I grew up in a series of small redneck towns in the Pacific Northwest.
My family changed churches as often as some people in those little communities changed their underwear.
Actually, now that I ponder it and think about some of the people, we may have changed churches more often than some of them changed underwear.
I even have specific individuals in mind.
Let me tell you… if you’d been in some of those towns/churches, you might actually believe in Sasquatch.
I really don’t know what my folks were looking for, but they weren’t the only people searching.
My parents and their little circle of people pulled up stakes and moved to a new church about every six months to a year. Someone would have a philosophical disagreement with the pastor, or they’d learn that pastor so and so had gone out and helped a guy who didn’t even attend his church when his car broke down.
“A man who lives by the Word!!” they’d all cry.
And off they’d go en masse, to the new church.
Oh sure, there might be some stragglers, loyal to the old pastor, but eventually they’d all find each other again.
As a kid, I didn’t know what the inside of the (New! Exciting! Bible-based!) church might be like, but I mostly knew whose faces I’d see when I got there.
I seriously didn’t know then and don’t understand now what they were all looking for. I always thought that their beliefs should be the point, not where they exercised their religious side.
They didn’t find it at the First Christian Church.
We were new in town, so we weren’t aware of the migratory nature of the local religious population yet. We stayed at that church for about two years, I think.
My parents finally tuned in to the local Jesus dance and we started wandering around to other churches with the rest of the lemmings.
So whatever it was they were looking for wasn’t at the Baptist church, either. Pastor Boorish and his wife were ‘too judgmental’ for my parents.
And my dad didn’t like being at the same church as one of the people he worked with. “He’s a pompous pile of shit,” Dad pronounced. “I don’t like that son of a bitch.”
The Presbyterians didn’t have what my parents were searching for, although their music was really lovely as our high school choir and band director was in charge of it.
That’s why going to that church was my personal favorite.
Almost worth not being allowed to sleep in on Sunday.
Of course after the music was over we had to listen to Pastor Stodgy for half an hour, but then we got to sing again at the end of the service.
For a couple of months my family took some lessons about Mormonism at someone’s house, but that was a little too weird for my parents.
I went to catechism and the Catholic church with a friend a few times, but Mom denounced that as a cult and decided I probably shouldn’t go there anymore. “Besides that, our whole family needs to be together in church on Sunday.”
That was fine with me, I was done with it. I found the rituals astounding. So many gestures and silly things that were sinful. Trinkets to wear and carry. Confessing one’s sins. Weird.
And the kids I was incarcerated with in public school weren’t any nicer to me when I was receiving religious instruction with them than they were in school.
Church and all the embellishments that go with it were the center of our existence. We were up early every Sunday morning getting ready for church.
The idea of doing something besides church wasn’t even an option. If we wanted to go fishing or have a picnic or do some other thing, it was always planned for after church services.
And as a girl, I had to wear a dress for church. I didn’t wear dresses any other time, but my dressing up for church was a requirement in my family.
I asked once why I couldn’t wear something comfortable like my brothers instead of having to wear a dress and nylons and be cold.
“Why does God even care what I wear?” I asked.
The answer was, “You are disrespectful. Now hurry up, we’re going to be late.” from my harried mother.
Her curt response may have been due to the fact that she was still trying to brush one brother’s unruly hair and get shoes on my other brother while my dad sat out front in the car and honked the horn.
Anyone who visited our house could tell that we were holy.
We had tacky Jesus art and God stuff on the walls and a ton of really swell refrigerator magnets, too.
There was an open hymnal on the music stand on the organ in the living room, and a stack of religious sheet music next to it.
We had an ornate needlepoint wall hanging in the living room with the ‘as for me and my house’ verse from ‘Josua’.
Yes, it was spelled wrong, but Mom thought it was pretty.
No one had noticed the misspelling until I said something. My parents solved the problem by instructing me to stop pointing it out to visitors.
We had the family Bible on the coffee table.
We observed a sense of decorum in our family when we were out in public.
Of course our home life was pretty much like anyone else’s, no one was watching us then, so no need to keep up appearances. Dad swore all the time and ranted about the bastards ruining the country and the assholes he worked for. I can’t remember a time when my father wasn’t angry and bitter. He just didn’t show it to the rest of the world.
Indoctrinated from the beginning, I knew how to act like a Christian.
I knew the bible verses and I knew what Jesus liked and what he didn’t like.
I went to Sunday school and weekly Bible studies and vacation Bible school and even had a mother-approved Jesusy friend or two to hang out with.
I went to church camp every summer.
I prayed when I was told to pray.
I went to all the potlucks and the gatherings and signed up for an hour during the 24 hour prayer vigil our church did when I was 12.
Of course God existed, hadn’t my parents said so?
And didn’t all the people around me believe it?
But I never felt the presence of God.
I really, really tried.
It was like standing out on the lawn looking through the windows at a big party going on inside the house. All those happy people, enjoying being part of a club.
I didn’t feel anything.
Through all the singing and the learning and the endless church services and the crowds of Christians all around me.
At night when I would get introspective as I was falling asleep I’d wonder if there was something wrong with me.
Despite all the indoctrination and the Bible studies and being forced to get up and put on nice clothes to go to church on Sunday every damn week from infancy until I was 17 and my dad said I could make up my own mind about going to church or not, I never felt it.
I witnessed to other kids.
I wore a ‘Jesus Never Fails’ necklace. To school.
I read the Bible.
I just always felt like… an observer.
I did not feel like I was a part of all the pageantry and the experience. It was like watching a movie.
I still believed in God, but I was becoming more certain that he didn’t believe in me.
Church was, first and foremost, a social club for my parents.
They talked about who wore what, who might be involved in little scandals, how shocking Mrs. Gams was with her short skirts, how her husband needed to ‘get right with God because why is he allowing her to dress that way?’ and other tidbits.
And if one wasn’t at the twice weekly Bible studies or one of the two Sunday services with a ‘fellowship and potluck’ in between there was always the telephone.
Which was in constant and heavy use.
The members of the ‘prayer chain’ called each other all the time with prayer requests which were really just orders to God… sort of like Sears or Santa Claus… “Please pray for us to get a new car/house/job” and gossip, under the guise of fake compassion, “Grace Landerer really needs our prayers, her husband Phil moved in with Miss Slutty last weekend!”
Now mind you, Grace may have only told one person and certainly hadn’t requested their prayers or their curiosity, but by the time she left her house and went to the grocery store 15 minutes later, there may have been three people in town who didn’t know about the situation.
Those three were quickly filled in by everyone else. “Did you hear? Phil Landerer left his wife!!”
With each telling, more details were made up. The more lurid, the better.
My mom would get on the phone and preface her remarks with, “Well I heard that____.” and pass on anything new she’d heard, ending with, “I don’t know if it’s true, but I heard it from Bettyjean Saviorette.” As soon as she ended the call, she called someone else and repeated everything.
When I was almost 13, we found the Assembly of God Church.
I guess my parents thought the Pentecostals might really have it, we attended there for several years.
Pastor Jesusjumper was really a good guy. A local rancher-turned-pastor-but-still-ranching. An energetic, kind man who would do anything for anyone at a moment’s notice.
Even *I* liked him.
That’s saying something by the way, as I’ve always had a healthy dose of cynicism.
You may have noticed.
We ended up at Pastor Jesusjumper’s church because my grandfather died. He passed away around midnight six days before I turned 13.
After my dad got off the phone with the hospital, my mom called the leader of our current church, Pastor Detached. He offered his condolences and promised to stop by ‘sometime tomorrow’ to see what he could do. He bid my mother goodnight and hung up.
Mom called one of the ladies on the prayer chain to pass on the gossip that Grandpa Jim had died. Oh. I meant to say she called to ask for their prayers during our time of difficulty. She passed on the information that Pastor Detached had plans to visit our house the next day, too.
And one of the people on the prayer chain called Pastor Jesusjumper.
He and his wife who lived about a half hour outside of town immediately got up and dressed and drove directly to our house. They told my parents to go to the hospital and take care of paperwork and take care of my grandmother (she was in the hospital at the same time and had not been informed of her husband’s passing.) They said go, we will stay with the children. Go.
My brothers slept through the whole thing, but I was awake and very sad at losing my grandfather.
I loved him a lot.
And Mrs. Jesusjumper sat on the sofa with an arm around me while I cried.
They really were very kind people, and if I had to choose someone from all the churches we went to and all the Christians we met during those years, they would be the ones I’d point to as actually practicing what they preached.
I can’t think of a single bad thing to say about them. They were just decent people. I think they would have been kind and giving and moral without religion, too.
But if you’ve never been to a church where they speak in tongues, dance in the aisles, wave their hands in the air and holler, “Amen!” (or 30 or so people whisper under their breath all at once, “Jesusjesusjesusjesus” until it sounds like wind in the pine trees) I highly recommend adding it to your bucket list.
It’s one of those things you have to see to believe.
A little more about speaking in tongues for those who are unfamiliar with it. A random person, usually one of the same four or five people every week, stands up during the church service and recites a long string of gibberish. Loudly. Often repeating similar syllables and groups of sounds. It ordinarily lasts for 20 seconds to a minute. Then that person will sit down. Funny, that person never interrupts the announcements or the sermon or the offering. It only happens during prayer time.
Many people in the congregation become quite exalted and call out, “Thank you JAYSUS!!” or “Hallelujah!!” Most of them have at least one hand in the air, praising their lord. They sway back and forth. Many of them weep copiously and unashamedly.
A few moments later, another random person will stand up and ‘receive the interpretation.’ This involves a recitation that almost always contains the same words and thoughts, repeated in different ways. Something like, “Lo! I am with you always! You are my people! I am here, among you! I love you and you love me! Here I am! Your Lord! I am with you always! I will be coming back soon!”
Sometimes they really get going in those services, and several people will stand up and babble. They must have some sort of prearranged signal, because no one ever interrupts anyone else. They all get to do their tongues and arm waving and still manage to take turns.
Like I said… add it to your bucket list.
I left home a little early, and that was the end of my regular church attendance.
I didn’t miss it.
I don’t think anyone with my upbringing could avoid feeling guilty, at least for a while, and I did.
It got a lot easier.
And every Sunday morning, when I was able to sleep in as long as I wanted to, I appreciated the absence of church a little more.
I was living in another state, but still in contact with my family at least weekly by phone.
I talked about what was going on in my life, and my family (mostly Mom) talked about church and other religious activities. Which makes sense, as that was and still is their life.
My mom was on the board of the local chapter of Women’s Aglow. When she wasn’t doing something for her church, she was doing something to help Aglow.
For a few weeks, my poor mom was in a bit of a quandary.
It seems that her good friend Stephanie Saintly, who’d been her friend for fifteen years, had applied to be on the board of Aglow.
And the other board members, my mom included, were not comfortable allowing it.
Why, because Stephanie had not received the baptism of the Holy Spirit!
She ::putting on sad face and doleful tone:: could not speak in tongues.
In case you didn’t get that, Stephanie Saintly, a good Christian woman who had been faithful to God her whole life, baptized in her local church, and a very nice person all around was going to Heaven when she died.
God had pre-approved her heavenly application because she’d done everything he asks of his followers.
She was good enough to enter the Kingdom of Heaven… but not good enough to serve on the board of a small chapter of a women’s organization in Butthump, Oregon.
When I laughed incredulously and made the comparison out loud, “Seriously, Mom? God will let her into heaven but you won’t let her be on the board? Do you not see anything wrong with that?!?” Mom asked me how our weather was.
It wasn’t the first time I decided that Christianity and logic were going to remain strangers forever.
In case you were wondering, Stephanie was not allowed to join the board of the Butthump chapter of Aglow. She chose to resign from the group because of it.
I started to realize that God had never answered a single prayer I prayed, no matter how sincere.
I had done everything right. I’d gone to church and prayed and tithed and witnessed and read my Bible and wanted to do what God asked of me all the time… and there was no one on the other end of the line when I called him.
I finally admitted to myself, “I do not believe in any God.”
There were no feelings of anger at this non-existent being. It was actually a relief to figure out that he was as real as Santa and the Tooth Fairy. No wonder I’d never felt anything. No wonder I’d always felt like the motions and trappings of religion were pointless.
They were pointless!
I didn’t tell my parents that I’d stopped believing…
Read Part Two