Losing My Religion, Finding My Faith

Life & Love
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Last June, as my Mother walked out of Lincoln Hospital, where she’s the head OB-GYN nurse, four white trucks lined the Bronx facility’s facade. She asked a coworker standing at the street corner, “Are those them? Are those the trailers?” The woman turned and nodded. “Yeah, those are like the mortuaries now.”

They were refrigerated six-wheelers, there to house the overflow of bodies from the hospital’s maxed-out morgue. At the beginning of the outbreak, New York City was the epicenter of COVID-19 in America, with more than 6,000 cases and 700 deaths a day. By June, the city saw a lull in new cases, but hospitals were still running out of space to hold the city’s dead.

Overcome by the sight, Mom hauled her feet along to her car and sat in silence for a few minutes. She had been assisting at the hospital’s expanded ICU when needed, bearing witness to COVID patients being intubated, getting sicker by the day with no cure in sight, and dying. The grimness of mortality was not foreign to her. But here’s someone who has dedicated over 30 years to reveling in new life, seeing possibilities in tiny fingers and pudgy cheeks, now rolling in the stench of death. That moment, seeing those trucks, triggered her.

“I told myself, ‘Well, I guess this is it, this is life now. I just have to take one day at a time.’”

“Inside my mind, I said, ‘I knew that people were dying, but I didn’t know it was this bad,’” She told me during a recent call as she recounted that June day. “I don’t even know how I drove after that.”

When she got home that evening, a few steps in from her front door, she plopped down on her engulfing sectional that usually provided comfort after a long day on her feet. Not that day. Still fully dressed, handbag over her shoulders and all, the gloom had festered, and she burst into tears. The snotty kind, where she felt it everywhere. She cried, curled in a ball, before slipping into heavy rest. “I was just thinking, ‘God, what is this?’”

She woke up a few hours later and stared into the blackness. “I told myself, ‘Well, I guess this is it, this is life now. I just have to take one day at a time.’”

For me, that obscure reality of well, I guess this is it, this is life now started in May. It wasn’t the COVID deaths that immediately struck me. It was the brutal murder of George Floyd and the endless slayings of Black people at the hands of police. As I listened and watched Mom navigate and contend with all of it—telling stories that consumed her as a woman both of faith and of science—it had me questioning, really questioning, God, what is this, too.

Mom has always been about G-O-D. Growing up, she would drag us to Sunday service and Bible studies. Then there was this Summer camp called Vacation Bible School. We were all up in the faith, exercising hope, gratitude, and all that. I enjoyed my faith. It helped me make sense of the world. In simple, everyday things, too. Like, how babies are made (yes, I understand the science, with the egg and whatnot, but that’s some miracle), how the sky can just be so beautiful, at times serene, it makes you wonder what is really up there. And in the afterlife, too. That somehow, we’d all be reunited with our loved ones.

rita omokha and mother covid new york

The author and her mother, an OB-GYN nurse in New York City.

Courtesy Rita Omokha

This last year has been the greatest test of that belief for me. Despite being a staunch Christian since I was 12, I couldn’t process, let alone fathom, all the death and pain and sadness. The trauma. I was angry, conflicted, and at times sunk in anxiety. Every day was like, God, seriously, where are you in all of this? How do I reconcile any of this with my faith?

Christianity is all about trusting in an always-good God through everything. In the middle of pain, suffering, and heartbreak. It’s about believing in something you can glean hope from—for today, tomorrow, and everything life throws at you. That through it all, God’s got you.

For years, I had been dutiful in that belief. I leaned into it a few years back when in under a year, my family endured loss after loss as three family members died unexpectedly. (Dear God, how could you?) I relied on my faith again as our family was separated when my eldest brother was racially profiled, arrested, and deported. (Okay, God, make it make sense.) Back then, younger and blindly in love with my faith, I always found my way back to believing. One scripture at a time. One song at a time. One prayer at a time.

Last year made it impossible to do any of that. When people were dying in the thousands every day, it’s hard to nurture hope for tomorrows. It’s harder still to feel or see God in any of it.

Those dead bodies were somebody’s father, auntie, son, sister, somebody’s love, reduced to daily statistics and line graphs. And then we had to contend with still more death, with more than 970 people killed by police officers in the past year, most of them disproportionately Black and brown men. It’s maddening, imagining what all those families have to endure forever. That their loved ones died from something that by all accounts could’ve been prevented.

Every day was like, God, seriously, where are you in all of this? How do I reconcile any of this with my faith?

By August, I couldn’t watch the news. I couldn’t pray. I couldn’t read my Bible. I grew numb to the idea of having hope for and being certain of what’s unseen, as a scripture in the Bible defines faith.

I felt nothing for the way of life that was a significant part of my identity. I fought to get back to the days where I believed in goodness, in sipping on hope from God. But I couldn’t. Reading daily prayer books felt pointless. Listening to one of my favorite Christian artists, Kari Jobe, didn’t do it. I even tried attending Zoom church one Sunday. Nada. Nothing helped. Then came nights where I’d lay in bed, grieving for all the families I didn’t know. I felt guilt when I’d distract my mind from stewing in that dark truth, knowing so many couldn’t shake their new reality. Where was God in any of that?

So this is it? This is life now?

On Christmas Day, Mom had us over for a socially distant dinner. That evening, gratitude defeated my distress. As I sat with my family, overflowing with appreciation, I saw the beauty in the simplicity of us. That we still had each other. All of us, healthy and together.

rita omokha mother covid19

The author’s mother with her COVID-19 vaccination card.

Courtesy of Rita Omokha

It was comforting just watching my brothers drink their Maker’s Mark and talk sports and all the other guy things I half-follow. To see my mom bring out the Jollof (a Nigerian rice dish) from the oven as the latest track by Burna Boy charged the room. Mom danced a bit. She couldn’t help it, she said, the beat was just too good. It was good to see her happy, to see all of us laughing at our family’s greatest hits. I indulged in the laughter. There were some tears, too, but mostly laughter.

As we left that night, Mom ended with a prayer, as she always does. In her prayer, she added two sentences she drilled into my brothers and me growing up: “Some people went to bed last night and didn’t wake up. But we went to bed last night, and we woke up.”

That hit me. Mom had said those words many times before, but that day, after my year of doubting and anger and anxiety, they hit different. That day, it meant: We may not have the answers to those questions that prey on our minds, but we have breath in our lungs, we can still become all the things we dreamt we could be. As simple as that is, is reason enough to be hopeful, to be comforted.

Since Mom’s prayer that night, it’s become a daily and conscious reminder that helps guard my mind, to say: I can still hope, I can still dream. My gratitude helps me hold on to all that is good. And maybe that’s how my faith manifests now. Maybe Mom’s lesson in deliberate appreciation is all I need.

I may never find an answer that fully settles me. But I woke up today knowing that thousands of people didn’t get to see this day.

Deaths of all kinds, from COVID and police killings, have continued. None of it makes sense, and I still struggle with, Where is God in all of this? I may never find an answer that fully settles me. But I woke up today knowing that thousands of people didn’t get to see this day.

That wife didn’t get to kiss her husband one last time and will never see her kids blossom into their fullness. All the missed pop-pops and grandmas who can no longer spoil their grandbabies. Those besties will never get to train for that marathon they’d put off for years or dream vacation it up in Ibiza. All of them gone.

Some people went to bed last night and didn’t wake up. But we went to bed last night, and we woke up.

I cull hope from those simple words. For today, for tomorrow, and anything life throws at me.

This story is part of ELLE’s Lost and Found: One Year in Quarantine. Click here to read all the stories in this package.

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