The Early Years
Before I get started, let me emphasize my parent’s love for their kids and how they shaped our family in a way I’m grateful for. I do not see them as the enemy or the direct result of my leaving evangelicalism behind. They were evangelized themselves. Found refuge in the church from sometimes upside down home lives with a whole host of issues. They raised us in a world that to them was right, and true and safe. And I don’t fault them for that. I don’t even require them to be open to my awakening as it were, because I know they love me know matter what. At the end of the day we love the same Jesus, and maybe someday they’ll even be able to see the same truths about the Bible that are now so clear to me.
I also want to make clear these are simply my memories and impressions. It is entirely possible that the adults who were in my life remembered it differently. This does not invalidate my own memories, and my recollection is not a personal attack on the church or the adults in said church(es).
My earliest memories of church probably only exist because of moments memorialized in photographs saved by my parents. Both of them had been teenagers in the seventies whose parents didn’t really go to church but were invited to youth group by their friends. They met in high school, got married just two years after high school (INSANE, no?) and a few years later had me. [It should be noted this month they’ll have been married forty years, so something went right, obviously]
We attended that same little church in the same little town where they met. Later I would come to understand that Church of Living Christ was actually an Assemblies of God church that just didn’t use AG in their title. It was charismatic. There was laying on of hands, speaking in tongues and vivacious music (tambourines, ya know?). 4 years later they had my brother, and a few months after that we moved. To another little town a few hours away with similar little churches.
There happened to be a Foursquare church right down the street from our house. And so my first real memories (not just those summoned by pictures) were in this church starting in the late eighties. I was too young to understand denominational differences, later in life I’d come to learn that the only difference between Foursquare and Assemblies of God was “how big the ladies wore their hair.” Or at least that’s the little joke between them.
Our whole lives revolved around that church. Appropriate since it was aptly named “Family Life Center.” There was no school in our town, we had to be bussed into the next small town for public school. But there were enough teachers, and at one time even the principle, who attended our church that it didn’t seem to matter it was public because it all felt similar. Enough of my church friends attended school with me, and by fifth grade even the Sr Pastor’s daughter was in my class.
Most of my church memories from that phase of life are positive. I don’t remember a lot of scandal. I remember being confused, and sad that I couldn’t watch or listen to or read certain things. Halloween was majorly played down. I only remember dressing up a couple times, hardly ever for school. Mostly for the church “harvest festival” because trick or treating was too much acknowledgement of Satan’s holiday and you’d be inviting evil into your life by celebrating. Christmas was pretty normal, although Santa was downplayed and it was always emphasized he didn’t really matter because “Jesus is the reason for the season.” I remember knowing Santa wasn’t real pretty young. So young I actually don’t have any memories of believing in him at all. Thinking about this as an adult makes me sad, and now that I have a three year old we make a REALLY big deal out of Santa and Christmas. When you’re little life is supposed to feel magical. And I want that for him.
I don’t know how old I was the first time the book of Revelation was taught, but I remember being very afraid of the rapture as early as elementary school. I wanted nothing more than to grow up. And get married and be a mommy because thats what I saw all the other women in my life doing. And I was terrified Jesus would come back for us before I got to do all of that. Which in turn led to incredible guilt for not wanting Jesus to come back yet, because thats what everyone was supposed to want. For this world to pass away, and Jesus to make it all perfect again, they way it was intended.
That was just one of the many twisted myths born out of faulty theology that would shape my thinking as an adolescent and a teenager. And it was just the tip of the iceberg. By age 12 I was reading Christian authors writing about demons and angels and spiritual warfare and trying to interpret the Bible for myself, based on what grownups were teaching me.
Speaking of myths, it should be noted that we were taught evolution was wrong, the world was really created in 7 days and dinosaurs were never really explained away.
A few more quick notes about childhood; my only exposure to other races was really just television. I have no memory of any black children or families in my school or church. I actually don’t remember knowing any hispanic families either. So everything I was taught about race at an early age came from watered down textbooks. We were very much given the impression that racism ended with the civil rights movement, MLK was an American hero, and slavery was bad but the North won, the end.
I would in no way say I was taught racist views or that non-white people were other, I just had zero exposure because of where I was raised. (it was pretty much the boondocks, people)
I will say that later on I definitely was led to believe that most American poverty was self-inflicted because this was, America, duh. The land of opportunity. So anyone should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do better. Its all about life choices, make good ones and good things happen. Make bad ones and bad things happen. Its only been in my thirties that I’ve come to understand the systems in this country that prevent minorities from escaping poverty, the way freed slaves were set up to fail by a government that fought for their release but did nothing to make sure they thrived as full-fledged members of society when the war was over.
In a similar lane, my childhood spanned the eighties and early nineties in the boondocks so I had no exposure to the gay community either. In fact, I only have vague memories of hearing about gay culture and AIDS in the same sentences and probably only on television. Again, no “intentional” hate being spread about that I recall, just no education either.
Something I do recall, I don’t know, realizing, at an early age is that evangelicals had a tendency to fear the things they did not understand. Quickly find a verse that labeled it a sin, and move on. I don’t know how old I was when I was first taught that homosexuality was a sin, but pretty damn young because it was heavily engrained by the time I was a teenager. I didn’t start to grapple with this myth or its inherency’s until I was a young adult.
How this series will work
My intent is to break down my religious past into several easier to digest pieces, so as to not overwhelm myself and also keep the writing fluid and concise and not overwhelm the reader. I do not have my own #ChurchToo story, which I’m grateful for. But the emotional and psychological scars are there nonetheless and have not all been unpacked by a long shot. I also accept that even though I was lucky enough to escape any physical abuse or trauma, it doesn’t invalidate the spiritual abuse no matter how “pure” the intentions.
This writing process is not meant to impress anyone or have a pity party for myself. Its simply a way of processing the theological myths and #ChristianAltFacts that shaped my upbringing, and how they impacted who I’ve grown up to be. By sharing it on the blog, and in turn with #Exvangelical Twitter, maybe someone will find it helpful, or help someone feel brave enough to write their own story to help them process.
[A side note: Do not allow people from this part of your past tell you that you remember incorrectly or these things didn’t really happen. We have no reason to lie, or make things up. Own your truth, its yours and no one else’s. No matter how hurtful, painful or inconvenient that truth might be for yourself or others. This is a crucial part of being able to let go and live your life free from the burdens we carry from our past.]
Next up; the teenage years. Brace yourselves 90’s youth group kids. Prepare for DC Talk references, purity culture, the (fake) persecution of American Christians and whole lot more.