For a two-year period in high school I was a born-again Christian – the full-fledged, convulsing on the ground sort. Maryanne, the daughter of a tele-evangelist, brought me along to her Pentecostal Young People’s group, and I was instantly hooked. Everyone seemed rich and beautiful and radiant. It was the perfect escape from my angry home. At our weekly meetings, the leaders told me I would dine with the Lord in heaven after I died, but that I would watch my family and friends burn in hell unless I could lead them to Jesus. I began a desperate crusade to save their souls.
I organized a bible group for my friends, and tried frantically to convert my atheist parents. My father shook his head in disbelief and took the Lord’s name in vain, while the ice cubes in his Scotch clinked mockingly. My mother assured me that good, kind people don’t go to hell. If there were a god, he wouldn’t be that cruel.
At school, I stood outside classrooms with my bible, waiting for the bell to ring. When the doors opened and spewed out my victims, I’d ambush the most likely candidate. I instinctively knew whom not to approach: anyone with any semblance of self-esteem. It was the gawky, self-conscious ones I was looking for, the ones who might appreciate filling their vacuous social life with a host of new friends: the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. But inevitably, my opening line: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Saviour?” met with stunned looks, profanity, or laughter.
I couldn’t bring one sheep to the Lord. I felt like a complete failure, so I threw myself harder at God’s feet. I got baptized in the Holy Spirit; I knelt and babbled in tongues with tears of joy streaming down my face, until someone carried me back to my seat because I couldn’t straighten my legs. I belted out songs of praise, sobbing and waving my arms in the air. I lay my hands on a boy with a dislocated shoulder at a healing session, and yelled, “Praise the Lord!” when he took off his sling and held it above his head.
Eventually, my best friend Laura succumbed to my relentless recruiting and agreed to come to church. She was a sullen, withdrawn girl, cripplingly shy, who lived on an isolated farm a few miles from my rural suburb. I thought if anyone needed God, it was her.
Laura attended a few meetings, but it dampened my style having her around. I couldn’t get into praising the Lord in my typical fashion, because I suddenly saw myself through her eyes, and it looked weird. I started to resent her, until one day, sitting on the floor in the hall by our lockers she made me swear to God not to tell, then blurted out a secret.
Laura’s father had raped her. Repeatedly, since she was in grade two. Not just Laura, but her sister Cindy. He had stopped a couple years earlier, but now her youngest sister was going into grade one, and Laura knew her father was watching her. We sat side-by-side, and cried behind our hair. We were fourteen years old.
Laura’s secret festered in me. I finally convinced her to confide in Lilly, a gentle woman with the church whose smile seemed to radiant God’s love. I’d spent many sessions in front of the mirror trying to get my Christian smile to look just like hers.
Lilly’s smile wasn’t able to withstand the shock of what two teenaged girls told her that day. Maybe she’d expected to give us advice about a boy, or about how to gather souls for Jesus. She told us simply, and with little hesitation, there was nothing we could do but pray. It was in the hands of the Lord.
So I prayed. I tried to get Laura to pray with me, but she’d lost all interest in having her soul saved; her needs were more immediate. When God failed to swoop down from the sky and gather my friend in His arms, and the secret became unbearable, I confided in my mother. She immediately went to Social Services, got the three sisters out of their home, and Laura moved into my bedroom for the next two years. I found out years later that Mom put the money she received for foster parenting, into a bank account for Laura.
Lilly avoided me at church, and I started to wonder why she was going to heaven and my mother to hell, when it was my mother who had acted like a Christian. Over the next few months, I saw hypocrisy everywhere. My friends praised the Lord at meetings, then puked into toilet bowls at parties, while I faithfully avoided alcohol, cigarettes and heathen boys. At Young People’s camps, the girls with boobs and rich families hung out with the athletic, guitar-strumming guys, while I, with my flat, awkward body, was pushed to the outer fringes and simply tolerated. I saw little Christian inclusion and acceptance.
The next summer, Laura started to date Chris, and I started to date Doug, a cute, freckled son of a farmer. It seemed as soon as I had a boyfriend, I no longer needed God. I started to smoke DuMaurier Lights, drink Baby Duck and puke alongside my friends. I think my parents were overjoyed to see me become a “normal” teen.
These days I call myself an atheist, but the Pentecostal’s vivid rendition of hell managed to leave a lasting impression. I find it difficult to take His name in vain without apologizing quietly, and if my kids are out late and don’t phone home, I catch myself saying, “Please God, keep them safe.”
Habit, brainwashing, whatever it is, there’s no harm in covering my butt. Just in case.
Published in The National Post, March 10, 2007