by Lauren J. Barnhart
My mother’s entire social life was within the faith. Besides church on Sunday, she attended Wednesday night services, ran a Senior Citizen’s Bible study the next morning, and went to Praise night at Mrs. McMaster’s house the night after where she could play her tambourine during the worship. But her Women’s Aglow meetings really took the cake. They would meet up once a month in various banquet halls and the only man I ever saw was a handsome African American pastor. Everyone was in love with him. At the time I was about six years old and he told me that he liked the dress my mother had forced me to wear. I felt ridiculous in frilly things with bows and petticoats. But the tights were an even worse torture. I couldn’t stop scratching my legs.
At these meetings the energy would reach a frenzy, building to a climax until around twenty women would go up front. Amidst howling and shrieking and blubbering sobs, the pastor would shout, “By the power of Jesus’ blood you are slain in the spirit!” Instantly they would all fall, flat on their backs. It was very funny to watch. It wasn’t as though they would sit on their asses and then fall back. It was more of a complete backwards faint. A long row of over-weight women in potato sack dresses just lying there, some of them passed out, others speaking in tongues.
One time a woman came with a neck brace from a permanent injury. The pastor laid his hands on her, along with five women praying out loud in a din of nonsense. Eventually the woman couldn’t take anymore and she just busted off her brace and started yelling that she’d been healed. Women’s Aglow was always good for a show.
There were other meetings like this one. We went to see a traveling faith healer and two parents brought their screaming three year-old. We were told he was possessed by a demon, but it seemed to me he was just tired or sick or maybe had a psychological problem. With his hand on the boy’s head, the pastor started yelling, “Release him from this torture! In Jesus’ name, set this boy free!”
The boy screamed even louder. I had to admit, it was eerie. And it went on and on, until finally the boy stopped crying, and they walked off the stage. Yes, the stage. Everything seemed staged. Like theater, like an over-abundance of emotions, like hypnotism through the way the pastors talked, that rhythm in their voices that they all used for the same reason.
“You are getting very sleepy,” pause, “When I count to three you will close your eyes. One… two… three,” pause, “I will use the Bible as mind control. And because of the all-knowing tone of my voice you will never question me. I will use the pulpit to be high above you, and the words that I say will be the words of God. And I will be like God to you. I will comfort you, but I will also fill you with fear. Because you would not want to falter in front of God, just as you will be your best for me. And you will give me your devotion, and your money, and your life, and your will. As a congregation you will grow, and feed my ego. And we will grow in strength. We will take over the world in our spiritual revival. We will spread to the far reaches. And I will be your leader. I will be your father. When I count to three you will be free from your own weakness, and will understand the strength in being my flock. One… two… three, wake up!”
Show me a pastor who doesn’t feel this way, and I’ll show you a church that isn’t going anywhere. Because if people don’t have a master to count on, there will be no unity. And the most charismatic, successful pastors are also the most deranged. They crave the attention, and that need to feel important. Everything else is a façade.
My mother wouldn’t question the pastor, or the Republican president, because she was told their words were the word of God. And this makes me angry, as though my entire upbringing was a big lie. I wanted to please my parents, and it was upsetting to know that a part of me would always let them down.
Throughout childhood there was an inner battle that no one else could see. At church singing hymns, I was only four and thought it would be funny if I sang in potty talk instead. No one could hear me. But I felt liberated from all the staunch repression. Free as I could be in my pee-pees and poo-poos and on and on in my own personal mantra. The boredom of the following sermon never mattered after that. I had created my first act of rebellion against being made to sing words I did not feel. Always, I knew that this person I was being raised to be was not who I was at all. An inner divide took over, a parallel that took too many years to escape.
I was sixteen and my mother and sister took me on a women’s retreat. Maybe I could finally prove that I wasn’t a failure at being a Christian. They asked if anyone would like to come up for prayer. I went up and asked to receive my prayer language. Three women laid hands on me and I closed my eyes hard in concentration, desperately wanting to feel something. Their touch sent a chill down my back. I looked over to the right and could see my mother through the crowd, prostrate on the ground. Turning back, I zeroed in on my attempt to feel the presence of God. But there was nothing. Only my own mind telling me that now would be a good time to begin speaking gibberish.
When I opened my eyes the women around me were smiling with tears in their eyes. Of all the words I could speak, it was nonsense that made them happy. This was their religion.
LAUREN J. BARNHART’s poetry was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2004, and featured in various literary journals. As a singer and songwriter, her music was selected for the Love/No Love compilation album released by Levee Breaking.