The decision to quit religion, so to speak, happened just a few years back. It was a long, slow, guilt ridden experience.
We went to church several times a week. There was a time when I was part of the band, youth leader, volunteer for various community events, and even Sunday school teacher. Regardless of how involved I was there was always something that could be held against me. My upbringing in a religious household can be labeled as “conveniently religious.”
We’d be sitting at home on a Sunday afternoon after a spiritually thrilling sermon, and as siblings do, my brothers and I would pick a fight with each other, which absolutely frustrated my mom. She would get mean and one of us would get our asses WHOOPED. Then she would yell “You guys took my blessing!” Because, ya know, we were capable of stealing it. Her loss of temper was our fault and that meant she was no longer blessed by the word of God. The convenience of moments like that, lack of accountability, was a conditioning strategy. The doctrinal patchwork of conditioning and scare tactics made for a fearful and precarious relationship with God. I loved him, but I was constantly shamed, judged, and scared into behaving the way the church wanted me to behave. They got what they wanted. I was an impressionable child who was afraid of being punished by his almighty wrath. This is especially scary when you’re made to believe everything is a sin and even your most innocent mistakes will send you straight to hell. So they tell you to repent and repent you shall! As Helen Boucher would say: Everything is the devil.
I loved God, but I was constantly shamed, judged, and scared into behaving the way the church wanted me to behave.
When I was 10 years old I went to a friend’s birthday party. All us girls were hanging out in her bedroom while the parents were sitting in the living room playing a board game. My friend went out for a minute and returned with the board game in hand. The game that would tell us our fate and predict our future: the Ouija board. I had no clue what this thing was. I was confused, studiously looking at the triangular magnifying glass, “How does this work??” She explained the rules and we went on to ask the petty questions of 10-year-old girls, essentially playing an interactive game of MASH. It proceeded to tell me my husband’s name ― which came true, by the way (ooohh, creepy). It told me how many kids I would have ― which I don’t remember (damn it.) In a circle we took turns asking the questions we thought we wanted the answers to. Then sitting in a different circle, five years later, a bible study where the theme of the night was “All Things Evil” (it just so happens that everything is), my pastor told us about all the bad movies we shouldn’t be watching, all the music we shouldn’t be listening to, all the board games we shouldn’t be playing. My dumbass piped up and said “but wait, I’ve played the Ouija board before.” This is not an exaggeration. Every single person in the room dropped their bibles, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into the middle of the room and immediately started praying for me. With their hands over my hand and their whisper-yell prayers hissing into my ear, I was terrified. What I thought was an innocuous future-teller board game turned out to be a vessel to conjure up demons. According to them I had invited demons into my life and they were there to rescue me. The prayer lasted for quite a while and the hugs came after. Scaring me sh*tless, then comforting me. That seemed to be the way things went.
Being heavily involved in our congregation it’s no wonder that my first crush was an older boy at church. I was shy and barely spoke, but he liked me and made that very clear. I had no idea how to have a crush on a guy, so I was unapologetically awkward and slow to open up to him. After our youth meetings Friday night, he would drive some of us home. He always took me home last. After he dropped everyone off we would take the opportunity to sit in silence (y’all, I was so fun back then) and hold hands. The holding hands phase lasted several weeks before he pulled over one night and kissed me. Weeks after that, the kissing turned into groping. That progressed until one night his fingers found me. I remember feeling scared, not of him, but of the act. I had allowed someone access to my “temple” and I had sinned. He was just as brainwashed as I was ― later telling me that if we did anything further it would be our greatest sin. We never got that far. Let’s fast forward maybe a year or so. I had a boyfriend who I was crazy about and eventually let him take my virginity. What followed was a spiral of mortification. A mortification so deep and so dark, I could hardly speak for days from the guilt. I would sit in my bedroom in the evenings that followed and cry. Cry and pray. Cry and pray. I would weep so heavily in an attempt to show God how remorseful I was. I wasn’t playing around. I needed to feel forgiven.
What happens when you’re raised by a church that believes teens are walking sins? What happens to that teen when they reach their years of sexual curiosity?
So what happens when you’re raised by a church that believes teens are walking sins? What happens to that teen when they reach their years of sexual curiosity? They have nowhere to turn because sex is bad. Its taboo and no, just no, don’t do it. Don’t even think about it. Shame on you. Instead, after losing my virginity, I would attend church feeling out of place. I had sinned and I no longer belonged there. I could barely sit through an entire service without pangs of guilt running through me. I ran would run away to the bathroom to stew and cry. We were taught that our God is a loving and forgiving god, but why was it that when something went wrong we were told how vengeful he could be? Which side were we going to see? Ohhh don’t even risk it.
Did you know that I was first baptized through the Mormon church when I was little? Did you know that if you tell your Pentecostal pastors this information they will immediately place you in classes to rebaptize you? Because the first one didn’t count. The first one did nothing. Didn’t cleanse me of my sins. Probably damaged me further. We have to fix her. QUICK! Get the holy water! Ironically, the classes for baptism were awfully similar. I wasn’t getting new information or being put through some Pentecostal test drive. But alas, I was correctly baptized this time, stripping me of any Mormonism I had clinging to me. That’s the beauty of religion. Everyone believes they have the answers to your redeeming.
Maybe they do. Maybe they have it all figured out. I just decided that I couldn’t live my life in an unpleasant tug o’ war. I didn’t see it totally at first. Any thought that ever entered my mind that questioned God, even a little bit, I would push away and bury in the back of my mind. These thoughts would surely get me struck by lightning. I was taught that the best way to avoid going to hell was to sit there and be as obedient as possible. As I got older my mind started to open up. I no longer pushed away thoughts, I let them grow, and I let myself be a freethinking human being. I let myself ask questions and learn about how other people lived, and how they handled their own religion. Today, I don’t believe that any little mistake will send me to hell. My God is forgiving ― I can’t earn anything from him, but I also can’t lose any blessing I have at the slightest misstep. I believe that there is happiness and joy to come from alternative lifestyles. Our actions and our intentions make up who we are, so you may live differently but we will both find our way. We’re not sinners just because someone else thinks it’s wrong.