Finding God

The following is a story shared with me by reader, Steve Slocum. His story is similar to many of us: ostracism, family trauma, the reinvention of belief. And a long, hard path to healing. I am grateful for his willingness to share his story here.

Please allow me to allow Steve to introduce himself:

Steve Slocum is the author of “Why Do They Hate Us? Making Peace with the Muslim World” (To be released March, 2019, www.whydotheyhateus.org). He is the founder and executive director of Salaam a nonprofit with the mission of creating friendship and mutual understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. Steve is a frequent speaker at churches, conferences, and civic groups.

 

Steve’s story:

I started my freefall into the mystical universe of religion when I was seventeen years old. On campus at the University of Arizona for my freshman year as a mechanical engineering student, I was captivated by the street preachers and began attending daily Bible studies in the grassy area outside of the student union. Like a dry sponge, I soaked up the uncompromising teachings of Jesus about forsaking all to follow him and loving God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind. I found in this radical church group both a satisfaction for the spiritual hunger which had been growing inside of me, and the approval that I had missed out on growing up. It was a bad combination. I fell deep.

I checked out from my family of origin and disappeared for two years into a small Bible school in the Midwest. In 1992, with a wife and three kids, I took my whole family to the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan to be missionaries to the Muslim world. The more extreme I became, the more approval I received from the church – and I craved the toxicity like a drug. At home, my marriage was terrible. We hated each other. But as a missionary, I got my first hit of Christian heroin. I was leading an exploding church movement of Muslim background believers. The Christian world took notice. I spoke at conferences, gave interviews, and was featured in a mission’s film. I was a rock star, mainlining on Christian fame.  I loved my life. There was just that nagging thing about my failing marriage.

Even though I was a true believer, I began imperceptibly taking my first steps away from the church. With Kazakhs coming to faith by the hundreds, I became concerned about imparting to them an Americanized faith – a faith tainted from its original purity. I began a fresh reading of the New Testament and performed a thorough sweep of my theology and practices. I wanted to eliminate anything skewed by my American culture.  As my quest continued, I wasn’t fully able to intellectually process my growing awareness of just how much of my understanding was based on the overlay of an American cultural grid on the New Testament passages. I just felt a growing uneasiness and a desire to set the Kazakh believers free to create their own practice.

My passion for allowing the Kazakhs to create their own expression within the context of their own culture led to disagreements with the missionary team leader, who was also the senior pastor of the church there. I ultimately decided that the disagreements were too major, and that I should leave the church and the ministry team. Within a week after telling the senior pastor about my decision, he openly shared specific details about my marital difficulties with the entire church – things that we had privately confided in him – and announced our excommunication. All members and coworkers were forbidden from visiting us. And none did.

At this time, my son was a high school student in the international school there. His teacher, also a member of the ministry team, was instructed by the senior pastor to bear down on my son in order to get him kicked out of the school. This did irreparable damage to his psyche. My son sank into a depression and never recovered. A few years after returning to the United States, he committed suicide.

My faith was coming apart like a rotating planet with the gravity turned off.  I started to realize that the concept of being “born again” was bogus. People who claim to exclusively possess the indwelling Holy Spirit act just the same as the people who don’t.  Myself, included. If we have God living in us, and others don’t, one would expect that we might be a little different, a LOT different.

I tried to hold onto my faith, but the final straw came when I chose to end my marriage. I found it strange that, though none of my Christian leaders and friends had lived a day in my shoes nor would stand before God to answer for me, they all knew that it was categorically sinful for me to end my failed marriage. I realized that they, and I, had been looking at the New Testament as a new Old Testament. Just a bunch of laws and rules. Nothing about the spirit of it.

Back home, I continued to go to church for the sake of my two daughters, but the fabric of the church had changed since we had left more than five years earlier. Now all the sermons seemed to be about the evils of homosexuality and abortion, the need to protect our families from our evil culture, and the need to vote Republican. And this was in 1999.

I left and never looked back.

With a still-forming understanding of God and the meaning of my life, a few things have become a little clearer. I believe now in maximizing my experience in this life, and finding God in her/his creation all around me. Some of the things that help me do that are nurturing the bonds of love in my family connections, deep friendships, and vulnerable communication. Realizing deep and lasting change in my own life and continual growth, absorbing natural beauty, and the arts with all my senses, and surfing.

 

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Close Call

Another new city, another new state, the third one in high school alone.  My sister had tickets to Hawaii and was taking my mother along for a vacation.  Preacher Dad took them to the airport in San Francisco, a couple of hours away.  He wouldn’t let me come along and then stayed overnight, doing whatever it was closeted gay men did in the 1980s.  That is how I found myself home alone on my 18th birthday, six weeks into a new place, knowing no one.  I had a car, a bright orange Pinto wagon that ran most of the time, and I remembered the way to the Casa Maria restaurant and bar. I was damned if I was going to sit in that house by myself, staring at the walls. Also I hadn’t had sex in three years.  I drove to the restaurant and walked in.  The bartender saw me, but before he could ask for ID, the only guy sitting at the bar said, “Come here.”  The bartender wouldn’t serve me.  We walked out together moments later, tried another bar, but I got carded again, so we cut to the chase.  We climbed in the back of the Pinto wagon, and he fucked me doggy style right there in the parking lot.  Afterwards, as I pulled myself together, he peed on the ground.  I watched the steam of urine flow underneath my shoe, a beige net peep-toe flat with a bow on the toe.  Terribly ugly.  He hopped into his sports car and drove off with Prince’s “1999” blaring through the window.  I went home to stare at the walls; the whole thing didn’t even take an hour, but I was pregnant anyway.

Back in those days, pregnancy tests were only available at doctor’s offices or clinics, nothing of the kind was sold over the counter.  The yellow pages and accompanying maps were a mystery to me.  I had no idea how to get to the free clinics in downtown Sacramento.  There was an ad for a free pregnancy test at a church nearby, so I made an appointment for 1:00 in the afternoon.  Told my mother I wasn’t feeling well, stayed home from school.  Feeling remarkably better at 12:45 as planned, I headed out to the “library.”  As I raised the garage door, I heard a voice behind me.  Turning, I saw a heavily made-up Asian woman standing on the sidewalk.  She said, “You know what means the word slut?”

“No” I responded, got in and shut the door as fast as I could; pulled the car out. She was gone.  Not on the sidewalk, not in a neighboring yard.  Vanished.  Hallucination?  Maybe.

I found the church, handed over my pee cup and was told that in exchange for the information I sought, I was required to watch an ant-abortion film.  When it started, I realized I had seen it before.  Off the hook!  My test results were negative, however it was too soon to really know for sure, she said.  I could still be pregnant and I knew it was true.  Knew that I was.

Days later, leaning against the church’s bathroom cubicle wall, twisting cramps contorting my body, I slid down the cold metal to a squat.   After catching my breath, I drove home and went to bed only to wake hours later with violent abdominal cramps.  PD was out of town. Mom called him, wondering what to do and PD instructed her to take me to the emergency room.  No questions, no exams, no x-rays later, I was sent home with possible pneumonia.

A day or so later, the cramps began again with terrifying force.  I called PD at work, “Come get me.” And he did.  We went to the nearest walk-in clinic.  There were questions this time.  The doctor said to go to the emergency room right now.  We did, I in my enormous lime green sweats that I wore to bed.  I knew this had something to do with being pregnant, but had no idea what.  While waiting for a turn in the ER changing room, Dad asked if this was the first time I had had sex.  I told him about my first boyfriend.  He didn’t say anything.

In the changing room, my head started to spin and I had to sit down, unable to undress.  The ultrasound technician came in to see if I was ready, but I could no longer stand.  She helped me onto the ultrasound table; turned the machine on.  Instantly she was on the phone, urgency in her voice; words I could not decipher.

Wheeling down the hall, operating room, bright lights, lime green sweats shredded with scissors, masked faces, count backwards.

Recovery room.  Slide from the gurney to the bed.  Really?  So far away.

Someone explained later that I had an ectopic pregnancy and my fallopian tube had ruptured.  I was lucky to be alive.  The ultrasound technician came to visit, stood at the foot of my bed, still pale and shaken, surprised I had survived.  I remember the metal staples across my lower abdomen, a sponge bath, snarky birth control comment from the nurse.  PD stopped by to read bible verses.  My sister came to see me, but not Mom.  No conversation, just a big fat Holy Shit atmosphere.  Silence.  I found out years later that PD did not tell my mother why I was hospitalized; would not allow her to see me.  He told her she didn’t need to know and forbid her to talk to me about it. I certainly wasn’t going to bring it up; I knew how ashamed they were of me.  And how angry.

Six weeks home from senior year, no one noticed when I went back. I had been a new face, anyway.

Nothing was ever said to me about what happened, except when the insurance bill came.  I needed to make monthly payments to dad for the $3000.00 deductible.  They barely got the new health insurance paperwork filed in time.  It was a close call.

Later, I asked PD why he didn’t sue the first hospital for negligence.  He said he would have if something had happened.

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.