Childhood, Holiness Standards, United Pentecostal Church

Holiness Standards

The UPC church is famous for their holiness standards. When I was young (70’s and 80’s) the standard was for women to only wear dresses or skirts, culottes for gym class. You had to have uncut hair and that meant no trims or going to the hair salon. We were not allowed to wear any makeup or nail polish. We were to be “shamefaced.” Jewelry was not allowed except for a wedding ring and a watch. There is more but I would be here all day if I really went into it.

Once I had my salvation experience I embraced this standard with gusto! It was expected, you could lose your salvation if you deviated from these standards. This made me very worried about my mother. She did not embrace their standards, although she would never wear pants to church. That was a leftover standard from her childhood. Because she had short hair most of the time she became the target of gossip within the church and the other ladies did not approve of her. This made my life harder, we were in but not all the way in. My mother felt their judgment and felt bad about it, I don’t know why she did not comply all the way. She had a stubborn streak so it may be as simple as that.

We were very poor. My mother often worked two jobs and my dad never paid child support. My step-dad was disabled so he wasn’t bringing much income in. It did not take long for these holiness standards to become a problem within my family. My mother landed an amazing job driving the city bus in our town. She did not have a college degree and so she struggled to find a good job. When she landed the job with the city that was a big deal! It meant union wages and insurance. There was one big issue with her taking that job. She had to wear pants as part of the uniform. Now she wore pants in her daily life, but for some reason when people found out she was taking this job it became a huge issue. People knew that you could not wear a skirt on that job and they were very critical of her. Some went so far as to tell her she would go to hell for taking the job. My mother took the job because we needed the money and benefits, and so the church never looked at her the same after that. I remember one kind woman, she was also working poor, who told my mother she wore pants to her job too. She told my mother she was doing the right thing by taking the job, that woman was the lone voice of support.

I started the 6th grade right after my salvation experience and I was devoted to wearing skirts or dresses to school every day. I did wear shorts in gym class because that was a required uniform and my mother would not make a fuss about it on my behalf. I had exactly three dresses/skirts I could wear. One was too nice for every day and was really meant to be a church dress. That meant I had two outfits to wear to school. Now I understand that lots of kids are poor and do not have tons of clothes but being UPC did make my situation harder. I could not just walk into Goodwill and buy whatever fit, it had to meet their standard. I was a size 2/3 at the time and so finding clothing was not easy. Plus I had to have pantyhose to wear to school every day. I tried to be very careful and make them last as long as I could, but I was 11 so snags happened. The standard was to have your legs covered, this meant pantyhose or tights.

Halfway through my sixth-grade year, I joined the UPC school. I was being picked on at school for being different and only having two outfits. I was also being picked on for being half Mexican. My family decided that putting me into the Christian school was the answer. My church ran an ACE school. I will post about that at another time, that school needs its own posts. The church school had a uniform and so I hoped that would make my life easier. It did not. My mother had two uniforms made and I had two shirts to wear. The uniform was a navy blue vest and skirt or a red set. She had one of each made. I learned after I started that no one wore the red set so I only had one uniform. This meant washing my uniform every night and then ironing. We were required to wear pantyhose or tights and dress shoes. Then for gym class, we had to wear culottes, I had one gym uniform and gym happened three days a week.

Again I know that being poor is common but I feel it is harder when holiness standards are in play. It is harder to find things to wear when you are living that standard and then layer on the stress of finding the right thing in a thrift store. The other part of this is about compassion. No one ever offered us used clothing or any financial help. I went to school on a scholarship, I never knew who provided it. The church had many people willing to help in that area but not willing to help with day-to-day needs. Then they would judge you for not being perfectly within the standard. To be honest I never remember my church doing anything to help the poor. Their attitude was that if you were poor you should look for sin and see if there is something you need to repent of. Maybe you did not have enough faith?

There was a class system at play. The more money you had the more likely you were to be an elder and given a position of power. The higher your hair the closer to god…lol. Then you can add the race layer onto that. I was half Mexican and so I was never seen as equal to the lily-white kids. I tried to compensate for these issues by being a very pious kid and by being super involved in ministry. I was able to rise a bit out of my class by doing those things. The UPC church I grew up in cared so much about their holiness standards but no so much about caring for the poor or sick. Charity and compassion was not something I learned there.

I’m not sure what I will be posting about next. Does anyone have any questions?

D

Childhood, Fear, Holiness Standards, Rapture, Salvation, Sin, United Pentecostal Church

My Salvation Story

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?

D