Going North

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In the ninth episode of the third season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “Kimmy Goes to Church,” Kimmy had been burned by the new church she went to with Titus, and vented about the manipulation and control within religion. Kimmy had hoped for something different other than the religious abuse she endured from her days confined to a bunker. She decides to go to the church, and interrupts the service to call out the church for its hypocrisy. I have often dreamed of doing this at any church I’ve been to, but never had the reaction she received. The people took in her words and saw Kimmy as a prophet from the Old Testament calling for the repentance of God’s people. The congregation understood that moment as a time of confession. One man stood up and confessed he was cheating on his wife, the pastor says that from time to time she smoked “the devil’s weed,” and the person doing the scripture reading confessed she was a gossip and a scold but trying every day. The pastor concluded the thought that “when we know better we do better.” Kimmy gets it, and understands that religion had to do with realizing we are all flawed and we come together to learn from each other to become better. I nodded my head in agreement, but Ronnie vocalized what I thought, “Yeah, but that don’t happen in real life.” Wouldn’t it be great, though, if that were the case. My anger with the church doesn’t have to do with the character flaws of the individuals who meet under the stable, but the denial. Instead of taking responsibility for negative actions that harm people in the church or outside the church, the perpetrators claim righteousness because of grace. To make it worse, people in the community and the leadership reinforce that notion of grace and blame the victims. Yes, there is grace, and, according to what is written in the Old Testament by the author of Ezra, we are not punished as our sins deserve, but we do not escape the consequences of our choices. We all fuck up, but, before we know better to do better, we need to own what we do. I’m not angry with Christianity, but at the Christians who refuse to accept the responsibility of their faith or the responsibility of holding other Christians accountable as is set down St. Paul 1 Corinthians 5. I am angry at the injustice that could be so easily rectified.

I have had several conversations with Christians concerning  what I observed, and the response centered around no one being perfect as if I spent my adult life in a naive bubble. I grew up with the bible and the doctrines surrounding that book shoved down my throat to justify anything they did to me. These people, who were often leaders, cited the bible to justify what they said, and how they acted. There were verses I used to counter their justifications, and they responded with the back of their hand across my jaw. I think I can speak for others outside of myself who have been on the business end of Christian righteousness when I say we are tired of the excuses. I took the chance at a church in Romeoville, IL.

Ronnie and I drove from Lincoln, NE for her sister’s wedding. The wedding was being held at the church where Ronnie grew up, Bible Baptist Church in Romeoville, IL. Her parents still go there, and say it’s a good church, but Ronnie’s experience differs. For her, the people, including the pastor, are vile, manipulative, and judgmental. As we drove down there she told me not to let her opinions shape mine. I resolved not to, but I was having a hard enough time keeping my cynicism out of the way because of all the negative things I experienced in various churches. On top of that, we were going into an affluent church where the parking lot is full of the latest SUVs and white people. I walked into the school side of the church wearing my rope sandals, shirt, and chinos to deal with the heat. Ronnie’s sister and her mom were in the fellowship area. All I could see were white linoleum on the floors, white tables, white walls, and white ceiling. The space felt sterile, and the only nonwhite fixture of the room were the brown doors with long rectangular windows. As the people came in, they gave me sneers, but I wasn’t here for them. Ronnie’s mom wanted me to meet everyone, and started with the school’s principal. He looked me up and down while dismissing me until he found out I’m a writer with a B.A. in Literature and Religion. After that, he touched my shoulder laughing and talking to me like we were equals.

When I get annoyed, I slip into one of  my two accents: hood or Scottish Highlands, and the one I use determines my level annoyance. When I’m irate, my words rise up and down with the waves crashing against the boulders of the northwestern Scottish coast where my mom’s side of the family hails. I grew up hearing that while living with my great aunt who would break our ears with her anger. The hood accent, though, is something I picked up living on the Eastside, and comes out when I’m mildly annoyed. I found the principal annoying. I stopped him in mid-sentence, “You talkin’ like we equal. Nah, man, we ain’t equal.” I walked away to find some coffee, and sit with my mother in law and sister in law. I sat down and breathed out the painful conversation I just had, and went on about similar and worse experiences with church leaders. My mother in law and sister in law took turns saying that no one is perfect and I shouldn’t look to imperfect people. “Yeah, yeah. I know people aren’t perfect. I’ve been hearing that from every church I went to where I received the left hand of rejection. Your own bible tells you to hold your own fellow Christians accountable. What you’re telling me does not address the real problem that is in the church. When you, and others, tell me about grace and the imperfection of people, you make yourself culpable—you share in the responsibility.” Ronnie’s sister stopped with her mouth open. She did not expect such an encounter. This is what happens when a naïve Christian comes face to face with the hard truth of responsibility in their professed faith, and realized they live a professed blasphemy.

This is where the anger has to stop. This is where I take responsibility how I feel now, and how I want to feel in the future. I want a happy life. I want to heal, and walk into life with new eyes. What’s standing in my way isn’t the church, or the attitudes of several Christians, but me. I thought about this yesterday as I laid in bed. One of my favorite American writers from the 19th century, Frederick Douglas, who wrote about his life as a slave in his autobiography, captured they hypocrisy of the Christianity of his masters. I would not dare imply any connection with Frederick Douglas, but how he wrote about his masters is how I want to address my Christian experience. Douglas could have stopped his narrative and offered a thing or two about what it means to be a Christian, and explode into well deserved judgment upon his masters. But he didn’t. Douglas wrote his biography describing his life in great detail, and left it to the reader to make their own judgment. What I went through comes nowhere close to what Douglas went through, and he was able to move on into a life of service and love. That’s what I want. Douglas escaped his masters and escaped the South in to a new life as a writer and speaker for the Abolitionist movement. Douglas didn’t stay in hate, but channeled his energy into justice. I’ve no reason to stay in hate, and I’ve no reason to stay where I am. Constantly engaging Christianity keeps me stuck in this self-destructive cycle, and I constantly confront Christianity because, like Ahab, I need to kill that whale, and look how he ended. To save myself, I need to head north and leave that ship behind.

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Mom

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At 5”3 ½, she is tiny with thick, long black hair sprinkled with some gray. She wears glasses, her voice squeaks like a mouse, and a laugh that bubbles like The White River on a quiet day. Don’t let her small, innocent demeanor fool you. She has strong convictions, and she will never budge from them, but only for the sake of loving people. This is my mother in law, but I call her Mom. She also possesses a natural sass that is deliberate and endearing. I do the laundry, dishes, cooking, and general cleaning—most of the time. I have been on my own for quite a few years before I met Ronnie, and I like cleaning by myself. I also get a little testy when she comes into the kitchen while I’m cooking. Yesterday, as we were gathering laundry, Mom asked Ronnie why she didn’t do laundry, “Don’t you live here?” I couldn’t help but laugh.

Mom is a Christian whose sole ethic is based on loving God and loving other people, and that love overrides any doctrinal opinions. I have only recently called her mom in the two years Ronnie and I have been married, but that had to do with my own wrecked relationship with my mother. The relationship didn’t end because of anything I did, I think, but since my return to Indianapolis, my mother has told me that I was a mistake, and I am the reason that she had a miserable life married to an unstable man. I finally realized why our relationship had always been volatile, and I am finally at a place in my life where I need to make some vital changes. That side of the family is mean, bitter, hostile, and narrow minded. My brother and I are nothing like them, but I can see if I continue holding on to my old wounds instead of healing, I will become them. I don’t want that life. I want to have joy, peace, and love instead of treating people as excuses to be nasty. That’s why I love my mother in law, it’s why I like her, and it’s why I call her mom. She’s all about love even in the face of opposition, and I want those people in my life.

To some degree my mother in law had to work on being loving because she had bit of a temper when Ronnie and her sister were young girls. Parenthood can make anyone crazy—even the nice ones. My father in law saw his wife raise her hand at Ronnie and her sister, and said he didn’t feel comfortable leaving his kids alone with her. That was a wake-up call to her, and she started making changes. At her heart she is kind and patient, and her love for her children is second only to God. She’s not abusive in any way shape or form, and nowhere close to the level of anger and physical punishment I received from my father and the rest of my family. I’m not a parent, and the closest I have to an opinion on being a parent is watching my friends with their kids. I knew them and traveled around the country with them before the serious consideration of kids, and I saw how they adapted to life with kids. The evolution is an interesting one as they went from diaper changing, to first days at school, to prom, college, and now talks of marriage. I’ve a good friend who will be a grandfather this September. I do the typical old guy thing and remark how I remember when these “kids” came up to my knee, or how I could fit their entire body into my hand.

I don’t regret not having kids, and one of the reasons I don’t want them came from what I experienced from my father and mother, and what I learned the year before my father died. I knew my father was abused maliciously by his father, and in one of those incidents, my father’s lower back was broken by his father’s steel toed boot. Why? What did he do? My father was fourteen and he worked on a farm with his father. At four in the morning my father had a hard time getting out of bed because he would get home from school, resume farm work, and go until as late as nine in the evening. Adults have a difficult enough time doing that let alone fourteen year old boys. His father lost his temper, and started kicking until the snap of bones echoed throughout the room. Did his father care? Absolutely not. Nobody in church or the community did anything either. People have remarked that in that time and place nobody intruded on another’s family. I understand that, but even practical sentiments have limits. Nobody can abide a battered child. The community and the church were scared of my dad’s father. He was a bull of a man born in 1911, stood at 6”4, thick arms, barrel chest, square jaw, and tossed 150 lb. bales of hay with one arm like you and I toss a wad of paper. He also had a vicious temper he knowingly hid at church to play the part of good man and good Christian. Everyone saw through it of course, but no one could take him, and no one wanted to end up in the hospital. My father suffered that alone. When his father died, he realized he was free to be his own man.

We didn’t go to church until I was nine. My mother was and still is cynical and dismissive of organized religion, and my father wanted nothing to do with God because of the life he had been dealt. For the most part my father was a peaceable man towards us kids, and he had a laugh that would crack like a whip especially when we spent time with my godparents. They would tell stories in their gravelly tones, blow out punchlines with their smoke, and wash them down with beer. Those were fun times, and the only time I saw my father come close to physical violence was defending me and my aunt. My aunt’s second husband physically battered her, and when my mom saw the marks she didn’t ask questions, “You’re moving in with us.” Nevermind that my mother and aunt were daughters of a cop, nevermind that my mother knew how to use a knife, and nevermind that all my family towered over this man with wide chests and broad shoulders. Apparently, he never paid attention to our family dynamic. His name was Joe, but I called him Tosser, and he earned that name. When I was eight he tried to muscle his way through the front door while I was in the living room playing with my trucks and watching cartoons. My father, with one hand around Tosser’s neck, picked him up, and threw him into the bushes. No roars and no bellowing, but a calm tone, “She doesn’t want to talk to you. Now get off my property.” We never saw him again, and when he saw my dad twenty years later, Tosser was still scared.

Things changed after we started going to church. The change wasn’t gradual but an instantaneous snap, and my father crushed us with his iron fist. My father put upon us bruises and broken bones in the name of God and St. Paul, or so I thought at the time. As I got older, and wandered around the states meeting different people, I understood my father as a flawed human being—a good person, but a flawed person nonetheless. I knew of my father’s physical abuse, and how church triggered my father’s anger because he was beaten down in God’s name. My experience was only a shadow of what my father endured. Where he walked through life with a permanently damaged back, I walk through life with a permanently bent ring finger on my right hand when I blocked a blow to my head. As my father sat on Death’s doorstep, he became confessional. He told my mom that he had been sexually abused by his uncle, his father knew about the abuse, and didn’t care. My mom was dumbfounded, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t want you to think I was less of a man.” My brother and I were in our thirties, and in the other room. Our mother looks at us, “Delman, I’ve got a pretty good idea you’re a man.” After hearing this, all those years, I finally realized my father was a walking time bomb from his PTSD. To his credit, though, the only substances my father abused were coffee (six pots a day), and cigarettes (five packs of Kool Filter Kings until I was thirteen when he became an elder).  Considering the life my father had, he was better than he should have been. What brought out the anger of my father was having kids and church. Outside of my father, I observed similar things with my friends who had kids. They aren’t mean or abusive, but their kids bring their psychological baggage to the surface, and press that baggage against their eyeballs.

Mom didn’t grow up like I did, or like my dad. She was a PK (preacher’s kid), but she was a good one—the first good one I ever met, and I’m an elder’s kid who ran in those leadership circles. Her life was the American life as advertised in “Leave it to Beaver” and other shows from the 1950s, but far from the norm in real life. She was the daughter of a Baptist minister who, through the course of Mom’s childhood, pastored churches in Iowa, South Dakota, Michigan, and retiring in Minnesota; and his home was legitimately peaceful. People talked, people prayed, and people got along with each other without yelling or explosive expressions of anger. Mom’s parents had the traditional gender roles, but the impression I had from the telling is those roles were never imposed upon by either of her parents. She came from an environment where love was the rule, but like anyone who has kids, that saint like love can evaporate at a moment’s notice. That doesn’t make her lovingkindness a pretense to buy off God or please daddy when he’s looking, but it does mean that she tries to love when she does slip into anger. When my father in law confronted Mom about her temper, she knew exactly what she needed to do to regain that lost peace. She had a good foundation. I’m jealous of that, but I don’t wallow in the envy. I’ve a mom who shows me what love and peace looks like. At present, I do not know what work I need for my unlearning and reeducation, but I know I want what she has, and I’m lucky I get to call her mom—luckier still, she likes being my mom.