Tolerance, Part II

In 1991, I had another experience which left a major impression on me. When I was ten years old,my complete indoctrination into Christianity began. Prior to this time, I’d only had a loose affiliation with the church. My mom and stepdad never exposed me to it. I only attended church when I visited my maternal Grandma. When I was five years old, my impression of church was rather simple-it was fun. I got to wear pretty dresses and stockings. Older people pinched my cheeks and gave me candy. My Grandma’s friends doted on me for being so precocious and jokingly called me the ‘little genius’. I loved the intense emotion that went into the singing. I even enjoyed the theatrics and deep Southern drawl of the preacher.  For me church was a social experience and that was it.

However that changed completely once we moved from Cali. At this time my Grandma began to play a much more dominant role in my life. Prior to age ten I had been very close to my Grandma. Whenever my Mom received orders to go on a naval carrier for months at a time, I’d go stay with my Grandma. But my Mom remained my primary caregiver. When I was ten my Grandma took over that role for good.

My Grandma was from Mississippi. Born in 1924 when Jim Crow was still in full effect, she was an incredibly tough woman. You did not say no to her or question her, ever. As soon as she took over, church became mandatory. At the end of each sermon, the pastor would initiate the call to discipleship. One could come to the altar and join the church “by letter or baptism. If the individual had strayed from the faith they could “rededicate their life to Christ”. 

I had been attending services with my Grandma for three Sundays when I felt her jab me sharply in my ribs from behind my pew.

“Go up there”, she whispered,”And tell them you want to be baptized. It’s time!”

I did as I was told. My grandma repeated these instructions to two of my cousins and they joined me. I can still recall the nonchalance that I felt as I walked up the aisle and the church exploded in applause. Members were always excited to see new souls “coming to Christ”,especially if the souls in question belonged to children. I can still see myself standing next to the pastor, answering his questions like a drone.

“Sister, what are you for today?”

“I’d like to accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior and be baptized in the church”.(There was a script for this. If you wanted to be baptized this is what you were supposed to say).

“Well, young lady, do you believe in the Lord?”

Yes sir, I do.”(Well, DUH, I thought to myself, who doesn’t believe in God?)

“Do you believe that Jesus Christ is His Son and that He died for your sins?”

“Yes sir, I do”. (I guess I do, I thought to myself. Grandma believes it, my whole family believes it and it’s what they teach in Sunday School so it must be right…)

That was enough for me to qualify for baptism. My name was added to the church registry and my baptism was scheduled to take place in two weeks. On a cold December day in 1990, my cousins and I were dipped into a cold pool and officially became “saved”.

Church became the center of my life. There was nothing more important than attending church. On Sundays we had to be at church at 9:30am for Sunday School. Then Morning Worship at 10:45 am. Then B.T.U.(Baptist Training Union) at 3pm on some Sunday afternoons. Wednesday nights were for prayer meeting and Bible study from 7pm-9pm. Saturdays were for choir practice. And on any given weeknight, I could be required to attend an “engagement”. An engagement was usually a pastor/church/choir anniversary and would last around two hours. I could never get out of attending engagements. Even if they interfered with my schoolwork, I had to go. I can remember dragging books and homework assignments along on engagements. I hoped to use my time in the church van to finish my work so I wouldn’t have to stay up when I got home.

Adhering to this rigid schedule was not optional. It was my Grandma’s house,and her word was the law. Internally I began to chafe at this setup. I loved my Grandma dearly and appreciated her taking care of me, but didn’t see why this lifestyle should be mandatory. To make matters worse, I had been forced to take up a number of positions within the church. Even though I had no vocal talent whatsoever, I had to join the church choir. I also had to become the secretary for the Young Adult choir. I was drafted to serve as the substitute announcements clerk. If the church secretary needed help with her clerical duties, my Grandma would volunteer my services. She’s so articulate and smart for her age, theyall reasoned, and we should put her skills to use! No one asked me if I wanted to utilize my talents this way. I was just supposed to do it.

By the time that I was eleven years old, I was very unhappy with this arrangement. Church was now far from fun for me. The way that the adults fawned over me made me very unpopular with my own age group. It also started a rivalry between me and my cousins which would last for years. At school I had friends, but none of them had families as devout as mine. So they had much more freedom and leisure time than I did. I was very envious of this and began to rebel.

On Saturday nights my Grandma would allow me to sleepover, on the condition that I made my way to Sunday School on time. One Sunday I overslept and didn’t make it to Sunday School. I figured I was already in trouble and should make the most of it, so I hung out for a few hours but got home by the time church was over. My Grandma was not pleased with me and made it clear that this had better not happen again.

“As long as  are under my roof, you are going to go to church, do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am”.

But I didn’t understand and I didn’t like it. Why was it such a crime for me to not want church to dominate my life? I knew better than to ask this question though. Within that same month I missed two more Sundays. Exasperated, my Grandma has one of aunts talk to me.

“What’s going on with you lately?”

“Nothing”.

“It has to be something,D. Why are you missing church all of a sudden?”

“I just don’t want to go.”

My aunt sucks her teeth.”Why not?”

“I just don’t want to go. I think it’s a waste of time”.

My aunt looks at me incredulously and leaves my bedroom. She reports our conversation to my Grandma and I hear my Grandma rising from her chair.

No one that lives under my roof is going to miss church! If she isn’t going to go to church anymore, she can get out of my house!”

I sat on my bed, shocked. I could not believe my ears. I was eleven years old. My mom was off somewhere dealing with her own issues. My dad had been m.i.a. since my parents divorce. My Grandma had taken over raising me and was all I had. Yet here she was, about to kick me out. My aunt returned to my room with black garbage bags in her hands. My Grandma had ordered her to help me pack my things. I started crying.

“It’s not like she is putting you out in the streets, so calm down”, she said,”You can go stay with your Aunt Lee. When and if you agree to go to church, you can come back”.

I collected my things. I was amazed at the sequence of events. I knew that my Grandma loved me. I had always been her favorite granddaughter and she constantly bragged about how smart I was. But here we were, with me being kicked out. I was out of my Grandma’s home for about eight weeks. When I apologized and pledged to attend church I was allowed back. For the next nine years I went to church faithfully as my Grandma demanded.

As I type this, I reflect on the experience and how it made me feel at the time. It made me realize that, if I wanted full acceptance in my own family,I would have to conform. Not going to church could put my living arrangements in jeopardy.

My Grandma passed away in 2004. Though I would never do what she did that day, I understand it. She was doing what she had been raised to and treating me as her Grandma had treated her. All my Grandma knew was religion. She had been told all her life that it was her responsibility to raise Christian children. If children rebelled against that, they had to suffer dire consequences  It was better for them to pay for their mistakes in this life and come to repentance than to risk eternity in the lake of fire(or so the reasoning went).

Being kicked out of my Grandma’s house that year crystallized everything for me. The precocious,free, independent little girl that my mom had so carefully cultivated learned how to keep her mouth shut. She learned to not question her elders or the conventional wisdom. She learned how to hide her contrarian streak from her relatives, only exposing her true self to her closest friends. She learned that who she really was would never be fully accepted,and that she would never find tolerance in her family and her faith.

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