My Religion Was My Prison

In my Missionettes uniform. The boys were called Crusaders.

In my Missionettes uniform. The boys were called Crusaders.

The title, I know, is a bit dramatic. In reality, my home was the prison, and religion was the warden, but that just doesn’t fit in a header.

I was raised Fundamentalist Pentecostal. For some folks, those two terms are at cross purposes, as the traditional Fundamentalists actually opposed the Pentecostals, but in my circles it was used to mean more Pentecostal than the Pentecostals. More hard core. More committed. More evangelical. More filled with the spirit. Others sometimes use the term Charismatic.

For the uninitiated, here is what defines a Pentecostal:

  • An emphasis on the Pentecost. The Pentecost is the day the Holy Spirit (he gets capital letters because, like Casper the Friendly Ghost, that’s his name) descended on the Apostles (they get capital letters because…uh…they do.)
  • A belief in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as granted when you are filled (after praying and dedicating your life to Jesus.) Some of these include prophesy, glossolalia or speaking in tongues, healing and leading.
  • Lots and lots of rules.

For some anecdotal idea of what this meant for me, you can read my blogs about Feminism in response to religiosity, the apocalypse and even more on the apocalypse.

Or you could skip all that and watch the video I pull out whenever people really want to know what it was like:

Or you could watch this video of my former pastor.

Not to say that there weren’t merits to the church. Music. Boy, was the music fantastic. And there was the community. There were always people around to help you and judge you and sometimes hit you…wait. That doesn’t sound like a merit. Uh…music. Let’s stick with the music.

But Heather, you may say, how does any of this sound like prison? Or maybe you’re not saying that. Maybe this is just a segue from the set-up to my point. Maybe.

Since my teenaged years, when I moved away from the abuse and drama that was my Pentecostal home, I’ve looked for people to relate to. It’s a natural compulsion, I think. It’s why those tell-all books sell so well. I tried to find voices that I could relate to in all kinds of stories. Ones to give me catharsis (I can cry for them even when I cannot cry for me.) I did not find it among the Mommy Dearests or the Glass Castles. The first place I found it was in a cinema, watching In The Name Of The Father. It was 1994 and a boy I didn’t overly like had come to a movie with me. He thought it was a date, I didn’t.

The movie told the story of Gerry Conlon, a man convicted of a crime, a London bombing, that he didn’t commit. Part way through the movie, I started to cry. The boy made a clumsy, sexualized attempt to comfort me. He thought I was overwhelmed, I suppose, by Daniel Day Lewis’ performance. I wasn’t. It was the story. A man, in prison, but totally innocent.

It was my metaphor. When people write about abuse, it is almost always tinged by shame. The idea that they might have been asking for it seethes below the surface of the anger or sadness. The self-flagellation is a natural continuance of the abuse suffered. When they stop, we begin.

But in stories of those imprisoned for crimes they did not commit (or even for those they did) there is an undercurrent of rebellion. I believe that rebellion, coupled with the pain of their mistreatment, is what connected me to these stories.

In my home, I was a prisoner, psychologically and sometimes physically. I needed to ask for a glass to drink water, if my mother was in that mood. I could not take food if I was hungry. I could not turn on the television or pick up the phone or leave a conversation unless I was given permission. This occurred not just when I was a child, but when I was a teenager as well. As a child, the punishment was swift and physical. It was absolute and I never figured out the tricks my sisters did to avoid it (one cried immediately, one not at all.) Besides, I was never right. My mother once told me that as an infant I had pushed her away. I had not loved her properly. But then, my mother believed in striking infants for crying, so I don’t wonder that I did.

My childhood church. I'm second from the left.

My childhood church. I’m second from the left.

As I grew up, the church and our Pentecostal home were my whole reality. Even school was taught to be a potential haunt for demons trying to draw me away from God. I was wary of everything.

I was always watched. God was my guard. When mother or one of the church women who reported all infractions to each other were not watching, he always was. I suffered from constant guilt and fear. Unlike other children, I felt no safer breaking the rules in private than I did in public. All of my errors were honest. I remember being punished more for my enthusiasm and curiosity that for my sins.

I’ve recently started watching Rectify, a Sundance program about a man released from death row because of DNA evidence. Again I am struck by the similarities. When he enters the “real” world, he doesn’t know how to behave. I didn’t either. He is stunned by everyday things. He is missing decades of shared experiences, because his was so singular. After I was unceremoniously ejected, I found I had few tools to function in “normal” society. My normal was obedience and fear and a closed community that both policed and nurtured its own. I had never had sex, tried drugs, gone a day without praying or learned to make my own decisions.

One thing that struck me about Rectify was how easily the main character allows himself to be led. He has no direction because direction was never his to own. He is used to following orders. I don’t follow orders, but the next step, the self-initiation, still proves hard for me. I don’t know how to start. I sometimes wonder at who I really am. I am not solid. I am what’s left after I extricated gods and monsters from my being.

Like the prisoners I read about and watch, I am still trapped. I am still watched. I am still waiting for the walls to return.

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3 thoughts on “My Religion Was My Prison

  1. Pingback: What Changes And What Stays The Same | Heather Emmebolisms

    • It’s one of the reasons I write about it. I feel like these experiences, coupled with the decision to walk away, can be very isolating. We’re left adrift. Sometimes we moor ourselves to each other and it feels less lonely.

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