This entry explores my personal experience with religion. Not yours, not someone else’s. Mine.
The Beginning of my Religious Skepticism
One day, I had an outside-of-the-Bible thought in Language Arts class. We were looking at words that do not translate into English. It was demonstrated to us that every language has untranslatable words and dozens of examples were given. My 10-year-old mind wondered “If some words cannot be translated, how can different versions of the Bible be accurate?” My teacher at the time, Mrs. Smoot, told me to ask the priest later that day.
“Why are there different versions of the Bible?” I asked the priest in religion class. My 10-year-old mind continued “If they are God’s words, why does anyone need to learn to read them? Shouldn’t we all be able to read them anyway? Why would God require us to learn a basic skill to understand his words? What happens to people who can’t read?” I remembered learning about the Tower of Babel and thought that must be the reason. After all, that is how I was taught, to use one religious story to explain another. Whatever the priest’s answers to my questions were, they weren’t memorable.
I was not baptized as a baby like most Catholics. When I was older, my mother explained the priests refused to baptize me because my biological father was absent since my mother divorced him – he was physically abusive towards her but somehow the divorce part was more important. My grandmother offered the church around $200 – $500 (I do not know the exact amount) in the 1980s to go through with the baptism – the priests agreed. On principle, my mother refused, and I wasn’t baptized until I was around 10 years old.
When I learned of this story years later, it shook me. “Money makes things ok in the eyes of the Church…?” While many Catholics would condemn this idea, it doesn’t change the fact that it happened. “Tithing, plus some” I thought. While this could have simply been corrupt priests, and not specifically Catholic doctrine, it bothered me.
Now, I may be wrong in this assertion, but I think I am right. But, the same priests who brokered the deal with my grandmother did baptize me in the end. I will likely never know if they connected the two events or not. I believe this must be true because we had the same priests from kindergarten up through 8th grade with the exception one of them died and was replaced. However, the new guy didn’t baptize me.
What I do not remember is whether or not I received communion before my baptism or after. I was young and I’m just not sure. But, when preparing for the Eucharist (or my first communion), a familial celebration was also in the works. Once I received the Eucharist, uncles, aunts, grandparents, older cousins, and everyone I knew met us at our house. Many of the people in my family didn’t get along; but, an unspoken ceasefire was in place to celebrate that I ate a circular piece of bread that underwent transubstantiation, a Catholic belief that the wafer, and the wine, become Jesus’ body and blood. The celebration gifts netted me around $300.
I never really understood why I was given money in celebration of eating my first wafer. Once again, money popped up. Of course, I was on the receiving end this time. But, why? Again, it isn’t that I believe the Church ever said “Give money at your child’s first communion celebration.” But, it just seemed money kept flowing around the religion. Never again would I receive that much cash from extended family for any other celebration, which is why it always stood out to me.
My First Confession (Penance)
I remember being told to go to a room just off to the side of the lectern where the Priest would give eulogies, sermons, and generally speak during mass. I opened the large wooden door, passed through: “Shut the door.” There was an empty chair across from where the priest sat. When I sat down, he said “Are you aware it is a sin not to attend Sunday mass 27 weeks in a row?”
A little taken aback at his most-likely-accurate calculus of my situation, I said “But I don’t drive and we live far away. How do I get here?”
“You need to motivate your parents, it is your job.” He forgave my sins and told me to call in the next student. My first penance occurred during the school day on a Friday. I know it was Friday because we always went to church on Fridays in case we didn’t show up Sunday. Somehow, Fridays were viewed as an inferior way to attend church but it was seemingly done to get the kids in the habit of going if the parents weren’t going to go.
But, I remember my first penance very clearly because it was mildly traumatic. Imagine a priest, a man with a connection to God, counting the number of weeks you haven’t attended mass. He seemed to literally be keeping track. His tone suggested to me that he already told on me to God – after all, I was not allowed to ask for forgiveness myself because I had to go through the priest. He had the power to commune with God, not me.
But what made my first penance mildly traumatic is he put me, a kid, in charge of trying to get my family, not just myself, to church. The implicated penalty would be we cannot be forgiven for our sins if we don’t make our weekly appointment with the Lord (and the priest). If you’re not forgiven, you risk eternity in hell. To be fair, he did not threaten me with hell, not like the Baptists did later in my life, but the unspoken threat was present.
A few weeks later, one of my favorite moments, during one of these school wide Friday masses, was when the new priest, you’ll learn about how he remodeled our church later, was teaching us about the Holy Trinity. He explained how a 3-leaf clover very nicely represents the Holy Trinity: “You have 3 distinct parts but it is all one single plant: God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit – who is often depicted as a dove.”
The priest stood there, in the center of both rows of pews in his purple robes — it was Lent — extending his arms holding up 3 fingers on each hand and said “There are 3 Gods…” Then, he collapsed 2 fingers and said “…but 1 nature.” Right then, I learned why the Holy Spirit is represented by a bird as he was showcasing two birds to hundreds of kids and two dozen teachers when he collapsed two fingers revealing the ‘one nature.’
All the adults pretended not to see it but everyone noticed how each adult’s neck became very stiff, seemingly unable to look side to side for a few moments. The student’s necks were all of the sudden on a swivel as their eyes moved from teacher to teacher to gauge the reaction – in today’s society this would have been 50 million+ views on youtube. The priest then walked down a couple of steps so we were all now sharing the same floor and began to lecture us about the soul. A little girl asked “Do animals have souls?”
He began shaking his head in the middle of her question side to side. “No, they do not. While they are God’s creations, only humans have souls” he said.
I raised my hand and he gestured toward me, “Why are doves the symbol of the Holy Spirit if no animals have souls?” I mean, at the time, I thought this question was on point. Clearly, I had been paying attention.
“Symbols teach us, nothing more” he said.
Personally, I have never been big on animal ownership or caring for animals. I had no ‘save puppies from purgatory’ motivation here. I’m not even sure I was sad when he alluded to the little girl her dog has no soul. I just remember thinking that if animals have no soul then they are safe from hell because when they die they’ll just cease to exist – which is painless. I mean, it better be painless, or not having a soul is the same as having a bad one which equates to having a soul, right?
Thus, between my first penance, being flipped off by the priest with no subsequent apology for the mistake, and learning animals are soulless despite overwhelming evidence they all have personality, empathy, etc…
The whole process of confirmation went just fine. Confirmation is the Catholic sacrament where an older child acknowledges that they want to continue their journey with God. I remember some people saying “Once Confirmed, you’re always Catholic, no matter what!” A sort of ‘we got’cha for life’ kind of situation. But, I had no issue with this part.
My problem was with religion class at school. Up until confirmation, we were all taught about Catholicism from Kindergarten through Confirmation (I believe Confirmation happened in 7th or 8th grade for me but I do not precisely recall). Afterward, we began exploring religions in other countries such as Hinduism, Budhism, Islam, etc… I remember thinking “First confirm them… then show them the world…?”
Even as a not-quiet-ready-for-high-school kid, I remembered feeling this was manipulative. “If God’s word and religion are so powerful, wouldn’t I choose it over these other religions anyway?” To me, it seemed the sacrament of confirmation should actually be about the education of other religions and determining if you want to stick with Catholicism or not. I believe Presenting all of these new ideas after confirmation seemed like a scheme. It felt like the Church and my school curriculum were saying they didn’t want to have to trust me to make the right decision so they hid information until I was ‘theirs.’ Remember, symbols matter.
My Remodeled Church
At some point near the end of my Catholic schooling, the new priest wanted to renovate the church. The remodeling was very low on structural changes and very high on gaudiness upgrades. This new priest’s idea of remodeling consisted of painting everything with real-gold paint – a true visionary whose résumé probably included a small stint working in Trump tower. Of course, not everything was gold; but, he spent $3 million dollars. I presume it was all funded by the Louisville Archdioceses because it was big news when we found out that the Archdioceses was forgiving the $3 million debt years later. But, I was a kid, and I have no further details on that part.
But $3 million in mostly gold paint? I couldn’t believe it. I had always been taught “give to the poor.” The neighborhood surrounding the church was full of falling-apart houses and shut-ins. I remember one shut-in, we were instructed to call her grandma, would be visited by the school kids every so often to keep her in touch with the outside world. Having seen her living conditions, it was pretty offensive to me, even as a kid, that we’d buy gold paint instead of fixing her front door or heat.
I mean, spending $3 million on structural repairs would be one thing. That makes a lot of sense – you don’t want your church collapsing. But gold paint? Even today it disgusts me. The theme of money-and-the-Church came up again for me. It was disappointing.
My $3 Million Dollar Education
Before the $3 million was forgiven by the Archdioceses, the school struggled financially for several years. In hindsight, and this is pure speculation of course, my guess is the Priest was diverting tuition money to pay for church upgrades. Only around 50 – 100 families went to the church, none were wealthy, and I’m pretty sure we only gave around $10 to the collection basket. Consequently, and this part is not speculative, I had around a dozen math teachers in 6th – 8th grade because the school simply couldn’t pay them. The religion teachers (the priests and principal) were still paid of course.
To this day, the utter failure of my school has cost me. I remember my mother did not want me to transfer to the other catholic school we could afford, even though she understood I was struggling, because it did not have air conditioning. When I was a kid, my kidney disorder required me to take a lot of prednisone, which made me feel warmer than normal. So, during the spring semesters, without air conditioning, it would have been intolerable.
One teacher, who still teaches in Louisville, KY at a catholic school, taught me the order of operations incorrectly. “Nope, you all missed the answer… the book is wrong, too” he said numerous times. “The answers in the back are just off!” Everyone – not just me – kept failing their homework and a few “You all need to pay better attention!” comments were hurled at us, too.
He taught us that you do the order of operations exactly as written in that order, PEMDAS, every time. Thus,
His Reality: 3 + 2 x 7 – 9 / 2 = 13
Reality: 3 + (2 x 7) – (9/2) = 12.5
This lead to 5 years of failed math tests until a clever math teacher in high school figured out what I was doing wrong during my junior year. Thus, for 5 years I identified as a horrible math student.
[Intermission: I want to say I really respect what my high school did for my education. I learned more there than most places and to it I am eternally grateful. St Francis High School was amazing (yes, it is a “saint” school but it is actually non-denominational). My 11th grade math teacher John Rost figured out what I was doing wrong with the order of operations. He regraded all of my tests for that year as if my way of ordering operations was correct and it turns out I was a B to B+ student. Thank you.]
Regardless, looking back, I see this whole idea of money-and-the-Church coming up again. Gold paint church upgrades translated into a lifetime of poor math ability for me because math teachers were first on the chopping block. This sacrifice in education cost me and probably others, too.
There was a lot of pressure from friends and school staff to go to a Catholic high school. But, I knew one thing for sure: I did not want to go to a Catholic school anymore. I wanted to branch out. But, the pressure was very real. Thankfully, my family did not pressure me to go to a Catholic school.
I remember a representative come from the top Catholic high school in Louisville. He was very clearly speaking to young lads going through puberty – he knew his audience. “Don’t worry guys, it is an all men’s school but we do have some ladies who come around for special classes.” He even said “And a great time to ask them to go on dates or dances at our newly renovated $3 million facility is during football games, our special after-school classes, or you can sign up for a tutor from one of the girl’s schools.” Looking back on that with my #MeToo glasses on…
But he dropped that $3 million gem in, the second anchor of his argument. If the ladies didn’t hook us, it would be sports! He went on and on about the football and basketball teams. “The top facilities for the top students” he said “…and we spared no expense all because of you.”
While I did play basketball in grade school, this was not interesting to me. It compared to the $3 million the priest spent and reminded me how money-and-the-Church seemed to be a running theme. Where was all this money coming from? It made my $300 First Communion money seem like nothing.
He took us outside and we saw this little tiny green bus. “Who wants to go for a ride?” He was pretty excited to be driving that little bus. We all hopped in and he drove us to the school. We toured around the unimpressive but apparently expensive facility. On the way back, for some reason, the bus smelled bad. It was an annoying day, with an annoying man, being pressured in an annoying way.
Becoming a Southern Baptist
Instead of this wonderfully outlined Catholic high school, I chose to go to a non-denominational High school whose only religion class blended Civilization and Culture together, which included religions. This decision meant gladly parting ways with everyone I knew. I had no love for the people I knew from pre-school to 8th grade. I haven’t even gotten into the bullying I went through; however, I won’t harp on it because it was mild bullying compared to what kid’s go through today since bullying doesn’t end with the school day. But yea, I was glad to move on.
However, my life wasn’t devoid of religion. Around the time I went into high school my family decided on a new path. You see… my neighborhood had a church on most every street – all baptist churches. Churches were everywhere. I won’t speak for my family, but it remained clear we all had our own difficulties with being Catholic. As a family, we went to the church across the street and converted Southern Baptist.
The church had a new preacher. His family lived in the house adjacent to the church, funded by the church, which was heavily reliant on one specific upper-middle-class woman for its funding – she never married and had no kids so her financial status was very stable. Others gave what they could, but she basically kept the heat on and the preacher housed. I know this because she fired the previous preacher – not sure why – but I figure the only way one could do that is if they’re housing the preacher.
The change of religious scenery seemed very good to me. I welcomed it. I mean, it checked off a lot of boxes for me:
1. I didn’t have to drive there so my family wouldn’t go to hell
2. The church’s money paid for things it was supposed to pay for
3. I could ask God for forgiveness without priestly intermediaries
4. I was able to interpret the Bible as I wanted and not as the priest told me to
I didn’t fully experience being baptist until the baptismal broke. The preacher asked my parents if he could baptize people in our above ground pool. They agreed and, come December, some people wanted to be saved by Jesus. “Being saved” means you accept Jesus into your heart and then you get ‘reborn’ through a full body submersion baptism John the Baptist style. At my new church, as soon as you decided to be saved, you get baptized within a week. After watching the submersion baptism in our pool from the warmth of my bedroom window on that cold December day, I decided Jesus would save me in the summer.
Every Sunday the preacher would conclude church by saying “Is there anyone here who wants to accept Jesus into their heart?” – he was often looking at me. I planned to ignore him until May or June. Eventually, though, the baptismal did get fixed and I went ahead and got baptized well before summer. It was admittedly more meaningful than the Catholic baptism and it did not involve any bribes (that was another box checked off). BAM! I was born again!
Once baptized, I was invited to attend Sunday school. Because of what I learned in my Civilizations and Culture class (at my non-denominational high school) about Christianity, I was invited to join the adults. I remember how I wow’ed everyone. The preacher asked the adults “How did each book get into the Bible anyway?” We just learned in school that it was essentially voted on, so I said that. “Wow… he is a prodigy with religion” the preacher said, or something to that effect. And just like that I got into the adult class full time.
I remember thinking “Did no one else here learn this in school?” I did not feel like a prodigy, or whatever word he used, and I certainly didn’t feel like I was smarter than anyone. Honestly, the whole Sunday school thing was just strange. I remember for about 2 minutes of the first adult class felt like an honor. That was, until I started asking questions.
Remember that woman who was keeping the church going? She was in the adult class. She was older, wore long dresses, and always had a say in things. She would say things like “We live in … interesting times” right after we’d speak about judgment day and the end times with a tone that suggested we (she) knew something the outside world didn’t.
In one of these special adult classes she claimed she spoke in tongues. It was explained to me that she spoke in some kind of celestial language where anyone could understand no matter what she spoke even though it sounds like gibberish. “It only comes about when you’re filled with the Holy Spirit” she said.
I remember thinking “God loves baptists more than Catholics?” because Catholics must learn to read God’s word while baptists can go into a trance and speak some sort of omnilingual language to spread God’s word. I then asked with genuine interest “Can you show me?” I wanted to see her eyes go white and a tongue of flame appear above her head. I thought it would be absolutely amazing to see someone speak in tongues. Basically, I wanted a light show – I wanted to see her super powers and I was earnest in that want.
Unfortunately, she was not amused with my question and I found myself back with the ‘dolts’ in the kid’s class a few weeks later. Preachers gotta keep their homes, after all, because how else do you remove a ‘religion prodigy’ from a class? I guess if one is filled with the Holy Spirit, it isn’t permanent.
After the baptism and a few Sunday school classes, church drama began to rear its head. The preacher’s wife began to suspect her husband was cheating on her. Out of the blue, she kicked my whole family out of the church saying my mother was sleeping with her husband. It was a sudden shift from a happy church life to the twilight zone. We stopped going for a small period until the preacher told us “My wife cannot kick you out of church, please come back.” So, we did.
Things went back to normal for a few weeks. But one day, there was a big announcement. The preacher got a good deal on what would become the church’s first church-owned vehicle. We all contributed money. “We’ll be able to go on church outings everyone!” Everyone was supportive and excited thinking of the possibilities of camping trips, going to a sports event, etc…
When word got back to me that the new vehicle was parked behind the church, I rushed across the street to see it. I walked hurriedly down the black pavement, another new feature of the church, and turned the corner. And there it sat… that damn smelly green bus the annoying high school recruiter drove. They were painting it white. Had I waited just a few hours I may never have known. I was disappointed. It was a sign things were about to go downhill.
A couple of Sundays later, our preacher stood in front of the congregation and we didn’t do our usual opening song to feel the spirit before celebrating God – my guess is when we sang we only got about 90% full of the holy spirit, or less, because no one ever spoke in tongues. We also skipped the silent prayer Karen always asked for – we all knew she wanted prayer support for her son, over which she had zero control, but was unwilling to admit she raised a monster. Instead, our preacher man had an announcement prefaced with tears. Everyone quieted down and my family, being the newest, sat in the front row on the right. We had the best view of the upcoming Baptist cataclysm that would define a large part of my religious identity.
“I want everyone to know I am gay … and I’m Methodist now.”
Silence fell in the room and his wife left in shame. Apparently, this is how he broke the news to his wife and kids. I’d say her embarrassment was understandable given the truth she suddenly had to face in front of others with no prior warning. It became clear he was cheating on his wife but not with anyone in the neighborhood / congregation and certainly not with a woman.
“Our leader is a gay!” someone said – I never found out who.
I remember the gay-hate started coming out of most of the congregation. My family has never disliked gay people – we have always been accepting of people in general. But this congregation – no way.
Years later, it occurred to me he came out in that moment. There was no Facebook or Twitter back then. The biggest audience he had was his church. I think he wanted his church’s support, just like Karen did. Karen had the wisdom not to express her problem out loud but Ken had the courage to discuss his secret out loud. I guess both are admirable traits that I didn’t value or understand back then.
But imagine being the leader of people you know hate you and ‘your kind’ but having no one else to tell. I’m not sure I have ever been that courageous in my life.
Witnessing a man destroy his family, his social standing, and his religious beliefs was powerful. There was a lot wrong with what he did, like cheating on his wife and not telling her about his announcement in advance, but he was also being forced to live a lie. It was clear there was a lot of pressure in his dual life. I don’t blame him for wanting to be honest with everyone around him and himself. To this day I feel honored I was part of the group he decided to come out to. I’ll always feel bad for him and happy at the same time. I hope he worked through his difficulties.
But, his thorough rejection by the congregation, and essentially all the neighbors on the street, and the phrase “Our leader’s a gay!” was the final straw for me and religion.