I grew up a so-called Christian. Not necessarily by choice but more by association, I guess. Nowadays, I’m not a believer. But I respect those who do believe. I understand wanting to have a spiritual connection to something or someone. I think religion can be great for that. It provides a community and a sense of belonging. But it can also be kind of toxic and cult-like. I can find respect for all religions. Except Scientology, obviously. Tom Cruise? No. I think you can be spiritual and religious and love God, but it’s no excuse to be an asshole. Going to church does not make you a good person. A lot of churches do a lot of good for the world, and I celebrate that. But a lot of churches also tell you that being gay is a sin and that abortion is murder, and then also look the other way when their own priests are hurting children. Religion is a tough topic; one I find myself feeling more and more pulled away from. I don’t believe in God anymore, and I definitely don’t believe in the bible. I believe in witches and time travel and magic and all that stuff before I believe anything in the bible. “On the third day he rose again…” Okay, dramatic much? In my opinion the bible is like the constitution: racist, sexist and outdated. So why are we still following it? I’d love to see churches that call themselves “progressive” start to shy away from some of the teachings in the bible. You can still preach the many lessons of a religion without it. Or hey, write a new bible! Those ten commandments could really use some fresh ideas. “Honor thy mother and thy father” should be “honor your parents or caregivers.” Not everything has to be so heterosexual, Jesus. How about “Thou shall not send unsolicited dick pics” or “Thou shall not walk slowly on the sidewalk” Feel free to workshop these. But I do really believe in feeling connected to something. That I can get behind. But religion? Good for you! maybe not for me. And that’s perfectly fine.
As a kid I saw church as the place I had to get up and go to on Sunday mornings. The place I didn’t always want to spend my weekend at. Sometimes I’d want to go (mostly for the bagels) and other times I’d fight my parents on it. My family belonged to a Lutheran church that was located right next to my Elementary School. It was mostly older folks, but I had friends my age there too. I was baptized in this church and later confirmed thirteen years later. I attended Sunday School for four years until I graduated to middle school, which meant confirmation classes on Wednesday nights. I was an Acolyte, meaning I wore an ugly oversized robe I tried not to trip over while carrying a giant bell-shaped lighter to light the candles at the start of the service and distinguish at the end. I both attended and later volunteered at the summer vacation bible school program. I performed in the children’s choir, Christmas pageants, and eventually shared my written testimony at my confirmation ceremony. And when I look back at all of this, I struggle not to see it as a waste of time. I know that sounds harsh, but I just don’t find myself better off because of all this. For some it provided community, but for me I couldn’t connect with it. My family looked at Church as a “fix” for problems that no one wanted to deal with. Once when my brother was going through a hard time instead of sending him to a therapist my parents set up a meeting with one of the pastors. I remember thinking that was dumb. What is Pastor Dan going to do about my brother’s learning disability? When I was going through my own issues I kept it a secret. I didn’t want my parents to force me to sit in a room with an old man in a robe and talk about my mental health. There is no bible verse that can fix body dysmorphia, sorry!
The church I grew up in was traditional and with each passing year I started to call out the bullshit. I participated because my parents made me and that was it. And they only made me because they both grew with church and thought they should also make their kids grow up with church. It was what everyone did back then. What’s funny is that as important as it was for me to be involved in these activities and attend church, at home my family didn’t even practice religion. Other than my grandparents, none of us really cared that much about religion. It was almost like we went to show that we are a good family. We went out of guilt more than anything else. The only time my family prayed together was on Thanksgiving and Christmas before dinner. And by dinner, I mean an awkwardly large meal at 1PM because everyone has to “get on the road” despite no one living more than an hour and a half away. We’d stand around the table, bow our heads, close our eyes and my Grandpa would lead us in prayer. “Come Lord Jesus be our guest, may this food for us be blessed, Amen.” The same prayer every year. My brother and cousins all went to private Catholic schools, and it shows. I’m grateful I went to public school, although the idea of uniforms always intrigued me. The plaid skirt and polo shirt? That’s a look. It would have saved me from all the times I wore cropped leggings under a jean skirt and called it fashion. (Wait, should we bring that back?) My dad grew up Catholic and it also very much shows, but even he didn’t really push the idea of going to church. It felt like more of an obligation for everyone involved. The only parts of Sunday School I enjoyed were doing crafts and eating Goldfish crackers out of plastic dixie cups. When my parents let me skip Sunday School and instead go to the service, I would sit in the pew with my sister while doodling on the programs. We would laugh at how off-key the pastor spoke-sang the communion offering. When I was old enough to have my first communion, I was excited. This meant wine. Although, sometimes it was grape juice, which was a huge disappointment. I’d like to point out that my church did not do that big shared communal cup. We had a goblet full of wafers and a tray of individual mini plastic cups for each sinner, just like God intended.
One of the most shocking activities I participated in was the mother daughter book club. Personally, I don’t feel that I give off mother daughter book club energy, yet there I was. Once a month the mothers and daughters would meet and discuss a previously chosen book and one mother-daughter team would prepare a themed meal related to the book. These weren’t religious books and I’m not even sure we talked about God during the discussions. I don’t remember hating this club, but that’s probably because I’ve always enjoyed reading. My most prominent memory from the mother daughter book club was when someone’s daughter chose a Meg Cabot book for us all to read. About a week after the book was chosen, my mom got a panicked call from the leader of the group. We were told to stop reading it because in chapter four there is a line stating that one of the characters reads about orgasms in a magazine. My mom told me this and I’m pretty sure I had read that and not even questioned it. I maybe didn’t even know what it meant at the time, yet it was deemed too inappropriate and sinful for the daughters. I like to think that if Eve never ate that apple, a book for tweens with sexy words in it would never exist. It was the biggest scandal the mother daughter book club had seen since probably ever. I doubt the club still exists, but if it does, I like to think it’s more open-minded now. Maybe they’re all reading Fifty Shades of Grey.
In middle school I started to slip away from wanting to be involved in the church. I found myself questioning if God were real. If he was, why did so many bad things happen in the world? I mean if God were real, Amanda Bynes would have the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor by now. There would be no poverty, or disease, or people wearing fedoras. There’d be no pain in the world, no suffering, and no one would say skit instead of sketch. Because there’s nothing more insulting than a family member asking, “how those little skits you do are going?” It’s a SKETCH Aunt Deb, and it got three hundred and eighty-two views on YouTube, THANKS. By the time I had to start attending confirmation classes I was annoyed. I’d fight with my mom about going to almost every class, begging her to let me stay home and do my regular schoolwork instead. My dad would usually pick me up afterwards and ask, “how was it?” I’d say “stupid” and then we’d drive the ten minutes home while I played around with the radio trying to find a station playing “My Humps” by the Black-Eyed Peas. It was all very 2006. Almost three years of giving up my Wednesday nights to pretend to listen to a sermon and then break into “small groups.” I had to memorize bible verses and do assignments on top of my regular schoolwork. Thankfully everyone in my group also didn’t take it seriously. I wasn’t a class clown in school really, but I was in confirmation class. In fact, I was obnoxious, and our group leader probably hated me but I loved having an audience. We’d share our highs and lows of the week and go over bible verses we had memorized. And I would make jokes the whole time.
At the end of eighth grade, it was time to get “confirmed” as a true member of the church. We had to pick a bible verse to serve as inspiration to write our personal testimony. I didn’t care, so I just picked the bible verse that I had heard Miley Cyrus recite when she was interviewed by Oprah. I think it was Ephesians 11 chapter something or other. I can’t remember. I had to write an essay relating it to my life and then read it in front of my family and the entire church. I wore a white robe with a red rose pinned to it. My godparents came into town since technically they had to “bless” me into the church. In retrospect it felt like a weird cult-like ceremony. None of it mattered anyway, because my family immediately left the church right after. By this point my parents were ready to move on to a more liberal church where you could wear jeans and they played covers of songs from the radio. And that’s when I found God, again, briefly.
By the time I was in high school we were going to the new fun church. I didn’t hate going to be honest. Yes, it helped that I could wear whatever I wanted, and they played Imagine Dragons songs instead of from the book of Psalms. It was one of those non-denominational mega churches with multiple campuses. They cultivated an environment of acceptance, non-judgement, and forgiveness. Or so it seemed. Almost every male pastor there seemed to have overcome a porn addiction, and not to judge, but to me it is a red flag, I don’t know. But they preached second chances, and that seemed like a positive concept. My friend who was part of the youth group invited me to the yearly all-night youth group event. We stayed up all night going to bowling alleys, bonfires and doing scavenger hunts and it was actually really fun. I met a bunch of people involved in the youth group and no one was pushing God on me at all. I went to a few more of these events and eventually joined the youth group. I’d go to youth group on Sunday nights, but I wasn’t really going to like, praise God. It was more of a social outing for me. I enjoyed the sense of community.
During my sophomore year spring break, I decided to go on a mission trip with the youth group. We got into fifteen passenger vans and drove down to Winter Garden, Florida. Yep, Florida. Not Kenya, or Uganda or Haiti. It wasn’t one of those white savior trips where you take pictures with orphans. No offense! Instead, we were going to a low-income area to help fix up some houses and gather a community to start a new church campus down there. I had a lot of fun on the trip, and I don’t regret going. But there’s this toxic thing in youth group culture where they try to make you confess your trauma and then cry about it. They manipulate people into sharing their darkest shit and then make you ask God for forgiveness and support. You often sit in a dark candle-lit room with an attractive youth group leader softly playing acoustic guitar and are expected to pray, and cry, and feel the presence of God. I experienced this at both of my churches, and I know a lot of people have also experienced it at theirs. I never shared much. I think I even lied most of the time, because I was afraid of telling people anything about my trauma. It felt like a trap. I still remember the stories that other people shared. Some of it was really intense, and it made me sad that they felt like they had to share it to be seen as worthy and accepted. Like if you don’t have a sob story, you didn’t belong. I don’t know how much I really got out of the trip to be quite honest. I felt like I did some good, maybe? The thing that I remember most was laughing with my friend while we made jokes about everyone else. My most prominent memory (Other than having a period at the end of the trip so terrible that I missed the last two days of activities and sat in a hot van with cramps) was one night in chapel where the leaders were standing up and giving shoutouts to people who went the extra mile that day. This one woman stood up and before she even spoke a shitty kid yelled out “why are you wearing a jacket?” It was about ninety-eight degrees out, so it was a fair question. She ignored it and kept going. But my friend and I laughed about this the whole twenty-hour drive back to Michigan. I don’t know why it was so funny, but even reflecting on it now, I’m laughing as I write. Maybe it was just a moment of comic relief we so badly needed after an intense week of being forced into showing vulnerability. On this trip one of the guys in my group wrote each of the girls a personal letter telling us that we were beautiful and worthy. He even picked a bible verse for each of us. It was incredibly kind, and I kept the letter for a really long time. I would go back and read it as a reminder that there are kind people in the world. There’s a photo of me from this trip planting flowers while wearing a paint-stained “live above the influence” t-shirt. It feels like false advertising. I don’t know the girl in that photo. I was absolutely drinking and doing drugs during this time. Yet here I was trying to be a “good person.” I was trying to find people I felt safe with. But I still felt lost.
I had also joined a small group of high school girls my age led by two of the youth group leaders in their mid-twenties. It’s crazy to me that they were so young, when at the time they seemed so much older and wiser. Even now in my late twenties I can’t imagine coaching a group of vulnerable traumatized high school freshmen girls, and I know they did the best they could. It wasn’t “bible study,” in fact the bible rarely was brought out. We would sit and share stories from the week, eat Oreos, go over a lesson, and then all journal together. I enjoyed being in a group of women who were all in similar stages of life. I tried to get “closer to God” through this group. But there was always a disconnect for me. I had a lot of angst as a teen, and it was hard to balance that with trying to be open to the idea that God exists and loves everyone. Jesus loves me? He doesn’t even know me…but okay. And I’m supposed to love him? I’ve never loved a man before in my entire life and Jesus sure as hell isn’t going to be the first, sorry. I was skeptical of the things I was being told, despite everyone’s intentions being pure. Still, I would go to small group on Monday night and then get drunk on Friday night with my non-youth group friends. Not that both things can’t exist in harmony, but I felt guilty about it. Not enough to stop, but still I felt like I was letting everyone down. I assume my parents thought that me being in small group and going to religious youth programs was putting me on the right track and keeping me out of trouble, but it very much was not. I told one of the leaders I was having trouble with these “temptations”, and I was told to pray about it. Shockingly, that didn’t help. Not to mention I could barely get through a prayer without my mind completely wandering away. I hate when someone’s solution to a problem is to just “pray about it.” Fine, pray, but it’s going to take more than that. I once prayed that Adam Brody would marry me and obviously it didn’t work. I get that it’s helpful in feeling connected and naming what you need, but I’ve never been good at asking for help. But if it works for you, that’s wonderful. My Grandpa is really religious. He’s known for saying “worry about nothing and pray about everything.” And by “saying” I mean writing that on my Facebook wall each year on my birthday.
One night during a small group sleepover we waited till the leaders left and then played “ten fingers.” If you’re not familiar, it’s a classic game played with groups of people who maybe don’t know a ton about each other. Or you can play with your best friends and come up with specific scenarios to call each other out in front of everyone. I’ve played it with sports teams, camp friends and even as a drinking game. It’s a classic. The rule is that you hold up all your fingers, say something you have never done and then if anyone in the circle has done that thing, they clap and put a finger down, exposing themselves to everyone. Usually, the game sways to sexual acts or drug related prompts. I didn’t expect that it would go there with this so-called “Christian” group of girls, but indeed we did. It was quickly revealed that some of us had had sex even though we had been preached abstinence. One of the girls cried because of how guilty she felt, but in retrospect I think some of the stories were a bit dicey in terms of consent. My own included. I remember feeling better about my own experiences knowing these girls had also “sinned.”
Each year there would be a few youth group services dedicated to sex. They promoted waiting till marriage, just like most of the youth group leaders had done in their own personal lives. (but also the male leaders who “waited” were recovering porn addicts so like, IDK!) If you want to wait till marriage to have sex that’s your choice. Do your thing. For me, I can’t fathom it. Virginity is a construct, and I hate that a woman’s virginity is considered this sacred thing. Spread your legs or don’t, it’s your business. And it has nothing to do with your worth. I don’t know if my youth group meant to be toxic about the way they taught us that God would look down on you if you gave a guy a blowjob in the backseat of his Jeep. Which I of course have NEVER done. (It was a Toyota Camry). They sometimes tried not to take a stand on same-sex relationships, but they did make sure to point out that it says homosexuality is a sin in the bible. It all felt really hypocritical and judgmental, and I didn’t like it. And it made me feel bad and confused about ever questioning my sexuality. I sat there with my friends who had also sinned while we got preached at, and it was uncomfortable. I already had my own personal shame about it, and now I felt more shame from other people. I don’t know what I expected them to say to us about sex, it’s not like they were going to give us a sex ed class and throw condoms our way. But I wish they had just avoided it. It wasn’t up to them to tell us not to have sex, yet they took on this authoritative role. I mean, doesn’t God accept everyone? He sacrificed himself for my sins. He died, so that I could hook up in a twin sized bed with a drunk guy who didn’t know what he was doing. Right?
My junior year our group did an activity that tried to celebrate the idea of saving oneself for marriage. Saving your “gift” for your “one true love.” Your future husband. Gross. We each got a little heart and were told that it represented us as “whole,” and that every time you give yourself to someone else you lose a part of your heart. You lose a part of you. We could tear little pieces of the heart to represent each person you’d “given” yourself to. What you were left with was all you had left to offer. The point being that you won’t be giving your full heart, your full self, to your husband (not partner, HUSBAND.) I hated this. I sat there staring at the pink construction paper heart, unsure how many pieces to tear off. What counts as what? Am I supposed to include the acts I felt coerced into? All I wanted was to crumple it up and set it on fire. Is this really a measure of how loved I am? Or will be? How worthy I am? I already felt broken, like my body had been used, and now here I was with this little piece of paper, a visual representation of that, taunting me. I hope this activity has been stopped, because it does nothing but make you feel shitty, damaged, and used. I knew it was just a stupid paper heart, but the message it sent me took a long time to recover from. I’ve heard of schools doing similar activities in health classes. Stories from friends who had abstinence only sex ed saying that they were each given a piece of tape and told to stick it to a bunch of stuff. Eventually the tape lost its stickiness. It was dirty and gross and used. A terrible and dare I say lazy metaphor. I hope schools no longer do this kind of shit. We really need to abandon that idea that sleeping around makes anyone (especially those who identify as women) less worthy, less pure. Instead, I hope sex ed has leaned more into focusing on being safe and inclusive. And less about the idea that you HAVE to be in love to have sex. My school sex education wasn’t totally terrible, but still traumatic. Mostly because we had an anonymous question box where someone asked what semen tastes like and my health teacher said, “salty.” I’ve never felt more like everyone in a room collectively would like to pass away at the same time. A true energy shift.
During our senior year one of my friends slept with someone from the boy’s youth group. The leaders found out and asked her to step down from leading a group of freshman girls. The guy? He got to keep his title. This also happened around the same time they brought in some crazy person to tell us that even if you’ve only kissed someone, you probably have AIDS. That was the last straw for me. A few of us left the group after that. I was sick of living a double life and feeling bad for it. This is when I started to distance myself from religion and church. I needed time to figure out if I wanted this to keep taking up space in my life. And why I had even let it in the first place. It didn’t feel worth it anymore. I know that both the churches and youth groups I attended had good intentions. They were communities that truly wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, and I don’t doubt that they often achieved that. But sometimes I think they accidently did harm too. I’m not worse off for having been a part of it. I’m still questioning how much it once defined my life. For me, I don’t think spirituality is the driving force that keeps me feeling connected. The other day I ordered takeout from the diner down the street and they gave me an extra breakfast sandwich by accident. It’s moments like this when I think to myself, God is real. But I don’t feel God when I’m sad or struggling and in need of support. Only in moments of luck and I make a joke about it. And I don’t think that’s actually God trying to vibe with me. I feel more moved listening to Taylor Swift songs than I did throughout those years spent listening to sermons. I don’t find myself falling to my knees in tears begging for direction. If that works for you, congratulations. It’s never worked for me to turn to God when I was having a hard time. And I often felt dumb the times I tried and felt nothing. I don’t want anyone to feel like I’m making fun of you or challenging you if you identify with any religion. I really admire that you found something that works for you. It just didn’t work for me. And I can only speak from my own experience.
When I was packing up my stuff for college, I came across one of my old small group “Jesus journals.” Inside one of the flaps was that paper heart, folded up. It was still fully intact. I had never torn off the pieces. I threw it away, no longer letting it define me. But I am glad I had left it whole. I also found the letter written to me from the guy in my mission trip group. I re-read his cursive letters over and over again. “You are beautiful.” I laughed out loud at how cheesy it felt to read. I don’t identify with that word and if someone calls me it I will most likely cringe and pretend to vomit. But the sentiment was there. I made sure to keep it somewhere safe, as it felt like a better representation of what my youth group journey should mean to me. The way I want to remember it. A reminder that some people do have good intentions.
Despite not making any room in my life for religion anymore, I would like to end with a prayer, for old times’ sake. Feel free to use this prayer if it speaks to you:
Hiya God. Remember me? Sorry it’s been a while. We were kind of friends at one point, remember? Anyway, I need some assistance from a higher power. My usual method of burning incense, using sage in my apartment, and lighting my Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Beyoncé prayer candles (aka the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) aren’t really cutting it right now. Not sure if Mercury is in retrograde or I am just an unlucky bitch, but some guidance would be clutch right now. While I do believe in my horoscope more than you these days, I still think we could maybe vibe occasionally, ya know? All I ask is for one thing. Could you please make that guy I slept with twice to stop inviting me via Facebook to his stand-up shows? That would be super cool. Oh, and also, world peace.