Mom is taking me to a new church to be prayed over. Ordinarily, we’re not supposed to go to non-fundamentalist churches because fundamentalists are the only true Christians. Catholics are Mary worshippers, Lutherans are half-baked Catholics, and Episcopalians are gay.
“It’s a spiritual renewal service,” Mom says as I climb in the passenger side of our mini-van. “There’s a team that lays hands on you and prays over your life. I’ve heard it’s life-changing.”
“Won’t we get kicked out of our church?” I ask.
“We’re just going to give it a try. We don’t have to go back if it doesn’t work.”
The church we’re visiting is charismatic. People speak in tongues and sing praise songs with electric guitars. In our church, both of these things are temptations from the Devil. Taking me to a different church means she’s desperate.
Pastor called yesterday afternoon to tell her that he doesn’t believe I’m actually saved, so I’m probably going to hell. I needle my Sunday school teachers with questions. At a sleepover with the other church girls, I said that maybe hell is more of a metaphor than a literal place. One girl told her mom, who called Pastor, who called my mom as soon as she got off her shift at the nursing home where she’s a CNA.
Pastor told Mom that I think I’m smarter than God. My heart is proud and defiant. He said he respects that she’s a single mother trying to raise godly children in a fallen world, but it’s hard when girls see their mothers working outside the home and don’t have fathers to show them how to be godly women.
“I’m sorry I’ve got to ask you again,” Mom says. “Are you sure you’re saved?”
“Yes, since I was seven.”
“Pastor said you also asked your Sunday school teacher why the Bible orders slaves to obey their masters. Is that true?”
“Everyone says God can handle our questions, but gets angry when you ask them,” I respond. “Shouldn’t they think it’s good I want to know God better?”
“It’s not getting to know God better if you’re nitpicking Him.”
“I’m saved. I know I am.”
“Okay, good,” Mom says. “But you’ve got to stop drawing negative attention to us, Sarah. I don’t want to get any more calls from Pastor about you.”
We don’t talk for the rest of the drive. I look out the window and watch the landscape shift from our Rustbelt city to rural Upstate New York. First the Brutalist architecture disappears and then everything is green but the sky and cows idling in fields along the highway.
The charismatic church is the last stop before chain farm supplies stores give way to signs advertising endless land for development. When we pull up to it, I’m stunned by the church’s size. It’s at least five times bigger than our church—half holy temple, half concert venue.
Our church has about one hundred and fifty members. After the service starts, our deacons stand at the back of the sanctuary and count heads while the rest of us sing old hymns. Every week, they publish the previous week’s attendance in the back of our church bulletin. No one talks about it, but we all know it’s there. We know when the number goes up at Christmas and goes down after New Year’s. We know that most of the time, it stays the same.
A greeter hands us bulletins as we walk through the double doors, and Mom and I follow a stream of people into the auditorium. The walls are painted silver-pink and dotted with frosted wall sconces that cast warm, curved light. The chairs have charcoal gray upholstery, thick seats, and arched, metal backs. There’s a clearing at the front of the auditorium where a couple of rows are missing.
A professional lighting tech sits in a booth at the back of the room controlling the colors that pulse across the stage, where a five-person band plays us in. Two singers lift up their hands as they sing for God to anoint them with His blessings. They’re probably only two or three years older than me—maybe nineteen—but they seem so sophisticated by comparison. One of the vocalists has on sparkling blue eye shadow that shimmers when the spotlight turns to her for a solo. She wears blue jeans and a stylish bob with blonde highlights. I’m wearing a long khaki skirt from Goodwill and am not allowed to cut my hair or wear makeup. As she sings, she’s so overcome with emotion that she grips her microphone stand for support and wrinkles the space between her eyebrows like she’s about to cry, like the hardest thing in her life is how much she wants Jesus.
“Right here,” Mom says, directing me to a row at the front of the auditorium.
This is the closest I’ve come to attending a rock concert. Our church disapproves of music that isn’t hymns or classical. Once when I was in junior high, I asked Mom why I wasn’t allowed to listen to Top 40 like my classmates.
“Non-Christian music reminds me of things I did when I was young that I don’t want to remember,” she said. “You won’t have that problem.”
She didn’t say “sex and drugs,” but I knew what she meant. She believes that if she had grown up in a Christian home or gotten saved in her teens instead of her thirties, she wouldn’t have married my dad and spent the next decade worrying about my brother and I getting into his pain pills. She could have been one of the homeschooling, stay-at-home moms at church who was a virgin on her wedding night and has never had to bail her husband out of jail.
I sit down and flip through a church bulletin, trying to ignore the sinful worship music and light show. The bulletin has six pages and is glossy-printed with a color picture of a burning bush on the front. It lists eight services a week, while our church has two.
Mom stays standing and begins singing along with the worship band. She closes her eyes, lifts up her hands, and holds out her palms like antennae waiting to receive a divine signal. That’s when I realize she’s done this before. She’s been cheating on our church with this church. She’s betraying our austere, exacting God with this wild, expressive God.
I want to puncture this church’s spell over her. When the music fades and she sits down, I shoot her a look that I hope will shame her into the quiet, respectful piety that we observe in our church. We’re fundamentalists. This isn’t what we do.
Her eyes are fixed on the stage, where the pastor is walking out from the wings. I’m relieved that he at least looks like most pastors I’ve known: Male, white, and about fifty-five years old. His short hair is parted neatly to the left. His most distinct features are his goatee and a white Oxford shirt tucked into khakis, not the usual black or gray suit.
“I want to thank you all for being here tonight,” he begins. “The Bible says that when two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst. God is in this room and He wants to pour out His blessings over you.”
“Amen,” Mom says.
“Tonight, our team of prayer warriors is going to meet and pray with each of you. They are blessed with the gifts of healing and prophecy,” the pastor says as about thirty men line up behind him. “But before we begin, let’s open with prayer.
“Father God, we thank you for bringing us once more into your house. Open our hearts to hear your words and receive your Spirit. Touch us and change us irrevocably, we ask you, dear Lord. In Jesus’s name, amen.”
“Amen,” Mom says again.
The pastor and prayer warriors climb down the stage steps and stand in the clearing at the front of the auditorium. Mom takes my hand and says, “C’mon, we need to beat the rush.”
We power walk through the crowd to the front of the room, but the pastor is already standing there with his hand on a young man’s shoulder. The pastor’s eyes are closed and his mouth moves in prayer. The young man wears baggy blue jeans and a white t-shirt. His dirty blond hair is shorn into a buzz cut and there are small bulbs of purple-red acne in patches on his cheeks. A member of the prayer team stands behind him with outstretched arms. There are groups of three in similar configurations across the room.
As the pastor prays, the young man holds up his hands to the ceiling. His expression is full of questioning and hope, like he’s asked someone to marry him and doesn’t know the response. Suddenly, he drops. The person behind him grabs for him and lays him out on the floor like he’s going to give him CPR.
The young man’s mouth twitches. The pastor and prayer team member step back. He lies still for a moment before jerking up like a firecracker and spinning in mid-air. He hits the floor facedown and springs up again in another spectacular convulsion.
“He’s got the Spirit,” Mom whispers.
The young man lies on his back and shakes all over. No one seems worried that he could be having a seizure. The pastor squeezes the catcher’s arm and slaps his back encouragingly before turning to Mom and me.
“Good to see you again, Tammy,” he says, shaking her hand in both of his. “This must be your daughter.”
“Yes, this is my Sarah,” Mom says, her voice nervous and bright. “It’s her first time here.”
“Welcome, Sarah. Your mother told me you’ve been struggling with a lot of questions,” the pastor says. “God loves questions”
He smiles at me like we’ve just established an inside secret.
“Yes, Sarah always had a lot of questions, even as a baby,” Mom says. “When she was little, she said the thing she liked most about Heaven was that we’d get to know everything.”
“Inquisitiveness is a gift, but also a responsibility,” the pastor tells me. “You’ll have to work your whole life to bring that gift back to God. Do you want to pray together?”
“Yes, sir,” I say.
Mom moves behind me, holds out her arms, and smiles. There’s hope and anxiety in her expression. She wants this to work, but I’m not sure what that means. Sometimes I think she wants a different kind of daughter—the kind of daughter who lovingly trusts her elders’ authority and immediately reports her peers if they say anything heretical at sleepovers.
The pastor lays his right hand on my shoulder. I close my eyes and hold out my palms.
“Dear Jesus, thank you for the gift of Sarah,” he says. “Father God, you know what’s in Sarah’s heart. You know that she seeks to follow you, but the Devil wants to use her gifts to lead her down a path of confusion. Dear Lord, I pray that you will give her discernment to distinguish your voice. …”
People are falling all around me. Some topple like dominoes into the arms of the person behind them. Others collapse where they stand so the catcher has to make a quick grab for them. Some are cackling and others cry. Many lie quietly with pained expressions of ecstasy on their faces. The floor is littered with bodies, palms out and upturned. The auditorium rings with peals of laughter, gasping sobs, and the quiet murmurs of prayers.
The pastor’s prayer for me follows a formula. First he says something nice about how smart I am, then something passive-aggressive about how that could be a problem.
“Jesus, you have given Sarah a strong mind, but pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before the fall,” he prays. “Touch Sarah tonight and guide her steps all the days of her life so that she will not be overcome with pride and fall into sin. …”
I still imagine what it would be like to know everything in the universe, I think it would feel like being an electrical conductor. I imagine millions of atoms buzzing around inside my body as they pass through into the rest of the world.
I know why Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. She loved God, but she had a hungry mind. When God kicked her and Adam out of the Garden of Eden, I imagine her standing at the edge of the home she could never return to, only a little closer to all the knowledge in the universe, and alone with a man who couldn’t tell her anything she didn’t already know.
My arms begin to ache from holding them out. The pastor’s voice begins to wear, but he continues. He and Mom are waiting for me to drop. All I have to do is fall back and lie on the ground with a dreamy smile.
“Father God, each of us is a mystery to the other,” the pastor prays. “Tammy knows that she may never understand the workings of Sarah’s mind, but you do, Lord Jesus. You wove her together in her mother’s womb. …”
Tonight, I see for the first time that Mom’s looking for something. She’s a seeker and she wants me to seek with her, but we’re not looking for the same thing. I think she’s trying to find a church that accepts her. That’s how she’ll know God loves and accepts her, too, with her wild adolescence, divorce, and mouthy public school kids.
Sometimes the divide between Mom and me seems so flimsy, I understand Doubting Thomas’s urge to plunge his hand into Jesus’ side.
I decide to fall. I lean back on my heels and go. It feels fake and clumsy, but the air gives way around me like it doesn’t know. Mom catches me with expert hands. This is what she does every day: lifting patients from their beds, setting them into wheelchairs, helping them onto exam tables, and holding them up on the way to the bathroom.
She lays me down on the floor so gently that I envy her patients. If I were a baby soul in Heaven, soft and all knowing, and God asked me who I wanted to be my mom, I’d pick her again.
I hold up my hands and relax my face. I pray my own prayer until I don’t hear the pastor anymore. I pray that God will give me the hunger I need to change my life and the strength to do it. When I pray, I feel the love of God running through me like a steel beam, and I know in my proud, defiant heart that my faith is real.
There are so many things I know, but can’t say.
Mom’s quiet on the way home. We drive down the hilly country roads in silence, back to our apartment in the city. About a mile from home, her breath catches in her chest.
“The pastor asked to talk to me after he prayed over you. He had a message about you,” she says. “He said the Lord gave him a vision. You’re very special to God.”
“Everyone’s special to God,” I reply. “Every kindergartener in Sunday school knows that.”
“But you’re especially special to God. He said the Lord has placed a powerful call on your life. He had a vision of you standing in front of a huge crowd and a flame of truth on your head. He said you’re going to be a great leader and teach people many things they don’t know about Him.”
Her eyes shine with gratitude, fear, or both.
“I get all the questions now,” she says. “I get it.”
Maybe this is her consolation for having a defiant daughter. Maybe one day I’ll stand in front of a packed auditorium eight times a week and people will lift their hands when they hear my words. Maybe then our pastor and the virginal, homeschooling moms at church will have to realize they were wrong about her.
But as I lay on the church floor with my hands up and eyes closed, I saw the future, too. I know I’ll leave our Rustbelt city, our church, and Mom. I’ll choose a different life from hers, but also different than the one she wants for me, and it’ll break her heart. I’ll stop wearing long skirts and start wearing jeans. I’ll pass into secular society, but I’ll always be a little fundamentalist. Just not fundamentalist enough.
Virgie Townsend is a fiction writer, essayist, and reporter from Syracuse, New York. Her work has been featured in such publications as the Washington Post, Tin House Online, SmokeLong Quarterly, VICE, Gargoyle, and Harper’s Bazaar. She serves as a submissions editor at SmokeLong Quarterly and is currently working on a collection of short stories about fundamentalist girlhood. Find her online at http://virgietownsend.com/.