. She didn’t tell me how much she thought they sucked or how I was better off. She told me to give grace.
Our friendship gave new meaning to my relationship with Jesus Christ, who I believed in blindly until now. He died for us and gave us a second chance—and we did not earn that. I learned that people who don’t understand the grace of God have a hard time giving grace—like me. I used to find it hard to give people second chances and to have faith in them when I did. Becoming a part of Mary Alice’s life and witnessing her ability to give grace gave me a new foundation to my Christianity. It gave a new foundation to how I look at my experiences, especially the ones that involve struggles.
Finding such a strong friendship with a person who is grounded so deeply in Christian values and who does not preach but proves that faith in God can get you through anything has changed my spirituality. I chose to write about someone else instead of myself because, though it matters to my story, I also wanted to personally thank Mary Alice McDowell. I’d like to thank her for sharing her faith with me, reserving her judgment, and helping me put my spiritual blocks back together by allowing me to open up my compartments without fear.
No matter what you believe, set your fears about what others will think aside. Exchange your knowledge. Open your compartments. What’s inside your compartments could change someone’s spirituality, allow someone to understand you, or even better, help someone live with new outlook—and possibly with a little more grace.