"I was thinking at 14 that possibly I might have had the calling to be a priest," said White. "Blues singers sort of have the same feelings as someone who's called to be a priest might have."
That he connected his sense of a calling to a career in ministry isn't surprising. The word "calling," or "vocation," has explicitly religious roots; derived from the Latin vocare, or "to call," the terms originated in the Catholic Church as a way of referring to the inclination for a religious life as a priest, monk, or nun. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther broadened the term beyond ministry to include work that serves others, but still couched it in a religious framework.
Today, "calling" has become common currency in the American parlance, its meaning expanded to refer to the realization of an individual's passion or drive. Though the term has long had religious associations, it is used just as often to refer to secular work as it is religious.
Still, there's something more to a calling -- something almost otherworldly. When you hear the word, what do you think of? It's usually something that defines a life, something all-consuming, something special. Few people who work in customer service, for example, would describe their work as a calling -- thinking back on my years of hunching over a humid sink and mopping greasy floors while working as a dishwasher, I sure wouldn't, anyway.
So, in my mind, a calling is more than a job; it's something that matters to you, drives you, inspires you. It's what gets you out of bed in the morning. Often, it's a hybrid of the personal and the professional -- work you bring your full self to, work that blurs the lines, work you can't "clock out" of. Almost always, a calling is something you can't not do. And while the term may have religious roots, there are certainly many atheists -- myself included -- who feel this way about their work.
Recently, I was asked by What's Your Calling? to describe my calling. What's Your Calling? is a campaign that grew out of a PBS documentary film called The Calling, which followed seven young people as they embarked on a career in religious ministry. What's Your Calling? functions as a web series that explores both secular and religious notions of calling. So far, they've interviewed incredible people from all over, from the founder of FunnyOrDie.com to a renowned slam poet, the creator of homeless advocacy project invisiblepeople.tv to the people behind SoulPancake.
When asked by What's Your Calling? to explain my calling, I told a story.
I described my conversion to evangelical Christianity at eleven years old and how, later, I became disillusioned with the church after years of wrestling with my sexual orientation and the claims of that faith community. Angry at religion, I didn't want anything to do with religious people. But in college, while doing my weekly volunteer shift with the Campus Kitchens Project, I was forced to challenge my universal aversion to religion and religious people.
Now, I firmly believe that my calling is to help bridge the divide between the religious and the nonreligious -- to encourage people of all different walks of life to come together and share their stories with one another, so that they may come to understand one another better. I'm writing a book on my experiences with religion, with the hope that it may serve as an invitation for others to share their stories, too.
Back when I was a Christian, I thought for a time that I was called by God into ministry. When reflecting on my calling, one of my favorite quotes was by a theologian named Frederick Buechner. He said: "The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." It was a beautiful framework for vocation, but once I stopped believing in God, I didn't know how I fit into it.
Now, it's clear. A calling blossoms when you see a need in the world that aligns with your passions, and you dive into addressing it head first. This can happen whether you're an artist or a social worker, whether you're young or old, and whether you believe in God or not.
Today, I feel called by community, called by my Humanist values, called by my passion for hearing people share their stories, and called by the profound gap I see between the religious and the nonreligious to work to build up positive communities for the nonreligious, to give back to those in need, and to bridge the religious-secular divide. I may not believe in God, but this work is my calling.
Whether you're an atheist, religious, or somewhere in between: What's your calling?