We started attending The United Pentecostal Church in Madison Wisconsin when I was 8. At first we only went on Sunday morning and we rode the Sunday school bus. Someone from the church came by our apartment one day looking for people who might be interested in attending Sunday school. Some Sundays my mother would not answer the door and other Sundays she would take me out to the bus. I think she liked the church but felt guilty about it because it did not line up with her Church of God beliefs. In the end, we went more and more until we were going all the time. We went Sunday morning and evening, plus Thursday night. At this point people were pretty nice to us, probably because they were trying to get their hooks in. Love bombing works.
If you’ve read any of my earlier posts you know that I grew up with a constant fear of hell and the rapture. The seeds of all that fear were planted long before I ever set foot in Calvary Gospel United Pentecostal Church. All that fear was only made worse by the fire and brimstone preaching that often happened on Sunday nights. The night I walked that long road to the altar is burned in my mind. I was 10 years old. We were seated in the second to the back row of the sanctuary. My mother was never a front row woman. Pastor John Grant was preaching about how your name is written on the gates of hell until Jesus takes it off. I was scared out of my mind. When the altar call was given I sat there and debated with myself about whether or not I should go forward. I was a shy child and the thought of walking down in front of all of those people was pretty awful. My fear of hell was worse than my fear of walking forward so forward I went. It felt like it took me forever to get down to the front and when I did I was immediately covered with women. They gathered around me and walked me through the sinner’s prayer of repentance. My only comfort was the presence of some of my Sunday School teachers, although I had never seen them this worked up. After I said my prayer then the rejoicing started. This meant loud wailing and speaking in tongues. Hands pushing me back and forth in a swaying motion. They wanted me to speak in tongues and eventually I did. When I started stammering the sounds of the women around me got even louder. Scary loud. I felt accepted and safe if only for an instant. As soon as this calmed down then they wanted me to get baptized. In the UPC church they get you in that water as fast as they can because if the rapture were to happen or you were to die unbaptized you would not be saved. I knew the drill and got baptized. They let me pick which minister I wanted to baptize me. I don’t know if they let everyone pick or if they let me because I was so young. I chose the minister that was the least threatening to me.
Our baptismal tank was behind the choir pews. Everyone would gather around and watch you get baptized and clap and sing and speak in tongues. After it was all over people came up and congratulated me. I felt high. I know that it was endorphins causing that feeling. I chalked it up to my new-found salvation. That feeling lasted about a week. In the church of my childhood you were never really saved, not for good. You could always lose your salvation through sinning. Over and over I cried out to god for forgiveness. I remember my pastor preaching about a dream he had. The rapture was happening in his dream and he could not rise any higher than the ceiling of his bedroom. Why? Because he was not godly enough. My child mind soaked up all such messages and they fueled my constant fear of what might keep me out of heaven. Our church encouraged us to repent for sins we might not be aware of just in case we forgot something. At ten years old I did not see god as a loving god, I saw him as a score keeper.
Are you seeing the overall theme? Fear. Whether it was the pastor’s sermons, the week-long revivals, or the yearly viewing of those awful movies, my church experience was soaked in fear. Did I forget to repent of some sin? How long had it been since I had spoken in tongues? Was I living godly enough. Tough questions for a 10-year-old. Once I knew the difference between right and wrong I was old enough to be accountable. Pile all of that fear on top of the poverty and my parents marriage issues and life was pretty hard. Being in the UPC church magnified my problems.
From that moment on my life changed. Not in a good way. I embraced the church’s holiness standards with gusto. I tried to live as close to the rules as possible. Next time I will post about that part of my journey.
If you are a UPC survivor I would love to hear from you. Does my childhood experience sound like yours?