The main arc of this short piece is a completely true re-telling of some experiences I had in a church I attended as a child. My hopes in sharing this is that I will start an open dialogue about the merits and flaws of religion, as well as allow others who’ve had similar issues with the church to read the story of someone who can understand what they’ve been through.
Childhood is a very special time in our lives, such that when you’re young, anything can seem normal as long as everyone you love tells you it is. And I don’t mean the run-of-the-mill childhood lies, like insisting in the belief in a near-omniscient man who commits breaking-and-entering to leave you toys once a year, because apparently they wouldn’t be as much fun if you knew they were from your parents. Also not referring to things like the common act of maintaining an “imaginary friend” who is at best a make-believe coping mechanism for crippling childhood loneliness, and at worst an actual auditory/visual hallucination indicative of an undiagnosed mental illness. As queer as these things seem, they’re dubbed “normal” for kids in our culture. But there are plenty of other things that aren’t as widely accepted as peachy-keen that kids will easily believe is utterly okay, and often do believe is utterly okay, until they’re old enough to hopefully speak to a therapist about how fucked up their childhood was.
I’m talking things like the frigid tension between mommy and daddy that’s come from years of putting off divorce for the sake of the kids. I’m talking about that tense, irritable aunt who was thinner than anyone you knew and never ate at family gatherings, always instructing your cousin to watch what she ate. I’m talking about that summer camp you went to with your church where you’d pray and recite Bible verses to a recording of the gunfire from the battle at Iwo Jima.
Start off with a well-meaning, God-fearing mom. Add an anxiety-ridden child who was both easily convinced and easily guilt-tripped. And multiply that sum by a church brimming with the kind of rules you only hear when people try to describe the Amish: no skirts shorter than the knee, no pants for women, no birth control for married couples, no modern music, no fraternizing with non-believers unless you were preaching at them.
This church was a place where a shirt was deemed inappropriate if the neckline was lower than three fingers below the collarbone, or if you could tell the woman had breasts. Girls weren’t allowed to wear traditional, form-fitting bathing suits when they got in the pool, lest they cause a man’s eyes to wander from the Lord. Instead, they wore one-piece bathing suits under t-shirts and home-sewn culottes. The boys were all expected to graduate from their home-school and go to Bible-college and become Baptist-preachers, and take care of their previously-virginal wife as she stayed at home and taught their Christian children. Everything secular was shunned, because all of it was destined to lead you down the path of Satan. Disney movies? Sinful. Amusement parks? Vile. Modern Christian music? Satanic. We were constantly praying for a “revival” in the world, so that everyone would start seeing things our way, which of course was God’s way. And thankfully, this church was tiny and exclusive, consisting of no more than 30-40 adults and children total.
I started going to this church with my grandfather, because my mom didn’t enjoy attending church herself. I would come home and share with her all the things I was learning about there, and all the new rules I began to adopt. Sure, some of the practices were a little odd to her, but I was happy and seemingly very dedicated to following God, so she encouraged my attendance.
With Satan lurking behind everything the world had to offer, my church had no choice but to host their own summer camps. Otherwise their children might meet other kids who weren’t like them, and that makes indoctrination a bit more difficult. So every summer, the elders in charge of the youth ministry got together and hosted a week-long, elaborately-themed summer camp for the older kids to attend. The themes were carefully planned to incite a kind of spiritual frenzy that would lead us to making promises to God and becoming all the more devoted to His service. I was only able to save up enough money by myself to go to camp twice, but the themes did not disappoint: the first time I went, it was the sinking of the Titanic, and the second time it was the Marines during the Battle of Iwo Jima. What better way to invoke the fear of the Lord than by way of historic tragedies that resulted in the deaths of thousands?
These summer camps were no joke. During the Titanic camp, the back of the chapel was adorned with a huge, painted plywood cutout of the great ship capsizing. We memorized trivia about the dimensions of the boat and how many died, and won prizes for our efforts. After the preacher gave his intense and damning sermon each evening, we prayed and cried to the tune of “Nearer My God to Thee,” the song that is said to have been played by the Titanic’s band while they sacrifice their lives to provide music for the other doomed passengers.
The Marines-themed camp was even more impressive, and stands out in my mind more prevalently. We had fun, military-ish activities, like an obstacle course complete with doing the army crawl through mud and rocks until we had bloody elbows, and relay races where we rushed to eat MREs like we were in a mess hall. Our sermons were all about being soldiers and martyrs for Christ, like the men who gave their lives in 1945 at Iwo Jima, because children should always have in mind how quickly they would be willing to kill themselves. In the chapel they played a recording of gunfire and war sounds that we were told were from the actual battle, though to this day I have no idea if they really got their hands on such a thing. And oh, what a finale on the last day of camp: our pastor imparted to us that just like the soldiers we’d spent all week learning about died for America in that battle, Jesus died for us on the cross!
In those moments, my chest was tight with guilt and my eyes brimmed with tears as I begged for forgiveness to someone I’d never seen, but who I’d been told I’d wronged. I viewed all my questions, desires, and uncertainties as evidence of sin and doubt. Whenever something negative happened, I knew I had to evaluate what I might have done wrong to make God punish me. For years after I was forced to stop attending the church, I’d think about the gunfire and tears would spring to my eyes like some sort of secondhand-PTSD.
I didn’t even suspect anything was off about the whole affair until about high school, when my other friends were all talking about their summer camps. You mean there was no sobbing? No internalizing of violent tragedies? No forming intense guilt complexes that would follow you throughout the rest of your life and color everything that you experienced?
Huh. What an uneventful summer camp they must’ve attended.