When I was five years old, we began going to a Pentecostal church as a family. This continued, much to my utter dismay and gnashing of teeth, until I was nineteen, and fled the state to go live in New York City with my best friend, who had received an inheritance and decided to invite me along. I didn’t have to pay rent for a year, but that’s another chapter.
As a young child, I had no issues with church. I went to Sunday School and colored Bible scenes like Noah and his animals filing into the Ark, Moses with the Ten Commandments, and Jesus nailed on the cross, impaled by a spear in his gut. You know, family friendly Christian stuff.
One day, my Aunt was watching me at home, and I was in my room, playing “Bible.” I had taken off my shirt and put a vest on because I thought that was how people might have dressed back then. My Aunt walked in on me and saw me with no shirt on and started ranting at me. “What are you doing? Why is your shirt off?” I was dumbfounded. But her response closed me up tight, and I refused to offer her the simple explanation and truth.
It was something so innocent, but she made me feel guilt and shame. I was punished by having to remain in my room. I sobbed so hard and long that it made me vomit, and I was sick that night. I refused to tell my Mom what had happened and so everyone thought I was “wrong” of doing something, but what? This is how suppression and shame can cycle through extremely conservative religions. The adults in my life cared, but they certainly weren’t progressive.
As I grew older, I started getting a little feisty and mouthy, asking questions. Things started to sound fishy to me and when I asked questions, I was never fully satisfied with the memorized, canned responses. “Well, when you get to Heaven, you can ask God all the questions you want.”
I remember one young preacher’s sermon where his argument consisted of, “What can it hurt to just be saved and live a godly life? If it turns out there is no God or heaven, then you won’t have lost anything.” Yeah, except a whole life I could have spent having pre-marital sex, drinking booze, watching rated-R movies, getting tattoos, and saying fuck whenever I wanted to.
I remember going to the beach and all the women wore long denim skirts, wading right in the water. Female Pentecostals, at least the members of the church I went to, did not wear pants or shorts, makeup or jewelry. They grew their hair out long and mostly kept it up in matronly buns. Your average sixteen-year-old looked thirty. Hey, I’m not judging (except maybe a little, I’m working on it), and I write this with humor in mind. I went through the phase and tried to adapt to this lifestyle. I was not an attractive teenager by any means.
My mother once wore culottes to a Saturday family volleyball event, and an elder came up to her privately and asked that she not wear them again. This same man married a fourteen-year-old when he was twenty-four in the early 1900s and started putting babies in her belly until twelve or fourteen came out. Priorities. I asked about it, and the response was, “Well, that’s just how it was done in those days.”
I had a crush on a young man who would go on to be a preacher. Once, at a church gathering in Tennessee (or some Southern state I can’t remember with certainty), I had stayed with his older sister at a long-forgotten person’s house for a week, even offering to iron his shirts because that’s what good women do for men, right?
During this revival camp he informed me, in front of several people, that he knew I liked him, but he liked petite girls. Another time during that week, I debated with him about sex, and he insisted missionary style was the only godly position, and he would never have any other kind of sex. He met a fourteen-year-old girl there and claimed he would talk her father into allowing her to marry him by the time she was sixteen. They have about seven or eight kids now. Two examples don’t make a pattern necessarily, but still – those Pentecostal men.
Ironically, I once made an unconfirmed deal with the devil, in the shower (what other mischief was I up to in there?), that I would give him my soul if I could just marry this charming fellow (this was before the “I like petite girls” revelation). I think the devil knew I would make a miserable preacher’s wife, and as such, declined my offer. Talk about dodging a bullet. Thanks, Satan?
During church services, the congregation was often screamed at and threatened with fire and brimstone. In the bathrooms, Chick tracts were left on the toilet lids, just waiting to terrify any innocent person who happened to pick them up. I read several and they included scenes like a woman on LSD screaming in the mirror, “My face is melting” and horrified tiny humans standing before old man god on the throne being judged for their sins, while Satan waited hungrily, ready to take them to his pits where they could be tortured for an eternity.
Often, a person would stand up during the service and start speaking in tongues. It sounds like gibberish but is supposed to be a special language that might be angelic or unknown to humans and has a fifty-cent word assigned to it: glossolalia. Inevitably, after the person relayed the mystical message, another member would stand and give an interpretation in English. Sometimes, if a revival meeting got really exciting, someone would faint or dance in the spirit. The Holy Spirit. They just fell down, conveniently falling in a manner which caused no injury. It was typically a female, for whatever reason, and there were blankets tucked in the front pews just for this occasion, and another sister would place the blanket over her legs. I’m not sure if this was for modesty or to symbolically keep the Holy Spirit in the worshipper as long as possible.
Once I became a teenager, I remember being consumed with boredom and indignation at having to be there and would stare bloody daggers at the pastor because he would just go on and on, running well over the sensible noon-ish cutoff period. I would glare at him while trying to write dark, gothic poetry in my mind. (This was after I discovered goth music and clubbing.)
My first concert was Amy Grant and a lot of the congregation thought she was too secular.
When I was about twelve, my parents found another youth group at a non-denominational Christian church that my brothers and I started going to, supplementing our mandatory religious experience. I actually did meet some nice kids there. This was when The Monkees had their first reunion, and I devoured their music and the TV show with a girl there.
We went to camp once in Tennessee, and I refused to go rappelling because I was self-conscious about my weight. The youth leader convinced me to hike up a mountain with everyone and there was a spot where they had to pull people up over rocks. It was mortifying. There also happened to be a pile of human shit nearby. A random hiker just popped a squat, not even bothering to try and tuck that odorous package away somewhere off to the side.
That, combined with the trauma of having my large teenage body handled by men, made for a truly fun-filled adventure. We also had a camp fire where I burned my Motley Crue, Def Leppard, and Ratt cassette tapes because I was shamed and scared into believing they were demonic. Good times.
Ironically, I went home with a girl from the Pentecostal church when I was no older than twelve. She introduced me to shop-lifting which was how I acquired those hair metal band tapes. She also took two marijuana joints from her brother’s closet, and we smoked them, got high, and laughed our asses off in the back of her mother’s car.
I ate dinner with them, and the main course was alligator tail. It tasted a bit swampy with a hint of chicken. One other fun fact from that period: this girl and I were walking around her neighborhood (before the marijuana) and a guy pulled up in a car. His window was down, and he leaned over and asked, “Do you girls know where Cherry Street is?” We both seemed to notice his flaccid penis hanging out of his pants at about the same time and ran off screaming, “Gross!”
So, the formative years of my life were filled with a religion that shamed and intimidated me. Things didn’t add up; I knew I didn’t belong, but I wasn’t certain that I wouldn’t end up in hell, burning for an eternity if I wasn’t a good enough Christian. Praying to Jesus felt weird. I was the sort to offer up fervent prayers when I needed help. Like, “Please God, don’t let my parents find those Stephen King novels in my closet.” Or those Duran Duran tapes hidden under my mattress.
When we weren’t in church, and at home, we wore pants and shorts and bathing suits. My parents weren’t quite as hardcore as most of the others, but even watching PG-rated movies with curse words or crude jokes got the inevitable sidebar comments from Mom and Dad about how Hollywood just couldn’t resist adding those offensive bits in.
In case you weren’t aware of The Hollywood Agenda (according to conservative religious Republicans) – it’s all about making everyone gay, godless scoundrels who growl “God Dammit” every other breath, while fornicating with a cigarette in their mouth and a drink in one hand. Off-camera, they believe the actors spend all their time on social media convincing young women to murder unborn babies in a secret bid for population control and to convince the poor and minorities to vote Democrat so they can not bother to work and live off the Government.
It’s safe to say I ended up with issues in my twenties due to religious indoctrination. I know my parents intended well, and they agree now that they went overboard in their misguided and inexperienced youthful parenting. We can’t go back in time and we can’t blame our parents for our issues as adults. But it did leave some issues sealed deep enough that I needed at least a decade to unravel. Perhaps I am still unpeeling the layers.
© Shelly Teems 2019
Photos from Pixabay