I walked into church with David and it was like coming home. I don’t mean that in the sense that phrase is usually meant. I mean it was like coming to my home. I was surrounded by people giving me looks I have gotten ever since adolescence. How do you describe how well you can know architecture you’ve never seen? Because after all, it doesn’t matter. It’s all built the same, the pews are the same as a million places I’ve been in my life. Most of my churches had chairs but somehow they are also the same. We sat in the balcony overlooking the audience and I was overwhelmed by the feeling that this was every church I had ever been in at every time I had ever been there. That if you transplanted any church congregation here, switched them out with any other, it would not matter. They would all look exactly the same. The same teenagers being quietly bored, the same elders listening with intensity or kindness, the same Baby Boomers looking on, mourning the next generation.
A couple of songs are sung, I know them both and refused to sing. Because once upon a time this meant something to me, once upon a time I loved to do this and I will be damned, and take that as you will, if I am going to stand and sit and sing on queue anymore. I won’t pretend. People shook my hand and greeted me before and after and with a couple exceptions they were so generic to me I could not pick them out of a line-up. These are church people. They are kind to me right now because I am new blood and because it is their job. You can see it in their eyes and smiles and it is intensely familiar to me but also extremely meaningless. They are hoping to save me.
I remember with a clarity that is hard to describe the way it felt to walk into the room as an adolescent. People giving me kind and mostly understanding looks. I walk in now, an adult but with my hair dyed and my skin pierced and tattooed and I know that they know me. They have marked me and seen me and I feel the box around me before a word is spoken. They know who I am and there is nothing I can say that will make it better. I remember what it feels like to not be taken seriously, to know that I am pushing the wrong buttons and wondering the wrong things. I remember why I spent so much of my life feeling not smart enough, knowing I was doing it wrong. I am a thirty year old woman but one walk into this room and I am sixteen years old all over again. Home is where my voice can’t be heard.
I sit in that balcony and I listen to the preacher talk of death and destruction and murder, I listen as he calmly explains the necessity of the torture of the end for those who don’t follow this God’s path. I look out over everyone and I see nothing. There is no reaction. He tells us we will all be swept up into heaven while billions of people burn and there is a murmur of joy. I am sick, I am quiet, I am cold. I can’t judge because I know exactly how they feel. I know that just as I was once trained to sit in these pews, I was trained to not think about the phrase “billions dying.” I was trained to believe in hell but never think about it too deeply, trained to read Bible stories and never see the brutality as anything but God’s will, as necessity, as kindness even. It’s deadening and it strips you of your empathy.
You see, someone told me I was evil and I believed them. It’s impossible to explain to you now what it’s like to sit on the other side and hear the rhetoric now. What I hear now is not a message of love but a story of a sadist and our justification for him. It is not a message of grace or love or justice, it’s a story of capriciousness, of a being who commits murder and torture and every other evil under the sun with impunity in the name of love. And I am the most horrified to hear it now and realize I wasn’t horrified before.
I find myself wondering about the realistic possibility of safe spaces in this place. I wonder if it is even possible to create them when you’re coming to the table with so much baggage, when to judge is a moral imperative. A couple of these people seem genuinely kind and I appreciate that, but there are numerous things I could say that could change that interaction. I’ve been attempting with a comical lack of success to find girls to sleep with for a while now, for example. (Sin – harder than you think.) Or perhaps, I am in a poly relationship with one of your former congregants. Those are just a couple, the biggest of my most obvious things are sexual at the moment, but I’m sure closer conversation would uncover dozens more. I just am not sure how you create safe and open environments when one party believes that the wrong decisions are sending you to eternal damnation, or at least annihilation (Adventists don’t believe in hell, which is one point in their favor, but being burned to a cinder is not actually the most awesome fate either). There’s no space at the table to listen when one side is already convinced.
I’ve become so accustomed to fighting for safety, to discussing open conversations and ways to make those involved feel secure. That never ceases to be a beautiful thing to me but it is not as miraculous as it once was when I was first feeling the world opening up. I got so used to the insulation I was born in, I was astonished when I discovered there were places in the world that were so kind and so open and so caring. I walked in and I felt like I was coming home. And I remembered every reason that I left.