Every Thursday, I drop my older children at local public school in our upper middle-class (but still oh-so liberal and artsy) neighborhood. The parents loosely fall into three categories -- the spouses who are jumping in their expensive European SUVs going straight to the gym after school drop off, the artsy-indie-alterna parents who ride to the kindergarten with the kids in a bike trailer and the parents who work in the city who are desperately trying to get out as quickly and smoothly as possible.
As a parent group, we may not be the 1% but we are the 10% or so. Our kids have a lot of resources invested in them. We're varied in race and financial means, but very high in cultural capital.
I head away from the city and the gym with my youngest child, away from our upper middle class neighborhood with its carefully crafted diversity where we all have money and the same political views. I’m heading to a fundamentalist church on the outskirts of my city.
It’s a mega-church -- they often build out of the city outskirts because the land is cheap and the families are young. My in-laws got very involved in the movement about 20 years ago. My husband is not religious for his own reasons, but his mother runs the church playgroup and begged me to come along for years before I eventually caved under the new baby pressure when Toby was born.
Like most-inner city liberal types I had a mental picture of fundamentalist (drawn mainly from "Big Love" and news coverage of the Yearning for Zion women). In my head, they are buttoned-up with big hair and no makeup, wearing modest clothing and full of blind devotion to their husbands and the ability to turn every conversation back to scripture.
Mentally I put a great deal of distance between "those people" and me. As it turns out, my picture was more of a caricature.
A surprising number of the other church playgroup mothers have had very lively pasts before they found Jesus, and if nothing else the conversations are a lot more interesting than the school crowd. There are ex drug users, strippers and con artists who are now born-again Christian mothers. These ladies have some impressive inkwork as well, which is definitely not what I expected from church mothers. They reminisce about the old days, but the stories all end with: “That was before I found Jesus.”
There is a raw honesty in the way they reject their life to date and take on a new persona when they start in this church. I like it because motherhood has been similar for me in some ways, sloughing back my hard-shelled career focus and opening myself up to other people in a new way.
Five years ago, she was a stripper and 5 years ago I was an investment banker with 70-hour-a-week job and we’ve both changed and are still getting used to the new women we have become.
As the moms often have big families, they're more open and non-judging about the days your kids are being unholy terrors (see what I did there!). The kids run a touch wilder and there is less competition amongst the mothers to see who has the kid of the year.
There are a few of the slightly loopy parents I feared but oddly enough the topics of greatest passion are similar in both crowds -- things like the anti-vaccination crowd seem to take the far left and far right in, and a desire to home school is another surefire conversation starter.
The crowd is very white (only one Asian family), and although I like to the kids to move in more diverse crowds, in a lot of ways the families who go to this church live in a different country than us. They have one working parent and are scraping to make ends meet. There are stresses over whether they’ll be able to drive to church, whether the car will start. The potluck dinners are not themed, it’s a way of supporting families where people can’t feed the kids sometimes. It’s challenging and useful to see my kids mixing with kids with less than them and not relying on toys as much as playing with each other.
The Jesus content is lower than I expected. There are Jesus coloring in pages, which are colored in lively scribbles making Jesus-Hunger Games slash art with green hair and purple skin. They don’t pray or make the kids sing Jesus songs. The focus is on the church community.
I’ve never been into religion with a capital R. But I like that the church community forms a circle around people, a secondary social network. I like the old ladies that bake for the mothers and make us all of the old style baked treats like Dutch cake and lemon bars. I like that it inspires people to do better in an active way, through practical day-to-day support.
The linking of aid and eternal salvation also never sat well with me. But the church does good, through mission work in South East Asia working with orphans and children who have been in the sex trade, and they visit mothers in Thai prisons to bring clothing and food for their babies. They help the lowest of the low, and the people who are often not helped by other organizations. More than anything, they connect with people that society gives up on and show them that their lives still have value.
The church runs crisis centres locally, which give out food and clothing to homeless and transient populations in our city. They offer relief, long-term skills development and rehabilitation. As a church they don’t look at a payback period, which means they work in projects that NGOs would find unviable.
In the end, I think that it’s important for our kids to be able move in different circles and talk to people of all backgrounds. It’s also important to challenge myself.
Before joining our playgroup, I was scared of lots of things -- that the kids would start believing in Jesus (not a religious figure in our house), that the women would judge me, or that the parents would start talking in tongues. More than anything I was afraid we'd have nothing in common.
And I’m not about to leave my country and be a missionary in a Thai prison. But the church inspires people to do better in an active way, to make concrete steps to change lives. As someone who tends to live more in my head and in the future, it wouldn't hurt me to learn from them.