“Religion is a breeding ground
Where the devil’s work is deeply found…“Sleeping at Last
What does it mean to say “I grew up in the church.” Some of us make the statement without even thinking about the weight of it, myself included. Just a standard fact of observation, a piece of historical data written into your code. We do not talk about how it affected us, positively or negatively, how it shaped us to be outside of the church walls, and how we interact with other human beings on a day to day basis because of it. The environments with which we are raised define everything about the final product of which we become, and being raised in a church setting is not free of its destructive demons.
It is a different story each time. Some people have had amazing experiences within a church setting growing up while others drift away from their church, often from experiences that are starkly contrast.
My experience was the latter.
In our world, gossip was currency. One prayer for a juicy detail that would make its rounds through the slacked jaws of the church pews until it came back to you, diseased and distorted. Emotional manipulation, blackmail, and racism were just a few more of the first things I learned about what it meant to be a part of my church.
My experience has far too many layers to gather within a single post or even a chapter. So lets just start from the beginning.
“By the time I was a preteen, I was a bible hugging, awkward, and overly curvy brown girl with hair no one knew what to do with, nor wanted to deal with. To top everything off with the sweetest of cherries, I grew up having no inkling on how to socialize outside of warped, cult-like church beliefs and ideas. I felt like the divine recipe for a walking disaster. I was always saying the wrong things, giving the wrong looks, talking too much, talking too little, and everything in between. With body parts most preteens had not even started growing yet, I had no self-esteem and was surrounded by dozens of skinny, straight haired, white girls who could wear their hair down and adorn scant bikinis while a simple two piece was considered ‘inappropriate for a body like’ mine.
I can recall as early as ten years of age having my body stared at, discussed, and over-sexualized by adults in the church community in open and public conversations in front of me, sometimes even pulling in their own children to demonstrate my iniquities of having a shape.
“look at my daughter”, I vividly recall one mother boasting loudly in a hall bustling with my rowdy peers. She roughly yanked at the bottom of her offspring’s man-sized, knee length, tie-dye monstrosity to indicate minimum length requirements. “Modest, Christian girls wear shirts like this, not like yours,” she huffed in disgust as her gaze scanned me from head to toe.
I was wearing a t-shirt and a club vest.
How I looked was always being picked apart by adults who just provided their children with ruthless ammunition to make their own assessments of my body. I became a constant target practice for the girls within my religious clubs, made up of non-profit evangelical groups, that my parents had enrolled me in at the age of five. Bullied incessantly for my hair, the way I talked, and more than anything, the way I dressed; my thrift store clothing purchases were never the talk of the town.
I still remember my first pair of Nike shoes, white with baby blue lining that almost glowed. I was beyond excited to finally have something that would help me fit in. It was not even a week later when I would be shoved into a dark corner away from adult eyes, pinned against the white washed, brick wall, having my Nike adorned toes stomped on over and over while being accused of buying fakes. It was around that moment that it began to feel like nothing I could change about myself would make things different.
Even pedophilic men within the church, some fathers themselves, were no strangers to myself and my female peers body types. It was not uncommon to hear a man in his forties approach a father to inform him that “his [twelve year old] daughter’s tight fitting look was causing himself and other men in the church to stumble.”
Translation in the real world – a forty year old man and his buddies, who could not keep it in their pants even during Sunday church services, were struggling to not find a twelve year old as a sexually viable candidate and it was the child’s fault. It was always the child’s fault.
These same men who cheered on their sons as their one night rendezvous were tallied up between high school and college like a competing scoreboard that defined masculinity the higher the numbers grew. The same men who, when women approached them for safety from spousal abuse, no matter how beaten, bloody, and bruised, would give the same repetitive, monotone advisement –
“That’s something you’ll just have to work out with your husband…”
In the church, even from childhood, I learned two very important things about how the sexes should behave and obey. Men were given every single excuse in the book on a golden platter while women were instructed to keep their men “happy” in the bedroom and in the kitchen or else they deserved every ounce of disrespect, infidelity, physical and emotional torture they were dealt.
A fresh take of hell on earth, surrounded by adults catering to sick thoughts, family structures, and the poor moral judgements of other adults. A cult under the guise of a steeple.”
Our stories are important, no matter what the elements are that make them up. To ever believe that your history is what should define your road moving forward, however, is not moving forward at all.
Many will ask me today where I am with Christ and if I am a Christian still, and while the Ron Swanson part of my narcissism would prefer to say I’m a “practicing none of your damn business,” my answer is usually just ‘yes’ and then it is time to move the conversation along.
My faith is my own now, and for the first time in my life, it is protected and healing from the decades of war caused by others tearing it down. It is not for anyone to dissect and analyze under an equally flawed microscope. My faith belongs to me, and my spiritual journey is no longer defined by a building filled with other broken human beings.
It is between me and my god.