Two Atheists Go to a Pentecostal Church

You’ll probably go to Hell just for reading this.

(Cropped) Photo by Jenni Jones on Unsplash
This is a piece I wrote for a literary journalism class in college. The assignment was to do something “out of my element,” then write about it. Almost 13 years later, it’s still one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. But, until now, I’ve never shared it outside of that college class. I can see how this could possibly be offensive to some people; that’s certainly not my intent. But I apologize in advance if that’s the case. Enjoy!

“Mmm, four times, baby. Wow, that has to be a record or something,” I said, giggling and getting up to look for my underwear. “Can you check the time?”

“Yeah, it’s 6:55… 6:55! Shit, we have to leave for that goddamn church in five minutes,” replied Kenny, my boyfriend (and a recovering Jehovah’s Witness). “Maybe we just shouldn’t go.”

“No, no, no no no, we’re going to church. And I need you there. Get dressed!”

I fumbled around my closet for something that looked chaste, and settled on a navy blue corduroy jacket and a floor-length, hand-me-down, grey skirt I’d never worn. “Are you wearing a tie?” I yelled across our small, one-bedroom apartment.

“Fuck no, I’m not gonna dress up for those people.”

“Well at least wear long pants.” Churchies probably wouldn’t appreciate the “Praise Seitan” tattoo on his calf, a clever vegan pun, complete with a pentagram made of forks.

Kenny asked me to toss “The Zombie Survival Guide” in my bag for him in case he wanted to do some light reading during the service, and we were off, with 20 minutes left to get to the 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night service at United Pentecostal Church in Gainesville, Florida.

On the ride there, my tummy was tumbling. As a child, I often went to Synagogue, so I know how to hold my atheistic tongue. But this was different. This was church, and it would inevitably be filled with Christians.

I was back in 3rd grade, when my class wrote Christmas letters to GIs overseas. I was the happiest fuckin’ kid around, and amidst doodled hearts and smiley faces, I wished those GIs a Very Merry Christmas, as well as a Happy Hanukkah. The replies came pouring in. Kids got heaps of Christmas cards, patches, photographs, the whole deal. But my take… one letter. One letter with no return address. And inside, written on the back of a scrap of scribbled-on paper:

“You’re going to Hell, you fucking Jew.”

I’ve never had a problem with Jesus himself. My New Testament class taught me that if Jesus existed, he was probably a fucking cool dude. Paul’s the one I’ve got a problem with, putting all these words in Jesus’ mouth when he never even met the guy and turning the religion into this exclusive, dogmatic club. Of course, what did I know? I’d never been inside the clubhouse.

There it was, a lit-up sign announcing “The Pentecostals,” with a large cross in place of the t.

I picked a Pentecostal church because television told me everyone there speaks in tongues and dances with snakes, and that sounds like a fun night.

Cars were still pulling into the large parking lot, so we knew we weren’t too late. I gripped Kenny’s hand a bit too tightly and hoped we wouldn’t catch on fire as we walked through the doors of the surprisingly large church.

On stage, middle-aged men and women were singing, “There’s nothing I like better than God’s children getting together,” while a keyboard, guitars and electric drums backed them up. Two large screens displayed the lyrics. We chose the very back pew and sat down.

The preacher stepped onstage to announce that services would begin with a little meet and greet. Everyone hopped up to commence with the small talk. I couldn’t help smiling when about a dozen people stood in line to shake Kenny’s and my hands and to ask our names. I was sure my pink hair and Kenny’s 1” stretched ear lobes would scare them off, but everyone wanted to be the first to welcome us.

After everyone was seated, The preacher drew even more attention to us, asking for any visitors to raise their hands. Out of a few hundred hands in that building, ours were the only ones up, and the rest burst into applause.

I was hoping for more singing, but instead, the bulk of the service consisted of the preacher either grumbling about some letters he received accusing him of being mean and talking down to the congregation; or, worse, trying to be The Standup Comedian:

“So JE-sus says, ‘Hey, would you like to walk?’ What’s the man going to reply — ‘No thanks, I’ll just sit and get a sun tan.’”

The repeated calls of “Right!” and “C’mon!” (I thought they preferred “Amen!”) convinced me that the congregation dug it, but I was underwhelmed.

Where were the snakes? And why was everything in English?

“Any area of life that there is no hope, that is an absolute stronghold of Satan! Let me say it again….”

You already said it 4 times.

Photo by Mark Koellmann on Unsplash

Kenny passed me a note: “Can I yell out, ‘Hail Satan!’?”

“Yes,” I wrote back, knowing he wouldn’t. “Want the zombie book?”

“Nah, I’m not going to be able to concentrate on it with that guy screaming up there.”

The screaming, the endless screaming.

“I’m talking three chins hanging down. I mean, she was big enough to sit next to herself!”

The preacher just told a fat joke? And people are laughing. Oh God.

After two hours of ramblings, the end was nigh. The preacher stated that his point was that the testimony of Jesus can inspire faith, and so he testified.

Back problems, multiple sclerosis, goiters, blindness, all cured by Jesus!

“The church cured my genital warts,” I whispered.

“Faith cured clubbed feet! Wouldn’t you like to see that?”

Yes, I would actually. Bring on the fucking miracles already.

To wrap up the night, true believers were called to the stage (“Are you saved or aren’t you, Tom? Get up here!”). 90% of the congregation trickled up front, where the VIP Churchies put their hands on the others’ shoulders to heal them. Nobody spoke in tongues. Not a one.

We were almost out the door when Jim, a well-dressed grey-haired gentleman who had played guitar on stage earlier, stopped us to shake hands and exchange names.

“Have you ever been to a place like this?” he asked.

“Nope.”

“I used to be a cokehead. I used to inject cocaine into my arm.”

An elderly woman wearing a wig turned Jim around to say goodbye, giving Kenny and I approximately 7 seconds to get our laughter under control. Did he just say that?

“I used to love drugs, sex, rock and roll. I had an addictive lifestyle.”

And now Jesus is your drug.

“Um… I’m sorry,” I stammered.

“I just wanted to let you know, we’re not all a bunch of Jesus freaks here. A lot of us have been there too. You know what I mean. Not to imply that you two are drug addicts or anything.”

Of course not.

“But this is real. Some people here tonight have seen people raised from the dead.”

He asked if he could pray for us. He held our hands between his, bowed his head and rambled on for a few awkward minutes, pleading for God to enter our bodies.

I tried to clear my mind, to prepare myself for the imminent tongue-speaking, but when he was done, all I could spit out was, “Sorry nothing happened.”

Coke-head Jim gave us his business card and told us to call if we ever wanted to get coffee and hear more about Jesus.

Speeding out of the parking lot, I said to Kenny, “Thank you so much for coming to that hellhole with me tonight. I so owe you a blowjob.”

“Oh my God, you so do.”