Exodus: Decisions

Part One. “Exodus” is a series of vignettes, posted till completion, describing my experiences growing up and out of an evangelical church. All names have been changed to account for privacy.

“Do you want to be baptized?”

I was seventeen and desperate — to please and be loved, among other things — when I heard those words. Desperation is funny in the way that it convinces you that you don’t have a choice. So when my friend Megan, a card-carrying member of the Going-to-Heaven-Club, asked me if I wanted to join the walk on that narrow road…I knew that I would say yes, regardless of how I felt.

The prospect of baptism had sat like lead in my heels since I’d first been told of it as a child. The weight of it caused me to drag myself spiritually for years, avoiding the topic while many of my church friends took the holy plunge at ages as early as fourteen. The only way to get to heaven is through baptism, said my Sunday school teacher. Some churches teach that you can pray Jesus into your heart, but we know that not to be true, said my pastor. People who aren’t baptized disciples go to hell, said my church. I felt broken every time I heard these “truths” and felt everything but the relief I was told comes with knowing that eternal life could be mine. Why didn’t I want that? Who wouldn’t want that?

Anxiety is funny in the way that it convinces you that you couldn’t possibly know what you want.

I envied Megan, and the way she truly loved the church we’d grown up in. I looked up to her—my first memories of friendship were of her and the other girls my age, and I desired their affection and acceptance more than most things. Megan was one of those intelligent, kind, funny people that everybody genuinely liked, including me. And even though I knew from years of conversation that her attitude and demeanor were not effortless on her behalf, I still wondered what I could do to be like her. Her response would be to say that she just wanted to be “like God,” a common, but meaningful, phrase in evangelical churches. So I considered that, perhaps baptism—a ceremony that our church believed not to be a symbolic, but literal, washing away of all sins in exchange for committing your life to God—was the way to acceptance and approval. A life less dominated by desperation, or enslaved to anxiety.

Of course, I was also into the whole peace-in-heaven-instead-of-being-tortured-in-horrific-ways-for-all-of-eternity thing.

I was careful to take my time before answering, though. It was the summer before my senior year of high school when Megan asked me this question. I was attending an arts school that had already saved me in a lot of ways, and studying theater had helped me explore experiences outside of my heavily Christian upbringing. I loved the challenge of taking my “self,” and denying it in order to fully embody a character. My entire major revolved around finding the humanity in people, discovering the good among the ugly, learning that humans are never always good or always bad. Theater is, in a sense, the expressed study of people. And my studies were leading me to become more open minded, more skeptical of the hyper-religious life I was leading.

While this growing skepticism had increased the space between the question and the answer, it had done nothing to change the answer itself. I was intensely afraid of rejecting 14 years of effort and immersion: attending church every Sunday since I was 3-years-old, midweek studies on Wednesdays, youth-services on Fridays, a week of summer camp, spiritual retreats, praying before every meal, praying before bed, praying, praying, praying. I was living my life according to the idea that baptism, and the believed connection it gave my soul to the creator of the universe, was the reason I was alive, the reason behind all of my actions.

And who the fuck is going to reject what feels like a reason to live, when they haven’t yet found what else there is to live for?

Megan stood in front of me looking expectant and hopeful, as expectations and hope are the fuel Christians run on. “Yeah. Yeah, I do wanna get baptized,” I told her. She squealed and hugged me tight. I hugged her back, her enthusiasm and loving nature contagious in the moment.

I can do this, I thought to myself.

I can be this person that loves God, loves her neighbors, loves religion.

My parents will be happy.

My sisters will look up to me.

I won’t be a disappointment.

And I’ll go to heaven.

This is the right decision.

This is what I want.

It’s not lying to say I want this.

This is my decision.

Dear God, if you’re listening…

I’m not lying.

I’m not.

Exodus: Prologue.

“Exodus” is a series of vignettes, posted twice a week till completion, describing my experiences growing up and out of an evangelical church. All names have been changed to account for privacy.

My parents had very different upbringings, as parents sometimes do. My mother grew up subject to things that Lifetime would probably pay big money to make a heartbreaking biopic about. She was born in Chicago where she grew up on the south side of the city, one among nine children. Her skin is a shade of brown dark enough that the world pushes against her, and deep enough that you know she’s the descendant of slaves and indigenous peoples. She had two children of her own by the time she reached 25. My older brother and me. We both have her skin, and the trauma that comes built within the cell walls of melanin, but she knows desperation in a way that we never have.

My biological father is not in my life. It is, and is not, what you’re thinking—absent black father, and all of that. But that is another story, and it’s not for today, and it’s not for you. What you should know is he left me his name—Dionne.

My father, was born in a small town near Boston, Massachusetts. He grew up in a middle-class family with his sister, both parents, and at least one dog. Probably. While his childhood wouldn’t get a Lifetime movie, it could get a decent-sized publishing deal. He was splitting his time between college, work, and the Army Reserves when he was my age. His skin is white and freckled, the orange in his goatee the last hint of the red-headed child he was. I don’t have his skin, or the privileges that cover it so completely, but he knows religion in a way similar to me.

My parents met and married at the International Church of Christ (ICC), an evangelical church with ties to most major cities in the world. My father grew up in it, as I would once my mother converted to it. The ICC claims a non-denominational approach in its studies and teachings, which is to say they mean themselves to be unbiased. There’s no Catholic guilt, no Pentecostal spirits. Non-denominational evangelicals are the vegans of Christianity, adamant about their all-faith-based, no-human-by-products consumption of the Bible, and even more fierce in their belief that their diet is the only one humans were meant to have.

A lot happened in my seventeen years of attending church—some of it was great. I got to go to summer camps (that were basically spiritual retreats with some camp activities thrown in), I traveled all around the country to different gatherings where I got to meet other Christian kids from sister cities (but only from the International Church of Christ…mixing with other churches would be like adding dairy to your diet…potentially corrupting). I made friends that I still love and care for to this day. I had a community that was filled to the brim with support, and mentors that helped me grow into the headstrong woman who can sit here and write this today. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have so many genuine moments while attending church. Indeed, it would be very dishonest to say that every part of it sucked.

But truthfully, a lot of it did.

Suck, that is.

The process of growing up in church, leaving the religion, and figuring out who the hell I was without it, really fucking sucked.