I can distinctly remember kneeling in the darkened family room of my aunt and uncle’s house in Florida. With my eyes closed and my hands clasped reverentially in front of me, I recited the words that every Christian parent longs to hear from the lips of their children: “Dear Lord Jesus, please come into my heart and forgive my sins. I accept you as my Lord and savior.” I was four years old.
My mother was raised in a missionary family, living in various places throughout Central America. Her parents were (and are) Southern Baptist missionaries, and she did not return to the United States until age 17. After graduating high school early, she enrolled at Columbia Bible College, where she met my father. My father was also raised in a deeply religious protestant family, so after their marriage, it seemed the natural course that they prepare for entrance into the mission field. When I was born, my family was living in a small apartment above a church in my father’s home town in Pennsylvania, where he was the youth pastor. After my brother was born three years later, our family began traveling around the country raising support to send us to South America. My childhood was spent moving from state to state, staying in whatever lodging could be lent to us by the host church, while my parents preached and performed to receive donations toward our mission. The final period of their training was completed at a “mission institute” in Missouri, where my family spent six months learning how to make sock puppets and crafts to teach children about Jesus.
It was around this time, at seven years old, that I was baptized by my maternal grandfather in his church, south of Atlanta, Georgia. I don’t remember much of the ceremony, but I can easily recall the feedback I received from family and strangers alike. Everyone I met was delighted at my outward profession of faith. An elderly woman at the restaurant where we had retired to celebrate even gave me five dollars to congratulate me when she learned of my accomplishment. All of this went quite well with my temperament, as I’ve always thrived on attention and praise.
Though my parents divorced not long after we left the mission institute and then settled in Indiana, my happy coexistence with religion as a way to be rewarded continued into adolescence. Beginning somewhere around age 13, however, and blossoming as I advanced through my teenage years, the very healthy sexual appetite that my current husband so appreciates began to assert itself. I play-acted sexual encounters in the dark of my bedroom at night, and in high school I found ample opportunity to explore this arena with other hormone-addled teenagers, both boys and girls. It was at this time that I found a conflict with the happy “Jesus Loves You” message that had been repeated to me throughout childhood. The rules taught in church had always seemed so easy to follow. Of course I would never steal or kill anyone! But now every Sunday the youth pastor repeated the peril of expressing this hormonal urge that came so naturally to me. Feeling ashamed, as being “in trouble” is still one of my greatest fears, I internalized my guilt, but couldn’t deny the pull of temptation.
I lost my virginity at 17 to another virgin, who was likewise the child of evangelical parents. The next day, he was aghast at our transgression and swore we would never commit this crime again until our marriage. After a year of dating, the situation had so deteriorated in the home where I lived with my father and stepmother (who would later be diagnosed with a variety of mental disorders) that I moved in with my boyfriend’s parents. At first I was moved by their warm charity in welcoming me into their home. But from the moment I entered it, I soon discovered that every movement my boyfriend and I made was being scrutinized for signs of sexual behavior. Even though he slept in a separate room, accusations were constantly flung about. Feeling I had nowhere else to turn, after months of overwhelming pressure and condemnation, I agreed to legitimize our relationship through marriage. I was married on the morning of my senior prom in his parents’ living room, after which we returned to school on Monday as if nothing had happened.
After graduation, my new husband and I ventured into the wider world of university together, where we lived in married-student housing. It wasn’t long before I learned, at our school of 35,000, that there are vastly different kinds of people in the world, all holding fascinatingly diverse opinions, and almost all of these people seemed infinitely more attractive than the man I had married. Within the semester I began an affair with a brilliant and witty, if cynical, classmate during a field trip to Chicago. This would shortly end in discovery, anger, violence, and tearful apologies. Terrified of venturing out on my own, I agreed to move back in with our in-laws and begin my penance. I read the bible daily, was not allowed out alone, and was even forced to accompany my husband during his delivery runs. But through all of this, I could not be genuinely penitent because that brilliant and witty if cynical young student had opened my eyes. I learned that all of the guilt and shame I felt had really been self-inflicted. There is no Jesus to be disappointed in me when I break rules recorded thousands of years ago in a scattered collection of parchment. Once lifted of this irrational burden, I was free to exercise my own considerable rational faculties in further testing the religion I had always known. Everywhere I poked, I found the fabric of arguments I’d always accepted to be thin as tissue paper. I would continue my sentence a few more months before gathering enough courage to leave my husband for good. I moved in with my mother until the new semester started and then returned to my studies at university. There I took a minor in Women’s Studies, learning a great deal about sexuality, gender, and how humans have felt and expressed the same stirrings in myriad ways for thousands of years. After graduation, I moved to Boston, where I am now married to a wonderful man who shares my open-minded, voracious curiosity, and together we vet the various claims of the world based on sound, logical principles.
It took a while to let go of what had been so ingrained in me from childhood. Even long after I had mentally reconciled the lack of a supreme being, I still occasionally caught myself offering a silent prayer of thanks to the heavens when something fortuitous happened. I will always bear the scars of guilt and repression from my childhood in an evangelical protestant family. However I can now firmly state that there is no god, and that sex between consenting adults is most often a beautiful and wonderful thing, regardless of what your pastor says. Now, supported by my loving husband, I look forward to bringing children into the world who will grow up in an environment where their actions are judged not by adherence to an archaic code, but by the good or harm they cause themselves and those around them.
Massachusetts, United States