Tuesday, July 24, 2012

No Church in the Wild

"The single greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable."                                                               
                -Brennan Manning

Without delving into my confusing and often chaotic religious upbringing, let's just say that I have good reason to abhor organized religion. I saw a bumper sticker that read "I've got nothing against God. It's his fan club I can't stand" and I completely agree. The hypocrisy and hatred that flows form the pulpit and the pews of most churches makes my blood boil. I know it isn't every church, but in my experience...it is.

Names have been changed of people and organizations.

When my family moved to El Paso in 2002, we struggled to find a church to call home. After two or three failed attempts to "belong", everyone had pretty much given up. I enjoyed the church-less family we had become. For once I felt like everything I did wasn't being judged and scrutinized by people who were more righteous (in their own minds). I probably went to far. Smoking, drinking, dating a boy who didn't deserve me and then some. I was ill-equipped to deal with my new found freedom of religious limitations. 

A few of my co-workers at a national coffee chain all attended the same church and were constantly pestering encouraging me to attend a bible study of sorts that they called Small Group. One night, after a particularly bad fight with Terrible Boyfriend, I decided to go. I wasn't going to play chauffeur to him and his loser friends, I was going to go to church. Bizarre logic, I know, but over the mountain I went in search of Intersection. 

Intersection was a church seed off of a bigger church on the same side of town. From what I had been told, the pastor, a man named Coral, had started the church as an outreach for youth in the troubled area. It was initially a coffee house out of a warehouse and a back-alley that served as an alternative to running the streets. It grew into a church and by the time I wandered into the same warehouse, it had been roughly ten years since it's conception. 

I immediately liked what I saw. A coffee bar to my right, tables and chairs next to it, an open sanctuary beyond that decorated with graffiti wall murals and mismatched chairs. It was everything the church of my upbringing was not. Even though I saw no one, I felt welcomed and comfortable. Then Gulp popped up. Gulp was a mid-20's hipster looking fellow. He had glasses and dark hair and scared the living shit out of me. "Hey," he said. "Are you looking for something?" I laughed off my initial shock and introduced myself. I explained that my coworkers had invited me as Gulp nodded and looked me over. I was immediately skeezed out as he stopped at my chest and his gaze didn't leave. 

Slowly, other Small Group members arrived and I began to feel more at ease. Erica, one of my co-workers, was there with her husband, the leader of the group, Ernie. Her BFF, also named Erica joined us and seemed friendly. They were excited I had come and quickly whisked em away from the lecherous paws of Gulp. Mal and Fanny were also there and were closer to my age. Mal was full of energy and an aspiring singer, while Fanny was a college student who had been going to Intersection since it's beginning. Fuzz, brother of Erica 2, was another longtime member of Intersection and good buddies with Gulp. It was a great night and I felt really renewed. It was possible to love God and not be surrounded by crazies.

Over the next few months, I began attending Intersection regularly and eventually my family joined. It was a far cry from anything we were used to. There was a 15 minute break between worship and the sermon to allow the smokers a quick cigarette. No. Lie. Pastor Coral would often stand outside and shoot the shit with us. One sermon in particular did it for me. Coral preached about the prodigal son. I thought "Wow, that was for me" and I was hooked. It was a judgement free zone. That should have been a red flag, but I liked when he would describe us as a "beer church." After all, I was a beer drinker. 

The more I immersed myself in the Intersections culture, the more I really thought I found a place I belonged. I could still drink and smoke and have too good of a time on Saturday night, but come Sunday morning, no one was judging me and there wasn't guilt like there would have been in the church(s) of my youth. I became pretty close with Fanny, we hung out all the time. She was more timid than most of my friends and I think she liked that I was her token wild friend. She never told me I should smoke or drink less, seemed to delight in my retelling of whatever guy I was currently seeing. Living vicariously through me was her favorite past time.

On Sunday, I really loved God. I felt His presence when I sang and praised Him. Over and over, Coral would tell us how grateful we should be for God's love, that He forgives anything. But no sermons on NOT acting in a way that would require forgiveness. Not that that's an excuse. I was raised to know better, I chose to go the other way. But Intersection made it okay for me to keep going. It was almost encouraged. 

And Gulp was ever present. He was a creeper, no doubt, but in my fragile state of religious confusion he picked and picked until he wormed his way into my life. Fanny and Fuzz were constantly making fun of him. His supposed friends, now laughing at his every pathetic attempt to hit on me, seeking out the gossip on Sunday morning, but hanging out with him as if they didn't just laugh at him. Fuzz was equally as creepy. I started playing poker with the group of Intersection guys and Fuzz dubbed me "9 to 5" as my poker nickname...yes, because of my rack. Real Christian like, huh? 

It got much worse. The Erica's, though older than the rest of us, were the biggest group of mean girls the religious world has seen. They were jealous of any pretty young thing that walked through the warehouse doors. They were passive aggressive and would start rumors, judge the other mothers in the church (Erica and Ernie were parents, not Erica 2), and anytime I would walk by them, the conversation would stop like they had just been talking about me. Rachelle, married to Shawn, was a frequent target of their cattiness. The things they said about her behind her back were horrendous. I remember one incident at a summer festival, a girl from another church was there who was gorgeous. She could have been a model. But Erica 1 noticed this too and treated her horribly. She made a big scene about the girl giving her dirty looks. Come to find out, the girl had shingles and her face was paralyzed in a half-scowl. I tried to explain this to Erica 1 but she continued treating her like a bitch. 

And then their was our Amish drummer, Joe. He always made me uncomfortable, and not just because Fanny was pinning away for him and he ignored her. He stood too close to you when he spoke to you. He looked through you as if you weren't worth of his time. His eyes were never right. I'll leave it at that.

Gulp got more brave. He started telling me that he and I getting together was God's plan for our life. Seriously. I thought "Isn't it funny that God is telling us different things?" He kept at it and any time I shunned his advances, he would tell me I needed to get closer to God. I, in-turn, got closer to a bottle and some cute Army guy because the more her tried to prophesy over my life the more I wanted away from the church. Instead of offering comfort or sound biblical advice, Fanny would just gossip about what I had told her. Gulp began spreading rumors about me as well. I finally had enough, and with the backing of my mother, went to Pastor Coral.

I told him everything. Yes, I probably led Gulp on a bit at first. It was funny and I was encouraged to do it by Fanny and Fuzz. I didn't like him that way and he had been told many times but he kept coming. I told him about his words from the lord about us being together, I told him about the times he would insinuate I was a godless whore because I went on a date with someone who was not him. I told him how alone I felt because it was cool for everyone else to hate Gulp, but if I did it, I was some trouble-making outsider. I cried as I sat across form Coral's desk for what seemed like forever. Coral took a deep breath and proceeded to tell me quite the tail about Gulp.

This wasn't the first time he had religiously strong-armed a girl. He had been warned about this on more than one occasion. He told me how sorry he was that this happened and if I had come to him sooner, he could have stopped it. It didn't comfort me. It infuriated me. Gulp was still in a position of leadership in this church and they knew of his predatory behavior towards females? What the holy heck? He assured me he would take care of it with confidence attached and I left. But what happened? I became the bad guy. Gulp started rumors that I showed up to church hungover, or would miss because I was too drunk. It spread to the other church too. I brought it up to Coral, but it didn't stop. There was always a smile to my face but whispers as I walked away.

I joined the Air Force in 2005 and before leaving I planned on one last "Fuck you all!" to my Intersections betrayers. I refrained because my mother and sister still attended. While I was away, serious shade was thrown in their direction as well. Baby Sis went on an Intense Camping Mission with Erica and Ernie, Erica 2, and a few other members of the youth ministry. Or should I say clinging to their youth ministry, since the only teens were Baby Sis and her not-Christian friend she brought along. The Erica's were vicious to them. Regina George had nothing on them. When she returned from the trip and told my mother all the shit they put her and her friend through (who BTW will never come to Jesus after that experience), my mother confronted Ernie about it. He made excuses for his wife and the other Erica, fell over his closeted self apologizing for their behavior, but he still allowed two grown-ass women who claim to be Christians to bully 14 year old girls. 

Upon my return to Sun City after the Air Force, I tried to rebuild my relationship with Fanny. She was dating Shawn because his wife Rachelle had left him for Amish Drummer Joe (great Christians right) but they all still attended Intersections. I thought maybe we could have a mature friendship but it was clear she wasn't interested in Tiffany the mother and wife when almost every conversation included her reminding me about how we used to go out and I was so wild. Can't party vicariously through someone who doesn't party anymore. And though I had grown-up from the girl that Intersections loved to pray for, she hadn't. Still going to the same church that never appreciated her musical talent, still kissing the Erica's collective asses, still making fun of Gulp, and yet prying me for any juicy details that might make her life a little better, a little more fun.

She'd always talk about the glory days of Intersection. It used to be so awesome, they could just come and be. There wasn't any drama, just kids loving Jesus and it was so powerful. It never felt like a real church with all these rules. But now Coral was talking about organization and tithes and being responsible. You know, shit the bible says you should do. It must have been hard for her to grasp the concept of change. Those teens came to Intersections. They graduated, went to college (okay, like 3 of them did), got married and had babies (though not always in that order), and with their change, the church changed. You can't have all night jam sessions while the babies sleep in the nursery. But Fanny didn't have those life changes so she had to cling to what Intersections used to be. 

With all the drinking and smoking they condoned, the cussing and the criminal activity that was discouraged but never corrected, I was shocked to find out their stance on homosexuality. You would have thought gay was okay, but Fanny explained to me that gay was a choice and we shouldn't support it. Shawn's sister Shana actually fought with me on FB about my pro-gay stance. She married a guy when she was 18 or 19 that everyone in the church hated. Even Coral couldn't stand him and his cult like family. They've got her locked up in a compound in New Mexico now (one girl, three men) and apparently, all she can do is rage on my FB. She deleted me and blocked me after going full-fledged psycho. Way to blow your witness. Shortly after, I deleted Fanny and Shawn from my FB when Fanny said that Hubby and I should meet her and Shawn for drinks. Like 2 minutes after her future sister-in-law lost her shit, I got the invite. Too shady for my liking. I imagined Shana waiting in the parking lot with a knife as I came out of the restaurant. No thank you.

I hear they expanded and have the storefront on the other side of the warehouse now. They've legitimized their "little back alley project." Coral still plays the part of the aloof/hippie pastor, Gulp still does worship. Ernie is still the youth pastor and his mean wife and her twin are still talking shit about everyone in site. Rachelle and Joe are now parents and married and Shawn was all but excommunicated from the church since you can forgive a cheater, as long as her ex-husband isn't around. Fanny is as wishy washy as ever, having bouts of Intersection devotion and hatred. The older people of the church, the ones who I actually enjoyed, have all moved on to other churches, choosing to have a significant relationship with God over regaining their youth. 

I remember telling Fanny that it would be so funny if I randomly showed up to church one Sunday morning with Hubby and Little Bug in tow just to see their faces and see how fake they would be to me. She said "You should! Rub how hot your hubby is in their faces and show off how cute and smart Little Bug is! Gulp would lose it! And Erica 1 and 2 would be so jealous." I laughed, but she was serious. Gay is bad, but doing that would be okay? I don't want that kind of shit in my life.

I still speak to a few Intersectioners, but they're people I had a connection with outside of Intersection or have since left the church. Some of them are just as jaded as me, some are the kindest people you will ever meet. They really do live a life of love and compassion, I would never lump them into the hypocritical Christian bunch. 

I guess my biggest beef with all of this should really lie with Coral. Wasn't this his flock to shepherd? Sure, we should be grateful that God forgives us, but we should also try to lead a life that doesn't require forgiveness in the first place. I don't miss the hellfire and brimstone sermons of my younger years, but I sure could have used some accountability. A lot of them could have. But I guess it's easier to be everyone's friend instead of moral compass.

I sound pretty bitter. I'm aware of that. Intersections isn't solely responsible for my disdain for organized religion, I'd say it's a 40-60 split with the churches of my youth. Those churches laid the groundwork but Intersections led to the total contamination of my soul. For those who love their church and live the life, good on ya, but I cannot ever go back to a church. I want no part of it. Not even the Methodists who love the gays, because I always have that fear that church politics and drama will be more important than God and his love.

Like the bumper sticker said, I've got nothing against God. It's his fan club I can't stand.


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