My Story: Church

When I talk about my past, I like to have a tidy little story with a meaning to tell. But there isn’t a meaning to everything in life. Sometimes it’s just messy and complicated and pointless.

However, I did think of one topic that relates to this blog specifically: my religious upbringing.

We were Presbyterians growing up. I know this because the church we went to most often was Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian church. I don’t know what that means; I couldn’t tell you what makes us different than Baptists or Methodists or Anglicans in practice. My dad picked the church because he liked that they had a female pastor; he didn’t want to raise a daughter in a tradition that barred females from holding leadership positions. The pastor was named Penny (I don’t recall her surname), and she was a wonderful woman. She was very friendly and open and spent a good deal of time mingling with the laity during the coffee hour that followed each service. I never felt like I could go to her with problems because it never occurred to me that a pastor was someone you would go to when you were having life problems, but I think if I had she would have been friendly and welcoming. She seemed like that kind of person.

I hated the sermons because I had to sit still and they were boring to me, but in retrospect they were decent. I think if I had remained a Christian I would have liked them. I recall them often opening with a bible passage and then consisting of the insight we could gain from that passage and how it might apply to our lives, often in surprising ways. I don’t recall anything political or offensive. I was just bored because honestly, how long could you talk about dead guys in sandals, I wanted to get to the part with cookies afterwards.

My memory is a bit fuzzy, because doing the same thing repeatedly tends to merge into one macro-memory in my head, but I seem to recall going more often than just Easter and Christmas but less often than every week. Part of that is probably that two Sundays a month I was with my mom instead of my dad. Later, Mom tried out a few churches of her own, though I only remember going to one of them particularly often. That was a totally different experience, though, which I’ll touch on later.

Church started with music. The one thing I loved about church was the music; we all got to sing hymns which were often a delight to hear and sing. Later, when I was introduced to the concept of the “Praise Service”, which uses contemporary christian music (my terminology is probably outdated, I haven’t bothered with the pretense of Christianity for years now), I enjoyed that even more.

I didn’t care so much about the greeting each other bit. I didn’t know anyone but my own family at church. We just weren’t really friends with the others in our congregation.

The Lord’s prayer I can recite by heart even now. Our version went:

Our Father

who art in heaven

hallowed by thy name.

Thy kingdom come,

thy will be done,

on Earth as it is in Heaven.

Give us this day

our daily bread

and forgive us our trespasses

as we forgive those who trespass against us

For thine is the kingdom,

and the power,

and the glory forever,

Amen.

It was, in fact, the same prayer said at my mother’s AA meetings, only theirs was followed by the chant “Keep coming back, it works!” and the end of the meeting. (Side note: the one Alateen meeting I went to, they tried to tell me it was non-religious because your “Higher Power” could be anything you wanted, so there was obviously no Christian overtones. I rolled my eyes and told my mom later I wouldn’t be going back, they had nothing to offer me.)

Typing that, I hear a chorus of voices in my head reciting it bit by bit, with pauses where I’ve put linebreaks. The trespasses lines are a little too long, a little muddled; I understand why many churches changed it to “debts” and “debtors”. Other than that, the voices are in unison, in a low, solemn tone as everyone tries to interject respectful worship into what had long since become a rote phrase for them.

I don’t know what to put here. My mind wants to wander into all sorts of directions, offering up irrelevant details. It was dim in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. Everything was made of dark, polished woods, and the lighting came from chandeliers high above in the vaulted ceiling, while the windows were narrow slits. The walls were painted white. The pulpit was raised up onto a little stage of sorts; baptisms would happen up there as well. We practiced infant baptism. I don’t know how I know that, since I can’t recall witnessing it, but I knew. I guess because I wasn’t sure if I had been baptized and that seemed important at the time, since everyone else had had it done when they were babies. The pastor wore long, dark robes, with a lighter (purple?) strip on top of them. Her hair was cut short and she was a rather young, attractive woman. The pews were hard, annoying to sit on. There were bibles tucked into the backs of the pews, though I rarely wanted one, and songbooks, sometimes containing songs from the other groups that rented out the church from us. My brother once found a hymn they used (I want to say they were Methodist?) that amused us so greatly that we looked for it every time after that. It went:

My God is an awesome God

My God is an awesome God

He reigns from heaven above

with [something], mercy and love

We were tickled pink at the idea that God was awesome. It sounded like something the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would say. We tried to come up with a melody to match, I’m sure we got it horribly wrong. We were kids together, we giggled and passed notes and generally tried to stay awake through the service.

Services were at 9am and 11am. There was a paper program listing the order of events, the sermon topic, relevant bible passages, the weekly bulletin, lyrics to some of the hymns we’d have to sing…

In front of my church was a huge lawn, with some boulders. There would be an Easter-egg hunt on that lawn every year; the toddler-aged hunt would consist of eggs lain in the grass so just walking around would produce them, and the older hunts used the trees and shrubs on other segments of lawn around the church. The sanctuary was only one part of the church; there were offices and classrooms as well. There wasn’t a school there, though I knew churches that were attached to schools; instead, there was a Christian Daycare that I attended as a small child that used the classrooms. I don’t recall what was so Christian about it, but it was in the name: T— N— Christian Daycare. There was also a meeting hall in the church building, with a little kitchen; this is where assemblies would be held for the daycare and where coffee hour took place after the service.

Sunday School was held in the classrooms as well. I went to Sunday School sometimes; I mostly remember being in the oldest class, where it was iffy whether I’d go to Sunday School or stay for the sermon. I remember the sermon being the norm and Sunday School being the exception, but that’s probably a product of my brain remembering my later years better than my earlier ones. I remember sometimes there’d be no teacher for my age group (middle-school) and we’d instead go help tend to the little ones, teaching them to play with My Little Ponies and Noah’s Ark toys and those little push-pop “vacuum cleaners” and other kiddie toys we secretly were nostalgic for. Other times we’d be given worksheets or work with flashcards. We were never challenged much to think about deeper meanings to scripture. I remember once having an argument with the teacher about… something, I don’t recall what. An answer on a flashcard. I was the only student in the class that day, so we actually talked about it, and I turned out to be a bit more knowledgeable than the teacher. By then I was questioning my faith.

This is what I think of as a typical church experience; this, but more so. Going every week. Knowing the people in the church yearbook. Progressing through the Sunday School ranks. Maybe going to one of those bible study groups they had on weeknights. More and more I’m running into people whose experience was not like that; I thought it might be helpful to detail my own experiences so you understand where I’m coming from when I read these books. This would have been, I’m told, a typical liberal church in the 90s and 00s. I left home in 2006, and knew I wasn’t a Christian for years before then.

With my mother, I went to other churches. Smaller churches. We didn’t last long in any of them. At some point she was dating a guy who was heavily involved with a megachurch (I think it qualifies?) called Glide Memorial Church. You might have heard of it, it’s apparently famous. During my time there, I was in the children’s choir, which was exhilarating in much the same way acting onstage was for me. It was here that I was first exposed to little black girls, who were much the same as little white girls except in insignificant ways that I felt were crucial: they had clicky beads in braided hair, for example. I wanted beads that clicked when I swung my head. I felt that not having them was betraying the side of me that was black, that they viewed me as a white girl and I’d never be one of them. But that’s something I struggled with a lot as a kid, and probably the subject of another post.

I don’t recall much else about the choir except that we had to sing the Hallelujah Chorus with the adult choir. I didn’t understand most of the words, we just sang syllables: “For the Lord God om n i poh tahnt reyneth!” That line made me think of Rayman sometimes.

I felt guilty singing about God when I wasn’t sure I believed in him or that he liked me. But I loved to sing. So there was that.

Side note: we also had to sing a song about the Psalm… I have to look this up… 23. That’s how I remember the words to that one; I remember words to songs better than text. That’s the psalm that goes “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”, for those of you playing along at home.

Glide was a huge, huge, HUGE building. It was massive. I couldn’t get over how many people were packed into the room at once every service. There was no question of knowing the people in your congregation. You were lucky if you got in early enough to have a seat rather than standing in the aisles. I knew they had soup kitchens and Christmas presents for poor kids and a ton of charity work. I knew they put out albums you could buy commercially if you liked their music. I think I still have one somewhere. They were phenomenally huge and it felt nice being part of that for a while.

I find out now, on wikipedia, that they later became huge supporters of the LGBT community. Well, good. If I stayed Christian and stayed in San Francisco I might have joined them again. I did meet Cecil Williams briefly, he was a nice man.

There were other churches. My aunt dragged us to church every time we visited her, she was hugely religious and homeschooled her kids through the church. They introduced me to the concept of Praise Services I mentioned earlier: electric guitars, drums, upbeat music, and the lyrics projected onto the wall behind the pulpit. My grandmother went to a similar church. I liked the words-on-the-wall thing, it seemed like a better solution than printing them in the pamphlet. There was also my stepmother’s church, the one my father probably still goes to; they were notable for having a nativity experience called “The Bethlehem Inn” that tried to recreate accurately what it’d have been like to be a guest at the inn where Jesus was born on Christmas Eve. I held chickens and goats once or twice, and attended a few other times.

None of the other churches, however, ever felt like my church. When I think of church, I think of St Andrews.

I never quite felt like I belonged, though. I used to sit in church feeling uncomfortable because I was sure God and Jesus were peering down at me (because of course they wanted to know what was going on in church) and judging me harshly. See, there was this commandment, “honor thy father and mother.” I’ve always been a firm believer that while common courtesy is owed to any human being, true respect was something you earned based on what you did and who you were, not your station in life or your title. I didn’t feel that having the title “Mother” was enough to earn respect; performing the duties of motherhood was what was noble. My mother didn’t love me. The truth is more complicated than that, of course, but that was the hard fact I ran into time and time again. She hated me, she was verbally abusive, she did not love me. When I wasn’t beating myself up for being unlovable, I still had trouble “honoring” her for that. I wasn’t sure I loved her back. Obviously, God hated me because of this.This wasn’t something my parents pushed on me, or my pastor, or my Sunday School teachers; this was something I deduced for myself, from my studies of the bible. I was always a very independent thinker.

Knowing I was going to hell for things outside my control insulated me from really taking the Christian doctrines to heart. Eventually, when I found out about Wicca, I jumped on that bandwagon primarily because it was so utterly different than Christianity. Later, I left that community, mostly due to disgust at how many members of it acted. But leaving the faith helped me realize it just wasn’t well suited to my personality. I don’t have a big falling-out story to tell, or stories of horrific spiritual abuse, or anything like that. I still go to church on occasion, though I don’t believe; usually it’s because I’m with a relative who believes and it seems more respectful to go with them and partake in that experience than to single myself out and decline. The last time I went to church, it was at Notre Dame, in Paris. I was dying to see the cathedral, and it seemed respectful enough to go to mass if I didn’t partake in communion. Of course, it was all in Latin and French, but the little paper pamphlet was familiar enough, and my god was the service beautiful.

So that’s where I come from religiously. You can probably see how much of the practices in This Present Darkness are utterly alien to me, impacting my understanding of the text. Feel free to share your own background in the comments below. I’ll be trying to get hymns out of my head ;)

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