I come from a long line of devout Christians. Before I was born, my grandfather donated a piece of land in our small town in New Mexico so that a church could be built there.
My parents were married in it in 1959.
That church — with long wooden pews, the hymnals with the thin pages edged in red, the preacher’s pulpit with the fake flowers in front and the baptismal behind — was part of my life from the day I was born. I knew every nook and cranny, every room and every corner — the nursery where new mothers would nurse their babies, the numbered doors of the Sunday school classrooms that lined both sides of the small auditorium. Just inside the glass front doors, before the row of double doors that separated the vestibule from the rest of the church, were pictures of church members and their families. The small label underneath each picture put names to our faces. I was as comfortable there as I was at home.
Long list of sins
On the surface, the church seemed innocuous and inviting, even accepting. But the doctrine of the Church of Christ included a lengthy list of activities that were off limits, labeled sins, that could result in eternal damnation. The list of no-no’s was long, including, but not limited to, smoking, drinking alcohol, dancing, premarital sex, homosexuality, cursing, divorce and live instruments in the church building. All hymns were led by an elder or a deacon, and all were sung a capella.
According to biblical teachings, wives were to be submissive to their husbands, and men were the heads of the household, and of the church. Women were not allowed to speak from the pulpit or lead singing, and the thought of a woman doing either of those things was completely foreign to me. This was my normal.
I knew all the hymns, went to vacation bible school every summer, memorized my bible verses for Sunday school, attended devotionals and took trips with the church youth group. I felt conflicted as I got older and was attracted to boys. I was ashamed for flirting. Outwardly, I was a good Christian girl, but inside, I always knew I was falling short, and guilt was my constant companion.
My father was indeed the master of the house. My mother obeyed him, as the bible commanded, and never questioned him, or raised her voice to him, even when he raised his. My mother took me and my three sisters to church every Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening. I can count on my hands the number of times he accompanied us over the years. The hypocrisy wasn’t lost on me.
It was at church where we learned that if a man looked at a woman and felt lust, it was her fault because her clothing was too revealing or she wore too much makeup. Our attire was restricted to long skirts, high-collared tops, knee-high socks and flat shoes. Makeup wasn’t allowed, and our hair was often cut short. My father prohibited the use of tampons when my sisters and I were teens. I had no control over my body or how I looked, and that became increasingly difficult the older I became.
Instinctually, I knew that something wasn’t right.
Fires of hell
When I was in first grade, one of my classmates, along with the rest of his family, died in a house fire. This hit me particularly hard because he and his family did not belong to the church and I had been taught that anyone who did not would spend eternity in the raging fires of hell. I believed that my friend and his family would never, ever escape the pain of the fire that had taken their physical bodies. It didn’t matter that they were good people. They would burn — forever.
I had nightmares in which I saw my friend screaming, pain contorting his face. We were only 7 and hadn’t even had the opportunity to sin yet. His light blue sweater hung on the hook by our classroom door for a long time, reminding me of him daily, and the thought of him writhing in that fire haunted me for a very long time. It was probably then that I started asking questions.
I left home after I graduated from high school. It was then that I found the courage to explore what I perceived as the divergence between what I knew to be true and the alternate truth that had been hammered into the fabric of my being, practically since birth. I was emotionally and mentally traumatized by an internal conflict I was too afraid to voice for fear of disappointing my family, losing my friends and being different from the community of people I’d known my entire life.
It was daunting to think of turning my back on everything I’d known. Who was I if not a Christian? Who was I without the church, my family and friends? Without those things, I had no identity.
I tried — I really did. I talked to friends and family, one of whom told me that believing was a choice I could make, even without facts to support that belief. She told me she chose to believe because it gave her peace and made her happy, and I was truly happy for her. I would never begrudge anyone that kind of peace and happiness. I often wished for it myself. Instead, all I felt was turmoil and sadness, considering the enormous chasm — filled with science, logic, reason and truth — that stood between me and the faith I longed for.
Guilt and fear
Old habits die hard, so in spite of my ever-increasing doubts, I would take my two daughters to church because I was afraid there was a chance they would be damned because of me. Guilt and fear dictated my actions until it occurred to me that I was passing that on to my girls. It was a startling realization, but an obvious one once I thought about it. I did not want my daughters to ever experience what I had. Instead of removing all of their power, taking their identities and individuality, I wanted to give them what I never had as a child — the ability to think critically, make their own choices based on truth, not on fear. I did not want them to be brainwashed like I was.
I started researching religion in earnest when I was in my 30s. I watched every documentary I could find, read every book on the topic I could get my hands on. Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code had a significant impact on me, even though it was fiction, and Bill Maher’s documentary “Religulous” gave me a perspective I’d not had before. It was liberating.
It was a long road that took many years. Eventually, the guilt that had been part of me for so long was gone, and I was filled with something I had longed to feel for so long — peace.
I feel it all the time now, when I’m standing in the middle of the forest, or when I feel the sun on my face. I feel it when I’m with my close friends and those family members who have accepted me as I am and I realize that I love, and I am loved. I have become more open-minded and accepting, and thereby more compassionate.
Realizing that there was no heaven or hell, or an omnipotent being watching me every second, opened up a world for me I never could have imagined as a child, and I wish the same for every person who has been raised, every child currently being raised in a strict religious environment. I want to hug them and tell them it’s OK not to be perfect, that there is no hell, and that heaven is what we make it.
Jackie Brown is an FFRF member from Arizona.