My mother once told me that I am the reason that she goes to church. When I was born I had a heart defect and the doctors told her that there was nothing to do, except hope that the defect would heal on its own. She prayed to god. If I survived, she would commit to going to church every Sunday. I survived. She makes me go to church every sunday. If I refuse, she reminds me of this story. If I continued to balk about getting out of bed, she would get sassy. “If you’re too tired to go to church this morning, you’re too tired to leave the house for the entire day!” This threat worked better than the guilt trip.
The truth is, no matter the odds of my mortality, my mother always went to church. Her brothers tell me that she opted for bible study instead of Japanese language school or swim class (her brothers took swim class). But it doesn’t matter. She believes in the romance of the parable of my healed-heart. This is how I learned that faith is about suspending belief in who everyone else knows you are. Everyone knew my mom would attend church every Sunday and they also knew she would pray to god for my health. The fact that she didn’t know that she would do this made my survival a revelation to her. And, it confirms her church-going as a religion.
Church services are boring. This statement is true and a reiteration of a resolve that formed early in my forced-church attendance career. That resolve was renewed weekly as part of a ritual my mother and I would complete in the hour and a half long service. I would begin by fake-whispering, “Mom… this is boring… I’m bored… How much longer”? The complaint would be near regular volume by the end of the first hour. Usually, I would enlist my brother in the petition. She would hiss something about silence and inappropriateness at we. We would be startled into silence for a few moments. Then, I would start writing, drawing, or pull out a magazine to read. At the time, I read Sassy and SPIN. Sometimes my mother would let me get away with these obvious inattentions. Sometimes she would fake-whisper to me to pay attention. If the pen and paper activities were nixed, I would get up to use the bathroom.
The bathroom was located in the parish hall adjacent to the church. It was an old building that smelled like a preschool – musty with children’s saliva and play-doh. While I was in high school the church had begun collecting money from its members to pay for extensive renovations. By the time I left for college the parish hall looked like the parlor of a rich old white woman. Indeed, most of the church members were rich, if not old and white. We lived in an ostentatiously multicultural suburban community of middle-class liberals. Every publication put out by the James Rouse Company (the sole developer of our suburb) featured happy brown and white people feeding ducks at a prettified park, raising their hands in schoolrooms, and living in well-appointed homes. Our houses had two-door garages and people talked about patio varnishes at parties because, of course, everyone owned multiple cars and had a patio. Multiculturalism did not mean a multiplicity of cultures in my hometown; it meant that suburban life can come in many colors.
By the time I got back to the church service they were well on their way to the communion. The orchestration of the crowd – the procession up and down the aisle, the food and drink – these activities actually got me into the appropriately docile mode of sheepish participation. But, by this time my mother was totally fed up with me. No good behavior was going to save me from her invective “when we get in the car”. When we finally got into the car (after the service, after the coffee hour, after the Sunday school session, and after my mother finished making plans to play bridge with her church-friends), she would yell at my brother and I on the drive home. It was always the same message. We acted inappropriately in church. We embarrassed her. This was her sanctuary at the end of the week and we ruined it for her. She would never take us to church again. But, we knew she would wake us up at 7am the next Sunday and progressively cajole, threaten and coerce us into going to a church service that would end with her swearing that she would never take us to church again. For any non-believer, this situation would have stopped after the first few relay runs. But not my mom. My mother has faith.
Another way my mom would try to manipulate me into engaging church life was to pay particular compliments to other teenagers in my cohort. Kristine Hecht was a favorite. She helped clear away the dishes after the coffee hour and was so enthused about Christianity that she attended bible study instead of Sunday school (I went to Sunday school). By the time we were in high school Kristine had run away from home with “a boy with a motorcycle and tattoos” and got pregnant. My mom stopped talking about her.
I confronted my mother when I heard about this. Our neighbor’s niece, Heather, was a childhood friend of mine who had upon puberty got pregnant, engaged, and moved into a trailer home with her boyfriend. During one of her sporadic visits to her uncle Heather stopped by our house to talk to me. She saw a neon green and pumpkin colored rug in the garage and asked if she could have it. My mom was happy to give it to her and, in her very motherly way, offered her other household items and asked after the expected baby. I asked; why did she congratulate Heather but censor Kristine? “They’re not the same,” was all my mom managed. I knew what she meant. She meant that she had different hopes for different people. If I had known what classism was, I might have told her that this was their difference. But I was sixteen and couldn’t even articulate my own difference, much less the difference my mother saw in others.
The other church-going kid that my mother loved was her best-friend’s son, Jerry Ryder. Jerry was handsome and talked to the adults about sports and mowed her mother’s lawn every weekend. I was an Asian teenage girl and didn’t feel like I had enough social capital to look down on Jerry, but I knew I didn’t trust him. Why would anyone want to be their parent’s version of perfection unless they had something to hide? Or, worse, nothing inside? I successfully avoided him until after college.
After college I decided to go to medical school. This turned out to be a bad and short-lived decision, but that’s another story. In order to go to medical school you have to go to interviews at the actual medical school campuses. I scheduled an interview at Ohio State University and, in order to save money, my mother arranged for me to stay with Jerry – who was finishing his degree in business. I agreed because I always agree to save money.
Jerry couldn’t pick me up from the airport because he had to study. When I got to his apartment, he was solicitous and carried my bag from the living room into his bedroom where – he explained – I could sleep while he took the couch. I sort of protested to be polite, although I really didn’t care. But, since he had conceded his bedroom to me, couldn’t I spare an hour to go out for a drink? His mother, after all, would expect him to show me around a little. This sounded like a really bad idea since I had an early morning interview, but I figured I could go and nurse a beer for a bit.
It was a worse idea than I initially thought. Jerry was boring. He was important and successful and admired and I heard this message from many, many angles until I suggested maybe he could stay out, but that I really had to go home and sleep. After a few rounds of negotiations, we got back to his apartment. I said good night and fell asleep in my clothes. Around 3am I felt a prodding on my shoulder. “Are you up?” he was asking me, “Do you want to hang out?” “Could you use a massage?” “Ugggghhhhhh!” I groaned loudly. Then I clutched the pillow around my head and wound the comforter tightly around me. Eventually he must have become bored or tired and went away. I slipped out in the morning before he woke up.
My friend, Matt was in a band that idolized Phish, Rush, the Grateful Dead and Wes Montgomery. This translated into a group of guys who smoked a lot of pot, dropped acid, and occasionally found sources for opium and greens. I loved hanging out with them because I was in high school and they had cars and drugs. For this reason, I thought that people in bands couldn’t be church people. And, by extension, their girlfriends couldn’t be church- people either. Matt knew a girl, Stephanie, who was sort of, but not, his girlfriend. She asked him to go to an overnight camp and since neither Matt nor I knew if camp counted as a date, he asked me to go too. As it turned out, the dating situation was the least weird part of it.
Matt and I showed up at the interfaith center to meet Stephanie. The name of the building didn’t clue us into anything because the interfaith center looked and acted like any other community center we knew. It was where things like AA meetings and D.A.R.E.-sponsored art exhibitions were held. We didn’t connect the “faith” part to anything. Ignorant of our insensitivity to the building’s purpose, Stephanie must have assumed that we knew we were going to church camp. Matt didn’t seem bothered by it and I decided it was more important to have a good time than to take a categorical stance against christianity. Besides, I didn’t have a ride and I couldn’t ask my mother to pick me up because she thought I was sleeping over at my friend Jessica’s house.
Church camp has lots of activities that all eventually wind down to a roomful of campers and a chaperone. The chaperone, Will, asked us to ‘make drawing of our lives’. I doodled a bit, making thorny bushes that shaded from black to dark blue and into green. The picture wasn’t meant to represent my life, but Will asked me to understand it that way. His request turned out to be a great opportunity.
“I’m coming out from a very dark place in my life. My parents are fighting a lot. I used to be addicted to drugs. I am confused a lot about what is right and wrong.” I was still drawing while I said this, but I couldn’t ignore Will’s increasingly rapt attention. So, I decided to deliver the killer lines. “But lately, I’ve found new hope. I’ve been going to church a lot more now. I think the love of Jesus is healing me.”
Will’s eyes were glassy – like a man in love – except creepier. I think if I hadn’t shifted into a non-huggable crossed-knee position he would have leaped on me to try to osmosicize my newfound faith. I filed away this subterfuge for a future storytelling occasion. Like now.
But the exchange sticks with me for another reason. It felt like evidence of something – that faith can be so easily faked. What bothered me was that faith’s link to reality is so frail that he misrecognized something mundane and worldly and real as a bored, angst-y teenager. It made me feel the invisibility and frustration of existing elsewhere – distorted and incorporated – in a story of religious faith that is not mine, nor his, nor a space we shared. This narrative of Christian revelation sucks on the surfaces of things to make creepy guesses at what is really inside and finds faith in anything that confirms that guess.
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