When my brother and I were children my mother would take us to various Baptist (not Southern!) churches. In hindsight I can correlate our sporadic church-going with times when she was particularly unhappy, such as when we lived in Reno, Nevada. That in and of itself is pretty damn depressing, but to be married to a man with a terrible gambling addiction while raising two small children made it really fucking depressing. This is where Jesus comes to the rescue.
Unlike Catholics, Baptists aren’t necessarily born directly into the fold which means the church must actively procure new tithe-generating members. Some days that means going door-to-door peddling the Good News, but on some blessed days, desperate people just walk in, ready to go. People like my mother. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was actually pretty desperate myself and I fell for it all. Being eager to please, the prizes for memorizing Bible verses, praise for participating, and the so very handsome Jesus whom I was told really cared about me, was more than my 7-year-old heart could withstand. At some point I was encouraged to hand my life over to Jesus, which I did, and I was baptized in the Truckee River. Being Born Again was really, really cold.
My father entered the world through a Catholic port of entry. He didn’t believe in God and didn’t care if we went to church as long as he wasn’t expected to participate in any way period. When I was born, to get his grandmother off his back, my father lied and told her that I had indeed been christened in the Catholic church, but that somehow she had missed it. An elderly Mexican woman who didn’t speak English couldn’t prove I hadn’t been, so it was an airtight lie. Had I died, my great-grandmother would have consoled herself in the false belief that I was in Heaven, not Limbo, so in the end I think the lie was as harmless as the truth.
When I was ten we moved back to California in an attempt to escape the siren call of the ever-present slot machines. Moving in the middle of a school year is not ideal and it got worse from there. You’d think a quiet, smart, creative-type would be warmly welcomed by the other students. Instead, this was the beginning of the Dark Ages filled with desperate crushes, terrible poetry, and spirit-crushing envy of other girls. Good times.
In the early ’80s I graduated high school, with ease if not excellence. I had survived the gauntlet and I was euphoric. I had nothing but the gaping maw of the unpromising future ahead of me, but at least I was free from the California school system. College had never been presented as a possibility, so getting a job was the next stop on on my journey. My mother dropped me off at the mall and told me to go fill out an application. It hadn’t occurred to me to that I should be taking a more active role in my own life, so I got a job at J.C. Penney’s. More good times.
As I got older and my still forming brain began to develop the capacity for reason and abstract thought some things I was being told and reading in the Bible didn’t seem right, but I never openly questioned anything. Throughout Junior and Senior High my mother and I would go through spurts of church attendance, without my brother who had joined the If Dad Doesn’t Have To Go camp. My belief in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Heaven and Hell, the existence of demons and angels was sincere. Not that I didn’t have nights lying awake trying to figure out where the hell God himself had come from, why Satan was so interested in destroying me, and desperately trying to will my breasts into existence, but I believed God loved me. One thing I did learn through all of this was that the power of prayer is like the power to move an object with ones mind: nothing happens and you just end up with a headache. The combination of dogma-driven guilt, low self-esteem, undiagnosed OCD and typical teen angst nearly did me in.
So at 18 I was still going to church, still living at home, and still feeling acutely inadequate. Having a job was a baby step toward adulthood, but I was still adrift. I enjoyed making my own money and I discovered the pleasure of eating lunch alone and not feeling like a pariah. Retail is where I first learned that working “the public” is awful. Individuals who, on their own may be perfectly nice people, en masse become blights.
My social life consisted of my one friend in high school and the church’s youth group. My isolation was mostly due to my debilitating insecurity and ingrained distrust of people (thanks Dad). When the now defunct Evangelism Corps came to our church I was low-hanging fruit. Kids, most near my age, were traveling to communities throughout the country, leaving the Good News in their wake. Independent young people who had a real and admirable purpose in life. Their apparent confidence impressed me: I could never be like that! Bonus: there were young men with whom I hadn’t spent the last seven years in school. So when I got a call from the Director himself, asking if I would like to join them for the next year, I felt as if God was sending me message, that I had a calling. At the time I didn’t realize that I was just a name on a list and that the phone call was not an indication that I was special in any way. No matter, my life finally had a direction; I would get out of the house and do good work to prove my good faith because everyone knows that faith without works is dead.
I went to my parents and told them that I really wanted to be a missionary. I explained that, while I would need a little spending money, the Corps would take care of my food, lodging and travel expenses. One of my father’s dearest wishes had come true that day: one of his kids was actually leaving home at 18 and would no longer be his problem. I don’t recall my mother trying to talk me out of going either.
So that’s how I came to spend a year as an evangelical missionary, tormenting unsuspecting citizens in their homes in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia. At that point in my life, it was the bravest thing I’d ever done and my first real step toward atheism. It’s an epic tale that I will finish sharing down the road.