The little girl and her mother wore identical dresses on the first and only Sunday they went to that church, as her mother called it afterwards. Her mother had located a McCall’s pattern the week before, and she worked day and night to produce two sleeveless dresses in green, brown and blue. Summer time dresses. They didn’t have a lot of clothes and the little girl was excited. And the way her mother worked so hard, going to church must really be important, the little girl thought.
Early Sunday morning, her mother laid out her dress while she pulled on white anklets. With her new dress on, she buckled her black patent leather shoes and stood up for her mother to nod her approval. Then, she watched as her mother pulled on silk hose, bringing the tabs of her girdle down, placing the edge of the hosiery over those tabs and snapping metal hooks in place. She slid her feet into high heeled shoes, and powdered heavily under her arms and even between her legs. She spritzed on her favorite perfume, leaving a heavy sweet scent all over the house.
Her father put on a suit and knotted his tie, a magical trick to the eyes of the little girl. Her older brother put on his one pair of navy blue pants, tucked in his white dress shirt. He put on brown leather shoes, a spit polish shine on them from the scrubbing with brown Kiwi soap. His pants, held up by a braided brown leather belt, sagged around his thin frame. His hair had been cut, and it was so short, it stuck out on the sides, the color of toothpicks. He’d tried hard to slick it down with tonic, and he smelled like a barber shop.
It was time to go.
On the ride to church, her mother said, “It’s a Presbyterian church, probably full of snobs. They always have money. We don’t. We won’t fit in. I doubt we’ll be invited on as members.”
Her father said nothing. The little girl thought the word Presbyterian odd sounding, and she repeated it silently over and over again, giving emphasis on the different syllables each time. She liked it best as Presbyterian. They arrived in the parking lot, the gravel crunching under the car’s tires, the smell of exhaust still lingering because the church was only two miles away. The little girl stuck her nose up to the back window. She’d never seen such a building before. Not even school was this big. The brick walls of the church glared an angry red in the hot summer sun, while the steeple rose up like a cool, white popsicle, pointing at a blue sky empty of clouds. What would she see inside such a building as this? They climbed out of the car, pulling their clothes in place awkwardly, and the cicadas screeched loudly from the pine and maple trees all at once, as if announcing their arrival.
The little girl watched the other people in the parking lot calling out to each other, “Have mercy, it’s so hot!” and “Let’s get inside where it’s cooler!” and the more subtle whispers of, “Who’s that?” and “Are they new members?” as people watched them approach the wide church doors.
Her mother mumbled, “They’re staring. Why do they always stare? Aren’t we good enough?”
Her father still said nothing.
The little girl felt important with all those eyes looking at them as they made their way inside, and there were so many people milling about, it had to be as many as she had ever laid her eyes on. The little girl stared up at her mother’s face. Why did she look mad? Her mother looked down at her, tightening the grip she had around the little girl’s fingers.
She tugged on the little girl’s hand and said, “You mind your manners. Don’t you embarrass me, or else!”
The little girl wondered why her mother always spoke to her as if she’d already done what she said not to do. She stared down at her shoes. She could see her face reflected in them, a wavy, distorted version of herself. Is that how she looked right now? She kept her head down, not wanting any of these strangers to see her ugly face. She should have stayed home
Her mother yanked on her arm, demanded a response, “Do you hear me?”
The little girl said, “I won’t.”
She was deposited in an age appropriate room with two old ladies and a handful of other kids who stared at her like the people in the parking lot. She decided it was best to just stand there, not moving until someone told her what to do. The room looked just like her classroom. She’d expected something different, something as big and grand as the church’s entrance.
One of the ladies came towards her, took her hand, and sat her at a small wooden table. The lady had gray hair, wrinkly skin, and her hands shook as she gave the little girl her favorite drink, grape Kool-Aid. And it got even better. Out came her favorite cookies, sugar. The lady smiled at her, and the little girl thought she could get to liking this church thing.
The rest of the kids sat down at the same table. The two ladies handed them crayons, along with a piece of paper that showed a picture of a man. He had a beard and was surrounded by children and lambs. The bearded man sat on a rock, his hands raised, and there was a rainbow behind him.
The lady who showed her to her seat, leaned over, pointed at paper in front of her, and said, “You know who this man is?”
The little girl actually wasn’t sure, but she nodded anyway.
“Good! Can you tell me something about him?”
The little girl had just bitten into a sugar cookie. She chewed first, and swallowed, remembering not to speak with her mouth full. Mother would be proud. She’d seen the man once before, in a picture book in the dentist office. She’d taken the book to her mother and asked her about him.
Her mother, impatient at being interrupted from reading the Reader’s Digest, because they couldn’t afford to get them at home, hissed, “That’s Jesus, he died on a cross. Now be quiet!”
The little girl didn’t know anything else beyond that.
“He died on a cross,” she said.
The little girl felt pretty good, glad she’d answered correctly.
The lady asked, “And, you know why, right?”
The little girl thought and thought. She wanted this lady to like her. She wanted the kids to think she was smart. She came up with her what she thought was a pretty good answer.
“Because it hurt?”
She heard the snickering from the kids, knew by the look on the lady’s face she’d answered wrong. There was no smile of encouragement now.
The other kids burst out with a loud, “Nooooo! That’s wrong! Why doesn’t she know that? That’s easy!”
The lady said, “Shh! Hush now,” and then turned to the little girl, “He died for our sins.”
Sins? She didn’t know what that meant, she only knew she was embarrassed. All the other kids kept staring at her. She thought of what her mother said in the parking lot. She didn’t know the word snob either, but it must not be a good thing, the way her mother said it. She decided the kids must be snobs, too.
She stayed quiet the rest of the time. The ladies and other kids talked about the man, Jesus, while she sat staring out the window. They sang songs while she ate more cookies, and drank cup after cup of the grape Kool-Aid. No one stopped her. No one said, “come sing with us!” She felt awkward, out of place, like a sock without a match in a drawer. She decided she didn’t like church very much.
When her mother and father finally came to get her, she saw her older brother wearing a gold painted wooden cross around his neck.
He showed it to her, proudly announcing, “I made it!”
She was jealous of him and his cross, angry because he’d had fun and she didn’t, but she didn’t want him to know that.
She whispered, “You look dumb.”
And he was dumb too, acting like he’d had a good time. The lady who’d asked her the questions came hurrying up to her mother, holding out a small booklet.
She overheard the lady say, “She’s doesn’t know the basics. This will help her learn His story.”
Her mother waved a hand, dismissing the booklet, “Well. This is her first time in a church.”
She heard the lady reply with a long drawn out, “Aaaahhhh.”
Even the little girl understood the tone in that one single word, heard the disapproval. The next Sunday came and they stayed home, eating a late breakfast, her parents reading the paper. And the next Sunday was the same, and the next. They never went back and the little girl was glad.
The next time she found herself in church, she was thirteen. Her mother decided they ought to try religion again. The little girl had grown up. It had been six years since her first experience. Mainly, she’d changed her mind about boys.
Her mother said, “God, I’ve got to get out of this house! I never go anywhere!”
The girl couldn’t help but think, is that the only reason you’re going? There was a little white church her aunt went to and it was, her mother said, non-denominational. A “Christian” church. The girl rolled her eyes. Who cared what it was, would there be any good looking boys there, she wondered? They went the next Sunday, she and her mother only. Her father said he didn’t want to go, and her brother was always working, saving his money for a new car.
They went again and again and again. The girl had her eyes on the preacher’s son, while her mother, who had decided she could sing, had her eyes on joining the choir. They became regular members, and every Wednesday night and Sunday morning, that’s where they could be found. Her mother practiced piety while amongst her fellow church going friends, proclaiming, “Praise be to God!” at the right moments, of which there were many in this little church.
Once they were home, her mother quickly hopped on the phone to gossip with the girl’s aunt about this member and that, in lurid detail, “Did you see Harold Mann ogling Patty Duncan’s breasts?” and, “Did Mrs. White tell you about what was going on with her son and his wife? Oh my God, well let me tell you…,”
The girl said, “That doesn’t sound very Christian.”
Her mother said, “Why don’t you shut up? What do you know? You’re only thirteen!”
The girl, her cousin, and her new friends sat on the back pew every Sunday. They tried to be quiet, but the preacher had to stop the sermon, every Sunday, at least once, to address them. They’d settle down for a little bit, but it wasn’t long before they’d get into the pinching, grabbing, snickering, pulling hair, and other grab ass shenanigan’s, as her mother called it. The girl thought she loved church now. She was a social butterfly, she belonged.
The preacher’s son started giving her the eye back. She thought she might actually accept Jesus into her life, just to impress him. She day-dreamed about how it would happen. She’d walk down to the front, towards his father, and the son would watch her, see she was good, worthy of him and his religion, notice how much they had in common. Was she willing to put herself up there in front of the whole congregation and admit she was a sinner? Maybe. That Sunday she noticed the preacher’s son’s nose had a big bump in the middle. The next Sunday, she saw that one of his teeth in front overlapped the other. He wiggled his eyebrows at her, and she glanced right over him. The football coach’s son was looking at her. Hey, hey.
The deacons started coming to the house. They came several times a week. Her mother and father started arguing more and more, about “those men,” as her father called them.
“What do they want? Why do they keep coming? What are you telling them about me? About us?”
“Nothing! Jesus Christ!” she yelled.
And they came again, even though the welcome was less than that of a good Christian home. They tried to talk to her father, while he sat silently smoking, glaring at her mother. When they left, all hell broke loose and the girl thought, they might quit going to this church. She felt mad, angry. If they stopped going, she wouldn’t see if she had a chance with the coach’s son. Maybe she’d tell those deacons she was having bad thoughts. Maybe she’d tell them she was possessed. She began reading books about demon possession, fascinated by stories of bumps and noises in the night, about scratching sounds on walls, about the smell of sulfur, teeth marks and crosses hung upside down. And then, she began having nightmares. For real, scary ones, and one night, she woke up, sweating, freaked out because she’d dreamed of a demon’s head, poking itself up and glaring at her from between her legs.
No boy was worth all this. The girl quit reading those books, and her mother decided to quit the church altogether before her marriage ended up in a divorce.
The girl didn’t go to church again, until she was a young woman. She only went because the man she was dating took his daughter. They’d make it just in time for the Sunday service, go back to his parent’s house, eat a big Sunday dinner, and laze away the rest of the day until it was time to head back into the city. There, at his house, the man threw the young woman on his bed, raked her church dress up over her head and did what he wanted. She was always glad he couldn’t see her face on those Sunday afternoons. She couldn’t help but feel somewhat guilty for doing “it,” on Sunday, right after church, unmarried, and with a divorced man.
And the woman couldn’t help but wonder, just what makes one a heathen? When they broke up, she didn’t go to church again for several years, not until she met another man. Lo and behold, she married him in that Presbyterian church, the one she’d been to so long ago. They moved to a small town. They became members of a Baptist church. The church suffered a major fracture of it’s congregation within one year of them joining. The preacher was let go, and half the congregation left too. But, the woman and her husband stayed, stuck it out, prayed the church and the members left would make it.
A new pastor came a year later. An inspirational man, who joked about gravy on his tie. A true man of the cloth, they said. Devout, even. His voice rose and fell from the pulpit with the righteousness of God. He called the woman from his home one day. He said that sometimes a member of the congregation and it’s pastor could become very close. His voice, the same voice that taught about God’s love said, “You know, the sort of relationship that’s as close as a sexual relationship – without being sexual.”
She heard him, but had she really heard him? Had he said that? Maybe he meant to say…, what? She was confused by his Godly spirit and strange comparisons. The woman and her husband were invited on a mission trip. Their luggage was lost, and the new pastor’s way of handling this was to belittle everyone at the airlines that came across his path. The woman stood back and watched him lose his patience, lose his cool, lose his religion. The woman and her husband, and the rest of their church entourage made it to their destination, without any luggage. They made the best of a bad situation.
Two days before the mission trip was over, the woman was in the combination laundry room/bathroom of the home hosting them. The pastor came in the room. The woman’s hands were wet from moving laundry from the washer to the dryer. She reached up to wipe her hands on a towel, intending to leave quickly.
The pastor said, “Heeeeey! That’s the towel I wipe my privates with!” followed by a strange, sputtering laugh.
She couldn’t mistake what he said that time. And neither could the other two congregation members who passed by the door. And there were other comments by him, little slips here and there. He gave her the creeps. The mission trip over, the woman and her husband arrived back in the United States. Six month’s later the woman wrote the church a letter. They’d decided they would leave. So, after five years of membership, and the woman’s hope that she’d finally found something of her spiritual self, they terminated their relationship with their church family.
She envied those who knew how to pray with the ease of breathing, heard the voice of God, felt his guidance. She felt lost and she supposed she was. After all, before she’d ever had a chance of finding her faith, it had been lost to her from the very beginning. It had nothing to do with what she’d done or not done. She’d never stood a chance. She thought it must require many, many people of sound faith to show someone what it takes to become a true follower, and it must take the hand of God over one’s eyes to learn not to judge, to look beyond human ways, to look only at the good.
She believed she expected too much, perhaps.
Now, she’s too set in her ways. Too analytical. Too jaded. Too stubborn. She is middle aged. She does not go to church. She does not know God any more today than she did back when she first set foot in His house.
She doesn’t think she ever will.