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.