Religion can be a sensitive topic.
It’s funny when you have a photographic memory, the recollections you have from childhood. My first encounter with Religion and the church was a difficult lesson for a young kid. I can still envision one very specific Sunday as if it was yesterday.
I grew up in a household where Religion was far from a priority. My dad was a self-proclaimed Atheist and my mother was United. My two siblings and I used to attend the Church of the Nazarene, as part of a Youth Group because we knew other kids that went. Sunday mornings we would get up on our own and catch the school bus that parked near our house, to ride to the brand new church in the prairie. Mom and dad never even heard us leave, while they slept off their hangovers from Saturday night drinking.
At a time when the church was new to our city, it’s primary focus was to recruit new members. In order to do that, they required us to bring a friend with us on Sundays. With our friends along, they offered incentives such as chocolate bars, ice cream treats, picnics, and one time- a hot air balloon ride.
I will never forget how excited I was the morning of the hot air balloon ride. I invited my friend and she slept at my house the night before, so we could jump on the bus together in the morning. I could hardly sleep I was so excited. We woke up at 7 am and were standing at the church’s bus stop by 8.
We attended the morning Sunday school class, as per usual, and the leader of the class started to call us out, in partners, by name. Once two names were called, she took two children at a time outside in the warm fall air, to have their ride. We couldn’t watch the balloon out the window, but I imagined it was glorious! My friend and I were about 7 at the time, and we giggled in anticipation, tightly holding hands awaiting our names to be announced.
She didn’t call our names.
The next thing we knew, we were ushered out of the classroom to our usual bus line, to board and go home. Neither my friend or I knew what was happening. I could see her starting to cry and I hugged her and cried with her, as we got on the bus. Our teacher sat in the next seat and I was very obviously sobbing beside my friend. I felt like my entire world was falling apart. I never got to do anything fun at that age and often never even had friends to play with. I lived in an old house where friends rarely visited, with siblings 5 and 6 years older than me, so everything I did was alone.
The teacher wouldn’t even look at her crying students. Not even a glance. Finally, I took a deep breath and asked her, “Why didn’t we get to go in the balloon, Miss Cathy?” I could barely talk between my nose running and tears trickling down my cheeks.
She looked at my sweet friend beside me and pointed at her impolitely and with conviction, “Because she has already been to the church before. Only new friends are allowed to go.” The look of disdain on her face made me tremble from my toes to my forehead.
That was her answer. She went right back to looking straight ahead out the bus windshield, without further discussion or compassion. My friend and I held hands and cried all the way home. We both felt afraid of that teacher, angry at the church and shunned.
I never went back to that church after that.
My heart was too broken and I felt soiled by the church. I felt betrayed by an institution we were supposed to trust. I felt cheated and my friend felt guilty and ashamed. I knew she had gone to the church with her parents prior to this, but she had only gone once and her parents determined it wasn’t a good fit. The only reason they agreed to let her go this time was because of the bribe. I would assume, looking back, that they were making an attempt to punish the little girl because her parents opted out of the church. They wanted the 7-year-old to feel punished for her parent’s disloyalty.
Even as I write this now, I can feel the sting of humiliation behind my eyes. How dare they treat two children like that?
As I grew up, I learned more about the Church of the Nazarene in our city. I knew that some of the friends I had met there, came from families with a lot of money. I recall a couple of girls in my Sunday school class coming in the most beautiful clothing I had ever seen. They were always chosen as special helpers for the teacher. I was never picked.
I came to church in the best clothes I had. My parents never had much money for my clothing, so I wore hand me downs from the neighbor down the street or from my sister. They always fit too big and draped on my thin body, but I didn’t care. They were just clothes. The other girls whispered about me, but I wasn’t there to be popular. I was there to learn about church and win bribes for taking friends with me. The only time I ever actually saw a prize for having a friend along was when I first started. I was “the friend” of a girl who came from a wealthy family. She brought me with her on a Sunday morning and as soon as we got on the bus together, the driver handed us each an “Oh Henry” bar. I remember thinking, “Wow, this church is great!”. (I rarely saw chocolate bars in our house as a child).
The global mission of the Church of the Nazarene since its beginnings has been “to respond to the Great Commission of Christ to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19)”.
Shortly after that day, that girl no longer attended the church, so I went alongside my sister and brother. They were never given any treats for having friends with them either. In fact, I recall my brother accusing me of lying when I told him the bus driver had given me an “Oh Henry”. He had never been given anything and got “in trouble” regularly for not having money to give his teacher. When he said he got in trouble, I knew what he meant. I witnessed our teacher making children stand in the corner, or getting a swat across their butts for speaking out of turn or for not standing in line to donate their quarter. I typically had a small handful of change that I stole off of my parent’s nightstand, to put into the special gold plate.
Occasionally I didn’t have change, and a nice lady who always sat beside me would slide a quarter into my hand as she stood up to stand in the lineup. I never knew who she was, but I wish I could thank her for helping me avoid punishment. She must have known my circumstances and understood somehow. She always smelled of roses and soap.
Coming from a home where we hardly had money and where I grew up basically on my own, from age 8 to 18, I was often picked on at school and bullied because of my siblings, and my house. I remember kids making jokes that we lived on the “wrong side of the tracks” and as a youngster, I never understood what they meant. We had railroad tracks in our small town, but they were on the highway. We all lived on the same side of the“tracks”. Now, of course, I know exactly what she was implying.
Older kids in my school would also pick on my hair or clothing, and call me “poor and dirty”. In our small town, everyone knew everybody else, and bullying was “cool” back then. I thought that going to church would be the one place, and time, where kids my age didn’t know where I came from. It was in the city, 20 minutes away from home and on the outskirts. I longed to have new friends and learn new things. I wanted to be a part of something that I could believe in and trust.
I know that this isn’t an example of the way that ALL churches operated. I know that churches are so much better than what I had experienced, but the Nazarene traumatized me in a way that scarred me. They read all of these Commandments and lessons and teach children about how to treat others. It all sounds wonderful, being read from the Bible. But the practice that they preached to us, was the opposite.
Also, this was back in the mid-1970’s and what was acceptable as practice then, would no longer be tolerated.
When I was married, I attended courses in the United Church where my Grandmother was married and where I spent Kindergarten. I needed to be baptized to be married; it was a pre-requisite, in order to be wed under their roof. I learned a lot about religion through that course, and my husband and I made it a habit to attend the church for Christmas and Easter. I wouldn’t say we were devout, but I believed that it was a much more trustworthy institution than the Nazarene.
As I matured into adulthood, religion still left a lot of questions and fears in my heart. I wanted to be a part of the “social’ aspect of it, but I always felt like it was not a belief system that it was leading up to be. I have attended various church ceremonies over the years, but that damn Nazarene teacher and everything that encompassed the system there still haunts me.
Still, to this day when I walk into churches, I feel judged and awkward. I feel like that dirty, poor, child again and that everyone is staring at me with pity.
I understand why people need a church and God. I truly do, but there are so many other ways to be a faithful, good person.
I pray daily. I have faith. I have hope for mankind and I regularly read and hear what various belief systems and organizations have to share. I look to the universe for guidance. I follow the golden rule.
I also help where I can with friends who attend church – working in shelters and soup kitchens. I give to homeless and abused women and men whenever I have something to give. I work in a protective field to ensure children are in safe environments.
I may not be religious in a particular faith or system or in the traditional sense, but I am a kind person and a decent human being. I am pretty sure God is okay with that.
One day I will ride a hot air balloon.