Today’s Daily Post prompt asks us to “describe a memory or encounter in which you considered your faith, religion, spirituality — or lack of — for the first time.”
I’m from a sleepy little town in eastern North Carolina. We have two stoplights, a grocery store, a couple of gas stations, and a downtown that meets at a crossroads and has too many empty storefronts. It’s the kind of place where people wave at you as they’re driving past you, and if you don’t wave back, by the time you get to where you’re going, half of the town knows you’re in a bad mood (or just inclined to be rude today). Everyone knows everyone else’s business – who’re you’re dating, when you last mowed your lawn, if you grilled steaks last Saturday, and most importantly, where you go to church. Notice I said “where” and not “if.” If is not an option. There were no Jews where I grew up. No Pagans, no Buddhists, no Muslims, even the few Roman Catholics preferred to remain hidden, which is probably good because lots of people in that area aren’t ashamed to make comments about “papists” burning in hell.
My father grew up in the Episcopal Church. His family had been Episcopal since before they sailed to the New World in the late 17th century. St. Thomas Episcopal Church, just down the road in Bath, the oldest town in NC, is supposedly (according to my father) named in honor of one of my relatives, an itinerant Episcopal priest who traveled the coast of NC before many churches had been built, sharing the good word in one community per Sunday. It’s the oldest church building in the whole state.
My family’s church is St. James Episcopal, and a portrait of my dead aunt still hangs there, with a little commemorative altar. My parents were married there; I’ve seen the photographs. By the time I came along, Daddy had stopped attending church altogether, but he still wanted me to be an Episcopalian. He’s never explained the full reason behind either.
Mum was a military brat, and spent her life going to one weird church after the other. I can’t keep track of them all, though I know at some point she was a Seventh Day Adventist. When I was a kid, she was a Jehovah’s Witness (and so was I, I guess…they did give me my own bible with a custom name plate).
My first experience with “church” was Vacation Bible School (VBS), sometime around kindergarten. It’s pretty much the summer day care alternative for every harried mother in that neck of the woods. I went the First Christian Church on Main Street, where they served those little cookies shaped like flowers, with the hole in the middle – I loved to wear them as rings. I had a crush on a boy named Ryan, and especially liked the part of class where we sang. That turned out to be the theme throughout all of my other summer VBS experiences, and I still remember entire songs from the VBS of my 13th summer, spent at Mount Olive Church of Christ, down the road in Ponzer, NC. They were catchy!
From kindergarten to 6th grade, I attended a private Christian school. I won’t tell you the name of it, just that I had a pretty bad time there starting in 4th grade, and consider it a travesty that parents pay good money to have their kids that poorly educated. We had a religion class every day (Bible Class), where we had to memorize religious verses and hear stories from Christianity. I memorized the books of the bible, and learned that anyone who wasn’t Christian was going to HELL. The kids who attended my school were wealthy, and I was poor. I was bullied for my looks (glasses, lanky hair, permanently skinned knees – I was such a clutz, thrift store clothes and Walmart shoes). I can’t say that I didn’t deserve some of it, though. I was probably a brat, who knows?
I started going to summer camp at a “Christian Service Camp” sometime around my 12th or 13th summer. I wanted to go so I could be with my two best friends, Kim (who attended Mt. Olive Church of Christ) and Carol Beth (who went to the Missionary Baptist Church). The first summer was really fun. We ate lollipops in our bunks after lights out, crushed on boys, and generally just clowned around. The next two summers got more intense. There was lots of music & singing, which I loved, and some campfire moments. But what really left a mark on me were the classes. I had a new bible, a special teens’ copy of the New Century Version (NCV), with notes and passages specifically for teenagers, and dealing with problems and temptations unique to teens. After the first summer, I had started having fears about my sexuality, specifically because I hadn’t had my period yet and I also hadn’t been kissed, when all my peers had. I started to worry that I was a lesbian, and that I was going to hell as a result. In retrospect, my hormones were probably playing havoc on my little brain, but I felt deeply depressed. I spent most of my summer after camp reading fantasy novels and crying. My mother must have been out of her mind with me, lol.
The classes at camp didn’t make things better. There were three things in particular that I remember, but in no specific time order, sorry. The first thing that I remember was a night time gathering to see “Jesus” (a guy dressed as Jesus) nailed to the cross, suffering. We were asked to file by him, one at a time, and plunge our hands into a bucket at his feet to collect one of the “nails from the cross” (a railroad spike). The bucket was filled with red food coloring, and our hands were dyed red for days after that. A cool parlor trick, but really demented.
The second thing I remember is being invited to a class given by a local college professor (at a “Bible College” so I don’t necessarily know if he had a reputable background). The class was all about dinosaurs, and how they didn’t really exist. He taught us the same thing that he taught his college students – dinosaur bones were fake, planted in the earth by the Devil, himself. At the time, I was really into Jurassic Park and wanted desperately to be a paleontologist. Even then I was open to the fact that religion and spirituality didn’t always have to make “sense” to be good for us, but as a logical kid, this was a HUGE red flag for me. This was my first inkling that the people at this camp might be insane – or worse (for me, anyway), willfully ignorant.
The third thing I remember is kind of funny, and I know that it happened during my last year at summer camp, because it was one of the heavier straws that broke the camel’s back. My two worst fears once I got my period, had my first kiss, and stopped fearing I might be a lesbian were alien abduction and immaculate conception. Yes, go ahead and laugh. But if you look at it from a really religious Christian’s point of view, it’s very conceivable that you could get knocked up without a guy getting involved. Look at Mary! Just as believable to me (apparently in the non-Christian side of my brain) was that people get abducted (and sometimes impregnated) by aliens. There were several made-for-TV movies on in that few year span, and my parents were way too lenient with my TV privileges, lol. But at some point in camp, we were in a girls’ only class where we could talk to the teacher about “girl things” like love and pregnancy and all that bullshit. The teacher made this comment about remaining a virgin until marriage, where she said something to the effect of if you wait to have sex until you’re married, you’ll never have to question your pregnancy. Of course I was smart enough to not say anything out loud, but at that moment in my brain, two previously unconnected fears popped up, and came together. I wanted to scream, “But what about the Virgin Mary? It could happen to ME!” and at the same time “But what about aliens?” and naturally as my brain processed the two, I thought, “Holy shit, what if Mary got knocked up by aliens?” And that was the road to the end for me.
The other big thing that happened at camp was my baptism. Eventually after a few years of brainwashing, and being told that I was certainly going straight to hell if I didn’t get washed clean of my sins, I volunteered to get baptized on the last day of camp. The camp counselors called my parents to come and witness my conversion. I waded into a swimming pool and got dipped under (I couldn’t swim, and was terrified of being in that much water – really frightening experience for me). As I came up for air, my eyes lit on Mum and Daddy. Mum’s expression was sweet, but rather bored – I saw then that she didn’t have a personal stake in my choice of religion, it simply wasn’t a concern for her. Daddy’s expression, though, still haunts me, albeit in a funny way. He was angry, and disappointed. I learned later that he’d always thought I’d choose to be an Episcopalian, despite never attending the church. I still have my suspicion that he was also disappointed that I’d caved to the pressure of the people I now consider dangerous lunatics (not all Christians, just this particular group). He’d raised me to ask questions and examine the world from all angles – how had that led me to a swimming pool?
I remained Christian throughout high school, and found a pastor and his wife that I adored. I was a puppeteer at my church for awhile, and probably would have happily remained with the church had the pastor not been fired for wearing shorts on a Wednesday. I stopped going to church after he was sent away, but remained committed to virginity and kept reading my bible.
During my senior year, my favorite English teacher asked our class to write essays on religious topics. Everyone else chose different sects of Christianity. I chose Voodoo. Everyone (other than the teacher, who was the coolest lady ever in the entire world, as far as I was – and am – concerned) was terribly shocked. There were actually complaints from parents over that one. Later that year, before going away to college, Daddy sat me down and talked to me about his spiritual beliefs. He found comfort in Native American teachings, and wanted to share this with me. For the first time, I understood some of the undercurrents of our relationship, and various snippets of conversations we’d had in the past. I saw that he had tried his best not to influence my decisions, hoping I’d naturally find a way to his path. That never happened, but we’re not so far apart.
In college, I met my first Jewish people, Muslims, and Atheists. In my first class on medieval art, before I’d chosen a major, I visited my first Catholic church, and fell in love with the symbolism contained in pretty much every facet of the building and its artistic treasures. I started attending services in Latin, loving attempting to sing hymns I’d never heard before. I studied medieval art & architecture, focusing on religious art. I also studied Early Christianity, its teachers and its politics, and thus were the final blows felled. That’s a whole different post, though.
Today, I’m happy in my path. Most of my beliefs are firmly founded in science, but I do believe in a higher power. I believe in kindness, oneness, listening, loving. Singing, breath and vibration remain at the core of my Truth, something that’s touched on in most religions throughout the world (though I do know a few folks back home who don’t believe in singing or using musical instruments, as they’re the “Devil’s work.”) Even with that sad aside, I still believe that everyone’s path is equally valid, as long as it focuses on love, kindness, and good works. Though I’m not a Christian, my biggest role model is St. Francis of Assisi, who said:
While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart.
I think that’s something we can all get behind.