How I Left Christianity Part Seven: Divorce

When I was thirteen, my parents separated. It had been coming for years-my parents argued a lot. The day that it all happened will be forever fixed in my mind. My parents were arguing in their room upstairs, and loudly. I was in the living room on the ground floor trying to watch television with my brother. Finally, I’d had enough.

“I can’t take this anymore. I’m out of here,” I announced to my brother as I swept out the front door. I started walking down the street. At the end of the block I turned left and headed down a side street. I had no idea where I was going; I just wanted out. I hadn’t gone far down the side street before my brother blew past me on his bike without a word.

“Well,” I thought, “I guess he couldn’t take it anymore, either.”

I circled around, ending up at the opposite end of our block. My brother was flying toward me on his bike, coming from our house. He swerved and skidded to a stop in front of me.

“Mom locked Dad upstairs,” he announced.

“What?!”

“Mom tried to get me to help her move the couch in front of the door. But I said no. She was trying to do it by herself when I left.”

We stood there on the sidewalk, and hatched a plan to rescue our father. We’d sneak into the backyard and fetch the ladder, and smuggle it to the side of the house. That side of the house had only the downstairs bathroom window and our parents’ bedroom window. We’d climb up to the bedroom window and rescue our father, without our mother noticing.

It was a very grim walk back to our house. It was like we were sneaking behind enemy lines. We came around the bushes and,

Crap.

Mom was sitting on the front porch. Our puppy was on her leash, and Mom’s twelve-gauge shotgun was sitting in her lap.

“Take Sadie and go for a walk.”

Outgunned, we obeyed.

I led my brother and our puppy away from the house again, and in the opposite direction, following my original path. I looked back a couple times, to see if we could double back. She didn’t move.

“Where are we going? Why don’t we go to Aunt Lizzie’s?”

Our aunt and uncle lived six houses down from us. We’d hatched our plan while standing in front of their house.

“Because that’s where Mom is expecting us to go. I don’t want her to know where we are.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s not safe.”

“Where are we going, then?”

I told him we were going to my best friend’s house. It was a couple of miles away, way too far for our mother to consider it a possibility.

It was slow going. Sadie tugged me this way and that, wanting to smell everything. My brother detoured into several parking lots to circle around and do tricks on his bike. Finally, we stood on my best friend’s front porch. One of her siblings answered the door. They were very surprised to see us.

I was sitting upstairs with my friend and her younger sister in their room when her mother appeared in the door. She told me that my aunt had called looking for us, and she was on her way to come pick us up. I wasn’t happy to have been found so easily, and dreaded going back. I didn’t want to go home.

Soon my aunt arrived, and took us to her house. We were ushered into their basement. I wondered if Sadie would pee on their carpet. I kinda hoped she would. I was willing to bet that she was the first dog to ever enter the house. They were all so stuffed up when it came to pets. Sadie was excited, but I kept her close.

Some time passed, and my aunt came down. “Your Dad’s here.” We flew up the stairs. Dad was standing in the kitchen, talking to my uncle. He hugged us. He looked tired, but relieved to see us. We asked how he got out.

“I jumped out the window.” We gasped. He’d just been sitting in there, watching television, when he’d had enough. He’d lowered himself and then fell the rest of the way. He told us when he came around the corner to the front of the house, our mother saw him and screamed, and ran inside. He came immediately here, sure that we would be here. “I saw you walking down the street,” he said.

What now? I wondered. We can’t go back home. I don’t want to go home. Dad’s here. He’ll figure something out. Somehow, I knew the day wasn’t over.

It didn’t seem like very long before the police arrived. Mom had called them and told them that Dad had hit her. I gasped in outrage.

“But he didn’t! He was locked upstairs the whole time! He would never hit my mom!”

The cops looked pained. “We have no choice,” they explained. “If there’s a report, we have to make an arrest.” I don’t remember what I said. We stood in the driveway, between my aunt’s house and the police car. I fought the tears that stung my eyes. My heart was screaming–Don’t take my Daddy! He didn’t do it! He didn’t do it! Don’t take him away! I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t cry in front of my dad. I had to be strong for my younger brother.

“It’ll be okay,” my father assured us. “I’ll be back soon. I’ll come back for you.” He turned to the cops, and asked them to wait a moment. Then he turned to my aunt and uncle. He was asking them to take us inside; he didn’t want us to see. I glared at the police. They stood awkwardly, avoiding looking at my brother and I. My aunt ushered us back inside, back into the basement. I didn’t see or hear what was on the television. I stared toward the window, through the white gauze curtains, at the undercarriage of the police cruiser that was taking my father away from me. A minute later, it pulled out of the driveway.

Gone.

I was not going home. I wouldn’t do it. I’d run away if they tried to make me. We stayed at my aunt’s that night. But eventually, we had to go back. I resisted with every fiber of my being. I would not live in the same house with my mother, not after what she did.

I lived there for three years. That’s how long it took–from separation to the divorce was finalized. Our home life got no simpler. It was three years of court appearances, arguments, anger, keeping secrets, staying strong, choosing what parent would come to this event or that, resisting information mining efforts–alone. Every aspect of my life became a weapon. My mother took out an emergency protective order on my father after that fateful day. Outside of the courtroom, I’ve seen my parents together on only two occasions since that day: my nephew’s birth, and my college graduation. The first was almost four years ago, the second two–and both were only after careful negotiations mediated by myself.

My aunt and uncle were on my father’s side. Anytime I talked to them it was a back-and-forth ranting session. Everything I said to them would make it back to the court–the judge, CPS, the counselors, the lawyers…and my parents. No one at church understood. My friends backed off. The elders never approached me to talk, to offer me refuge, they never even offered to pray with me.

I got angrier and angrier. I cried in bed at night. I begged Jesus to save me, to make it better, to end it all. I just wanted peace. If I couldn’t have that, I at least wanted to be angry and not have it used as a weapon in court. I didn’t want to be fought over. I never wanted to hear “best for the children” ever again.

The longer the divorce dragged on, the more alienated I felt at church. I felt hollow. The longer it went on, the more obvious it became to me that everyone at church was ignoring the problems I was having. Everything and everyone felt fake–pretenders, actors, or role-playing. At first, I played along. But the longer it went on, the harder it became to continue the act. Every part of my life was an act. I needed to be real. I needed to be me. Just me.

Soon I found that outlet–that place that I could be real. I will write about that in another part of the series, but suffice to say, the contrast between it and church was stark, and I couldn’t ignore it anymore.

How I Left Christianity Part Six: Retirement

One Sunday, the pastor of my church announced that he was retiring. The news sent shock waves throughout the church. You see, this pastor founded our church. He was the heart, soul, and lifeblood of the church.

Brother T (no one ever called him Pastor T, always Brother) wasn’t merely the man who stood at the pulpit on Sundays and preached. He taught children’s choir–the children who had grown up in the church, teenagers now, had been taught by Brother T how to read music. He taught us how to sing. Musicals were one of the main ministries at this church–we grew up on stage. Brother T directed every single one. He taught us how to act, as well.

Vacation Bible School was one of his favorite times of the year–Brother T led that as well. Most of the married couples in the church had been married by him. All of the children had been baptized by him.

When we reached our teenage years, he took us to Centrifuge, a Christian summer camp. After that, we went every summer.

Everything that happened at the church, he was intimately involved in, if he hadn’t begun and led the activity himself.

My friends and I talked amongst ourselves. What’s going to happen? How can this church function without Brother T? A new pastor would change everything.

And so it did.

A committee was formed to search for a new pastor. But the really big development was talk of merger. We should merge with another church, some said. The merger advocates grew in number and in volume, and soon, there was another committee looking for churches to possibly merge with. Pastoral candidates were found and rejected, at the same time that merger candidates were found, considered, and rejected.

During all of this, the power balance was shifting. Who was going to take over everything that Brother T had been doing? Who was going to make the big decisions in the meantime? The deacons? The board? Or the entire church, by vote?

There were plenty of disagreements. Most of the discussions I was not privy to, as a teenager, and a teenage girl, at that. But I could see divides, rifts, if you will, beginning to form. There were some occasions where church-wide discussions were held after services. No one asked the youth, nor did we really feel like we were allowed to speak up .But most of the division that I could see were mere undercurrents. There was a atmosphere forming at church–one of stress and tension, never acknowledged, that made one uncomfortable.

I don’t actually recall, during this period, any pastoral candidates being introduced, though I’m sure there were.

The merger committee had decided on three possible churches that we might merge with. There were more meetings. But at the same time, we “fellowshipped” with the three congregations individually, to see how well we might get along. One was forty-five minutes away.

Negotiations began. Who would be in charge of this? Who would be in charge of that? Who’s facility would we use? Who’s staff? Which staff? Who would teach? These things are more, I believe, what narrowed down our choices–the compatibility of our congregations, and the relative locations of our churches seemed to have nothing to do with it.

While the adults jockeyed for position, we felt largely adrift. What was going on? Why do we have to merge? What was going to happen? I found myself looking around the building and the grounds, imprinting everything in memory in case we moved to another church. It was a home to me, in so many ways–this elementary school turned church. But it had changed.

The church was changing, and it no longer felt like home.

I was homeless.

How I Left Christianity Part Four: Poverty

My family wasn’t rich.

For the most part, as a child, I didn’t realize it. So sometimes the electricity was shut off. During the summer, that meant open windows letting the fresh breeze in at night. In the winter, it meant evenings spent around the fire, roasting marshmallows and playing boardgames by candlelight. Cool! It meant getting to go to work with Papa Beemer on Saturdays, playing with my brother in the steelyard, or drawing buildings on HUGE pieces on paper, just like Daddy.

No big deal, right? Other kids didn’t get to do that stuff with their parents. But wait–they got to go on vacations. Photos of beaches in Florida. Hiking in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Why didn’t we get to do that? How come my friend’s parents aren’t inviting me? They’ve invited all the other girls. That was only every once in a while though.

My best friend’s family was like mine–they weren’t rich, either. She had lots of siblings. At one point, they were having a hard time. Momma Beemer took my brother and I to the grocery, and we filled up two carts of food. Later that day, my best friend, her siblings, and her mother came over to pick up the food. Us kids enjoyed the visit–dashing back and forth from my kitchen to their van, running around the front yard. But I noticed the expression on my mom’s face–and the expression on my best friend’s mother’s. Understanding on one, and relief on the other. I couldn’t name the expressions at the time–I only noticed that the two women seemed very close at that moment, closer than they’d ever been before. It confused me.

That day repeated itself a couple of times a month for a while, and then without any remarkable event marking it, it stopped.

It wasn’t long before it started again–only in reverse. My best friend and her family were bringing food to us. The children were bounding back and forth with bulging white bags, while the two women spoke together. I saw the expressions on their faces, and was drawn to them. As I got closer, I got that feeling from Momma Beemer that children get from their parents sometimes: this is an adult conversation. Go away. I went.

Sometimes, at church, the pastor would speak after the worship service about a family in need. A relative was sick, and needed to pay for surgery. A man was laid off, and he needed help to feed his family and pay the bills while he looked for another job.

I wondered a bit why the pastor never asked the congregation for help when my family needed it. But my family didn’t go to church–only me. I wondered more why the church never helped my best friend and her family. Every time the doors were open, my best friend’s family was there. Her mother, and all the children attended faithfully–every Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night–for choir, for musicals, for Vacation Bible School, for all the other fellowships and Bible studies, they were there. They worked hard for the church–to learn and grow spiritually, to help spread the Word–they did it all. It made me angry.

What was so different about my best friend’s family? Why didn’t our brothers and sisters in Christ help them?

Was it because her dad wasn’t a deacon? Was it because her dad didn’t come to church very much?

Why?

At the time, I couldn’t answer that question. Years later, I can.

How I Left Christianity: Introduction

It has been several years since I left Christianity. It’s been a long journey–and an incremental one. After all, the church had been a very large part of my life for a very long time, socially and psychologically. Naturally, it wouldn’t be something that I could leave behind all at once.

Like I said before, the church was a very big part of my life. How big? Well, I began attending this church around the age of five. It encompassed the vast majority of my social life–most of my friends and mentors attended. I spent a great deal of my time there–several days a week, in addition to outside-of-church socializing and outings with members of the church. It influenced my development–I learned many skills while there, as well as it having a huge influence on my morals and ethics. Church taught me a lot of things about the outside world–framing current events into a Christian worldview, influencing how I’d react and process the world for years.

There were many events, learning, and people who contributed to my decision to leave Christianity. I didn’t meet these people, learn these things, and experience everything all at once. As each of these things happened, it moved me one step further away from the church. Like I said, it was a long journey, and it’s one I want to share. But it’s far too long of a story to put into one post, so I’ll be sharing, but one experience, one piece of knowledge, one person at a time.

Some quick background:

The church was small–less than a hundred members. My parents had been married by the pastor, and my aunt, uncle, and cousin attended this church. The church community was pretty tightly woven–it was a close community, but there were power differentials–wealthy members, deacons, members with many relatives attending, and influential community members had much more influence and authority than those without those things.

This church’s chosen methods of recruitment and fundraising *cough* was through musical productions, and Vacation Bible School (VBS) for children. Also, food. This was a Southern Baptist church, you see, and Southern Baptists will have food at every possible church activity. People jokingly tossed around the phrase “Baptists eat like Catholics drink.” I find it a rather apt and useful descriptor here. Eating was the main social activity, or “fellowship” at this particular church.

In the next post I’ll write about the events that started it all.

Confession: I Was One of Those “Christians”

I have a confession to make.

I was a Christian. A fundamentalist, evangelical, Southern Baptist Christian.

I will say that Christianity and Christians hurt me, but I also hurt others.

I am guilty.

I left behind those beliefs and stopped committing those actions many years ago, but in all of those years since, I carried a burden of guilt. The girls in that church, they were my best friends. I loved them. We spent so much time together–phone calls, church activities, sleepovers, and various outings.

Then, one day, it all came crashing down. One of the girls announced she was pregnant. She was fourteen years old. How did we respond?

We called her slut. We shunned her. We demanded she repent. We told her she betrayed us. She was made to stand in front of the entire congregation and apologize for having sex and becoming pregnant. We were drunk in our self-righteousness and our purity. We did not stumble as she had. She was a sinner. We were not. Or rather, we were not as big as sinners as she was. We were only sinners in the way everyone was. We were Good Christian Girls.

Eventually, she left the church. I cannot speak of others’ actions here, but when she left, she was gone. I did not call. I didn’t attempt to contact her in any way. I left one of my best friends out to dry–to suffer alone. I inflicted pain and suffering on her. Five became four. We said horrible things about her behind her back.

Soon, things came crashing down upon me, and I too left the church. I took a long, hard look at myself, my beliefs, and my faith, and I cast it out with the trash. I wanted nothing to do with such hatred, hypocrisy, and cruelty. I began a journey, a spiritual one, to learn, to ask, to find out in my words, “what I really believed.” It was a long process, and a story to be shared at another time.

But I did not, in all of this, reach out to this girl, one of my very best and dearest friends. At first, I was consumed by my own problems. But as the days, weeks, months, and years passed, she came to mind more and more often. I realized how awful it was, what I did to her. I realized what a horrible friend I had been. A terrible sister. How selfish. As I discovered feminism, I learned more and more just how fucked up what I had done had been.

I started to wonder how she was, but I was so ashamed of myself that I did not take that step to call and ask. I hoped she was happy. I hoped she was thriving, that her child was happy and healthy. I hoped beyond hope that she had found friends who loved her, who fulfilled her, who were loyal and supportive and true. I wanted to be her friend again, but I thought that I was undeserving. I let too much time pass. My transgressions were too great. I didn’t deserve her friendship.

Then, facebook. I added another friend from my church days–a boy who had also left. I knew his story, and I wanted to catch up with him. We were fellow rebels. He was the only one, in the entire church, who had stood by her. I was glad that he did, that she had someone who had turned out to be a true friend. When I saw their interactions on facebook, I envied their friendship, their closeness, and inevitably, I felt a surge a guilt anew for failing to be what a Best Friend should be.

I was overwhelmed by guilt and shame, yes. But I was also afraid. I knew that I owed her, at the very least, a very big apology, but I couldn’t make myself do it. I was afraid of what she would say and how she would react. I knew that whatever she said–if she chose to react with anger, and throw any and all manner of verbal invective my way, I deserved it. And if she chose to forgive? If she wanted my love and my friendship? I could barely stand to think about it. I didn’t deserve that. She was stronger than me. She was a much better person than me.

I knew also that I was going overboard with my guilt. I should get over it. I should just apologize. I shouldn’t keep dwelling over the past. I should do the right thing, and move on with my life like I hoped she had. One day while sitting with my computer, I took a breath, and sent her a friend request on facebook. I’d wait and see.

A few days later, I realized she’d accepted it. Whoa. This was a huge step for me. I hungrily read her most recent statuses, eager for news that she was doing well. It seemed so. Good. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Now I didn’t know what to do. She was happy, from what I could see. She didn’t need me dredging up the past with all its painful memories. Finally, I broke down and talked to Momma Beemer about it. We sat on the back deck of my older brother’s home, smoking cigarettes, while I opened up about my feelings for the first time. She encouraged me to reach out to her. To apologize. It was the right thing to do–Momma Beemer was sure that it would help to heal old wounds, perhaps rekindle our friendship, and be there for one another like we once were.

Then, a crisis. My childhood and adolescent friend was having a rough time. I can’t describe what I felt at that moment, when I read her facebook note. I wanted to help. I wanted to do something, even if it was only to be an ear. But. I had to apologize first. Before anything else, I had to apologize.

I sat on my couch, with my netbook in my lap, and started to type. I wrote words and sentences, and then deleted them. I was going to do it. I was going to be honest. I was going to admit to her that I had been wrong, that I made a terrible mistake, and I had hurt her. I was sorry. I’m sorry. I poured out my heart in that message. I smoked several cigarettes while writing it. I cried. I let the tears fall, and I brushed them away so I could continue to write.

I hit send.

I spent the next few hours on pins and needles. I was anxious. I smoked more cigarettes. I tried to distract myself, but I kept clicking on the facebook tab and checking.

Then a little red one hovered over my message icon. I hesitated. This was it. Click.

Tears were falling down my face before I’d even finished reading her message. One hundred and fifty-seven words to say: she forgave me. I’d hurt her, yes. But she forgave me for it. She doesn’t hold it against me–it meant so much to her that I’d apologized. She loved me. She called me sister.

I wanted more than anything at that moment to jump in my car, drive to her home, and hug and cry and blubber.

We weren’t girls anymore. We were grown women. We’d lost years. I wanted yesteryear–to pack an overnight bag, sit in a basement on pillows and blankets, watch movies and giggle maniacally like we did so many years ago. I wanted to prank call the boys, sneak chips and coke, and sit in a circle and confide our deepest secrets to one another.

When I left that church, I left behind childhood friendships. I lost that connection you have with those you grew up with, who know you inside and out, your past and your present. Ever since, the friendships I have cultivated had known only of the past I had told them. I didn’t realize it, but I hungered for friendships that stem from a long past. I missed not having to tell friends of my past, of my family, of my history. I missed having people that knew all of that already.

We traded messages back and forth, and soon graduated to texts and calls. One night, I invited her to stay the night. It would be the first time we saw one another in years. When she arrived, she hugged me, and it was the best hug I’ve ever had. We sat on my couch and talked for hours. About everything. You remember when we ___? Yes!  And ___ said __? Oh man, that was funny. What happened after you left? (A lot.) Do you know ___ is married? Oh, fuck. Seriously? ____ won’t even look at me. Yeah, I don’t talk to them, either. They turn around and walk away when they see me. At ___’s funeral they pretended like nothing ever happened, like everything was the same.

We went out,  picked up our friend, and got something to eat. We teased one another about this or that, and laughed over old jokes and reminisced about our days together in church. How wild it is how different we are now. We joked about making a tshirt. We dropped him off and went back to my place. We settled down and watched a movie. It was so late.

It was better than I could have imagined.

We still have a lot to catch up on–so many years cannot be made up for in a single night. But I hope that we can continue to stay in touch, that we will spend more time together in the days to come, and learn more about the women we have become.

I regret those lost years. I regret that it took me so long to do the right thing, and I will continue to regret that I did not do the right thing in the first place. Bigger than all of that, however, is love.

I love you, sis.

Growing up in church

Growing up as an old child and a young teenager, I constantly got crap from members of my former church for my clothing.

I was taught to “come as you are” and that “Jesus didn’t care what you looked like or what you wore” but in reality, I was being taught the opposite. Every Sunday, I’d choose my outfit, sometimes dressy, sometimes not. Sometimes I chose the outfit because I really liked it, and sometimes because of the weather. Sometimes, I chose my outfit based on my activities for the day. Every so often, someone would pull me aside to tell me how “inappropriate” my clothing was.

Sleeveless dresses and tank tops are not appropriate for church, I was chided. I was angry. I was being made to feel bad for something that wasn’t wrong. I was being made to feel like an outcast, a dirty sinner, for something that wasn’t a sin. I could feel the burn of others’ stares. I could almost hear their judgments, too. Jesus doesn’t care, I screamed inwardly. It was hot! In the beginning, we were too young for “temptation” to be a concern, but they policed me anyway. note: None of the girls whose parents also attended church were policed for their clothing, only girls who came with relatives, or friends. The fun of the day, the excitement of learning something new at church, of spending time with my friends, was gone.

Shorts were even worse. I was active; I hated wearing a lot of clothes in 90+ degree, 80%+ humidity weather. I loved being outside and running around with my friends. But if my short’s legs weren’t four inches from the inseam? I was pulled aside, told my dress was “inappropriate” and that I should be more mindful of modesty next time. Again, I felt humiliated. The fun and joy of being at church with people I loved was gone. I felt like an outcast. The dirty sinner to be avoided.

Then, I and my peers hit puberty.

Gender policing began in earnest. We’d all been raised together, since ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and diapers. We were brothers and sisters, in closeness, and in Christ. And yet, suddenly, the adults in the church were dividing us. Whole areas of the church were suddenly off-limits to us–no more hanging out in the youth room, with the brightly painted walls (that we painted ourselves!) and the cool couches. No two of us of opposite genders could be alone, anywhere, at any time. We were met with disapproving stares if a boy and a girl sat too closely together in the worship service, or at dinner. Passing notes during the sermon was extremely suspect–notes were snatched and hissed lectures were handed out.

We fought back for some things: the youth room soon became an approved area again. When we started falling asleep during the sermon (unintentionally), we were grudgingly allowed our notes. But the ease of youthful interaction was forever lost to us.

We started to police ourselves. I was called a prostitute for wearing a knee-length skirt and-boots. We started whispering amongst ourselves if so and so were spending just a little too much time off alone together.

Would we have started to explore the realm of relationships and sexuality on our own amongst each other? Sure. Would it have started so early? Probably not. Gender-sex-sexuality policing 8-12 year olds hurt my relationships with my church friends. It divided us, first by gender, and then individually, until all of us felt judged and ashamed, and so acutely aware of our every move, that we felt pressured to superficialize our friendships with our opposite-sex friends.

I couldn’t just wear that pair of shorts with the red stitching and the buttoned pockets because I like red and I like stuff not falling out of my pockets. I had to hold my arms at my sides to see if the fabric passed my fingertips–the measure of modesty. If so, hurray, another awkward day at church where at least I wouldn’t get yelled at for my clothes. If not, I had to steel myself for a possible confrontation, which usually consisted of my responding that they could speak to my mother if they didn’t like it. (she was always on my side, thank goodness!)

I couldn’t just hug my male friends. The Christian side-hug was the only hug acceptable, though this was unspoken. If you simply hugged a male friend, the whispers about “being boyfriend and girlfriend” and hand-holding and kissing started, just as often by elders as it was by us.

Why did the adults start this gender policing so early? Why was it so vicious? Perhaps I have an answer: Jesus didn’t care, but Paul did.

Clothing and relationships weren’t issues before–we simply existed. We played together, learned about Christ together, and grew together. Humans are sexual creatures, but children are not.  The youth group at my church could have been a great support system for each of us growing up. We didn’t see one another as dating/sex prospects until after the adult Christians made us so.In doing so, they divided and conquered us, until we were bickering and judging one another, and church evolved for us not an escape from the world, but simply another scene of it. It drove us away, from our friendships, and the church, and even Christianity altogether.

We came as we were, and they didn’t like us. It wore us down until we were changed. And then we left, as we are.