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Our church building was a tattered, whitewashed old building from the late 19th century, with a great old-fashioned bell that barely worked and creaky haunted staircases that wound into odd back rooms and baptismal chambers. It was set in beautiful rural Oregon, only 45 minutes from Portland, but it felt like we could have been hundreds of miles away. We were surrounded by a handful of sleepy small towns and acre after acre of lush farmland.
It was a beautiful setting for a dark story.
My church could most accurately be classified as “fundamentalist Baptist,” although even that description seems too broad. To this day, I’ve never met another person, besides the 100 or so people I grew up with, who had the same interpretation of the Bible. This is part of why it’s always been so hard to explain, even to other people who were raised in extreme religious environments. But I know there are others out there who had experiences like mine, and that is why I share my story.
Church was three days a week. On Sundays, there was a one-and-a-half-hour Sunday school service where we split up by age group, then a one-and-a-half to two-hour regular service, then lunch, then another hour and a half in the afternoon. Tuesday was "evening school," which was essentially a watered-down version of the church's seminary classes and meant for those who couldn't attend the seminary, like the women. Wednesday was youth group, which was much more social but still involved a sermon. Considering that by high school I was taking AP classes and maintaining a GPA above 4.0, my entire life felt like it was dedicated to study. They believed that to be “saved,” one had to believe a very specific set of events happened: that Jesus Christ, the son of god, died on the cross for our sins, was buried, and rose again the third day. This is more or less what most Protestant groups believe is necessary for salvation, but my church took it one step further. It was almost like an incantation; one had to be able to literally recite the sentence above. My best friend in middle school, a Presbyterian, told me that she believed Jesus died on the cross for her sins and rose again the third day, and because she left out the “was buried” part, I was truly terrified that she was going to hell. This is just one example of how unbelievably literal they were with their doctrine.
They also believed in dispensations. In other words, they believed different parts of the Bible were written for people in different time periods — some past, some present, and some future — which, taken to that extreme, is a pretty unusual interpretation. They also believed that every temptation could be broken down to one of three sources: the devil, the world system (i.e., society), or your own human weakness. There were different step-by-step mental defenses against each one.
I had untreated obsessive-compulsive disorder (they thought the Bible could heal mental illness and didn't take it seriously), and I would go through the steps over and over again, sometimes for days at a time, barely sleeping, thinking I was doing it wrong. In high school, I became severely depressed and found myself wishing I could just die and go to heaven so I wouldn't have to "fight the enemies" anymore. In retrospect, it was really scary, and I wish my family had known more about depression and mental illness and realized I needed help.
The way they interpreted the Bible was not the only display of their inner ugliness. They were also racist, sexist, and homophobic, to name just a few of their most blatantly hateful beliefs. As far as people of color at the church, there was one black family with three boys, one Korean kid who'd been adopted by his Dwight Schrute–like German family, and then me — half Armenian, raised by my white mother and white stepfather. We five brown kids were immediately drawn to each other. But while the church community seemed fine with the black family in attendance, there was always this weird feeling like no one wanted us to mingle too much, and by the time I was 9 or 10, they vanished. It was only me and the Korean kid left. And we got to sit through some seriously racist sermons.
I remember when we were about 11 hearing our old crotchety pastor say he was convinced the "troops from the East" in the Book of Revelation was referring to East Asians, and that they were the bad guys, and we should be afraid of them. And I also remember, around the same time, hearing that God's people, the Hebrews, were descended from Isaac, and the Arabs were descended from his half-brother Ishmael, painted as the “bad” son (both children of Abraham, Ishmael his illegitimate son — and being “illegitimate” myself, this also hit home). They of course took this to mean that the people of the Middle East are still the bad guys today, and Islam is their “heathen” religion. I can even remember the pastor saying "camel jockey" in front of a huge crowd, with me, this black-eyed little girl, staring straight up at him.
And that was just race. The sexism ran even more rampant. Not only were women not allowed to be pastors, they weren't even allowed to teach if men were in the room — only women and children. We were taught that women were "more easily deceived" (read: dumber) than men, as evidenced by how Eve was tricked by the serpent. Wives were supposed to submit to their husbands. Divorce was acceptable only in cases of proven adultery; not even abuse was good enough reason, and they kicked my mother out of the church for getting a divorce with "only" 20 years of abuse, and no adultery, as an excuse. Women were encouraged to wear skirts and dresses, to go into professions like teaching or nursing if they must work, to have lots of children, to be demure and submissive and innocent. I could go on and on.
Just as ugly, if perhaps less surprising, was my church's stance on homosexuality. It's a good thing no one found out I was bisexual — my first sexual experience was even with another girl, around age 12 — until years after I'd left, or I'd have been forced to do one-on-one counseling with the pastor and his wife at a minimum, or more likely been kicked out altogether. They had a habit of cutting people out without even trying to reach out to them.
Being raised in an oppressive religion, fighting imaginary enemies in my own mind with strange prescription-like steps, being constantly told my value as a woman was less than that of a man, having my race, my sexuality, my gender, and a lot of my personality ripped to pieces on a regular basis — it all made my childhood hell. It also made it really hard to do the whole figure-out-who-you-are thing most people do in college, because even though I left the church in my first semester, I had to start almost from scratch in putting the who-am-I pieces together.
But here I am now. I no longer have nightmares about going to hell. I am a feminist with half-decent self-esteem. I am proud of my Middle Eastern heritage. I have accepted my sexual interest in both men and women. I no longer believe in a god, and I've even made it past the angry atheist phase and can understand why other people do believe in a god. I can even see a small handful of values I kept from the religion I was raised with, such as doing unto your neighbor as yourself, and trying not to judge people for their wrongs when you are not blameless yourself (glass houses and all that jazz).
I don’t believe religion itself was the problem. I believe people were the problem. I believe that, like any ideology, religion can be dangerous in the wrong hands. And I’m a stronger, more discerning person now for making it through that.