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350 Years Since Expulsion, Spinoza Resonates

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Recently commentator Brandon McFarland took his place in the choir at the church he grew up in. For about a year Sunday services in Oakland, California took a back seat to work. But Brandon says the time away helped him come to a better understanding of his spirituality.

BRANDON MCFARLAND reporting:

I love church. From the screaming organ to the church mothers in the big hats to the peach and teal polyester choir robes, it's always fun to watch a 250-pound man doing the church rock in one of those. For me, being at church is like walking into an episode of Cheers. You know, everybody knows your name. But for a whole year I was missing. I got this job that required me to work long hours on weekends. You can't announce that over the pulpit. Brandon's got a job, y'all, so he won't be coming through. So to my church family I was there one day and then poof. I felt sort of guilty being a no-show.

Growing up, I didn't pray regularly through the week. I tried to cram it all into Sunday. With my truancy from church I felt the fear of somehow of losing my religion and the guilt of being an inert Christian. So my mom became my church. She told me you can never lose what God has put in you. And as long as I set aside personal time to read the Bible, then I'd be cool, guilt free. Every time I read the Bible in the past, I would start yawning and rubbing my eyes. I had never read anything in that good book that held my attention that I could relate to.

But after about four months of my mom being on my back, I finally opened up the Book of Proverbs. The first couple of scriptures had me hooked. King Solomon sits a group of young men down and proceeds to basically tell them: when you see a loose woman, run in the opposite direction. Word. It was the first time the Bible had ever made me laugh.

After a while I started feeling like I was in church when I wasn't. Kind of like being in an empty sanctuary all by myself. Reading the words on my own made me relate more to the Bible than staring at some guy break it down. More important, I used to only pray when I was in trouble, like most people do. God, I need you to pay these bills for me. But I started to pray all week long, whenever I needed to set stuff off my chest.

A year later I quit the job and my first reaction was to wake up and go to church. Even though I had reached this new understanding of God, I realized spirituality is only part of what makes church so important. It's also a chance to be with my blood relatives and almost 300 others who have known me since I was born and treated me like family every since. If there were no building, church would be in the park or in the street, wherever the people are. And the Bible's no substitute for that.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Brandon McFarland. His commentary comes to us from Youth Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.