Fourth Place Graduate/‘Older’ Student Essay: We are all different by Kelly O’Hay

FFRF awarded Kelly $750 for her essay.

By Kelly O’Hay

I remember sitting in a women’s group one evening when a volunteer looked me in the eye, and asked “Do you believe in God?” In that instant, I tensed. In a place I’d come to feel safe, surrounded by other abuse survivors, it felt wrong to have to put on my armor. However, I took a deep breath and replied “No, I consider myself spiritual, but do not believe in God.”

You could feel the tension as the counselor tried to move the conversation away from religion. The women’s group was supposed to be a safe place for survivors of domestic abuse, a place where survivors could honestly be themselves. But here a volunteer was trying to bring me to God. It felt like she was telling me I was wrong. I understood where she came from. She was a survivor, too. Finding God had helped her find peace. It wasn’t that way for me.

This woman didn’t know me, but she felt comfortable telling me what to believe. As odd as it might sound, I loved that she shared her experience with religion and how it healed her. After all, maybe someone in that group needed to hear it. However, I didn’t appreciate that she judged me for healing differently and pressured me to change my beliefs. “Why don’t you believe?” she sneered. Suddenly I felt like I needed a valid reason not to believe in God. “It just doesn’t work for me” wouldn’t be acceptable.

I felt the need to justify my healing process. Even after I explained myself, she handed me a card to her church, ignoring my wishes, and insisting I try to find God. In that moment, I put on a brave face and thanked her — but I hurt inside. She didn’t realize she had triggered the same feelings I would get from my abuser, when he’d tell me the way I remembered an event was wrong, making me question my own experience. She’ll never know that I went home and cried because I felt like my safe place had been violated. She’ll never know that whenever she was there, I stopped sharing my abuse stories because I didn’t want to have to explain myself.

As humans, we have so many different experiences and beliefs. What works for me may not work for you. That is why it’s important to protect our rights to equality.

Imagine if you applied for a job one day, and someone denied you because you were an unwed parent. You’re outraged, but have to accept it because premarital sex is against the employer’s religion. That might seem crazy with the number of single parents we have in the country, but some religions see premarital sex as a sin. If we allow people to discriminate because of religion, where do you draw the line?

We have already seen businesses being allowed to turn away gay couples. One story I often think about is the county clerk [Kim Davis] who denied a gay couple a marriage license because it was against her beliefs. What if doctors refused to give you or your children care unless you converted to their religion? Would you feel OK with living a lie so that you could get in to see the doctor? I wouldn’t.

When we are all so different, how can one religion or belief work for everyone? If one religion isn’t for everyone, how could we possibly create laws based on one?

Simply put, everyone should be free to believe in and follow the religion of their choosing, or none at all. For life is not “one size fits all.” We all have different struggles and different ways of healing from those struggles. Your belief, no matter what it is, is valid. However, it is not OK to impose that belief on someone else. Pressing them to join your religion might do more harm than you realize, like the woman from my group who just wanted to help me heal, but caused me so much pain.

Kelly, 28, from Janesville, Wis., attends Alverno College in Milwaukee with a goal of getting a degree in business with a focus on human resources. She has worked at Grainger for two years and has helped lead an ally program for LGBT team members, and brought Equality Alliance Business Resource Group to the company’s Janesville office.

Freedom From Religion Foundation