Love Notes

I received this message on Facebook and got permission to share. These notes come to me occasionally and remind me why it is so important to SPEAK.  For years I would have given anything to know I wasn’t alone; my heart is full knowing that somebody out there needs to hear what I have to say. 

“I received my book yesterday at work (the girls were excited for me) and devoured it when I got home last night. The girls at work want to borrow it but I told them to buy their own copy to support you. (Sometimes lent books don’t find their way back home too)
It was such a great read, so relatable. My heart broke for you and healed all in a matter of hours. Such strength, Ronna❤️ Thank you again for putting your story out there. Thank you again for being there on exchristian.net when I needed you years ago. You gave me the strength and validation to sort out my feelings and to realize that I’m a great person and that all spiritual shit fed to me was bullshit. Abuse. That it kept me questioning my good self for almost 5 decades. Whatever your reason was to write this book, will impact your readers on a healing and life changing level, I’m sure.
Thank you for being a puzzle piece in my life! Much love!”

hearts

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Missionaries In The Basement

When I was growing up we had missionaries in the basement.  They came and went with their stories and pictures; invading my play space and filling my head with images of other people and places.

Preacher Dad was employed by “Headquarters,”  the very big and important administrative center for the United Pentecostal Church.  He was in charge of the foreign missions department.  I have no idea what he did, really, other than travel a lot.   I do know that my parents converted our basement into a private bedroom and bath for missionaries on furlough.  Furlough happened every four years for those missionaries assigned to other countries.  They came home for one year to see family and raise funds for their next four years.  Their first stop was Headquarters, where I assume there was some sort of debriefing process. All I know is they stayed in our basement.

A few of them stood out.

The Herdmans had spent many years in Africa.  They actually spoke Swahili, which they would use if I encroached into their space with my big listening ears.  It was a fascinating language to hear, like music with kissing sounds thrown in.  Brother Herdman had a big wide face and a smile to match, Sister Herdman was a bit stern but not unkind.  They taught the African women to cover their bodies; to dress the way American Jesus said you were supposed to.  The African women put on the requisite white tee shirts they handed out and promptly cut holes in them for their breasts to hang through, so that their children could nurse.  I guessed they missed the point.  The Herdmans clearly loved Africa and the people there, despite the fact that they went there to save them from themselves.  There was always a slideshow, sweating black men in long sleeved shirts, ties and trousers, faces glistening in the sun, standing in front of a barren churchyard and cement block church sporting a UPC sign.  I always thought they had taken something interesting and made it not.

Then there was Brother Johns, a missionary to the Philippines.  He had a big personality, a natural entertainer and storyteller.  He would play our piano with gusto and joy, making up songs as he went.  If he made up a verse about me, the warmth of his personal spotlight created a glow that only faded when his attention moved to one of my sisters.  We all got a turn, Brother Johns was cool that way.  He brought beautiful Philippine dolls in beaded dresses with shining black hair made of thread.  And he couldn’t ever drink orange soda because once, on a very hot and thirsty trip in the heart of the Philippines, he bought an orange soda from a roadside stand and got very sick.

There was a constant flow of visitors and souvenirs, and while my personal world was so small that I wasn’t allowed in the neighbors’ houses, there was a sense of adventure and awareness of other cultures that broadened my perspective.  My father came home from trips abroad smelling like smoke from the airplane and my sisters and I would attack him for the gifts he always brought, most long since lost:  wooden carvings from Africa, glass from Israel, copper from Rhodesia, china from England, crystal from Germany.  I didn’t know it then, but he had several life insurance policies in case he was killed during his travels.  It was a volatile time and he was realistic about the odds.

So he traveled and he preached, with an interpreter.  During my ninth summer, the family went along on a six week trip to South America.  Our first stop was Ecuador.  We traveled by truck, through the jungle and high into the mountains to a camp where church services were held with Preacher Dad as the guest speaker.  The open air revival tent was filled with native Ecuadorean highlanders in beautifully woven garments, beaded necklaces piled from shoulder to chin and loose tops for nursing children of all ages.  That was the first time I ever saw a breast; a small child walked up to his mother, took her breast out and suckled while she calmly continued peeling an orange.  This blew my mind.  I lived in a home with four females and had literally never seen a nipple other than my own.  Some adults were my size at age eight.  The babies were so beautiful it hurt.  So were the young men; brown skin, brown eyes, black hair, easy smiles… I was lust-struck.  There were communal tents for the families that came to the revival and in one, a baby was born.  He was named Donald after my dad.

Locusts the size of ballpoint pens were everywhere.  Revivalists were fed soup out of a huge metal barrel, black liquid with unknown substances floating in it.  I was relieved to know that we were not allowed to eat it.  I questioned why the Ecuadorean women were allowed to wear jewelry and was told something along the lines of “they didn’t know any better.”  It’s so hard to justify black and white rules to an eight year old.

In Argentina we stayed at the home of the Richardsons, missionaries in Buenos Aires.  One evening the adults went to a church service, leaving the children from both families home.  During the evening, we heard booming, explosions.  The next day we drove along the street and saw bombed out buildings.  It was 1974.

In Brazil, we saw voodoo shops, which struck terror into my heart.  My parents snuck into a sacred park area to watch a “witch” go into a trance and cast a “spell.”  They returned shaken and stirred.  People who protested the presence of the missionaries left chicken feathers on their doorstep.  This was solid evidence of the work of Satan.

Missionaries were not there to understand another culture, but to spread the word of god.  Their belief in their mission was very real and I believe they were well-intentioned and good-hearted people, if misguided in their religious arrogance.  Certainly, they were brave.  Despite my perspective on the concept of missions now, I am forever grateful for their stories that shed such light into the sequestration of my childhood.

*Names have been changed to avoid anything that might happen if I don’t.

 

The Rapture and Other Bedtime Stories…

The second coming of Christ was presented as a real and present danger of everyday life.  Jesus could return at any moment, with one loud trumpet blast by way of announcement. If you were not saved you would be left on earth, which would become hell, complete with Satan, fire and demons, where you would burn forever and ever.  Everyone who had followed directions would be whisked away to heaven and it was all going to happen in the blink of an eye.  Let’s just say I had some anxiety as a child.

Everyone was going to hell when the rapture took place, except for the handful of earth’s population who belonged to the United Pentecostal Church.  No other Christians of any flavor, nor even other Pentecostals if they were not part of the UPC sect, would be saved.  Period.  No salvation for you.  Once, when I was a kid, I asked my mother about people in other countries who had never heard about Jesus.  Would they go to hell?  Missionaries were a big deal, we heard a lot of stories about their coercion of poor brown skinned folks in other lands.  Mom said that was too bad for them.  Their ancestors shouldn’t have rejected God.  Thus the big push for missionaries, I guess.  This seemed remarkably unfair to me.  All those people were going to burn in hell forever and ever without having had the chance to choose Jesus.  I mean, if you personally rejected him, then you had it coming.  But to never have heard and still have to pay?  Rough.

The constant fear of the rapture could only be assuaged by being saved in a very specific way.  There were three steps:  repentance, baptism by complete submersion and speaking in tongues, in that order.   Repent for your sins and volunteer to be dunked in Jesus’ name.  You could not be dunked in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, as that was acknowledgement of the Trinity, which was basically evil.  All three were one and the same and it mattered a lot.  They were absolutely not three separate beings and to believe otherwise was blasphemy.  You had to get the wording right or it didn’t count.  The last step, speaking in tongues, was by far the hardest.  You could repent and be baptized easily enough of your own free will, but receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost was beyond your control.  It seemed to happen to people during periods of free form worship during church.  Hands raised, eyes closed, praying out loud.  The Holy Ghost was supposed to take over your tongue and make you speak in another language.  Not a real language, just gibberish.  Apparently, you had to be praying out loud for it to happen.  I don’t think you could be praying silently and the HG would activate your vocal cords.  In retrospect, I’m not real clear on that.

Anyway, I repented about a million times for my kindergarten sins and got baptized when I was six.  The water in the baptismal was warm, which I was happy about; although it was weird to be wet in a long white robe.  I got good pats on the head for it, though.  Now, to get the Holy Ghost.  I prayed and prayed and prayed… seven years later… still nothing.   No unseen force ever took over my tongue.  Not once, not even close.  Finally, I just faked it and called it good. I knew it wasn’t real, knew I was just forcing babble out of my mouth and the deep unsettling fear of being an unsaved faker hung like smoke from the fires of hell.  Not really, I don’t remember worrying about it all that much.  As a matter of fact, it was kind of a load off because people stopped asking me if I had the Holy Ghost yet.  I stopped being afraid of hell about that time, in early adolescence.  Started smelling the bullshit.

Up until then, the fear of hell was real.  I couldn’t go to sleep at night, especially after church.  Preacher after preacher, especially those goddamn traveling evangelists, would tell tall tales of untimely deaths and tragic accidents.  If only they had come to Jesus right before that truck hit ‘em!  They would wax eloquent, in great detail, about the torture and flames of hell and how those things would feel.  Some preachers said the rapture would save us all in the nick of time from the horrors of the Book of Revelations. My dad said he didn’t believe we were going to get out without a scratch; meaning some of us would be tortured and killed for our beliefs before the rapture.  So he was no help getting to sleep.

There was a traveling evangelist named Brother Richard Heard.  He would visit the church, preaching nightly, sometimes for weeks at a time.  The Rapture was his thing.  He could scare the shit out of you before halftime.  I distinctly remember him saying, “I don’t think we are going to see 1977.”  It was 1976, I was 10 years old and had to sing myself to sleep with happy little tunes to shut out the voices.

One Saturday morning, I slept in.  When I got up the house was quiet, my parents having gone about their day.  It felt eerily empty.  I thought the rapture had taken place and I was completely alone. I ran down the hall, heart pounding, with a scream in my throat until I saw my sister asleep in bed.  TERROR.

Loose Demons

Church was alternately deathly boring, terrifying and randomly exciting.  One of the exciting events was when Brother Romig, a little wiry guy with horn-rimmed glasses and slicked back hair, would become moved by the spirit and cannon-shoot down the left aisle of the auditorium, through the double swinging doors at the back, do a 180 in the vestibule and race back up the right side aisle to the pulpit.  Then he would pace the platform swinging a hanky above his head and saying stuff out loud, not sure what exactly, praise-y gibberish.  You never knew when it was coming, but when he was leading worship and things were heating up, you just hoped.  Sometimes the ushers at the back would see him coming and get to the doors in time to open them for him.  If not, he just burst right through.  When the atmosphere was thusly charged, oftentimes women would also become moved by the spirit and stand up, arms raised, eyes closed.  Their bodies’ would convulse, quick chest thrust out, then contract, arms waving.  If the first convulsion took, more would follow in quick succession, accompanied by speaking in tongues and weeping.  Sometimes, they would take it a step further and start to twirl and dance around, or convulse in circles, bumping into people and pews.  They sincerely must have gone home with bruises, unless they could be pushed out from between the pews and into the aisle.  The beehive hairdos could not hold up to the head jerking and would start come down, hairpins flying.  This was called shouting your hair down and was considered to be a good thing, if somewhat amusing.

When church was boring, which was mostly, I would stare up at the wood beamed ceiling, allow my eyes to follow the boards, searching for one without a seam; a beam made of a solid piece.  Or lie under the pew looking for gum, checking out the ladies’ high heels.  Or watch the optical illusion of the preacher’s head growing smaller and farther away (think Kids in the Hall “I’m crushing your head”).  Or fantasize about the teenage boy playing the drums.  Or any of the other teenage boys.  I was watching them, crushing on them well before 8 years old, but that’s another story.

The terrifying parts came, too, such as the time a young man of unknown origin came to service.  It was announced that he was possessed by a demon.  He knelt at the altar in front of the entire church with every man in the place surrounding him, laying their hands on his head and praying loudly.  They were determined to cast out the demon.  My fear was that that they would succeed, setting a demon loose in the church.  THEN WHAT?  What would it look like?  Would it immediately seek another host?  Why were we all sitting here?  It was going to COME OUT!!  Terror.