IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Grew Up In A Small, Strict Sect Of Christianity That Outlawed Christmas, Easter, Shellfish And Pork
For many kids growing up in New York City, it's not uncommon to have a kid in your class who goes to church on Saturday and doesn’t celebrate Christmas. That kid is usually Jewish. Unless, of course, you were in my class, in which case that kid would actually be Christian -- and that child would be me.
I grew up with parents who were members of the Worldwide Church of God, which was then a non-denominational association of churches that followed a brand of Christianity which more resembles Judaism in its holy days and practices.
The foundation of the church’s doctrine rests on British Israelism, the idea that people of Western European descent are the direct ancestors of the ancient Israelites to whom God gave His law. Under this belief, the church concluded that the modern British Royal Family are direct descendants of King David. This theory has since been disproved with the help of genetics and common sense, but that didn’t stop WWCGs from teaching it.
Worldwide broke up into smaller splinter groups back in the ‘90s after church officials decided on a series of doctrinal changes which were more in line with modern evangelical Christianity. My parents left Worldwide for one of these smaller groups, the United Church of God, who continued to teach what they believe to be the truth.
I followed them, and through high school, and even in college, continued to worship with them. I didn’t exactly go to church every week, but I still participated in high holy days and kept to the dietary restrictions I followed as a kid.
As you can imagine, it was not easy as a teenager to grow up in a religion no one seemed to understand.
“Wait, are you like a Jew for Jesus or something?” was a common question when I tried to explain why I couldn’t go out on Friday nights, or why if I believed in Jesus I didn’t celebrate Easter.
Back then, it was definitely disappointing for me to miss out on so many middle school dances because I had to be home by sundown on Friday evening. But looking back, I am thankful that I was at least spared the extra opportunities for crippling adolescent embarrassment. I had plenty of friends at school, but my religion was a huge difference -- even for hardened New York City kids who have pretty much been exposed to everything. It was clear that school friends would never be able to fully understand my life.
So, I built close friendships with other kids like me in my congregation, some of whom remain my best friends today. It was nice to be around people you didn’t have to explain your entire existence to when you opted out of 10th grade Secret Santa. But as I grew older, a lot of the people I was friends with wound up leaving the church.
I stayed and still attended services. Why? Partially because I didn't want to disappoint my parents, who are a very zealous pair and follow the strict doctrine to a T. They expected the same from me. Unfortunately, I always seemed to come up short in one way or another.
If it wasn’t getting home in time for the Sabbath, it was drinking at a party or not reading my bible enough. So, through my teenage years I cultivated a rather conflicted relationship with my religion. And it wasn’t the standard stock of teenage angst and general feeling of rebellion that did me in. My reasons had little to do with me, and more to do with the fact that I began to see that the church at large was not the bastion of loving Christendom I’d been brought up to believe.
My local congregation was cool. Many of the people I grew up attending services with had known my parents for decades, a few had even been at my mom’s baby shower. It was also a diverse group, as one might expect for NYC. Most of the other kids I knew in the church were from the tri-state area, and came up same as me.
I thought the pleasant, open, and accepting folks I interacted with locally was a sampling of the people in the organization at large, most of whom live in the Midwest. I didn’t discover how wrong I was until I was 13 and my parents sent me to a camp run by the church, where I met other kids from across America (and a few from other countries) who followed my same religion. It was in these interactions that I slowly began to realize how out of place I was in a community within which I was supposed to feel comfortable.
Most people who met me were either dazzled by the fact I grew up in a city so unkind to “good Christian folk,” or eager to ask me every single question they ever had about people of color. After a while, I’d gotten used to being asked what it was like to live in modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah (*eyeroll*), or hearing my so-called brethren express how happy they were for our family to hear that Harlem and Brooklyn were finally getting “cleaned up.”
Indeed, I’d gotten so used to the unbridled ignorance, I could even control my anger when I interacted with brethren from out of town who were so excited to share the scientific evidence they discovered proving that black people are strong runners but poor swimmers.
I barely batted an eyelash when I was asked to explain why "my kind" was so devoted to “baby mama culture.” I learned how to calmly divert the conversation when folks tried to trap me into a conversation about illegal immigration, as if I was some sort of expert on the subject.
I ignored the ignorance because I really believed that in spite of it all, that I was getting the truth and that this was the right path to God. I was born into the religion and followed it because I'd been taught that it was the right thing to do, and it should be done regardless of who I was ultimately affiliated with. I just accepted what was presented to me without really thinking about why I did it. That is, until I started to actually sit and read the bible for myself.
It was in my own research that I began to realize that many of the church’s doctrinal stances didn’t make sense. Naturally, I took issue with the erroneous and borderline racist theory of British Israelism the church purported as biblical fact. I also wondered why we kept to certain traditions, but were not obligated to fulfill others.
The church is unique in that it follows many of the laws given in Deuteronomy, including those commanding celebration of Jewish holy days, and the dietary restrictions mentioned in the book. I did find it quite odd, that although we were to consider pork and shellfish as unclean meats, we didn't have to follow the law against wearing a garment made from two different fabrics. I’d heard plenty of sermons about staying away from bacon, but none about the danger cotton-wool blends bring to your salvation.
I had grown increasingly unsure about my place in the church. Not only because I simply didn’t fit in culturally, but because no one could really give me answers about what I was taught versus what I was reading with my own two eyes. But I didn’t decide to leave until last year, after one very illuminating conversation with a few members from out of town.
I was chatting with a small group of about four other people at a church retreat. We got to talking about our childhoods, in which we ‘80s and ‘90s babies waxed poetic about how awesome the ‘90s were (great economy, internet pre-social media, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Spice Girls, etc.). Not to be outdone by us young guns, an older gentleman in the conversation piped up.
“The best time in America was the 1950s. This country had values, and we were safe -- you didn’t even have to lock your door at night.”
“Oh, really, the best time in this country?” I answered, hoping he might sense my sarcasm.
“Darn right,” he responded. If there was any appropriate time for a real-life headdesk.gif, it would have been then.
“I guess it was pretty awesome if you looked a certain way,” I replied, hoping he might catch my drift. Hoping he would realize that for someone who might have been, oh, I don’t know, BROWN, that decade might not have been so great. Surely this fellow was aware of our country’s history.
“No, it was pretty much great for everybody. We were safe! There were values!”
I didn’t know how to reply. I just stayed quiet because I was shocked that anyone could say such a thing.
“I think what she’s trying to say is that the ‘50s were not too kind to black people,” another clearly keener woman explained. DING, DING, DING!
Now, people in the church have said several ignorant things to me over the years, but this particular comment really stayed with me. The fact that this fellow, someone I was supposed to call my spiritual brother, couldn’t even stretch his imagination enough to realize that in his little utopian image of the world, life might not have been so good for someone else was troubling, to say the least.
Isn’t part of being a Christian thinking of others? Nobody’s perfect, and the man might not have realized what he was saying, but for me, that comment was the last straw. I decided then and there that the church was no longer a place I could call home.
This is not to say that there aren't plenty of wonderful people in the church, or that my life there had been all bad. I had a fantastic upbringing, and for a long time, church was family time and I have many wonderful memories tied to a lot of church-related activities. Indeed, some of the people I love and know me best are in my life because of the church. It has been such a huge part of my life, and I am thankful that I've been able to know so many remarkable people because of it.
Still, the underlying, downright un-Christian bigotry and doctrinal dissonance compelled me to distance myself from the organization. Why would I participate in or give money to a church I didn’t believe was really teaching what Jesus intended? Christianity is not about following every law to a T or tithing, or being part of some sort of genetically elect group.
It’s about treating your family, neighbors, and enemies with respect, and showing selfless love for others and God. Of course, these are things my parents always taught me, but they believed their particular brand of Christianity is the only way to do it.
I wouldn’t say I practice any religion today, to the great dismay of my parents. I wager they are extremely concerned for my salvation because I don’t follow the same set of rules they do. I don’t go to church anymore, I go out on Friday nights -- and, heck, I've even eaten shrimp scampi (sorry, dad).
But I don’t think that this makes me less of a Christian, nor do I feel further away from God. In fact, I’d say that simply trying to do right by people has brought me closer to Him. Doing those “good works” have already made me a better Christian. And, to top it off, I don’t feel guilty about supporting a dubious organization.
I’m no angel. I have a ton of flaws. I occasionally hit the sauce a little too much; I curse, and sometimes covet Charlotte Olympia flats a little too hard. I'm a work in progress, but I do feel like I'm getting closer to my goal, whatever it is, than ever. But I do feel more forgiving, patient, and loving. Isn't that what it's all about anyway?