When I say that I am a recovering Pentecostal people often laugh. However, I’m quite serious; I do identify as a recovering Pentecostal and for good reason.
I was raised in a Pentecostal church on the outskirts of my hometown, Port Elgin, Ontario, Canada. I don’t know if this is the case at all Pentecostal churches, but the sermons at ours were at least eight hours long.
To add insult to injury, only the adults got to have a snack during those marathon sermons. As a child, I saw that as an injustice of the first order. Eventually, I found out that the little bits of cracker and teeny goblets of grape juice that were passed around to the adults were not snacks, but rather communion. Still, I would have been glad to partake. A kid needs a little somethin’ somethin’ during a ten-hour sermon.
Be careful what you wish for
Sunday school, which preceded the twelve-hour sermons, wasn’t all that great. On one occasion, the teacher brought a loaf of homemade bread to class. I don’t think she’d ever baked bread before because it looked more like a slightly burned blob that was crunchy on the outside and doughy on the inside. She set her lump on the table at the front of the classroom ever so proudly. (Bless her heart.) Then, she explained that the beige blob was really the body of Christ and invited us to taste it. Um, no.
I should explain that I’m a little weird about food. I do not share food. Ask my friend Shannin. On one of our first lunch dates, she nearly lost her hand when she tried to take a fry off my plate. Also, as much as I love a good steak, I live in a fantasy world. As far as I am concerned, my meat had neither a face nor a mother and it originated at Wal-Mart. Yes, I am a hypocrite. I wasn’t much different as a child.
So, showing me a weird looking loaf of bread, calling it the body of Christ, and then inviting our whole class to tear chunks off it with bare, probably not well-washed hands, wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. Not that anyone offered tea. The thought, and then sight, of everyone’s germ-covered hands ripping hunks off the lump and scarfing them down made me want to puke. I saw nothing holy about make-believe cannibalism. Is it any wonder that I was famished by the time those fourteen-hour sermons ended each week? The only thing I was inclined to pray for on Sunday mornings was a decent meal that had not been manhandled by everyone and their sister.
If sixteen-hour sermons in the morning weren’t bad enough, Sunday evening services weren’t much better. In fact, they were worse. You see, that’s when they liked to scare the bejezzus out of folks so they’d get saved. One night when I was about 10, we were shown a film about the rapture. There are a bunch of films like it, and I don’t remember the exact title of the one we saw, but the plot resembled that of A Thief in the Night. According to my memory, the plot went something like this. In the opening scene, a whole bunch of cars start crashing on a freeway and bodies are floating into the air.
It turns out that the second coming has occurred and a bunch of pissed off people were left behind. Those left behind are mad as hornets because they had considered themselves outstanding Christians; they aren’t happy that Jesus did not see fit to take them home with Him. All is not lost, I guess, because those left behind get a second crack at making it to heaven. But there’s a bit of a catch. You see, to get to heaven, the left-behind-folks have to refuse to take the mark of the beast (666) on their forehead or wrist. The penalty for refusing to take the mark of the beast is death by guillotine. Nonetheless, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do and the left-behind-folks decide to do. This is where the s*** gets real.
According to my memory, in the last scene of the movie, people wearing pink hospital-type gowns are standing in line waiting their turn at the guillotine. A woman who we’ve come to root for throughout the film obediently places her head into the designated place, the blades drop, and her head rolls into a laundry basket.
At that point, the lights came up in the church sanctuary, an altar call was issued, and I ran as fast as my legs could carry me to the front of the church where I was greeted by my older brother who was waiting to broker my salvation. Now, before anyone starts praising the lord on my behalf, understand that I did not make a beeline for the altar because I wanted to accept the lord Jesus Christ into my heart. I just didn’t want my head cut off so it seemed logical to take care of business while I had the opportunity. Child abuse every Sunday.
I’ve since met lots of Pentecostals whose church experiences bear no resemblance to mine. I’m happy for them. But I’m not joking when I tell you that it is not easy recovering from the kind of terrorizing that went on in our church. Reviewer Captain Cassidy describes the effect of A Thief in the Night and similar movies perfectly:
“What’s so astonishing about this entire movie is that, as terrible as it sounds right out of the gate, it is apparently not only the granddaddy of Rapture movies, it has traumatized what might well be millions of young Christians. This movie was shown in churches. It was shown in youth group meetings. It was shown at camps.
Millions of kids have seen this movie, and it scared the ever-lovin’ pants off of them. Adults today right now still carry the barely healed over wounds this movie inflicted on their minds and hearts. It terrified them and informed their nightmares and unnecessarily panicked them every goddamned time they couldn’t physically perceive their loved ones right then and there.”
Cassidy’s description of the impact of watching such horror flicks is an accurate description of my own post-film, post-Pentecostal experience. Frankly, I’m not a fan of churches that try to scare people into heaven. Based on my own experience, I can assure you that the effects of the messages of terror delivered in 18 hour sermons on Sunday mornings and again during evening services were not what the powers-that-be in my childhood church were hoping for. In fact, they were the exact opposite.
I stopped going to church the moment my mom gave me a choice in the matter. Many years passed before I set foot in another church. Moving to the buckle of the bible belt has challenged me . Over the years I’ve been here, I’ve developed a more nuanced understanding of why people go to church–willingly–and what happens in churches where child abuse is not the order of the day. It’s been eye-opening, to be sure, amusing sometimes, and depressing at others. I’ll write more about those things another time.
Meanwhile, what are you recovering from and how have you made sense of it?
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