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Commentary: A spiritual graduation

  • Story Highlights
  • Roland S. Martin cites Dr. Cornel West as a spiritual mentor
  • No surprise thousands are either switching faiths or denominations, Martin says
  • Martin says he left the Catholic church in search of something different
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By Roland S. Martin
CNN Contributor
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Roland S. Martin says he left the Catholic church in search of something different.

(CNN) -- It was a hot and muggy night in June 1995 as I drove down the nearly vacant highways of Houston. The temperature had been climbing all across the city. To my left was the eighth wonder of the world, known in Space City (Houston, Texas) as the Astrodome. And to my right was a man who could easily be considered a wonder of this world, Harvard's Dr. Cornel West (he's since moved to Princeton).

It was such a sight to see. Dr. West was still wearing his trademark black three-piece suit, huge afro blowing in the wind as a result of the top of my Mazda Miata being let down. Hey, it was 99 degrees at 4 a.m. We couldn't help it!

As my Alpha Phi Alpha frat brother enjoyed the sweet jazz coming from the speakers in the seat, my soul was busy; troubled by the dilemma I was facing. I had walked away from the Catholic Church after 25 years, and my church attendance was spotty at best. I was perplexed because my soul had been hankering for a change of scenery. As a man then in my mid-20s, I was looking for a significant level of relevance in my spiritual life, and the Catholic Church, though wondrous to me for so many years, was no longer the answer. In essence, I was dying a slow death because my spirit was no longer being fed.

I reached down to turn the radio down to ask Dr. West, a noted theologian, what had been bothering me for months. After telling him about a church in Dallas that I was interested in attending -- I loved the pastor's commitment to social equality and justice -- I was perplexed because I had been such a dyed in the wool Catholic.

"Ah," he said in his trademark tone, stroking his beard as he contemplated my dilemma.

"Brother Martin, it's a rather common problem. You see, when I'm in a contemplative mood, I will attend a Catholic Church. There's something about the quietness of it that allows me to think and reflect on my issues. When I need to have my butt whipped, I will attend my old-fashioned black Baptist Church because of the strong delivery of the Word. Now, my wife is Ethiopian, and I don't know what they are saying, chanting and beating on the drums, but the rhythmic sounds they make is such a strong presence in me that it has a spiritual effect."

"Dang," I thought. "This brother's good."

I thanked him for that small yet wonderful explanation because it cleared up so many of the misconceptions that were going through my mind.

The conversation is just as clear to me today as it was 13 years ago because it clearly highlighted a problem so many of us face. After so many years of attending one church, we often assume that we are meant to be born, baptized, married and buried in the same place.

But all too often our spirits are no longer comfortable in the same place. We begin to get restless. No longer do we think about the message being taught but instead, wonder what we will fix for dinner, what movie we will catch that night or what the score is in the football game of our favorite team. That mental escapism is what caused me to question my presence in the Catholic Church. I found myself reciting the Apostle's Creed and the other mantras without any thought to what I was saying. I was basically "The Walking (Spiritually) Dead."

That's why it was no shock to me to read the study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that showed thousands are either switching faiths, denominations or leaving the faith altogether.

When I moved from Dallas to Houston, I left my home church and joined another in Houston. Although I loved Friendship-West Baptist Church, God led me to Brookhollow Baptist Church. I stayed there two years before returning to Dallas, yet my spirit wasn't comfortable in FWBC once I moved back. The same pastor was there; most of the same people were there, yet I felt out of place. I thought it was because I had left and needed some time to adjust, but God made it clear that I was no longer being fed there.

This did not mean that the pastor wasn't doing his job; he was. But God needed -- no, He required -- me to go elsewhere because what He had for me to do made it necessary. I had to forego my will and what I thought was right and completely let go and say, "God, wherever you think I need to go is where I will go."

I had basically graduated from one spiritual level to another. In layman's terms, I had been granted my papers from high school and now it was time for me to go to college. And when I finished my B.S., it was time for me to go after my master's.

It finally dawned on me that that was what Dr. West was ministering to me about that night in 1995. We have to submit ourselves to the will of God and go where he wants us to go.

I know it's difficult to leave a place where you and your family have grown comfortable. I feel ya when you say that your leaving may create a void or may give the impression that you had a falling out with a pastor. It's important for you to convey to those around you the true nature for your leaving and why you need to continue onward to your spiritual growth.

I loved listening to Pastor Haynes. He was a young, dynamic man, and personally, we were fraternity brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha. But I had to listen to God tell me, "I need you to make this move because what I have in store for you requires it."

Continue to pray and meditate on being in a place where you are constantly being fed and taught. And if it feels like you are going over the same lessons over and over, don't fret and begin to badmouth the pastor and the deacons.

That could simply be God's way of saying that you have graduated, and it's time to elevate yourself to the next spiritual level.

Excerpted, with some additions, from "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith," by Roland S. Martin.

Roland S. Martin is a nationally award-winning journalist and CNN contributor. Martin is studying to receive his master's degree in Christian communications at Louisiana Baptist University. You can read more of his columns at www.rolandsmartin.com.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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