My boyfriend is a sort-of regular patron of religious services. He considers himself “spiritual” but “doesn’t necessarily agree with all the God discussion.” I went to church with him “because I love him.” Just because I love him and agreed to go didn’t mean I’d have to enjoy myself. But I did go in with an open mind.
The church that my boyfriend and I attended was nothing like the service I grew up with. But maybe that’s why I haven’t stepped foot in church in over ten years. The services of my childhood were long and boring. During those, my best friend and I would sit in the back pew writing notes to each other, playing tic tac toe, hangman, or any other game that could be created with paper and pen. I would spend my time planning the exact right time to go to the bathroom to miss a significant portion of the service. Basically, we would do anything except listen from 11am until noon-ish. I couldn’t tell you the subject of a single sermon during the time I attended church.
I think from the age of four, maybe younger I was required to attend church. It was an agreement between my parents that their children would go to go to church until the age of 13 and then they could decide if they wanted to continue. I should mention that my parents never attended church with me. I’m not bitter about it, but it is a little hypocritical, no? My Grandmother is extremely religious and loved nothing more than seeing her Grandson in church every Sunday and sitting right next to her (almost) every Sunday. As I grew up, I was often informed by her that sitting in the back pew and playing games was no longer acceptable. I longed for my younger days when paying attention was not required. I just wanted to be able to play with my toys, and/or color my coloring books.
There were many rituals involved in the service that my boyfriend took me to. I’d never been required to sit down and stand up so many times in an hour. The Pastor mentioned baptism in between our aerobics session and suddenly, my skin felt cold and clammy against the hard wood of the church pew.
At age five, my Grandma (Grams, as I call her sometimes) had a conversation with me after church as she drove me home. My Mom would usually drive me to church and my Grandma or someone else in the congregation would drive me home. Grams asked me casually on the way home if I’d “asked Jesus into my heart yet.” I told her I hadn’t and as I remember it, that was pretty much the end of the conversation. I didn’t have any questions for her about the process, but I remember feeling the implication that this question to Jesus was very important. I didn’t really understand how you could invite a person into your heart as though they needed a place to stay, but I trusted Grams that it was possible. Later that night I sat in my Mom’s recliner and while I watched TV (probably Empty Nest, Golden Girls or maybe The Sound of Music for the billionth time) I quietly said to myself, “Jesus, will you come into my heart?” That was that. Grandma said I should ask and I did just what she said.
Five years later, this interaction between me and Mr. H. Christ was risen again. My private conversation with Jesus was brought into question by my Grams, again. As she explained it, the church was having some sort of baptism class and Grams thought that I should attend. So I did. So did my best friend, the same tic tac toe partner that I mentioned before. We were also joined by a few others but I don’t remember much about them. My best friend to this day can tell you all about the woman she had class with and how much of her she saw, however.
I was once again confused by what Grams had coaxed me into. There wasn’t just one class, there were quite a few. The classes occurred once a week in the cold basement of my church. One of the first questions they asked me was who counseled me when I let Jesus in my heart. First of all, I was confused as to whether he was even in my heart. I’d asked him politely and he’d never responded. I left the door open, but I wasn’t sure if he had checked in at the front desk. I figured it was as simple as checking “yes” or “no” on the note I’d written but he never got back to me. I felt stood up for Christ’s sake. Literally.
Whether or not Jesus was living in my heart wasn’t the biggest problem I was having. They were asking who had counseled me, and I hadn’t sought counsel from anyone. I was an independent five year old… would someone really have to tell me how to ask a question? I’m pretty sure I knew how to do that. So instead, I stole my best friend’s story. I told the deacons that I’d been counseled the same night as her, after vacation bible school by the same exact person. I guess I wasn’t a very creative liar.
I went home after that meeting feeling extremely guilty. I knew that I had lied to numerous people at this point. It seemed like a pretty good lie, the woman who counseled my best friend no longer went to our church. They would have to do a little work to track her down for her story. She probably spent most nights after vacation bible school advising young people how to ask questions directly to Jesus. Besides, she was advanced in age and surely wouldn’t remember me. Still, I knew that I had to tell the truth. I spent days wracked with guilt (similar to my feelings about being a teenage catfish) and tried to figure out the best way to come clean.
Shit hit the fan during my final meeting before baptism. I was overwhelmed with guilt (normality for a churchgoer) about all the lies I was telling just to go for a swim with my pastor. It’s not that I was telling a lot of lies, it’s just that everything I said after the initial lie was based on that lie. Everything after the first lie was true, but it was negated by the first lie, so it was all lies. Before I knew it, there I was alone with all of the deacons in a small room to confirm my wishes to be baptized by the church. That’s when the word vomit happened.
In front of all of the deacons and my pastor, I confessed… sort of. I told them that I actually just asked Jesus to enter me on my own. I think I mentioned that it happened in the recliner, too. Apparently he’ll do it anywhere. They wouldn’t simply accept that. They asked if that was after I’d talked to the woman my best friend did and it just seemed easier to go along with their story. And it was probably true that I’d spoken with that woman at some point before I asked Jesus to vacation in my heart. So they knew the truth, but weren’t willing to accept it. I’d told the truth, and that’s all I could do.
Finally the day came to be dunked. There was a whole service dedicated to my baptism. The attention was amazing. Okay, it wasn’t only me being baptized, but still a lot of people came to see me drop down and get my baptism on. I imagined the entire service would be kind of like a carnival. I kind of hoped that someone would be there to throw a baseball at the target before I fell in and we’d all have a hearty chuckle. Maybe they’d miss a few times and we’d laugh at them not being man enough to sink me. Unfortunately, the service itself was fairly formal with my Pastor in robes and me in my sinning street clothes. I was probably wearing a Pooh t-shirt with jean shorts.
My clothing was not a problem before the service started. I got dressed at home in my Disney couture and I was quite confident while I was dry. After I climbed out of the dunk tank, my pastor and I had to go back to another room and change into dry clothes. I was the last person to get baptized, this meant that my Pastor would be changing at the very same time as me.
Changing in front of anyone else made me extremely uncomfortable. To some extent it makes me uncomfortable to this day. Long before I knew I was gay, I was curious about other males. Even at that age I remember sneaking a peek at him as he changed. I don’t remember being impressed by any means but I was a little shocked by his hair in an area I’d never imagined putting gel on. I was insecure enough to not want to be naked around him (or anyone) and so I refused to take my underwear off. I’m not implying he’d asked me to, I’m just saying I wouldn’t. If only I’d learned the trick I used all through college of putting my undies on under my towel. Instead I quickly put jean shorts on over my wet underwear.
I came back up to sit with the congregation and sat next to my Mom (she attended, but I don’t think my Dad did) and she was the only one who seemed to notice just how wet my shorts were. Or at least she was the only one to notice and ask me about it. My wet underwear were soaking the pew and probably doing a bit of water damage. But at least I wasn’t embarrassed…. or at least not enough to really care.
Sitting on the wooden pews of my boyfriend’s church, I couldn’t believe how over 15 years later, a church pew could make me feel like I was still wearing wet underwear.