I am 23 years old. I am a feminist. I believe in equality across all borders. I believe that spirituality and religion do not have to be connected. I believe that sexuality is fluid. But before any of these were true, I was a Southern Baptist.
Growing up in the hills of Southern Illinois, religion was always the number one priority in my daily life. In our house, we played by the following rules: say grace before every meal and always kneel and say your prayer before bedtime. If someone dies tragically, it is by the grace of God that it wasn’t you instead. Go to church every Sunday morning and evening to thank God for the blessings he has given you. Go back on Wednesday nights for bible study. Always, always ask “What Would Jesus Do” when confronted with a problem of any kind.
In the Southern Baptist church you do not waver from the message that the pastor delivers from the pulpit on Sunday. Do not ask why, because the answer is always in God’s hands.
Flash back to 1997. I am a strong willed six-year-old with a long blonde mane and a taste for adventure. It’s the middle of a humid, muggy summer. Summer means church camp and church camp means sitting next to my grandmother on hard metal fold out chairs under the white ceiling of a crowded Tabernacle tent.
The sun is setting, casting an orange glow upon the pulpit. The preacher is a large man with a gray receding hairline and the sweat circles around his neck and armpits are starting to tint yellow. He starts in on the bible, preaching at his congregation as if his very life depends on how loud he can quote the scripture. The louder he gets, the more he sweats and it’s almost as if he may pop like a big tick right there in front of everyone.
Once you land in hell, he shouts, there is no coming back to the grace of God. I am terrified. What if I am not good enough for God? What if I can’t make it into Heaven? I leave that evening with a fear instilled in me that I will die and that I was not good enough to go to Heaven. The anxiety bubbled up in my throat but I swallowed it down in a fashion that I would repeat throughout the years until it was simply too much to handle.
Fast forward to 2004. I am thirteen and that summer I am saved under the big oak tree at Hill Crest Church Camp. In the fall I am baptized and become a real member of Macedonia Baptist church.
By now, I am a poster child for young Christian femininity. I know all the classic hymns by heart and sing “I’ll Fly Away” as my grandmother and I bake bread for the Red Hats’ ladies luncheon. I can name all the books of the bible, in order, and can recount all the main happenings of the Old Testament and some of the new. I enjoy the lustful story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the wisdom of King David. I bask in the attention from my Grandmother and the overwhelming adoration from the congregation. There is no doubt in my mind that this is righteous path for me.
But then, it happens.
At church, there are two men who start attending every Sunday and Wednesday. They are very handsome, tall, strong men. They sit close together on the pew towards the front and the second time they show up, there are whispers.
“Homosexuals,” I hear my Sunday School teacher whisper from the pew in front of me. The preacher’s wife leans in from her left to better catch her words. “Did you see the hands? Guaranteed homosexuals. His nails.”
“Well, what are they doing here?” the preacher’s wife whispered back, her eyes darting across the room.
“If you ask me, I’d see that they don’t come back. I wouldn’t want that around my child. Think of the children!”
The preacher’s wife blanches and scoots back in the pew.
I feel my mouth pucker up in confusion. I had heard about homosexuality over the years by the way of the pulpit. I had heard the preacher go on about sodomizing the church and how gay people would be the ruin of this country because of the leniency within the United States. He said that gay people were filthy and nasty and should be beat down until they were rendered extinct.
A month and a half after their first appearance, the men, Chris and Adam, get up in front of the congregation and ask to join the church. In that moment I realize that I never learned anything else about them, only that they are gay and they are unwelcome for that reason. When the preacher turns to the crowd and asks if there are any objections, more than half of the people get up and walk out of the door. I look up at my mother for some kind of hint as to how I should be feeling but she sits there, a stony older version of myself.
After the crowd clears, she stands up and pulls me out the door. We never go back. We never see Chris and Adam again. I know better than to ask questions and my ears never pick up any answers. Do some people not deserve the chance that others are so willingly given?
Those series of events changed me. Seeing how the congregation treated two men who had done nothing wrong, I became skeptical of what the church represented. I questioned life and death and what that meant if there was no heaven or hell. Disappearing inside my own head, I transitioned from being extremely outspoken and bubbly to reserved and meek. Instead of going out with high school friends, I spent days rolled up in Kafka and Faulkner. My parents chalked it up to teenage moodiness and were completely unaware of my internal struggles.
Then, just days before my sixteenth birthday, I had a massive panic attack and completely lost consciousness. Externally I seemed healthy but I was a mental mess.
The pull between the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ of what I had learned to be true had scrambled my brain. Something about my mental makeup shifted in the wrong direction when confronted with the colliding fact and fiction. I couldn’t figure out the definitive answer to any of the questions my logical brain was asking. Why can’t I have sex before I’m married? Why is being gay so bad? How is hell a real place if no one has ever seen it? Why should we believe a book written thousands of years ago when we are living in the now?
The doctors prescribed Xanax, Lexapro, a blood pressure pill, a tranquilizer here and heart pill there. The attacks continued and I became the girl who couldn’t stop thinking about death and God and had consequently worked herself into a frenzy. The cocktail of pills made me forget exactly what I was battling against and I drifted into a haze. Then, there was no question of God. Only my bed and the outside world, which I never wanted to enter again.
One day, presented with the usual rainbow of pills on my breakfast plate, I made a life changing decision. Through the fog, I decided that I really didn’t want to take those pills. I was tired of choking them down and I was tired of feeling like I was simply drifting through space. So, that morning, a week before my eighteenth birthday, I stopped cold turkey. It was an unhealthy way to stop taking pills that need to be weaned off of, but I felt like it was my only way out.
I got the hell out of Harrisburg as quickly as I could, and took refuge at an art school in Chicago. There I learned how to thrive on my own and came to a certain peace with my religious past. I had the chance to explore other faiths, reading books on Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism, and I spent a lot of time up in the beautiful Baha’i temple in Wilmette, Illinois simply pondering the “What If-s?” of the universe.
During my life I have learned that in order to understand my fears, I must have an open mind and be willing to take them on. One of my favorite authors, Virginia Woolf, once said “You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”
It took time, but peace did come, bringing with it a new self-awareness. I refuse to live a life filled with the terror of the unknown. To me, organized religion is something to be strictly followed, step-by-step, with the constant threat of repercussions. Rejecting that idea, I’ve separated spirituality from religion, relying instead on the positive energy in my life to ground me.
“To know thyself is to know God.” I’ve heard that scripture more times than I can count and it has taken me this long to understand the meaning. To know yourself truly is to about as close to understanding God as you can get. The journey continues, as it always does. Taking responsibility for my life and the choices I make can be terrifying, but recognizing that the power to do so rests solely in my own hands is the revelation that truly saved me.