We went to dinner one night at the home of a couple who were friends with my mother-in-law. Lifelong friends. Church friends. After dinner, we gathered in the living room. There was a nice piano there, and the wife began to play. She wanted us to sing along with her. I like to sing, so I thought I’d join in. There was one problem.
“You don’t know any hymns?!” she asked me. She was stunned. Horrified.
I didn’t grow up in a religious home. My family was Catholic, but my mother was lapsed, and after she and my father divorced, we rarely set foot in a church. My father had been born and raised in the church, was an altar boy at Latin masses, etc., and was still active in the church despite being divorced. My friends and their families were all Catholic as well; I grew up in New Jersey in an area that was populated largely by Irish and Italian families. The kids around me all went to CCD classes during the week and mass on Sundays. I didn’t. I had a vague idea of what church was about. I knew about God and Jesus and praying and I knew the Our Father prayer. But we didn’t do “the church thing.”
When my mother and stepfather first got engaged, we attended a lot of random churches from a variety of faiths while they “shopped” for somewhere to have their wedding ceremony. These were difficult for me because I would be expected to attend the church’s Sunday School class with all the other kids. But I didn’t have the religious education that all the other kids did. Teachers would call on me to introduce myself and talk about my faith, and I had nothing to say. Kids would laugh because I didn’t know the answers to the questions the teachers asked.
My mother sent my brother and me to a babysitter during the week. She had a large family and also was sitter for a number of kids of varying ages. In the summer, a little Baptist church just down the road would have their annual Bible Summer Camp, and the sitter would send all of us—her own kids and all of the kids she was charged with watching—to the camp. Again, I was out of place. I remember them making us sit in a circle and “take Jesus into our hearts.” I went along with it, because that sounded like a good thing. I assume it was during these camp weeks that I learned what few prayers I knew. I know we did religious plays, but I don’t remember them.
Such was my introduction to religion.
When we moved in with our father in my early teen years, he was determined to bring us into the church. He made me attend a weekly group that was for people “converting” into Catholicism to teach them the ways of the faith. We also, of course, had to attend church every week. After a year I was “allowed” to receive my first communion and be confirmed on the same night. It was a big deal for my dad. Me, not so much.
In fact, technically, it wasn’t even my “first” communion. I’d gone to mass with a friend’s family in childhood and they’d encouraged me to take communion, although I had no idea why or what the “rules” of communion were. I’d never given confession. I took the wafer because that’s what everyone else was doing, but I had no idea why. I didn’t like the wine.
Once I was “officially” Catholic, I did everything in my power to avoid going to mass anymore. Dad wasn’t happy, but he didn’t push it too hard. My brother, however, who’d had problems with bullies in public school, Dad sent to the local Catholic school, where he believed my brother would be “safe” because “the nuns won’t let that happen.” Although he served as altar boy and seemed to do well in the school, years later my brother admitted that he’d hated the school and been subjected to even worse bullying there.
I don’t fault people for having beliefs. My problem with religion is the way in which parents indoctrinate their children very young and expect them to follow the faith, to never question and to be submissive to the orders of the priest/pastor because that is the “word of God.” My husband was raised in a small white Southern town where the predominant faith is Southern Baptist. It wasn’t until he’d gone overseas with the military that he met people of other faiths and races and began to question all the things he’d been taught since infancy. To this day, he is one of the few in his family who has left the church, dared to question. He’s the “black sheep,” a label he claims and wears proudly.
All this comes up now because I’m watching The Keepers, a Netflix docuseries about the unsolved murder of a nun in 1969 and subsequent revelations of severe sexual abuse by priests in her diocese toward students at the local Catholic high school. It’s not what I expected when I began watching it; I thought it was just another crime show about an unsolved case. But that story was just the teaser, the lead up, to the abuse stories. I’m several episodes in, and now they’ve gotten to the legal aspects and the question of “repressed memories” that dogged the litigation of such cases in the 1990s. It’s hard to see how very bad it was, and yet how very hard the archdiocese worked to suppress these women’s accusations and discredit them.
What I don’t understand about religion, specifically Catholicism, is the continued fervor with which some people still believe, the ways in which people still support and believe in and follow the church. My father began being disillusioned after the church refused to accept his wife, even though she’d attended the “conversion classes” as well, because he was divorced. Yet when he tried to have his marriage to my mother annuled, they’d “reviewed” his case over and over and would send letters every year or so requiring more and more money to “continue” their review. He gave up, and my stepmother never joined the church. Instead, my dad stopped going.
Another thing that puzzles me is the idea that people of faith are “good people” because they fear hell and eternal damnation. I’ve never felt that fear, yet I still try to be a good person. Being good to others and having love for others should not be forced or contingent on whatever “salvation” comes from it. These should be natural behaviors. Yet the church itself has hidden and obfuscated its own sins, the whole “Do as I say, Not as I do” mentality. How do people resolve that enough in their minds that they can continue to follow those leaders, those orders, those beliefs without question?
I suppose I’ll never understand it. I wasn’t brought up with it, I’m simply an outsider looking in. I’ve never felt any need to give my faith and time and money to buy my way into heaven. In the face of recent events, seeing the ways in which “Christian” people have turned their faith into an excuse for hate and discrimination, has only made me more sure of myself. I know I’m a good person. I know I try every day to do good things. I’m not perfect. I’ve made mistakes. A great many of my actions would be seen by the church as sins. But they are part of who I am. I make my own choices. And if there’s some all-powerful being up there in the sky deciding our fates and controlling what happens here on Earth, well…
Fuck him. Because too much shit has happened in this world to believe that there’s anyone up there who cares about us down here. The most religious, devout people I know have and continue to go through far worse in their lives than even the bad stuff I’ve dealt with. If there’s ultimately no benefit to that devotion except the “promise” of a peaceful afterlife, I don’t see the value of it.
We had lunch a year or two later with my husband’s aunt and uncle and that same couple. I started talking about how we’d recently found a new karaoke place down near where the couple lived. It was about 45 minutes from our own home.
When I paused, the wife spoke up.
“If you can drive all the way down here for karaoke, you can certainly drive here for church.”
It had been a year since we’d seen them. She had no idea whether we were going to church, any church, or not. Yet she still held that horror that I didn’t know any hymns and felt compelled to try to bring me to Jesus.
Believe what you want. Just stop trying to impose your beliefs on everyone else. We all have our own ways of facing the world. One is no more right or wrong than another. They’re just different. Practice what you preach. Love your neighbor. Do unto others. Be a good person because it’s the right thing to do, and for no other reason.