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I spent almost every Sunday of the first 18 years of my life in the last pew in the middle section at First Presbyterian Church in Lincoln, Illinois. When I wasn’t there, I was often on mission trips led by the same congregation.

The significance of spending that much time in a single church was lost on me for many years after I moved away from Illinois to attend college, then go to graduate school and finally launch my career. I thought quite a bit about being away from my family, but not about leaving my spiritual home or the worshippers who watched me grow from a baby who cried over the organ music to a precocious teenager who got to preach sometimes.

I started thinking about First Presbyterian Church more and more, however, just before the pandemic arrived. It was one of my goals in 2020 to go to worship services more often, and I was getting serious about finding a Presbyterian church in Utah that felt right.

Each time I’d walk into a new sanctuary, a wave of panic would wash over me. I’d worry about what to expect from the pastor, how to connect with other people or which pew I should claim as my own, at least for that morning. I’d wish for the sense of belonging I always feel at First Presbyterian Church to magically reappear.

When the pandemic forced most congregations online, it was almost a relief. I could delay my religious quest and worship again, albeit virtually, with my parents and friends.

Then, last August, my son arrived, and even virtual services went by the wayside. I spent Sunday mornings feeding him, playing with him or praying for my whole family to get more sleep, not scoping out interesting congregations. I thought about wanting to find a spiritual home for him, but I didn’t know where to start.

Twelve months later, I’m still uncertain, except about the power of my relationship with First Presbyterian Church. Last week, I brought my son there for the first time and, days later, I still get choked up thinking about how special that moment was.

Sometimes, when I’m writing a stressful story or waiting for breaking news, I lean back from my desk and wonder about my choice to turn my interest in religion into a career. It’s hard to keep up a healthy relationship with faith when you spend your days writing about congregations’ most contentious moments.

In those moments and others, what I often return to is the responsibility I feel to tell the story of people like me, people who were irrevocably shaped by their spiritual home. Churches are a force to be reckoned with, whether or not you’ve got one to call your own.

Fresh off the press

For the September issue of Deseret magazine, I wrote about how clashes between religious freedom and gay rights play out on the campuses of religious schools. It’s tricky to know what the future will look like for institutions like BYU or Wheaton College, but students, faculty and advocates are invested in finding a path forward that respects both religious values and LGBTQ students.

Leaders from Intel and other top companies will be honored this week during an international conference on religious freedom and business. In my latest story, I take a look at how making room for religion in the workplace can boost the bottom line.

Term of the week: Sharia law

The concept of Sharia law has been in the news repeatedly since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan. Last week, senior leaders of the group confirmed that they’d base their political system off their interpretation of Islamic religious law, according to The Washington Post.

The Post’s story offers a helpful overview of Sharia law and attempts to dispel some common myths. Most notably, it points out that there is no single set of rules that corresponds with the phrase “Sharia law.” Instead, the associated policies shift depending on established traditions and cultural contexts.

“Leaders, clerics and practitioners take a diverse array of approaches to the traditions and precedents,” which come from the Quran, “as well as the words and teachings of the prophet Muhammad,” the Post reported.

If you read the article and still have questions, check out the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ discussion of Sharia law that was recorded last week.

What I’m reading ...

As the tragic situation in Afghanistan continues to unfold, American faith groups are scrambling to help refugees that the government is evacuating to the U.S. Last week, Religion News Service spoke to a number of religious leaders about these efforts. “For many of us, this will be the most significant mission of our careers,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, to reporter Jack Jenkins.

Churches have the best reputation among America’s major institutions, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis. Overall, 62% of U.S. adults believe churches have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country; fewer than half said the same about banks, large corporations and the entertainment industry.

The 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, is quickly approaching. If you read one thing tied to the anniversary, please have it be this beautiful piece from The Atlantic on love, loss and a life well-lived.

Odds and ends

If you’re looking for another religion newsletter to subscribe to, check out the Weekend Plug-In from Religion Unplugged. My pal Bobby Ross is the editor, and he does a great job compiling top religion reads each week.