Natalie Allen

What Growing Up In Rural America Taught Me About The Power Of Religion

America has a long and storied history with religion. Diversity radiates from cities and urban areas, but comes in more subdued tones to the suburban and rural areas of the country.

My mother grew up on a farm that rolled on gentle Appalachian hills and was no more than a few hundred feet from her family's church. Needless to say, growing up in middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania, church was central to the way I lived in the first 18 years of my life. While I can't say it has as much of an influence on my life these days, it has taught me some very valuable lessons about people, values and life.

Here are the three major lessons religion in rural America has taught me:

1. Religion isn't inherently hateful.

As I grew up in the church, I attended somewhere two to three times a week for different functions until I was about 13. From there, I attended one to two times a week up until I left for college at the age of 18. There are many parables (stories that teach morals) in the Bible that speak to the way Christians, in my case, are supposed to act. Reflecting back on that time in my life, I can say that many of those who I knew in the church were genuinely interested in my spiritual growth and life in general.

Church is, after all, a community that many in rural areas could lean on in hard times. My grandparents, who could not take advantage of advanced farm equipment to cultivate and till their soil, relied on the help of their six children and neighbors to get work like seeding done throughout the year. A lot of these helpers were fellow church goers who had no agenda, but simply wanted to help out their fellow neighbor because it was the right thing to do.

2. Religion doesn't cause kindness.

That being said, there have been ugly impressions of religion coming to the surface in light of recent societal changes in the past five or so years. It doesn't help that many religions have different stances on points of interest, such as gay marriage. I have an outsider's perspective, as I fell away from going to church when I attended college and seldom went unless I was home for the weekend or on break. When I graduated and moved out, I found I was a bit disenchanted with religion, and as I moved around a lot, it didn't make sense for me to start attending again. Or at least, that's what I told myself.

It was during this time that the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage passed in 2015. I happened to be at home that weekend, so I attended church with my family. This was obviously a hot topic at church, given that my religion did not sanction gay marriage.

I walked into the lobby, was greeted by those who I had come to know and was immediately drawn into a conversation about the ruling. A woman who was my childhood Sunday school teacher pulled my brother and I aside and exclaimed, "Isn't this just terrible what these f*ckers are doing?"

More to my shock, my brother nodded his head in agreement. After I picked my jaw up off the ground, I shook my head in disbelief and walked warily into the service wondering what I was doing there in the first place.

3. Religion teaches faith and peace.

That being said, I have seen friends, family and those I know from church gain a great sense of faith from their religious views. This can carry over to many aspects of life and leave you with a sense of perseverance, which is reassuring in times of turbulence throughout your life.

Each of us goes through life asking similar questions, such as, "Why am I here?" and "What is my purpose?" And to its credit, religion helps answer those questions and give those who believe a sense of calm about whatever happens in their lives, knowing that when they leave this world, they will be born anew in another.

This gives those who are suffering chronic or terminal illnesses (or even those who are healthy) a sense of peace that no medication can possibly provide. And there is something beautiful in that.

I don't see anything wrong with this aspect of religion. What I do have a problem with is people bending and morphing religion into something it was not meant to be: hateful.

Or worse yet, using religion to further a political or socio-economic agenda. This has happened in history to various groups, from the Pilgrims whose storied voyage helped found America, to the present day struggles of various groups of citizens.

Admittedly, religion has its benefits and drawbacks. And as absolute belief in God declines in the US, we will all have to define how religion defines us. Will it cause us as a nation to wither or bloom? The choice is up to us.