What follows here is a personal testimony of how I became acquainted with the church, my experiences within the church and my eventual disconnection from it. Now, I realise that not everyone has the same experiences or results that I have had, and I’m not advocating that anyone start questioning their basic faith. What I do advocate within the next two blog articles is an examination of what you, my fine young readers have been taught to believe, what you have been told in addition to your basic faith and who is doing the telling. What I am about to do is issue a scathing indictment of organized religion, and at the same time achieve a certain degree of catharsis. I freely admit this, and if reading this will take you out of your “comfort zone,” then do so at your own discretion(s). If not, then by all means let’s jump in!
When I was very young, I attended services at Grace Assembly of God in Madera, California. My paternal grandmother would take me to Sunday School, and then Children’s Church. Afterwards, we would usually meet my grandfather for lunch at one of the local eateries. I can remember riding in grandma’s car, the both of us singing the words to “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know,” and “Jesus Loves The Little Children.” These are some of the earliest and fondest memories that I have of my grandma, God rest her spirit. These are also my earliest recollections of church.
Right next door to the house I grew up in on Walnut Street, sat Madera Mennonite Brethren Church. During the late seventies, on Sunday mornings when I wasn’t with my grandmother, my parents would send me next door to that church’s services. (If you ask me, I think it was so that they could have some “alone time.”) During that same time, I was also enrolled in their “Awana” program. (For those unfamiliar with faith-based “scouting” types of programs such as “Royal Rangers” or “Awana,” info can be found here and here.) As a matter of fact, I still to this very day, remember the “Sparks” song that we used to sing every Tuesday evening. But I digress. To a kid like me, there wasn’t much difference between the two churches, save for the fact that the latter had Awana, the former Royal Rangers. Aside from that, and the fact that grandma attended the other one, no difference. Eventually my Sunday School, church and even what they refer to as “Vacation Bible School” attendance were all at Madera Mennonite Brethren, with the occasional visit to Grace Assembly with grandma. Even at this early stage, there were some things that struck me as hypocritical about a few of the people. I remember hearing one of my Christian “friends” at the time telling a joke about ARCO standing for “All Rags (Muslims) Come Over” or something to that effect. At the time, I brushed it off.
In my teen years, even though I was occasionally attending church next door, my focus on matters of a “spiritual nature” kind of faded. I guess that’s normal for a teenaged boy, we tend to think more about school, girls and friends around that time in life. So, I guess you could say I became more of a “casual Christian” during the eighties. It was during this “casual Christian” time in my life that I met my future wife. I won’t go into the whole story of how she blew me away at first sight, how smitten I became or how I tracked her down two months after we met, just suffice it to know that in July of 1987, we began seeing each other.
At the same time, I was trying to determine how my final year of high school would play out. I wasn’t the best of students back then, and was lacking several credits needed for graduation. My wife (girlfriend) was attending private school at First Assembly Christian School and services with her mother at the school’s host church, First Assembly of God. So, I started going to church with them, and enrolled at FACS. In addition to Sunday services at First Assembly, my wife and her mother were also doing a week night thing with a Charismatic group. I went with them a few times, and even got “prophesied over” by one of the leaders of the group. She told me that I would supposedly become a “pillar” of the church. At any rate…
It was during this time of attending First Assembly, and the courtship of my wife that she became pregnant with our firstborn son. It was also during this same time in my life when I discovered just how unlike Christ that Christians can actually be. When the church board, which was led by Dennis McCann discovered that my wife (girlfriend at this point) was “with child,” they decided at some point that the both of us should stand in front of the whole congregation, and apologise for our transgression. It was either we did this, or she would be expelled from school. Needless to say, we bowed to the will of the church, which was presented to us with much Bible-based ministration to reinforce it.
Shortly thereafter, on Mother’s Day of 1988, the church board presented flowers to all of the mothers in the congregation…all of the mothers except my wife. She was seven months along at the time, and in my thinking every bit a mother as those other women who already had children born to them. The reason that was given for why my wife did not receive flowers was that our baby had not been born yet. So once again, pumped up the arse by the church. I made it up to her later that day though, and bought her a boquet of peach-colored roses.
In April of 1989, I left to join the U.S. Army. At the same time, I stopped attending church regularly. Come to think of it, I have not attended any church, with any degree of “regularity” since! That does not mean however, that my dealings with churches also ended at the same time. It’s important to note that during Basic Training, and for a short time afterward, I seriously endeavored to be the best Christian I could be, even going so far as to get baptised when I came back from training in Oklahoma. Ever onward…
In the mid-nineties the church next door to my childhood home, which had by this time become Madera Avenue Bible Church, decided to build a brick wall around the perimeter of their property so that they could expand their parking areas. In most municipalities, it is mandatory for a business, even a non-profit one such as a church, to erect a firm barrier between their parking areas and any adjacent residences, for traffic safety and noise reasons. As part of the plan for parking expansion, MABC was required to do this. (Incidentally, the wall went up, but the parking never was expanded!) A few years prior to this happening, I had rebuilt the section of wood fence between my parents’ yard and the church property, and now the church was going to negate its necessity. Not only that but the church board, personified by one Bill Jantzen, pressured my parents to pay for the section of wall separating their respective properties, which I felt was extremely unfair since it was the church’s decision to plan parking and build the wall in the first place. At any rate, the wall went up and money was paid out over time.
During this same time, I was working at a local pharmacy. One of the pharmacists there, Sarah Brannon, also happened to be the wife of the pastor of Grace Community (not Assembly as above, different church) Church. It was in the course of working with this woman that I discovered the detriments of discussing religion in the workplace. On several occasions, she would inform me that I was “lost” because I did not share her beliefs. I honestly think that the reason for this was that at this same time, I was starting to seriously examine my own long-held beliefs and their sources.
At the turn of the millennium I returned to the military. While I was away, my wife and sons began attending services at First Christian Church, at the behest of twin teachers at my sons’ school, where my wife was volunteering while I was away. Not only did she attend church there, but also began teaching Sunday School. Personally, I was glad that she had so many productive things to do with the time I was gone. In May of 2001, I came home on a mid-tour leave from Korea. While I was home, both of my sons decided to be baptised in the church, and when they did so also (supposedly) became members of the church, for life. (This ties in to something later down the page, so keep reading!)
One particular Sunday before church services started, I walked in on a disagreement between my wife and Tricia Hill, the daughter of church board member Bill Hill. Tricia had informed my wife that our younger son had drawn in crayon on one of the walls in the nursery, to which my wife had countered that our son hadn’t even been in that room when the drawing had supposedly happened. Now, my younger son did have a mischievous streak about him, and it was for this reason that Tricia maintained her position, regardless of what my wife knew to be true. So I rounded up the family and we left, but not before a few more choice words from Ms. Hill.
After I returned to Korea, my wife “made nice” with Tricia Hill. I think it was mostly due to them having to work together at the school. By the time I returned from my tour, everyone was gearing up for the holiday season. My oldest son was going to be assisting with the soundboard for the Christmas program. Well, during rehearsal one evening, my son came to me with a “problem down there.” Due to his explanation of the issue, I immediately drove him the sixty miles down to Lemoore NAS. There, he was diagnosed with an inguinal hernia. On the Sunday after returning from Lemoore, Tricia Hill asked where my son was. I informed her that he was at home, and that he had a hernia. Her snarky reply to this was, “Is he going to have a hernia the night of the program?” My terse reply; “Yeah, probably!” Since my wife was supposed to also be in the program, we still went, my older son convalescing at the time. After this, we left California bound for my new duty station at Fort Bliss, Texas.
A few years later, we found ourselves back in Madera. Our daughter was born in early December of 2003. A year later, we were looking for somewhere to celebrate her first birthday. Now supposedly, my wife and sons were still members of First Christian Church, which had a sizeable day room. So, we called. The woman on the other end of the phone informed us that we would have to pay three-hundred dollars to use the room. When I mentioned that my wife and sons were church members, she informed me that the church had no record of them being members. (My wife just recently rediscovered the boys’ membership and baptism certificates, so…..) Evidently, they had been removed from the rolls after we PCS’d (military move) to El Paso. Even so, three-hundred dollars?
Since the move to El Paso, I have only attended maybe four or five Sunday services. That’s four or five Sundays in a ten-year timespan. Which church have I attended? If you guessed Grace Assembly, go buy yourself a cigar! HOWEVER, the story doesn’t end here. It continues, in the next article in this two-part series…”Burned By The Church: Part Two – An Indictment.” Stay tuned!