Childhood, Education, United Pentecostal Church

Leaving

Since I started blogging about my experiences within the UPC church people have been asking me how I left. I think of it as death by a million cuts. As my teen years went along things became more and more obvious to me. The hypocrisy and racism were pretty hard to ignore. The only man of color in a real leadership position had that position because he was an amazing worship leader. I felt because he performed for them they honored him with elder status. Most of the people of color in our congregation were poor and ignored or shunned. My pastor taught that interracial marriage was unacceptable unless you came into the church already married that way. My dad was from Mexico which made me only half white in their eyes. When I asked the adults around me who it would be ok for me to marry they mostly shrugged at me. You might think this was signaling that I could date who I wanted but you would be wrong. Some of the boys I dated had parents who did not care that I was half Mexican, others flat-out told their boys to stay away from me for that reason. My pastor never talked about this issue from the pulpit, it was more understood and whispered about. It was assumed. I’ve got many stories about racism within that congregation and I’m sure I will share them with you eventually.

Molestation. My being a molestation victim meant that I was branded as a slut. Remember I said it was treated as adultery. Again carried out mostly in whispers, but every once in a while blurted out and those times were pretty painful. I was a super Christian in those days, trying to be perfect in order to gain God’s acceptance. Some people were kind but for the most part, I had a scarlet letter pinned to my chest and they would never let me take it off. This also impacted my dating experiences. Boys would tell me about the lectures their fathers gave them regarding falling into sin with me.

Being a bright kid and knowing what the Bible said meant that I could see the cracks. I could see that the rich had more of a voice. I could see the lack of forgiveness and compassion. I could see how many of the men in positions of authority treated their wives badly. As time went on I could barely stomach being in church. I went from sitting as close to the front as possible to sitting in the last pew refusing to sing or follow along in my Bible. Weirdly none of the adults in my life seemed to be alarmed by this. No one could see me drifting away, or if they did they did not care.

At this point, my mother was married to an alcoholic. She met and married a man who had joined the church. As soon as they were married they both stopped attending altogether. Some of this is because my mother’s remarriage caused a big scandal within the church. The pastor gave his blessing because my mother divorced due to adultery on my father’s part. Because this wasn’t a well-known fact a few of the older women in the congregation brought it up at a church business meeting and made a big stink. Also, not everyone agreed on when it was ok to divorce and remarry, they would defer to the pastor but that did not stop them from gossiping. It got ugly and my mother never forgot how they treated her. Because my stepdad was a drinker I ended up moving in with my biodad. My dad was basically never home. He spent most nights with his girlfriend and so I was living alone. Neither of my parents were involved in my church life and they were both too involved with their own lives to parent me. So the decision to leave was all mine.

You might remember that I quit the quiz team and my coach was very unhappy about it. Soon after that, our church built a huge new building and the school moved with the church. This new building was way out in the country where there is no city bus service. For many years I carpooled to school and when I couldn’t do that I took a city bus. Many of the older kids with cars had graduated and the one monitor I could catch a ride with was no longer working at the school. So basically I had no way to get to school. I started to ask around and it became clear that I was not going to be able to ride with anyone. I tried to meet with my school principal and he always seemed too busy to sit down with me. With no parent to help me deal with this, I felt stuck. Finally, on the Sunday night, before school started, I tracked down my principal and told him about my problem. I explained to him that I had no way to get to school. I also told him that because I was living with my dad I had access to a public school within two blocks of my home. He argued with me about what a bad idea going to public school was, but he also offered me no solution or help. I tried to be nice at first and I explained to him my position and argued that all of my Christian education had prepared me to be out in the world. By the way, I only had one year left so I would have been out in the world by the next spring. After going around and around he started to get very heated with me, almost desperate sounding. I was confused, what did he want me to do? He told me that he suspected if I walked out that door to attend public school I would end up in hell. This infuriated me, and I cracked. Remember I wrote before about that little flame that had been kindled in my adolescent heart, well now it was ablaze and threatening to burn the room down.

I did not say another word to him as my heart felt like it might explode out of my chest. I tried to get out of the building as quickly as possible. My dad had agreed to pick me up after church so I knew he was waiting in the parking lot. As a side note, not only could I not get to school but the church was basically out of my reach too unless I rode the Sunday school bus. I lived at the church so this would cut out all of my activities except Sunday morning service. As I was storming out a friend tried to stop me and asked if I was ok. I looked at him and the words “I’m never coming back” slipped out of my mouth. I knew it was true, but I only knew it in that moment. It felt like time stopped. He was my age and we had been close since age 8. He knew what I had been through and just looked at me with very sad eyes.

I never went back. I was done with them but God still haunted me for over a decade. I tried many churches and eventually ended up at a Southern Baptist church. That is a story for another day. What I’m about to say is probably the saddest part of this post. No one ever came looking for me. No one called to see why I disappeared. No one sent me a card or stopped by my home. They did gossip about me. I ran into someone years later who asked about my child. I did not have a child. The story was that I left because I became pregnant and was ashamed. Of course, that is what they thought. The truth is, I gave birth to my first child at 22 after being married for two years. Even in my angry state I was shocked that I did not hear from any of them. I was involved in many ministries, didn’t they wonder what happened? I had many adult friends, to this day none of that makes sense to me.

Thankfully I started my first real job and I met some really friendly kids. I also made friends in public school. I learned that the world was not as scary as they taught me. All the monsters came from the church and my mind. Hell, the rapture and the antichrist lingered on the edges of my mind. I’m 47 years old and have not gone to church since my late 20’s, at least three times a year I have nightmares about the rapture. They show up by surprise and make me feel uneasy for days. I have anxiety issues and all it takes is seeing the wrong image or hearing the wrong thing and I have flashbacks. The seeds planted in my childhood were seeds of abuse. Every time I think I have beaten the monster in my head he finds another way to get to me. The good news is I am free now! I have found a religion that is less toxic and I’m grateful that the Universe guided me out of that pit of vipers.

D

 

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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