I'm sure that everybody has heard of evangelical churches. People speak in tongues and interpret the Bible literally, they are very demonstrative of their beliefs, ministering to the public and harboring a very real and very alive belief in the devil. We've all heard of this before, but I'm not sure that very many people understand what it was really like, as far as the every day aesthetics, to grow up in a Spirit Filled, Born Again, Evangelical church.
I was raised in an Assembly Of God church in a small coal town in Western Pennsylvania. At the time of my youth, I believed America to be in the midst of some sort of holy revolution. There were wild, amazing things happening in front of my eyes every day. The end of the world was near, there were signs all around.
I know now that evangelicals have always believed that their time is a very special time. They have always preached about the end of the world. They have always believed that a revival was imminent. The messages I received about my time being a very powerful, instrumental time are the same messages everybody has always received and will continue to receive off into nowhere.
Still, as a child, I believed a lot of the things I was told. I believed a lot of the things I saw. Around the time I turned 13 or 14, I started to understand that the grown ups around me had an agenda. I started to notice how most of them were well... a little bit coo-coo. The kinds of people you see muttering to themselves at the local K-Mart, only less isolated, because they had a group of people who backed them up.
They spent a lot of time talking about ghosts and aliens and exorcisms, devil-worshipers, new age heretics, witches, real life vampires and demons. The rest of the world read books and listened to music about a rainbow of emotions and feelings. The Christians listened only to music that explicitly praised Jesus. They only read books written by other evangelicals. The rest of the world believed in education, in women's rights and in encouraging and fostering a sense of independence and autonomy in their children. The Christians, including my family, believed that women were meant to be wives and mothers, that men were meant to rule over women, and that children should be subservient to the will of men and of God.
Oops. I'm getting off track. I meant to sit down and write about the actual mechanics of attending church as an evangelical christian. I promise to get back to the indoctrination later. I have a lifetime's worth of stories in me about that.
First of all, Born Again Christians pride themselves on being "on fire" for Jesus. They are very enthusiastic in their judgement of other sects of Christianity. They believe that everybody else is just "luke warm" in their love and devotion to Christ. They talk about how Catholics have rituals, how they are quiet, how they don't believe in the Holy Spirit... how all of that proves that they aren't real Christians. Even within their own community of evangelicals, they are very quick to point it out when somebody isn't quite OUT OF THEIR MIND enough over their love of God.
The service began when lyrics to praise songs were projected onto a screen in the corner of the sanctuary. Songs like, "Let God arise and his enemies be scattered!" and "As the deer pant-eth for the water, so my soul long-eth after Thee." Songs about putting on the Armor of God, about how Jesus was more precious than gold and jewels.
There was a rock band on the stage in front of the sanctuary complete with guitarists and a drummer. (Please understand that actual rock and roll saved my life. When I call this band a "rock" band, I'm doing so in an ironic way.) A bony woman in shoulder pads played the tambourine. The pastor's son played guitar. The drummer was a man with a mane of wild hair who was accused of molesting his niece. I'm unsure of whether or not he was ever actually convicted.
So, we would all follow along with the projected transparency and sing songs. After a few minutes, people would start to sway with their hands in the air. They whispered and moaned. Someone would call out a prophecy or a word from god. "There is smut in your households!" an old lady would warble over a clunky rhythm from the band. "He is urging you to take stock of your entertainment, to scour your children's music, to make yourself aware of what is entering your house through the television."
Things like that. People took turns talking aloud, while everyone else swayed and murmured and sometimes called out, "Praise you, Jesus!" or "Thank you, Jesus!" Sometimes, the lord's wrath would take hold of someone and they would spew retributions at the congregation. They quoted terrible verses about the wages of sin. Lots of times, people cried. My mom cried. I hated the crying.
There would inevitably be a point in the worship portion of the service where things were expected to get a little crazy. The band would resume its playing and enormous women in polyester dresses would spin and jump and dance down the aisles. Little, pointy schoolmarm types in lace buttoned up around their throats would kick off their shoes and do an anointed little jig with their pantyhosed toes peeking from under the hem of their skirts. Teenagers in pleated sunday pants clung to one another, reveling in the opportunity to be close to another body.
There were noises coming from everywhere, at that point. People started talking and yelling and calling out in their "prayer languages." My father's prayer language sounded like, "Ah, sha dadadadada," when it started. Dancing and twirling and hopping and babbling, the whole place was filled with motion and sound.
Sometimes, groups of adults would descend on me, put their hands all over me and whisper in their prayer languages. They would pet my hair, hold my hands to their lips. They smeared my head with oil from tiny bottles they wore around their necks. They cried. The kissed me. This was called, "the laying on of hands." While they were anointing me and praying for me, I would doodle in a notepad on my lap or make faces and smile through the forest of hands at my friend or siblings, who were also enclosed in the prayer circle.
Sometimes, people laughed.
I hated the laughing most of all.
It would start with the young people, usually. Someone would be overcome with "spirit drunkenness" and start to weave and flail around like they were going to fall. Sweat would be broken out on their foreheads, people would surround the drunk one, holding her up by her armpits. She would release herself against them, throw her head back and start laughing uncontrollably.
Soon, the other young people with their arms and bodies around her, open to her, with their hearts and senses of expectation open wide; they would all start convulsing with holy laughter. Some of them would fall to their knees. Some of them would lay on the floor, seizing under the laughter. They held on to one another, hugged, brushed the hair from the sweaty brow of their friend. In a world where they all knew someone who had been abused, where the came from trailer parks at the edge of town, where their daddies drank and came for them in the night, here, in the sanctuary, they could hold one another and laugh the laughter of the holy.
The pastor, a well groomed man from the rich housing development near the college, would stand over the youth group, praying in his language, praising the lord for his gift of hilarity. Soon, speckled about the congregation, people would start to laugh, too. A high pitched ululating would resonate from the back corner of the room. A man wheezed and fell on his face, pounding the threadbare carpet with his palm. Women tripped over one another, tangling together, sticking to the skin of one another and laughed right up to high heaven.
Some members of the body of Christ would get caught up in a manic sort of dance, where they shuffled from foot to foot, hands extended to the sky. They would dance like this until they were pale and fatigued. Their muscles seized. Some of them collapsed. Some of them had to be carried out of the church and placed into a waiting car where they would stiffen in the passenger seat and continue to move and bob, unable to come out from the trance of the holy spirit.
This was all commonplace for me. I was a bratty little know-it-all who didn't want to serve a man. I didn't believe in the end of the world. I believed in Holden Caufield and David Bowie. I believed in Beatles, even if John had long since become only John. I believed in the revelation brought on by bad boys from the wrong parts of town. I believed in lipstick and men wearing eyeliner. I believed in experimentation and rebellion. I didn't believe in God.
Still, I didn't understand that my experience with church wasn't the same as everybody else's. I didn't know that most other kids had mothers and fathers who existed peacefully, loving one another and their families. I thought everybody knew what it was like to see a grown man fall down and not get up until long after he'd been plastered to the floor with his own snot and tears. I didn't know that people were Catholic and Lutheran and even Atheist! I didn't know that some people weren't sure what they believed. I didn't know that some people believed in love.
It took me a long time to identify my experiences as being unique. It wasn't even until I was a heroin user in college that it became clear to me that lots of kids hadn't been forced to go to church, to be prayed over, to attend conferences where people were delivered from demons.
I have a lot to say. I think that maybe I'm still realizing that writing about this sort of thing is important, or at least that it's interesting. When I write about church, I still don't think that I quite understand the impact it has on people who are reading my words. So, if you're up for it, I'll start thinking about it more and trying my best to illuminate that part of my past.
I wish I had lots of pictures from that time, from inside the actual church. Here is a crappy one of the sanctuary. At least you can see the screen in the corner where the songs were projected. I was really there. It all really happened. That's a thing and it's hard to come to terms with, sometimes.