Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I am funny about church. I was raised in the Baptist Church for a brief period of time as a very small child. My father died when I was three, and made my mother promise that “his girls would be raised in church.” It lasted for about two years, but when an older sibling began acting out and each Sunday became a major battle, teen angst won out over Christ. The seeds of Christianity are there as a foundation in my family, but it’s shaky at best. I have only the most rudimentary understanding of the Bible and Christianity. A variety of boyfriends who have all leaned Agnostic haven’t helped to change this. Perhaps because of a dislike of most social situations in general, perhaps because of church culture seeming formal and peculiar, I really dread having to visit a church. I feel as if I’m constantly being observed, with people watching to see all the things I will get wrong.

A student of mine has a father’s who’s a pastor. An interesting kid. He was homeschooled before his senior year, and I think his parents enrolled him in public school so that he could play basketball for more than any other reason. Public school’s not been good for him. He’s taken to sleeping through most of his classes, and his work quality just keeps diminishing. We’ve developed a joking rapport over the span of the year , and I like him quite a bit. I was shocked when on Friday he came looking for me after school. “My brother and I are going to be singing at my dad’s church this weekend. It would mean a lot to me if you’d come to see us.” This was about the last thing I expected to hear him say. For whatever reason, sometimes things like this will come to mean a huge amount to a kid, and I hate to disappoint them when they’ve asked me to share something.

Sunday morning I wake up much later than I normally do. I check my email to see if he’s sent me directions to the church. I live about forty minutes away from the community where I teach, so this has got to be a consideration. There are directions, but no time. I summon memories of church and the times they seem to run. Eleven sounds like a safe bet, which means I have five minutes to make myself presentable and leave. I find the place, just as the directions indicated I would. Somehow, I actually timed it correctly. Things are just about to start, actually. Unfortunately, this means that I can’t just blend in with the congregation, sitting on a back pew. Instead, my student’s mom graciously leads me to the front of the church where we sit in the vey front pew.

The entire experience is very odd for me. I feel like I’ve been transplanted here as some sort of alien. Nothing is familiar to me in this world. As the pastor begins he mentions a verse and there is a flurry of activity. Every single parishioner pulls out their own special Bible from a personalized zipped Bible case and opens to the corresponding pages. The mom extends hers over so that I can view it. It’s been so long, I’ve actually forgotten how to read one and it takes me a minute to remember about chapters and verses. Any hope I had of blending in is long gone by the time the pastor points me out and thanks me for being there. I will be mentioned during this sermon three times. Everyone is asked to stand and sing. I don’t know these songs, I don’t read music. I feel like the SNL characters that show up for Weekend Update and pretend they both know a song they’re really making up on the fly. The pastor repeatedly speaks of one of the congregation by name. His name must be Aholdt, or something similar, but all I can hear is “Brother A-Hole.” As I fight not to laugh inappropriately, I am totally ashamed of myself for not being able to do something as simple as attend a church function like this as a mature adult.

My student sings, and he does a really lovely job. It’s odd, though, to see him in this light. I can’t look at him straight on, because it just seems too weird. It feels too personal, invasive, to see someone in a moment of worship and praise that I clearly don’t fully understand. I don’t know that I will ever really get why it is that it meant something to him to have me here, but it is clear that it does. It may have been awkward for me, but I’m glad that I came. Maybe he just wanted me to see him in a situation where he could show himself off as he shone, where everyone saw him as golden, instead of as a lazy kid that had grown accustomed to just eking by. That’s plenty. It wasn’t necessary. I didn’t judge him for it before, just wanted him to offer the best of himself to his education.

Religion is a very strong force. Nothing gets my fiancĂ©, a very laid-back non-judgmental guy, riled up quite like what he considers to be hypocritical Christianity. An old friend, as wild as they come, found God and his life changed dramatically. It was so poorly received by others in the circle that two friendships totally dissolved over his new philosophy. I’ve witnessed colleagues at work have a major fallout because one became religious and married a regular church-goer. I learned early on in my teaching career not to ever mention any facet of religion due to the ensuing questions. When a student discovers your religious views don’t match their own, you are instantly a heathen and someone to be scorned.

Regardless of what any of the factions say, there really is no live and let live. Everyone seems determined that they’re right, and everyone else can go to hell – figuratively, or literally.

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