The girl wiggled in the plush lining of the coffin until she had made herself comfortable. Through the closed casket lid, she could hear the church people crying and carrying on.
Then a body builder dressed as Jesus opened her sarcophagus and held out his hand to assist in her ascension.
“You are in heaven, child,” said the muscled messiah.
He then handed her a diapered doll and declared, “Here is the child you murdered.”
The 12-year-old girl clasped the plastic infant to her breast, and tears shone in her eyes.
“If only I hadn’t chosen to have premarital sex,” she said, bowing her head as the lights went out.
Congregation members whistled and whooped, sang and stomped, rejoiced and reveled in the moral message of the 15 minute play.
The girl bowed, pride swelling in her bitty chest, and she reveled in the hooting and hullabaloo that can only be found in church.
Because I was that girl.
When people ask me about my faith (and a surprising number do), I end up shrieking, "Me and Jesus ain't cool, yo!"
My experience with the world's Savior has been one illogical jaunt through the hilarious and the horrifying, which, not coincidentally, is how I describe the adventure had in that casket.
A troupe of Christian bodybuilders were "ministering" at my family’s church, spreading their message of abstinence and steroids. They started out with the sexy stuff -- ripping phone books in two, breaking police handcuffs off their wrists, and cracking cement blocks in two with their skulls. Women convulsed, as the Holy Spirit pulsed through their souls, and the men applauded harder than usual, as if testing their own arm strength.
Then the mood shifted as the play started. I stepped onto stage and acted out the part of the young sinner who made all the wrong choices, specifically to do the horizontal hula with her boyfriend, a transgression her character paid for with her life. I sold it with a maturity that belied the fact that I'd not even yet experienced my first kiss.
I wish this story was shocking to me: a packed church full of grown-ass adults cheering about a girl dying what had to be a painful, septic death as a result of a safe, legal procedure. But that’s right up there with slumber parties and hair braiding in my childhood.
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ I was about 7 when my Sunday School teacher taught us the secret to spiritual success.
For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon that is speaking in tongues, here's a breakdown: the Lord God adopts one of his three personalities (in this case, the Holy Ghost) and then descends upon his followers. And bam! Just like that, the believer in question can magically speak in another language. Of course, nobody else can interpret what is being said. It’s a super special secret conversation between the individual and God.
We kids had oogled our parents as they practiced this gift. Their guttural sounds inspired us to new levels of holy bliss. We wanted it. So when the children's pastor offered us the opportunity, we literally lined up at the front of the church, awaiting our turn to knock it out of the park.
“Hum bada doo wop, stencil ma loo abracadabra cumquat!”
One by one, my peers had it. They were talking to God! In Pentecostal pig latin!
My turn came, I squeezed my eyes shut, opened my mouth, and…
I sounded like a knocked-up heifer.
I tried again.
It was a little more froggy this time.
“Bwaaa. Bwaaa. BWAAA!”
My sheep-like sounds morphed into sobs of disappointment. God clearly didn’t like me enough to come and talk with me.
The children's pastor ushered me down the back hallway, which I can only assume used to be the deli department, as it smelled of dead things and disappointment. Oh. Is now a good time to mention that this church was located in an abandoned grocery store?
“It’s okay,” she comforted me. “Not everybody gets it the first time.”
She opened a door and gestured for me to enter. Then, she proclaimed, “You just stay here and practice, and we’ll come and get you when you’ve got it.” She turned on her heel, snapped the door shut, and left me there.
Now, I’m not going to go so far as to say that I was locked in a room and told I couldn’t leave until I learned how to speak in tongues, but, um, I was locked in a room and told I couldn't leave until I learned how to speak in tongues.
More croaking ensued, and there in that room, I learned a life lesson that has come in handy for my sex: when shit is taking too long, fake it. Notice I didn’t say fake it until you make it. That’s just too damn tiresome.
So, I looked into my limited lexicon and started chanting all of the big words I knew, punctuated with nonsense sounds, of course.
“Potpourri ba dum synonym oo la omnipresent.”
Before long, I heard a knock at the door and was released on my own recognizance.
But church wasn't the only place where we learned about the big guy in the sky.
At the time, my four siblings and I attended a small public school with a couple hundred farmers’ kids. We were happy. But my parents knew a big, bad event was on the horizon.
Wanting none of that, my parents banded together with other Pentecostal parents, and together they virgin-birthed a brainchild.
Because the big box store idea had worked so well for the church, these parents created a Christian School in an abandoned Pamida building. For those who are not familiar with this particular chain, picture a K-Mart that caters to meth addicts. Cough syrup on aisle 9!
(On a side note: I have no freaking clue why Evangelicals get their jollies from holding holy court in abandoned stores, but I swear to you that it’s a thing. When my parents moved many years later, they attended a church in a former Wal-Mart.)
One semester my freshman year, Mrs. Fuchsia got frustrated with our class's collectively lackluster test scores of my class. She grabbed our exams, tore them into tatters, and chucked them about like she was going for gold in a dodge ball contest.
I don't recall how she segued into what happened next, but I desperately wish I did, because it had to have been a doozie of a verbal pivot.
With a black marker in hand, she marched to the board and drew an “F” almost as tall as she was. Then came the “U.” Then the “C.” And then… yup … the “K.” By this point, tears were running down my teacher's face as she explained how God’s grace covered us all. Then she began writing again, and I got excited, wondering what titillating word would appear next. Would it be “ass?” That seemed mundane in comparison, but it was really the only other bad word I knew. It wouldn’t be until college that "cunt" weaseled into my vocabulary.
Instead, she just acrostic-ed the fuck out of that “FUCK” already under the board, writing a new word beneath each letter. F- For. U- Us. C-Christ is. K- King.
“Why see a bad word when God can turn it into something beautiful?," she said. "We don’t need to see a bad word here.”
I looked again at the board, and I remained confident that I did, indeed, see a bad word. A very bad word, in fact.
“Instead of seeing a swear word," she continued, "we see the beautiful message that ‘For us Christ is King.’”
And there we all just sat for a while, until the principal just happened to walk into the classroom to deliver an announcement. He glanced at the board and exclaimed, "What the…?”
Apparently he didn't notice that the word he was looking for was right there on the board.
Anyway, speaking of fucking…
Here's where we arrive at the heart of why I'm forcing myself to recall these actually quite painful memories.
My big sister was 17 years old when she asked of me: "How did it happen? He pulled out! How can I be pregnant???" Apparently that sex education my parents feared so much might just have come in handy after all. (Oh, and randomly, my father-in-law (an ob-gyn) loves to say, “Know what we call people who use the pull-out method? Parents.”)
Anyway, my sister, Audrey, bless her heart, decided to be truthful with her pregnancy, even though she could have hid her condition for many more months. She opted to come forward and told the principle that she was expecting. Days later, as all of the students in 7th-12th grades filed into the weekly chapel service, we were told to pluck a rock from a bucket.
The principal, a dumpy-looking douche bag, intoned, "He that is without sin among you, let him cast a stone…”
Then he presented a sobbing teenager, announced that she had sinned, that she carried a child out of wedlock, and that we could now proceed to stone her. Like the adulteress in the Bible, my sister faced her peers, awaiting her fate.
More than 100 teenagers sat in the pregnant silence interrupted only by the girl’s sobs. When no one threw any rocks, the production ended with the announcement that my sister was expelled, effective immediately.
I could have given up on organized religion when I got shoved into a room and told I couldn't leave until I spoke in tongues. I could've forsaken the church when I was peer-pressured into partaking in a creepy fake abortion funeral in front of hundreds of cheering adults. I could've told Jesus toodles when his "disciples" at that school spoke to me through cuss-word puzzles.
But I didn't turn my back on that lifestyle until a church community chose to shun a vulnerable girl rather than giving her the hugs, diapers, and support she so desperately needed.
Nobody threw a stone that day in the chapel. Instead, they chose other weapons: shaming, belittling, and a willful disregard of the pain and trauma they forced on another human being.
And that, folks, right there is the story of my life in the church.
Sorry it didn't end on a happier note.
But that's sort of the point, isn't it?
When it comes to faith, you start out hopeful. You embrace the quirkiness. You see past the red flags because you want to believe in something bigger. And then something big does happen. And then you realize what a sham that shit is.
I wish I had a more graceful way of ending this, y'all, but I don't. Because I'm still hurt. And I'm still mad. And I'm still super fucking curious what it is about failed grocery stores that attracts Evangelicals.
No, for real, what is it?
True story: Life would be super swell if we all embraced our OMG side instead of living a Facebook-friendly existence. So, let it out. What have been your experiences with faith? Have you ever handled a snake? I haven't, just to be clear. BTW, I know this post was long. It was going to be a chapter in my memoir, but then I realized that a blogger-writing-a-memoir is pretty cliche, so, um, here you go, y'all. You get my leftovers. Feel free to disclose details. You're safe here.