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Not A Conservative Anymore

guest post

A Guest Post by Dia Wright

I have always been a sensitive girl, and life hurts. Life hurts me at every twist and turn. Not because of the screaming, people throwing things, overturning chairs, slamming doors—not because of the violence and heartbreak and tragedy I grew up with, even though I saw one small tragedy after another for so many painful growing-up years. No, it’s not because life sucks that I hurt. It’s not even because of the things people tell me about myself. Well, maybe that’s part of it. But what hurts me most of all is realizing that the world I trusted to keep me safe and secure from evil doesn’t even know me, and I have no protectors. Nobody understands. I am truly alone in the universe, just like everyone else is. For me, the hurt of wrecked illusions is a pain that pierces the core of me, the place where thought and feeling and emotion struggle for a voice, and this pain goes deeper and deeper until I want to die. I can only curl up with my head in my knees, feeling slow tears slip through my hair, wishing to God that I wasn’t so sensitive. Sensitive. What does the word even mean? Can I stop being sensitive and grow a backbone and not care about my feelings anymore? How can I stop hurting and letting life stomp all over me? Since when did life have to kick me in the face, anyhow? Who am I?

In my early years, I gave in to every emotion and cried all the time, about nothing, about everything. My rebellious, defiant, tantrum-throwing stub of preschool self was thrown behind locked wooden doors, pounding and shrieking, out of my mind, losing control. Thrown back behind the doors to cry it out alone. Whipped up and down with a belt buckle. Sometimes, I didn’t understand why I went crazy and shrieked and screamed and threw myself on the floor. It just happened and there didn’t seem to be any way to stop. I felt very crazy and ashamed of myself as a tiny girl with huge emotions. There were these three stages to the end of any bad day: the crying, the screaming, and then the punishment.

I was raised as a fundamentalist Christian and taught about Jesus from the start. The older I grew, the more intense the Christian talk became. Teachers and parents begged me to ask Jesus into my heart. They said it would be a gift to my mother on Mother’s Day, a gift to Jesus on Christmas. By the time I was seven, I had heard those childish altar call requests about a thousand times. By the time I was ten, I couldn’t resist the call of Christ anymore, and I was baptized. Really, I had been privately struggling with the huge and scary doctrines for several years, trying to fit them into my big little-girl mind, and nothing seemed to work. I was a sinful girl, but Jesus died to save me—whatever that meant. So I asked Jesus into my heart. I read the tracts and my Adventures in Odyssey Bible and I thought about Hell and the Rapture all the time. I served myself communion when no one was looking. I prayed when my anxious little stomach twisted in knots of fear. Still, I was getting bigger, and my spiritual responsibility loomed before me, as I reached the point of no return—the Age of Accountability. 

“You must believe in Jesus,” the people told me, their faces so serious and stern that I was scared. My parents. My brother. My Sunday School teachers and AWANA leaders, when they were done with the fun and games part of church. They wanted me to get spiritually serious. But I was a silly girl—they called me Her Silliness. I didn’t understand, and it made me upset. I just wanted to laugh and joke and make my friends happy, so they would laugh and joke as well. I wanted to run and be silly and throw sofa cushions, break candy piñatas, throw parties, run through the sprinkler. Why did I have to be serious at the end of it all? I tried to put my jokes into their serious spiritual discussions, but sometimes, they rebuked me for it, and that just ended in hurt and pain.

Why must I be so serious? They said they didn’t know what was going on in my mysterious little mind.

Being Serious was a strange business. Though I loved to laugh, to be silly and giggle and play pretend, as I grew bigger, being serious held a strange and deep fascination for me. So I started being serious when nobody was around. So serious they’d be shocked. I was very private and alone and serious behind my silly façade, and this side of me, also, I felt I must be protected from adults. They couldn’t know who I was inside.

When I listened to Mom’s Christian songs, this part of me that was mystical and strange and serious bubbled up like a fountain from a pool, and I shivered all over. Deep down, I was just thinking about me and how good it felt to be serious, but the music was my only connection with these high-flying feelings. I loved music—Christian music, radio pop songs, silly music, all music. The music made me feel and feel and feel.

Even then, I was looking for the beauty in song, in story, in film, in laughter, to fill me up like a cup and turn on all the lights in my darkening mind. I was a sensitive girl and clutched at any emotion, all emotion, wanting to feel and feel deeply. Needing to feel.

Now, I know the end of the story. That little sensitive girl who just wanted to stare at the sky from the windows of her mother’s car and listen to music and feel—she was never part of the plan for salvation. She would use anything to fill up her sensitive neediness, so she clutched at religion, though she was years from learning what this religion really meant to her. She was manipulated and pressured into accepting religion at a young age, leading to an excruciating teenage faith crisis that stripped her illusions as raw as exposed wire.

So slow is my tomorrow, gone to sorrow. I will forget who I am and breathe out a prayer of dishes. What do you know? The sun may find me running into a thousand other suns and the moon will crack like a magnifying glass and what do you know, not where the sun has been dancing on her stick the wall above my bedside swims with vacant colors. At night there was a storm and I spilled my water when I was too thirsty. Numbly I prayed for salvation, begged not to die and go to hell tonight. Fearful as a child, creeping around in the darkness. Flashes of light and rain fused to air and I was alone and so alone dreaming of drifting from the tropics to Antarctica on a map as flat as a rock. We have loved the slow snow at the windows and fell into piles of swans and leaves. On the dawn you breathe your storms of eyes into the stillness that always pervades your mind and keep it up and keep it up and keep dancing because you will dance your evergreen death in a million light years the ballet of lines on pages serenade your old selves all you can ever hope to find the syncopation of the rhyme you can’t grasp like old puppet shows. Dancing blues. Dancing like the walls and floors dance. Dancing like the apricots in heaven dance from the leaves of the trees. Me and you. Dance in the greyhound station forever and I pray they never stop and I pray you never stop and kiss me before bedtime every night and sleep on my dog bones and serenade my flowers to unopened grandeur and the sugar flower on the map of time will keep it up till the dawn of all that you’ve not been feeling and get rid of the bugs and write your sorrows into the people friendly people persons on the road to the universe of muddy footprints joy in the living night that swallows the embryonic moon from the highway…

The AWANA club is run by a guy named Mr. Zeto who has a long white beard. He has a big red handkerchief that he mops his nose with, and that’s gross. Every week he calls up two kids to hold the flags—the American flag and the AWANA flag. We have to sing a dumb song about AWANA every week and shout, “Youth on the march!” louder and louder, until he’s properly satisfied. He can’t sing at all. Reminds me of a robot. Mr. Zeto really doesn’t like kids, but he wants them to know Jesus and memorize their Bibles. He says if you ask Jesus into your heart you go to Heaven when you die. Mr. Zeto angrily surveys our toes which aren’t lined up correctly on the masking-tape line. I am usually scrunched almost to the point of invisibility within the smashed-up line of sweaty big kids. He screams at us loud and nasty to put our toes on the line but our toes never quite satisfy him. Yelling yelling yelling.

But my mommy and daddy are always waiting outside the door for me. When Mr. Zeto is done yelling at us, we can go home. I like talking to my mommy and daddy on the car ride home. I feel happy and peaceful now that there is no more noise and no more dodge ball for another week. The world is dark and loose and coming apart with stars. There are streaks of light in the rain around every passing street light and I am small, small, small. Small before the timelessness of history and Noah’s Ark and Adam and Eve and Jesus dying on the cross and all the distant dark obscure things of the past I’ve just learned about. Smaller than anything I could imagine. Like I’m always looking at myself through a telescope. I am far away. And moving farther away. They say I am like a big girl trapped in a little girl’s body.

I want many things. I want there to be another short girl at AWANA who will understand me. I want Mr. Zeto to take a train (peanut brain!) I want to spy on everyone. I want paper dolls and lollipops. I want to understand this thing about there being a little Jesus in my heart I can’t see. I guess if He’s in my heart he’s out of sight pretty much and you can just keep him there like a paper doll in a paper dollhouse and you don’t have to worry about Him falling out. Once you sign the back of the tract he’s there to stay. I like to read the tracts they have in a big box on the wall. They say things like Does God Really Care? and there are pictures of ladies with haunted-looking eyes staring at the stars and forgotten gravestones that have the inscription Forgiven. I feel like that haunted lady but I am a very little girl and they say I am too young to make a faith decision. I feel very still and solemn but there’s a part of me that scrunches shorter and shorter on the line where I am properly hidden and within my own mind.

When I am first to come at AWANA that is best of all. Then I make up plays with myself and act them out in the darkened church sanctuary. Dark, wide, empty, fathomless. So empty empty empty of short people and tall people and Mr. Zeto and the rest of the folks. There’s only God in there but you can’t see him. You aren’t allowed to climb under the stacks of chairs or play the piano or run on the stage. But nobody stops you from running alone.

I am the dark center of a flower of darkness. Everything is the same. It is like before God made the world and there was nothing but water and dark and no sin at all.

Run, twirl, fall down, sing a song, live and die, listen, spin, spin, spin…

There is no freedom like being alone in the sanctuary.

But there were other church basements. There were other long Sunday and Wednesday nights learning how to be a good evangelical girl. Time may come and time may go, but there will always be church basements. Water damage, spiders, corners, kids, adults. And me.

When I was fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen, I was looking across the parking lot of a church called Fox River Lutheran. When I was sixteen, I was on my own there. My parents had stopped going to the church, but I still went to the youth group on Sunday nights. They played songs to the beat of a middle school girl band thumping and clunking and half-singing and giggling their way through bland top 40 worship hits. I still went to the youth group and I couldn’t tell you why. I didn’t like the church at all. But I wanted to go to that youth group and I came clawing for redemption and God time and time again.

There was a ping-pong table and a pool table and that whatever-you-call-it game you play when you’re bored in the church basement at youth group. But the middle school boys were obnoxious and got on my nerves. One of the kids got up when I decided to eat at his table. I must have smelled bad or something. But I kept going.

Looking across the church parking lot, there were cars flying by in the darkness. And the field behind the church was darkness. All was darkness with faint streaks of light and I was cold. And I didn’t want to play games with the other kids. They beat each other with dodge balls and captured the flag and played four-square endlessly till I couldn’t stand it. I just wanted to sit outside their games. I wanted to watch the sun spilling over the clouds like an over-filled pot of spaghetti and write in my journals and make up a story. I always made up my best stories when I was watching other people and ignoring them from the sidelines.

I was alone and afraid and confused. I was doubting. I felt distorted, warped, stricken, conflicted, tearful, isolated. Contagious. Different. Unsaved. Not understanding. Not yet.

All the church seemed to preach about was Donald Trump and conservative values. But I was years from myself. Flung into a deep, solemn, half-redeemed night of adolescence. The smallness and fragility of my sixteen-year-old soul was lost from church basement eyes. I was short and not popular and I was peculiar. I didn’t know what to think. Stars and grass and alone and my parents and me. And me. I came to test who I was. And I don’t know. I lost track. Weeks turn to months and years. And scribbled poems. And church basements.

Somewhere along the line, I realize that I am not a conservative anymore. I can’t even remember how I used to think. How I used to understand.

Churches we were years from understanding. The stretches of road leading to this church and that church. My childhood, on the road to church. On the road to redemption. Christian radio droning away. Voices of my friends. A sanctuary of peace and light. Hope. Hope. Faith. Let me never end. I want to be everlasting. I don’t want to die. Don’t want to go home. Want something of my own. Want my reflection in these windows. Give me this.

Give me this.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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Bruce Gerencser