Adult Children of Evangelicals

A long time ago, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, a boy turned twelve years old. The boy was me—I know, I know… save the big reveal for the end, right? Didn’t I learn anything from Fried Green Tomatoes?

For me, twelve years old was a milestone because it was the age Jesus was when he began teaching. You probably recall the story: the holy family had made their annual trip to Jerusalem for Passover celebration. Mary and Joseph pulled a McAllister family sequel and left Jesus Home Alone: Lost in Jerusalem, where he was later found at the temple booby trapping the ark of the covenant to shock Daniel Stern who wanted to rob it. No, wait—sorry, that’s a false teaching. I mean, of course, Jesus was found holding court with the much older, much more seasoned rabbis whose understanding of Jewish texts was the final authority in that community. Jesus out-midrashed the crap out of those dudes. Or so I had been taught, in more sacred terms.

A boy in my church who turned twelve immediately met with a set of new expectations. Namely, the expectation to start acting like Jesus in a serious way. It was time to put away childish things and start schooling the elders of Asheville Gospel Chapel with my exegeses of Pauline letters and ancient Hebrew poetry. Sunday School classes no longer featured felt boards or puppets. Bible verse memorization turned into memorization of entire books of the Bible. 1 Timothy was a good place to start, as it held all the answers for a young man of God trying to do faith the right way. I was even baptized at twelve, which I’m sorry, I just have to call bullshit on, because even Jesus got away without that sacrament until he was thirty.

The bottom line: twelve years old is a significant coming-of-age for a male-identifying person in the Plymouth Brethren tradition. And it just so happens the boy who turned twelve in western North Carolina so long ago (still me) began to discover how vastly fucked his faith was during this time of accelerated maturation.

Sunday mornings at Asheville Gospel Chapel in the early nineties, during the second service, which is the one where we sang “contemporary” (read: from the 1970s) choruses instead of two-hundred-year-old hymns, the children sat together in the first two pews, house left. A man stood behind the pulpit, placing transparencies on an overhead projector—you know, the early prototype of the iPad/LED projector combo.

After the entire congregation had sung a verse or two of “I Owed a Debt I Could Not Pay,” the man behind the projector moved down to those two front pews, house left, and asked the kids seated there to stand up. It was time for the children’s chorus. The incentive to stand and sing loudly was formidable: each week, the man leading the songs picked one girl and one boy to receive a shiny new quarter, based, I presume, on the enthusiasm and verve with which they sung. (Due to inflation over the years, this coin had increased to a 50 cent piece, and then to a full silver dollar by the time I left for college.)

At age twelve, after being baptized and committing the entire book of 1 Timothy to memory, I felt the time was right for me to graduate from this tradition, and leave the quarters to the next generation. I took it upon myself to move to the third row of pews, along with a few other youths my age. If I recall correctly, we would still stand and sing. But we couldn’t be in it for the money. We were twelve now, after all. Jesus wasn’t cleaning out the temple coffers when he was twelve, and neither should we.

One Sunday, I found myself alone in that third pew. My fellow twelve-year-olds were absent that day—there were only three or four of us, anyway. I sang along during the all-church choruses and then, as he always did, the man behind the projector approached the kids in the first two pews, house left. They all started to stand, and I—well, that day I thought, "it's time." I was twelve. I was alone in the third pew. I didn’t need a quarter, and I could recite any random verse in 1 Timothy on command. It was time to remain seated like the rest of the church, and let the kids do their thing.

They were only a few bars into a completely non offensive song like “Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man” or “I’m in the Lord’s Army” when the eyes of the song leader/projector operator fell on me. I wasn’t singing. I wasn’t standing. I was simply, like the dozens of adults behind me, listening to the song of the children.

Something flashed across the face of the projector operator: something that I recognized immediately as a look of deep disapproval and disappointment. It seemed that he registered my sedentary, silent state as an act of protest or defiance. I was confused—wasn’t this the natural progression? Wasn’t I fulfilling the expectations for a baptized, Bible-memorizing twelve-year-old? Surely Zacchaeus and 25-cent rewards were best left to the children half my age in pews one and two. Surely it was time for me to make way for them and, like Jesus, find my place among the teachers and elders of my community.

The projector-operating man felt differently. Without lowering the hand that was conducting the chorus, without losing tempo, he circled the first two pews and began to approach me. What was this? It felt like I was in trouble. Every eye in church had been trained on the children singing, and now they watched the projector operator walk. He had never so much as moved three feet while leading the children’s chorus. But today, with a great and terrible shaking of his head, he came to the third pew where I sat alone, grabbed me under the armpit, and quite forcefully jerked me to a standing position.

Wet, hot shame overwhelmed me. Giant tears gathered in my eyes and spilled onto my face. I tried to sing, but all I could do was mouth the lyrics. The song seemed to go on forever as I stood alone in that third pew, a head taller than any other child around me, dripping with shame and desperate to disappear. When it finally ended, I turned toward the window and hid a face that must have been the same shade of scarlet Sharpie marker that had been used to write the song lyrics on the transparency projected overhead.

No one spoke any words of comfort to me that day. Not one of the hundred or so people who witnessed that fervid, forcible shaming attempted to assuage the humiliation or even inquire about why I was so plainly traumatized by it. Instead, I walked out of church that day branded as the boy who disrespected his grandfather.

Oh, did I mention? The projector operator: he was my Papaw.

Well, how about that? This story does have a surprise character reveal after all.

My Papaw is an entire universe, his own subject that I can’t begin to adequately unpack here. He’s a complex man, wildly generous and deeply loyal and also severe and exacting in his faith and expectations for his family.

And he was a pillar of our spiritual community, deeply respected by the church. It was he, more than anyone else, who encouraged me to be baptized and challenged me to memorize entire books of the Bible. He had overseen my spiritual development since birth. It was he who had told me the story of twelve-year-old Jesus the temple teacher time and again. He was the esteemed patriarch of our family, and I was his oldest grandson.

Twenty-three years later, this memory is visceral, painful, and crystal-clear.

You follow an instinct for all the right reasons. Your heart is true. Your intent, pure. Your methods are by-the-book and unassailable. You are twelve years old and, in that moment, all you want to do is what’s right. You are making yourself, deciding who you will be, claiming your seat in a family of believers. And then, someone who is meant to be your champion pulls you up and puts you on display for sins that hadn’t even crossed your mind.

That’s the only reason I’m telling this story. Not for retribution, or to shame my Papaw in return for the shame I felt that day. But because faith can be a fucked-up thing. Morality that is systemized and moderated will inevitably betray you. Family can do some of the worst damage, and then an entire congregation might simply ignore the abuse because power goes to the patriarch, to the conductor of the song, the operator of the projector that beams out the words we are all expected to repeat.

I have never told my Papaw how what he did that day impacted me so deeply. He is an old man now, and I don’t want to give him grief. I vacillate between feelings of responsibility for addressing the many grievances I have with him, and desire to just let our times together be as peaceful as possible until that time is up. The latter of those two feelings has been winning in recent years.

Love and relationship in the context of religion are so hard to do well. It might be that holding my tongue with my Papaw is a way to show him love; it could just as easily be a loving thing to speak about the pain and estrangement I feel in the hopes of mending something. It might be that when Papaw grabbed me in front of the church when I was twelve, he was showing love in the best way he knew, trying to keep me on the path he believed was right for me. It might be that his severity is as indicative of how deeply he cares as is his generosity.

Love gets neutered, hindered, constrained, restricted, and warped in the parameters religion establishes for it. It hurts. And it feels like love. What a confusing thing that is to unravel.

Matthew Blake