The moment is still perfectly encapsulated in my mind: standing in front of the Sunday School class, back straight and head up, and all my classmatesí ever-judging eyes upon me. I was only sixteen, rumored to have dated a boy, and had been spotted numerous times publicly wearing pants! To add to my crimes, I wore a knee-length dress and makeup to church. As my crimes were read off to the class, and each girl and boy was forbidden to speak to me, I felt as though I were in a mad house, or frozen in iceóor, better yet, an episode of the ìTwilight Zoneî (at the very least, the theme music should have been playing in the background). Although it had all the surreal qualities of a nightmare, it was not: it was my church. The fundamentalist church so insanely strict it was a cult; the cult-church that had threatened to destroy me from the inside out.
When my family moved from South Georgia seven long years before, I happily attended school and church with the same bunch of friends; down South, practically everyone was a Baptist. Like Catholics and Lutherans in the North, Baptist churches peppered every corner. No one ever asked about religionóBaptist was the unspoken rule. Until we moved north, to Wisconsin. There, everything changed. As very conservative, good Baptist parents, my family found a church not long after we moved into our house. Finding a Baptist church to begin with was not an easy task; in the South, there are Baptist churches everywhere. In the North, there are so few Baptist churches, that each church seems to mutate away from the traditional (or at least Southern) forms of religion. Each church was so different, one could hardly tell they were the same denomination. My parents chose to attend Falls Baptist Church, which was not far from our home in Menomonee Falls. At that time, I did not really know what a church ìshouldî beóbut I soon learned what it was not.
The word ìchurchî brings to mind many ideas: God, family, unconditional love, Christians, prayer, Bibles, warmth, acceptance, refuge, safety, growth, encouragement. At first, it seemed that this cult-church was indeed all of these ideas. Not long after we moved, I was in a car accident. Since I had barely started class, I had not yet made many friends. But the church sent many members to sit with me, talk to me and keep me company, and brought me little presents the whole time I was in the hospital. Even the pastorís wife came by, with some of the deacons. All of this lifted my nine-year-old spirit.
At first, I tried to be like the others, the ìgoodî kids. I memorized all of the weekly verses, read the lessons, and went to Sunday school class every Sunday. The Bible reading and verse memorization were much like I had had in Georgia, but the memorization passages were longer and the Bible games more difficult. I did not win, but did well at, all the Bible games. Soon I was one of the shining stars of the elementary school group, and I was well-liked by students and the teachers. At the back of my mind, I knew I was not like all the other church kids, but I had succeeded well enough to win all sorts of ìBible points.î Since I had the fourth highest point total, I got to go on the ìwinnersî trip to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
It seemed exciting at first; I was wearing a little dress like the other girls. There were only five of us students on the trip, and two chaperones. We sang Bible songs the whole way to the museum, and played Bible trivia games. (On reflection, I suppose we looked like the Flanders family on the Simpsons.) When we arrived at the museum, I started to realize that the trip was not really a reward, but an experience in indoctrination: we did not look at the museum exhibits, but instead, broke off into groups of twos and threes to pass out Bible tracts. There we stood, holding our little Bible tracts, yelling about sin and damnation to all the museum go-ers. The group with the most creative ways to give out Bible tracts was rewarded with candy bars. I inadvertently won this competition for my group; I was scared of handing out tracts, so I wanted to get rid of them as soon as possibleóand shoved them into the paper towel dispensers in the womensí bathrooms. The chaperones were pleased; now anyone who dried her hands would pull down a Bible tract. I was relieved to avoid preaching on the street corner.
Looking back, I realize now the full extent of that scene: they duped a bunch of kids, hoping to go to the museum, as a ploy to pass out more tracts by taking advantage of our naïve youthfulness. After all, one may not feel so bad turning down a Bible tract from an adult, but refusing salvation from a nine-year-old is another matter entirely. It was at this point that I realized something was very wrong with my church. The other kids, rabid with enthusiasm, could not wait to pass out more tracts. I was afraid, uncomfortable, and felt dishonestódirty, perhaps. I could not yet put my finger on what was wrong, but the vague bitter taste was there just the same, always creeping around the edges of my mind.
It did not take long to reverse my ìshining starî image. In the fifth grade, I had a Sunday school teacher (letís call her ìMrs. Smithî). At this age, the girls and boys were separated so no ìnaughtinessî or ìevil thoughtsî of lust would occur. (Lust? I still thought boys had cooties!) We were divided up into several small groups, and further separated by sex. Mrs. Smith was discussing the role of women, and explained to us that she had had only two children, but she wanted to have as many as possible to glorify God. (Why God would be glorified by her having zillions of babies was beyond me.) She further stated that a womanís proper role was to have babies until her uterus fell out. How the church kids knew what a uterus was, Iíll never know: they werenít even allowed to sit near boys, so I couldnít imagine the leaders explaining the exact science of ìbirdsî and ìbees.î I in my worldly public school knowledge had a vague idea of ìuterusîóand I was HORRIFIED by the idea of it falling out of my body!
At this point, we were to go around the circle, naming what we wanted to be when we grew up. All the other girls said ìA mommy!î or ìSunday school teacher!,î but I said ìDoctor!î Before I could finish the word, I was yanked out of class, and scolded. ìDonít be silly! Did you mean nurse, dear? We all know that a womanís proper role is in the home. And only if the husband says it is okay can a woman consider work! Besides, nurses and teachers are the only proper jobs for young ladies.î My face was burning when I trudged back to class. BLACK SHEEP seemed to be branded on my forehead, and to seep from my pores. The other girls just stared.
I was an outsider.
From then on, few girls would talk to me. As the years went by, I was spoken to only on a dareójust for the scandal of talking to the bad girl. I felt surrounded by some sort of other-dimension, 1950ís-spouting crazy people, but I was the crazy one. Parents all knew who I wasóI was the girl that refused to go to the retreats and camps. But I knew the camps were just more brainwashing and deception. One Sunday, the girls would be make-up free, with their hair pulled tightly back. Then a week of ìretreatî would tell them about proper hair-curling, makeup, and dating. This was all absurd, of course; girls could not be alone near boys. ìDatingî was an illusionómarriages were arranged by parents. Girls were sent to college as a sort of finishing school; they learned music or art, and upon receiving a degree, were presented to a spouse of their parentsí choosing. After they were engaged, they would go on a dateóchaperoned, of courseóand their first kiss was at the alter. Then came the birthing until their uteruses dropped from their bodies (I imagined a bloated uterus panting, ìMercy! Mercy!î). Thus, when the girls returned, miraculously re-groomed, I secretly laughed: they were for decorative purposes onlyóthey couldnít even talk to boysówhy bother with the makeup? It only seemed to further highlight the cheapness and pointlessness of their existence.
But I was the bad girl, the crazy one. I dated. And wore pants. And went to public school formalsóin sequined dresses with boys and evil rock music. And I dancedóthose evil little pelvic gyrations probably made them all weep with horror. I thought for myself, and aspired to a life of medicine. The sheer illogicóthat I was crazyóthis alone almost drove me mad. I desperately tried every ploy imaginable to avoid church: I was sick, I was tired, I had a test. My favorite excuse was the day my eyes swelled shut, as if in desperate collaboration with my brain. But I was dragged every week.
Sadly enough, this church had nothing to do with actually being a Baptist. I have no idea how they got away with calling themselves Baptists (I suppose ìFalls Cultî sounded less appealing). It is true that Southern Baptists, conservative by nature, do not believe in drinking and dancing, and do believe in dressing decently; but this ridiculous notion that women are some sort of sub-human, subservient race for exploitation by men is unprecedented. I felt sorry for these people, even though they hated meóespecially the girls. They had no real idea of their own potential, of what it meant to make a decision. Since magazines and television were forbidden (except for sports, as long as the TV was turned off during commercialsótalk about a male-dominated society!), how could they ever even understand the world they lived in?
By my sophomore year of high school, the youth pastor would publicly ridicule me. We each had to stand up until we answered a Bible trivia question correctly. These were no ordinary trivia questionsóthe most obscure details were sought after. I was always the last one left standing. After being called stupid one too many times, I went out and bought the deck of trivia cardsóand memorized it. The next week, I knew ALL the questions. I was accused of cheating, and called to the front of the room. Standing in the front of the room, in my knee length skirt, I was reamed out and called a slut by the [male] youth pastor. (The other girls wore ankle-length dresses.) Everyone was warned not to speak to me. Since I never became an actual member of the church, they could not throw me out. So I stood there, in front of them all, in silence, as I was called a slut, a cheater, a pagan whore, a loose woman, an instrument of satan; watched my brand of BLACK SHEEP carried for so many years invisibly now verbally painted for all to see, and thought silently to myselfó
What is wrong with you? Canít you see what is happening? You are so brainwashed, you cannot see what they are doing to you and your minds. Why canít you women see what is going on? They are taking away the outside world, threatening those that think for themselves, stealing away all possibilities for your own fulfillment and enrichment in the name of religion, and blocking all forms of media so you cannot even see what you are missing! You accept a life of subservience, a life that keeps you dependent, barefoot, and pregnantófor what? You have only thirteen children to care for after you have destroyed your body in the name of glorifying God!That was the last time I ever set foot in that church. Today I attend another Baptist church, one that is ìnormal.î To this day, I am wary of organized religion. However, this church does not preach the garbage uttered by the previous one. They believe the standard Baptist principlesóno drinking, no dancing, salvation by faith, and baptism by immersionówithout the brainwashing of the other cult-church. I no longer have the dual identity, the secret brand of BLACK SHEEP or PAGAN WHORE stamped across my forehead. Wearing pants and dating boys no longer brings a momentary pang of guiltóor fear: What if they see me?
Religion is powerful, and as much as we would all like to have blind faith, we must carefully reevaluate our churches from time to time. Nowhere was this more evident than in my previous church. This is not to say that religion is bad, and that we are allowed to pick and choose what we want to hear, but instead we have a duty to check the messages we are preached by holding them against the text of the Bible. The disillusionment has faded from my experience with the cult-church; I am glad I was able to realize it for what it was and escape before it was too late. I was not in any danger of becoming like the other women and vacant-minded people; but in a greater dangeróof rejecting religion altogether. Somehow, through the disillusionment, and perhaps more importantly by having the faith necessary to come out of it, I think my faith is stronger than before because I had to question it. And I realized that churches are built by peopleóand people are invariably flawed. Perhaps my experience was not all bad, then; I just feel a loss, a great sadness, for those too blind or afraid to question the truth of what they were told.
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