My family and I lived a block from the church we attended every Sunday morning when I was a child. It was an Anglican Church. The Anglican church originated in England in the sixth century. In my small Northern Ontario town, the church’s formal architecture, repetitive prayers and steadied hymns invoked a feeling of being part of something ancient and reverent. I remember waiting with anticipation for my family to head out the door, down the sidewalk and up the steep steps to the large wooden doors of our church. I’m not sure that I was particularly religious, but having freshly curled hair and getting to wear a Sunday dress with gloves surely sweetened the deal.
The sounds of the organ beckoned us through the doors into the sanctuary. The dark, smooth, wooden pews were a familiar comfort as I would slide across them and squeeze into place with my family. Across the street was the Catholic church. It was bigger than our church and had way more steps! As a teenager, my Catholic friends told me that they had the option of attending mass on Saturday night so they could stay up late and not have to get up early for church. I remember thinking that sounded like a pretty cool church, offering a service for those who needed to let loose at the end of the week. I went to the Catholic church a couple of times with my friends, but wasn’t allowed to go to the front for the bread and wine. Who wants to sit on a bench all alone while your friends are partaking of the body of Christ? My option was to covert to Catholicism, which involved a lot of classes. I kind of liked the idea of seeing how my father would react to the news of my conversion, but not enough to follow through on it.
There were only two churches in our town between it’s inception in the mid 1940’s until the late 1960’s when the United Church of Canada established a church on the other side of town. Everyone seemed to be either Protestant or Catholic in those days. I don’t remember one being seen as better than the other, although I do remember my father saying that the new United Church wasn’t really Protestant. He said they were “doing their own thing over there,” and I was always curious what that meant. The one time I got to go to the United Church, was when a group of my friends were in the Christmas Eve service and asked me to come. We all got to dress up and sing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. "What's that got to do with Christmas?" my dad admonished me before going, but my mother understood my need to be with my friends and I got to stay for the whole service. I loved it. In later years, I returned to my hometown to raise a family and joined the United Church with my children. It was a church that was deeply engaged with the community and issues of justice, inclusion and environmental stewardship. I guess that was what my father meant by “doing their own thing.” I loved it even more.
Growing up I never knew of any people in our town who were Athiest, although looking back I know there were, of course. I would guess there were people who had perhaps a spiritual life rather than a religious one, or who had no attachment to either. The people that stand out in my mind were all good people who contributed immensely to our community life and cared about the land around us. Many of them gave much of their time to young people as teachers in school and for outdoor activities throughout the year. It was only recently that I realized that quite a few of them were of Eastern European descent. Interesting.
In the early 1970’s, a new church came to town. Well, it didn’t actually come down into town, but established itself about halfway up the four mile long steep road into our town. I don’t remember how things began, but sometime around my nineth birthday, my father announced that we were joining a new church. Some people had arrived from the United States of America and the Baptist Church was going to be built. My father said that we were going to help them build it and would be a part of their congregation. I have no recollection of how I felt about that. I do remember my mom assuring me that I could still go to Brownies at the Anglican Church. I was outgrowing Brownies anyway, and had already decided I didn’t want to “fly up” to Girl Guides as it would take too much time away from my bowling team and playing outside. Besides, I was always one who loved adventure and the pastor had told me I would get to go to summer Bible Camp and learn archery. Woo hoo!
Over the next months and years, the pastor and his wife came to our house for dinner many times. Other times we would go to their house and I would get to play with their adorable kids. They had a big window facing the forest with bird feeders everywhere and a basement where we would gather for services, Bible Study and Sunday School while the church was being built. Sometimes we had programs there after school with kids who weren’t a part of the church. We got to invite them to come, even if their parents didn’t go to church. We were supposed to “witness” to our friends about taking Jesus into their hearts, to save them from their sins. I learned that we were all born sinners and that Jesus died for our sins. I didn’t quite understand how God sent us into the world with sin then sent his son to save us from sin. To me it seemed that he could have saved himself alot of trouble by just sending us into the world without sin in the first place. But I was a kid, what did I know.
I asked alot of questions as a child. In Sunday School, my incessant curiousity was often answered with a verse from scripture which I was told to memorize. I know a lot of Bible verses. The Anglican Church had been nothing like this new church, so it was all a bit confusing. I’m a fairly adaptable human and was an impressionable child so despite my questioning, I enjoyed much of what this Baptist church had to offer - singing, art, potlucks, meeting new people and Bible camp! I loved it. Years later I was officiating at the funeral of a friend’s mother, a long-time resident of our community, originally from Eastern Europe. I hadn’t seen my friend in many years so what an honour it was to preside at a celebration of her mother’s life. As we talked about our childhood life together she joked about how many times I tried to save her from Satan. Really? Oh yes, many times she assured me. My childhood friend from the United Church chimed in, nodding in agreement, “Many, many, many times,” she laughed, adding, “we got used to it and you had a good heart.” Thinking about this later, I imagined my nine or ten year old self trying to save my friends. It didn’t surprise me. I was the kind of kid who wanted everyone to feel included and still am.
In the five or so years that I was part of the new church, I took Jesus as my Saviour about fifty times, or so I would guess. I suppose I thought I needed alot of saving, especially as I was liking certain boys more and more. I also said the “f” word one night outside the skating rink, when one of the girls in my class pushed me down and forced me to say it. I figured that Satan had a hold of her, but I don’t remember ever trying to save her. She’d have to find Jesus some other way. As for myself, apparently I had plenty of reasons to believe I was a sinner, as I approached the ripe old age of 11.
The pastor often talked about “God’s Plan. We were taught that God had planned out our whole life even before we were born. The pastor told us that he and his wife had been sent by God to our little town to save us. That made me feel very important. I’m not sure what everyone else thought, but in my mind this meant that we were a special part of "God’s Plan." I never completely understood what "God’s Plan" was, but I envisioned that it was very complicated having lots of pages with lines crossed out and new words written above. I imagined that "God’s Plan" also included maps and travel. Since Jesus was born in Bethlehem, way over the ocean near Africa, in a country where everyone road camels in the desert and now he was coming again, but this time to the United States of America, where people drove in cars on roads. It seemed to me that maps and travel must definitely be involved. I loved to travel.
One day in our church after-school program, we were ushered into the new church basement to watch a movie. The pastor explained that this was a very important film called “The Rapture” and had been sent to us from a far away place called Des Moines, Iowa in the United States of America. It seems that the people of Des Moines, Iowa knew more about "God's Plan" than anyone else so they made a film about it. The pastor always added that all things are sent by God, so that really raised the bar! I remember feeling so excited to be part of something this big. I was being let in on a secret that no one outside of our church would know about. Was I even allowed to write about this in my diary? The hymn “How Great Thou Art” often came into my head at times like these. The pastor’s wife and sister-in-law would sing this song at church and it gave me chills, especially when they hit those high and loud notes in perfect harmony. The unfinished basement was dark and bare. With nothing but fold out chairs and a projector in the room, we all took our seats and over the next hour watched the unfolding story about the end of our world on a grey concrete wall.
The film "The Rapture," from Des Moines, Iowa, affected me for years afterward. If I came home and there was a pot on the stove, but my mother wasn't there, I would should "MOM!" just like the girl in the movie. My mom would come around the corner, "I'm right here," and I would breathe a sigh of relief. Even though my mother didn't quote scripture and try to witness to people, she was the most caring and loving person I knew. Surely, Jesus would take her up during "The Rapture" in the end times. If only I could be a good as she was. Sometime around the age of 12, I began to regularly question everything I was being taught at the church and by my dad. Things just weren't adding up. Some time around my 13th birthday, I wanted to attend my first school dance. The pastor told me that I wasn't allowed to go, because dancing was Satan's work. My quoting of the scripture verses about David dancing naked in the street did not amuse him. I was going to have to choose God or Satan. I went to the dance and never went back to church, youth group or Bible camp after that. I guess I made my choice. My father had slowly been backing away from the church anyway. I think all of the judgement was even too much for him. My mother seemed fine to leave and I know she wanted me to dance.
The pastor and his wife eventually went back to the United States, to Michigan, where they were originally from. Later in life I discovered that there were many different "Baptist" churches and the one established near my town was perhaps more extreme in it's teachings than most. I really don't know. What I do know is that this five year period, from age 9 to 13, had a profound affect on me and the direction I ultimately chose in my life. As a child, I soaked up all that I was taught both in church and at home. As a teen, I rebelled against all that I was taught in church and at home. As a young adult, I sought understanding beyond what I was taught in church and at home. In midlife, I grieved for the parts of myself that had been lost or buried by what I was taught in church and at home. It's fifty years later and I am no longer that child. I am a grown woman with a much more expansive and inclusive view of spiritual life, now living in the United States of America, only 7 hours and 31 minutes from Des Moines, Iowa according to google maps....or God’s Plan. Wink wink.