LETTING GO OF RELIGION
My memories of church days as a little girl are simple, ritualistic, and musical. Some of those memories are playful. We mostly dressed up for church. Easter required white gloves and shiny shoes. Sunday mornings we wore our Sunday clothes, but some evenings we would go as we were. I went to a lot of different churches, depending on which family member I was with that particular Sunday, but I have many memories of playing at church with cousins, running between the pews or out in the churchyard, sneaking communion in a back room in order to sample the forbidden blood and body of Jesus Christ, aka the Welch’s grape juice and crackers. This communion, to us little kids, seemed the main reason to eventually join the saved grownups who partook of that ritual every Sunday. They took the blood and body of Jesus Christ the savior into their bodies each service, as if it were a magical potion to make them better than they would otherwise be. To us kids it was an enticing mystery.
As a teenager I went with an unkind stepmother when she moved us to the brand-new First Baptist Church in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, with its squeaky, shiny newness from pulpit to balcony. I sat up top my first day there and looked down on the town drunk, who, for God-only-knows what reason, had decided that day to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior. He had walked down the aisle when sinners were called to repent and be washed of their sins; he had taken the extended hand of the pastor, who then spoke out to the congregation. To my innocent ears came the shocking question. The pastor put that old man’s acceptance into their fancy Baptist church to a vote by all of its upstanding members. My young heart cringed. How could that be, how could any man think he might have the deciding vote about a broken man’s salvation?
It was one of those moments when I longed deeply to have strength in my own voice. Had I been able, my voice would have rung out loud and clear from the balcony where I was perched, watching it all. I would have railed against the utter absurdity of the situation. How could Christians be so foolish as to think they might decide whether or not this old, dirty man was welcome in the eyes of God? Never having spoken such brazen truth before, I remained silent until after the service, when I presented all my questions to my stepmother.
“It is simply formality, Cissy,” she retorted, not really wanting to be bothered by my naivete, but then went on. “We always vote them in!” disdain in her voice, a scowl across her face as if she wished some were not allowed to join.
“Such a rule surely should be broken!” I cried out. “Why put the old guy to the test of our approval? Why should we, who do not, in general, welcome him around this town, get to decide about his salvation?”
Marguerite shook her head and waved me off.
But I held that moment in my heart and walked on down the way.
At Ole Miss, at seventeen, studying at the university, I didn’t find my way to church except when I returned home to Kentucky, which was not very often. But then, after moving farther south to Jackson, Mississippi, to start medical school, I lived in a small, rural community outside of the city and, for some reason, found my way to the Bethel Baptist Church, which I attended most every Sunday morning.
Likely it was the scrub nurse in a hospital where I trained who taught me sterile technique and lived nearby who led me into that tiny church, as Southern Baptist as a country church in the Deep South might be. The woman had an unusual name—Ms. M, let us call her. She was compulsive in her sterile technique, teaching me to be the same. Docile is what I was those days. Ms. M liked that. She could push the young medical student me around and feel somehow better about herself as she taught me to be as careful as she was in the operating room.
After my oldest son was born just after my first year of medical school ended, I took him with me to that church and showed off his beauty and goodness. I told Ms. M about his babysitter, who lived with us. Marianne was eighteen. She had a two-year-old son of her own, who was cared for by her mother. She lived with us through the week, then caught the train back to Batesville in northern Mississippi to be with her family most weekends. Marianne was full of energy. She seemed thrilled for the work and for the warmth of our home. I never spoke to Ms. M of the brown color of Marianne’s skin during any of our conversations about the importance of bringing her with me to church. It didn’t seem relevant.
Those days, dreaming of a life in international health, I was reading Pearl Buck. I was curious about her time living in a missionary family in China. I wondered about the attitudes of the Christians she described who seemed to worry more about getting themselves into heaven than about caring for their fellow human occupants of this world whom they, in fact, were serving.
One of Pearl Buck’s stories in particular resonated so soundly with me. It was the story of an African minister who was quite thankful for the money sent to his congregation by a big New York City church. The New Yorkers had done their Christian duty by tithing their 10 percent. Their offering was enough for this African community to build their very own little Baptist church somewhere in the heart of Africa. This third-world minister was so filled with gratitude that he set enough money aside to allow him to travel to New York City to thank those kind people in person for their terribly generous gift.
When that Black African man arrived at the tall, wooden doors of the tremendous old stone church in New York City, the doorman would not let him in for the color of his skin. Ms. Buck made a lasting impression on me when she wrote, “I realized at that moment that if there was not a seat for the African minister in my church, then neither was there a seat for me.” Pearl Buck walked out of her church that day for the very last time.
Every time I invited Marianne to go with Zak and me to church, she would shake her head and say, “You know none of those white people really want me in their church.”
I responded, “I don’t know. They asked. We could put them to the test…” knowing that it would be sweet Marianne who would be the sacrificial lamb. It would be her heart that sank when she saw the unwelcoming, if not angry, looks around the little Baptist sanctuary. For that fear I never pushed her. Yet something in me felt a need to know what their reaction would be.
The last time I invited Marianne to attend church with me, she chuckled and said, “If those folks ask again why you didn’t bring me with you, tell them if I ever decide to go to church here, I will go to the Mount Zion Baptist Church down the road.” So that is what I did. The very next time Ms. M asked where was Marianne, I told her that if she went to church, as Ms. M seemed so hell-bent on her doing, that she would attend the Black church down the road.
Ms. M did not speak a word, yet looked hard at me as if I had slapped her full across the face. The realization that she had been inviting a Black girl to our church all that time, without me correcting her or telling her the truth of the situation, was more than her devout Baptist self could bear.
I held her cold look in my heart. I was not as eloquent or demonstrative as Pearl Buck. I did not walk away from Ms. M and proceed to the door of that little racist Baptist church that day, but I never again darkened its doors nor those of any other church. I decided that day to follow Pearl Buck’s lead. If there was not a welcoming seat in a church for my Black friends, there was not one for me or any of my children.
I knew we were leaving behind the good that is learned in church but calculated the good left behind was not enough to merit turning a blind eye to the evil within the church any longer. I was sure, at that moment, that I would never again belong to an organization that espoused a restrictive love of Jesus Christ that neither welcomed the town drunk nor folks whose skin was a different color, both of whom I imagined were much more loved by God than a single one of them.
After moving to North Carolina, I have occasionally gone to neighbors’ funerals within the community church and have been reaffirmed as they deliberate matters like whether or not the soul of an anguished neighbor who shot himself would go to heaven or hell, having committed the sin of suicide. I have had to hold myself in the pew to avoid making the embarrassing move of walking out during those discussions, but then another neighbor would stand up and sing, a cappella, the most beautiful mountain song of mourning. Still, I have rarely regretted leaving behind the church’s good with its equal evil.
After we had divorced ourselves from our Southern Baptist church for all of these reasons, and my little son Jacob and I were headed up to our final country home one day when he must have been three or four, there was a moment of quiet affirmation for this decision to raise my children outside of the church. We were driving up the mountain to our new home in Madison County, North Carolina. The back of our little brown Honda was loaded with boxes full of dishes and clothes to get us started in this new home at the very end of a backwoods mountain road. Jacob was sitting up front with me. Curving around the bends of the cove, we were witnessing all the idyllic sights along the way: cows grazing in mountain meadows, groves of white pines, spigots emptying into the mountain stream. Then sweet Jacob’s voice called out to me as he pointed to the sky. Jacob wanted to show me the sun rays bursting down through the clouds, the rays spreading colorfully, radiantly down onto our path. Jacob, in his little-boy voice full of wonder and joy, whispered with amazement, “Look, Mom! There’s God!” to which I melted a little as I thought, Kids get it all by themselves. In nature’s beauty they find a much purer God than they would ever find in church.
But then he went on to say, without a minute’s worth of Christian education, “I wish I were up there with her!”
And I, also in awe of God and a liberal education, thought I had perhaps done something right somewhere along the way.
Cynthia Yancey was an English major before she became a mother then a
medical doctor. Now after working for over 30 years in the trenches of
public health, from the Himalayas to the Andes to her downtown clinic in
Asheville, NC, she is writing the stories of her life.