As a girl, I was exposed to different religions. Mom was a Jehovah's Witness for some time before she met Millie when I was two. Of course Mom was excommunicated when it was revealed that she was with a woman. Esas cosas were not permitted. See, they believe(d) that God created Adam and Eve to procreate and "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth."
As a member of my school's chorus in fifth grade, we sang at Santa Barbara Catholic Church on Central Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn. When we walked in the day of rehearsal, I stared openmouthed at its sheer size, the intense white and yellow of the façade. I remember being confused by how beautiful the church was in contrast to the rubble that surrounded us. The rubble that was my neighborhood.
Between 1965 and 1980, there were over a million fires in New York City. The South Bronx is infamous for the aftermath of the Fire Wars but Bushwick was just as ravaged. Add the black out of 1977, the resulting riots, and the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the result was a neighborhood that was a pile of rubble for blocks. The buildings that didn't collapse, became crack dens for the dealers and their fiends. This neighborhood was my home.
The inside of the church was even more stunning. The high dome apse behind the wood pulpit, with carvings of peacocks, squirrels and other animals. The stained glass windows. The images of biblical scenes in bright colors on the domed ceiling and walls. The saints in their niches, surrounded by candles, on the far sides of the pews. The ornate columns. It amazed me what humans created in worship of God. It still does.
Con Millie, we visited the storefront Pentecostal church that her brother Sergio was the pastor of for some time. Sergio gave himself over to God after twenty years of alcoholism so he was extra self-righteous. His church was under the elevated J train on Broadway, giving the church an extra dark and menacing feel to my nine year old eyes. The church had stark white walls, splintered pews and one cross (sans the suffering, bleeding Jesus) behind the podium. We traveled to the church in a blue van that had the church's name scrawled onto the side in house paint--Iglesia Pentecostal de Cristo el Rey.
I loved going to that church because I got to sit close to Millie. I watched her, so wrapped up in the sermon, eyes watery, she'd hug me tight. Sometimes she would tremble. I wondered why. Now I know she was scared.
I also hated going to that church. The women with their long hair, always in tight braids down their backs, coarse buns or simple pony tails; long skirts, always mid-shin, and loose blouses. Modest, always modest. The men wore dress shirts, slacks, and shiny shoes, and carried their leather bound bibles in the crook of their arms. They walked with an air of superiority that made me wrinkle my nose and curl my lip so Millie would scold me, "Negra, stop it! Eso no se hace." I never understood why the women cast their eyes down and shushed us when the men approached. Even my Millie was quiet in that church. She wasn't loud and profane, like she was everywhere else. She didn't stand with the men like she did when we went to Long Island or Hancock Street or Highland Park where she played dominoes, drinking Budweiser in the little latitas, talking about their carros and the mujeres that swished by. But Millie still dressed like them, the men in the iglesia, in her polyester slacks and crisp off-white guayaberas. She didn't stand with the women either. She stood off to the side, by herself. I'd go over, grabbed her hand and looked up at her. The rusted train trestle framed her face and her pushed back hairstyle that she had all the years I knew her. She'd look down and smile. But this wasn't her trademark chipped tooth smile. It wasn't wide and joyful. It was small and sad. She didn't belong there though she tried. She always tried.
I hated the place because it scared me to see people taken by the holy spirit. Well, that's what they called it: "montados con el espíritu." It always began while they were singing or praying. You could feel the tension building in your chest. A wave that stopped up my throat so I could barely breathe. Couldn't swallow. It was like I had paste in my mouth. Crazy glue. That's when I knew it was coming. When the pitch of the voices grew guttural. A collective moan. Until one of them became a shriek. A hyena's cackle. A horse's whine. Millie squeezed my hand tight and kept singing and praying. A women screamed, thrashing her body in the aisle between the pews. Sweating. Crying. The white of her rolled back eyes made me dig my face into Millie's belly rolls. Then the woman would fall into a heap on the floor and the congregation would scream praise, "Gloria a Dios!"
It wasn't until fifth grade that I realized how different my family was. We told everyone Millie was our aunt though I knew she wasn't mom's sister. I was in the cafeteria working as a lunch monitor, a task given to a select few fourth and fifth graders.
"Her mother's a butch, yo!" said the fat girl with glasses so thick they made her look bug-eyed.
"Get outta here! Her mom's a lesbo? Yuk!" The twig-legged, freckle faced fourth grader pretended to hurl all over her lunch tray.
I turned to them, confused. "Butch don't mean lesbian!"
"Yes it does, stupid. What do you think it means?" sneered the fat girl. I imagined pushing a hot needle into her bellybutton, sending her ballooning into the ceiling.
I remembered how Millie would grab the brim of her Kangol and say, "Yo soy butch!" The way she said it, it was like she was dancing salsa but just with her shoulders.
I stared down at the cold cafeteria food. Seconds earlier all I'd wanted in life was to take a bite of that pepperoni pizza, but I'd lost my appetite.
Mom put my sister and me in Jehovah's Witness bible studies classes when we were in middle school (I was in sixth grade and my sister was in seventh). At first, I was ever the serious student. I did all the assignments, read the scriptures, answered the questions, reflected on the lessons. God became my everything. So much so that my sixth grade writing teacher, Ms. Virginia, took me aside and told me, her face searching for the right words that wouldn't offend or confuse me, "It's beautiful that you have such a great love for God, but, Vanessa, you have to write about something else."
My sister Dee resisted. She wouldn't do the assignments, sulked during the weekly studies, so that the sister of the congregation, Caroline was her name, eventually told mom Dee wasn't ready to "accept God into her soul." I kept at it. Kept reading the bible. This was something I was better at than my sister. The only thing. She was prettier (or so I was always told, "con ese pelo rubio y ojos claros") and smarter ("tu hermana no tiene que estudiar"). This was the one thing I had over her. Maybe this would make mom love me.
Millie hated that we were in bible classes but she didn't make me feel bad about it. It was mom she railed on, "esa religion es del diablo."
It was all good until I started to question. I hadn't admitted to anyone that my moms were in a lesbian relationship, so when we started talking about love and relationships, I asked, "What does the Bible say about love between women?"
Caroline raised her eyebrows. "The bible says we should all love one another."
I pushed. "But what does the Bible say about women that love each other, you know, like a man and woman love each other."
"Well..." Caroline wasn't looking at me then. She was looking around our small living room, at the pictures on the walls, pictures of my family--me and Millie and my sister and brother and my mom. Pictures that stared back. "The Bible says that's wrong. It's a sin." For homework she had me read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. That's when I started to rebel.
See, the one who loved me, who showed me tenderness, who held me up, who whispered in my ear "you're gonna be somebody," was Millie. She was the one who proclaimed herself a butch. She wore men's dress pants and jeans. Men's polo shirts and guayaberas. Men's shoes from Fabco. And, according to what Caroline told me and had me read, the bible said she was living in sin and was going to be banished. That God did not approve of her lifestyle. That God said it was an abomination.
I didn't understand. How could God consider her sinful? Why would God bring her into my life to care for me, save me, if she was devilish in her ways?
I started questioning everything Caroline said. If she tried to teach me another portion of the Bible, I went back to Sodom and Gomorrah. Demanded that she explain, that she show me proof. When she showed me the specific scriptures that railed against homosexuality, I shook my head and said, "I don't believe it. Love is love."
"Well, Vanessa, the Bible says... The word of God says..."
Then one day, frustrated and hurt, I said, "Well, who wrote the Bible and who says God told them to write it?"
Caroline looked at me, her eyes sad, resigned. Without another word, she packed her things and left. She never came back. Mom beat me that night. She didn't say why but I knew.