pastorswivesOwen Meany. Daenerys Stormborn. Katniss Everdeen.

As a reader, I love a great character name. When they’re done right, the name infuses the role so completely in my mind that they’re forever inseparable. How can Jane Eyre be anything but?

When I became a fiction writer, it dawned on me that I’d be the one who’d have to come up with the names. I’d be inventing a person, after all: the color of her eyes, the way she talks, her earliest memories. Of course I’d have to give her a name.

You know how you agonized over the naming of your children? Yeah. It’s like that. A terrifying responsibility, if also a joyful opportunity.

In writing my novel, Pastors’ Wives, I turned for inspiration to the Bible. That made sense to me, as the story is set in a church and is about what it’s like when the man you married is married to God. Also, the Bible is a great source for names, as parents the world over can tell you.

“Ruth” is named after the Ruth in the Bible who pledges loyalty to her mother-in-law. Like her, my Ruth is helped by an older, wiser woman who counsels her on matters of love and marriage.

“Candace” is mentioned in the Bible as queen of the Ethiopians. Scholars surmise that it may derive from a Nubian word meaning “queen mother.” My Candace is indeed that of her megachurch flock.

“Jeremiah” is a Hebrew biblical name meaning “appointed by the Lord.” The Jeremiah in my novel, called Jerry, hears a calling to serve the church.

“Aaron” means teacher or mountain of strength. I thought that was an appropriate name for the charismatic leader of my fictional megachurch.

Not all my characters’ names have such lofty origins. Some I threw in for fun. For instance, in my story, the megachurch leader forms an alliance with a local imam. The wife of that imam is a blue-eyed American named Kristin Chaudry. That’s the name of my bff growing up (though her real husband is a telecom exec…you’re welcome, Kuri!).


pastorswivesThe day had come.

My mother lay pressed against her pillow, her skin like baking paper, her limbs disposable chopsticks. She had not moved or spoken for days.

In those last days we rarely left her side, my three siblings and I. Between us we had eleven children, the youngest my newborn, whom we had baptised a week ago right here by my mother’s bedside. The children tumbled and danced around the hospice floor, admonished by us to keep quiet, keep quiet! They had already said their good-byes to Nana. Now it was our turn.

The hospice nurses had told us of the final signs. She will cease to wake, even briefly. Her fingers and toes will turn blue. Her breathing will grow shallow and ragged.

Then we heard it. My mother took a breath. That’s all it was—a sip of air. We knew it was time. We rushed around her, my siblings and I, and all together began to sob.

And this is what I said to my mother before she died: “I’ll be all right, Mommy. Don’t worry. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be all right.”

Not “I love you.” Not “I’ll miss you.” Not “thank you for everything.”

Why? I asked myself that night as I cradled my colicky newborn, both of us wailing. Why did I choose that moment to inform my mother of my own well-being? Why did I feel this was the very thing she needed to know as she drew her last breath?

It took me years as a parent to understand: as mothers, that is exactly what we want to know. We want to know our children are safe. We need to know they’ll be all right as they journey into the world without us by their sides.

I don’t know if my mother heard me. But if she did, I hope my final words eased her journey just a hair. That she believed and trusted in my well-being, and then let go.

pastorswivesI don’t belong to a church. Or a temple or a mosque.

I don’t kneel by my bed and pray. I don’t invoke God’s name in thanks or anger.

My children were baptised in the Catholic church, but have received no further sacraments.

Yet my new novel is set in an evangelical megachurch. And my CBS drama pilot is about an ex-priest.

Faith fascinates me—and not just in a clinical, academic way. What does it feel like to believe? Why is religious belief universal? How do you get to a place in your heart where you can stand with thousands of others and raise your arms in rapturous prayer?

As a journalist, I’ve written about many things, some of import, many decidedly not. I’ve written about plastic surgery in Asia and ranchers fighting oilers in Wyoming and the American trend toward upscale laundry rooms.

But after two decades of chasing news and trends, I longed to write about the Big Things. Like love. Death. Faith.

My first book, Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death, explored weird and wonderful funerals and burials. Though I reported on cremains turned to diamonds and mummifications, it was for me a way to understand how we as a culture are changing the way we memorialize our loved ones. Doing so helped me through the subsequent illness and death of my parents.

My second book, Pastors’ Wives, is a page-turning novel about the lives of three women inside a Southern evangelical megachurch. But for me, it was also a way to work through my crisis of faith. The loss of my parents and the birth of my daughters spun me into an existential spin cycle. My beloved characters—Ruthie, Candace and Ginger—helped me through.

Though I have moved away from religion, I learned I still have faith: in my people, in my world, in love. Writing about faith taught me so.

Visit Lisa Takeuchi Cullen at Readers can also follow Lisa on Facebook and Twitter.

Lisa Cullen was a foreign correspondent and staff writer for Time magazine, covering social trends, news, arts and business in the U.S. and Asia. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters.