Welcome to Religiously Blonde.

When I was 14, I made two big life decisions in one night. The first was that I was going to wake my parents at two o’clock in the morning to announce that I was gay. (That went about as well as you’d imagine.) The second was that, immediately after coming out of the closet, I was going to end my relationship with God.

My whole life, I had only ever known Christianity as the religion that taught me how to hate myself. I agonized over my decision to come out of the closet, fearing that embracing my truth would mean I’d be condemned. Unfortunately, my very Catholic father had been particularly vivid in explaining the details of Hell and Purgatory when he educated me about religion. Some souls—he explained matter of factly, as though he was talking about the weather—simply needed to be cleansed. By fire. An endless, painful, agonizing kind of fire. I vividly remember clasping my hands together tightly, tears rolling down my face, begging God to spare me from eternal damnation. I didn’t ask to be this way, I prayed. So why can’t you just change it already?

Just as my father taught me, I prayed every night before bed. Sure, I recited the Our Fathers and Hail Marys like I’d learned in Catholic school, but I always liked praying better when it felt like I was talking to a friend. The only problem was, the more I started to understand my true self, the less God felt like a friend. Why would I want to talk to someone—even if they were God—if they thought I was going to hell? So after I came out in the middle of my parents’ bedroom, I went to my room, closed my eyes, and fell right to sleep. God didn’t want to hear from me anymore, I figured, so now I was on my own. 

In Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It, the documentary about the life of actress Rita Moreno, Moreno tragically says, “some [life] wounds just don’t heal well.” What I thought was an emotional scar left over from my childhood was, in fact, a big, open wound. It was something I’d learned to ignore rather than tend to directly. But now, I’m ready to face it head on.

Pretty much everyone in my life was confused when I left the world of magazines last year to launch a podcast about religion. I was actually pretty confused about it, too. The truth is, something about my relationship with God kept gnawing at me. I’d built an impressive life for myself in the publishing industry, but nonetheless, I felt spiritually adrift. In 2018, I was asked to host a panel for International Muslim Women’s Day at Twitter’s headquarters in New York. (Part of my work at Teen Vogue was meaningfully addressing the rise in Islamophobia and religiously-motivated hate crimes against Muslim people in the United States.) Before we went onstage, one of the panelists, the activist Linda Sarsour, asked me about my relationship with God. I gave her my tried and true answer: I was raised Catholic, but mostly considered myself something between Atheist and Agnostic, depending on the weather. 

“You know, it’s such a shame that Catholicism managed to isolate someone like you,” she said. I laughed because I thought she was kidding, but her face remained serious. “Think about who your prophet is. A brown man who was a refugee and an activist, a rebel? Seems like a no-brainer.” 

It took me a minute to realize that Linda was talking about...Jesus. I’d never heard Jesus spoken about with that kind of language before, but as I started to re-trace the stories that had been hammered into my brain since Kindergarten, I realized Linda actually had a point. The guy was born to parents who were, in modern parlance, asylum-seeking refugees. He was, despite the Vatican’s best efforts to convince us otherwise, undeniably not white. He spoke openly about his disdain for the greed and selfishness of the government. He loved and treasured the women in his life, sometimes to the disdain of his own disciples. He cared for and reached out to the sickest in society, and encouraged others to do the same. And, this part is my personal favorite, he even flipped tables—long before the Real Housewives.

Linda helped me understand something that started to actually heal the edges of that childhood wound: I had been lied to. For my entire adolescence, in my own home and in Catholic school classrooms, I learned how to see myself as bad. I was, because of the “lifestyle I chose,” a sinner. I no longer belonged to God. But what if, this entire time, they were wrong? What if they were the ones making a mockery of God? What if, for all these years I’d wrestled with the idea and the residual trauma that I was living in sin, I was actually holy?

I was grateful to wrestle with some of these themes on Unholier Than Thou, a podcast I launched with Crooked Media. (Season two is coming soon, I swear!) Engaging in regular conversations about spirituality was mind-opening and expansive at a time when the world felt restrictive, but it felt like just the beginning of whatever this path was. When a friend told me about Harvard Divinity School, alarm bells went off in my ears. I applied on a whim, and much to my absolute shock, I was accepted three months later. In the words of the iconic Elle Woods: What, like it’s hard? (Except, actually, it was hard—more on that later.)

A part of me feels a lot like Elle Woods as I embark on this journey—hence, the Legally Blonde-inspired title of this project. She, too, was an unlikely choice for the Harvard admissions team, an outsider at school, and obviously a devoted follower of fashion magazines. (Her Bible was Cosmopolitan—something I’ll have to overlook.) Trade her chihuahua, Brewster, for my cat Juniper, and her Audi convertible for a Jeep Wrangler and, well, the storylines aren’t all that different. I’m looking at Little Miss Woods Comma Elle as a sort of divine inspiration for this next chapter—fool’s optimism, dogged determination, coordinated outfits and all. Luckily for Elle, it was her outsider’s perspective that proved her most valuable asset. Well, that and her faith.

“It is with passion, courage of conviction, and strong sense of self that we take our next steps into the world, remembering that first impressions are not always correct,” she says at the end of the film. “You must always have faith in people. And most importantly, you must always have faith in yourself.” 

Harvard Divinity School is just a 30-minute drive from where I grew up. Boston is the first city I ran away from in hope of a new beginning—all the running I’ve been doing was bound to eventually bring me full circle. So here I go, back into the belly of the beast, hoping to settle the score with God, heal some spiritual wounds, and hopefully emerge from it all a better person. 

People keep asking me what my “end goal” is, and I don’t blame them. Certainly moving across the country, living in a dorm for a year, and incurring Ivy League-levels of student loan debt would require some sort of grand ambitious plan. I feel a great sense of relief in not yet knowing where this road will take me—or if it will take me anywhere at all after graduation. If it all ends in nothing but a diploma and a greater sense of peace or understanding about the world, I think it will all have been worth it. Part of learning from my past mistakes is reckoning with the fact that my ambition was a bottomless pit.  The goalposts, once so clear and in sight, just kept moving farther and farther away the more “successful” I got. This time, it’s nice to not have a three- or a five- or even a one-year plan. What a gift it is to be able to live in the moment. In any case, I’m excited to document the highlights here, making Religiously Blonde a year-long project about my adventures in divinity school. I can’t wait to share what I learn along the way, and (this is the most exciting part for me), who I’ll have the opportunity to learn from.

Once I start my studies, I’m excited to be able to bring them to life here. There will be the occasional cultural or political dispatch as things come up, but really, this will mostly be a space for personal writing and revelations. I’ll be sending two newsletters a week while I’m at school, saving a couple weeks off for vacations. One will be free for everyone to read, and one will be just for paying subscribers. All through Launch Month, I’ll be offering 20% off subscriptions, which you can take advantage of here. I hope you know that you do not have to be religious or spiritual in any way, shape, or form to be part of this journey. This is just another story of one person trying to better understand their soul.

This journey first starts with a 15-day cross-country road trip—just me, a few friends, and the Jeep. (Darien says he was not made for road trips and he’s never seen Crossroads, so he’ll be staying behind with the cats.) For these first few weeks, expect dispatches from the road, some special guests, and a whole lot of chaos.

I’m excited to have you following along as I embark on what will truly be the weirdest year of my life. If you’d like to support, please subscribe. I’ll be happy to be a welcome presence in your inbox. In the meantime (and I hope I never get tired of saying this completely ironically), stay blessed. I know I will.

With love,
Phill