I have a very distinct memory of a redheaded woman screaming hateful words at me from the window of her minivan. I could tell she was angry, enraged even, but I had no idea why. I was 4 years old, standing on a curb next to my mom and others from our church. I remember the picket signs and singsong prayers. But more vividly, I remember car after car of passersby rolling down their windows to scowl and shout at us.
Years later, as an adult, I realized what we had been doing in front of that brown building on Grand Avenue. Although I’d driven by it many times before, one day the memory snapped into focus. That building was a Planned Parenthood and we had been outside protesting abortion — and perhaps, unknowingly, shaming the women using its services.
The devil was around a lot when I was a kid. He/she/it was the horned puppet master behind everything from my family’s financial struggles to creepy sounds in the middle of the night (was that my cat or a demon?). I was taught that even seemingly pleasant things, like Halloween costumes and Santa Claus, were actually planted by the devil to destroy our souls. And boy, did I believe every word of that Christian evangelical message.
Unsurprisingly, if you tell a 4-year-old she has a choice between burning in hell for all eternity or living in a jewel-encrusted mansion surrounded by golden streets, she’s likely to choose the latter. Later in my life, however, the cost of that mansion shot out of my price range.
The antiabortion stance of my church had its roots in the Moral Majority movement started by evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell in the late ’70s. Although he died in 2007, his words live on. He infamously called feminists failures and witches, announced AIDS as a punishment for homosexuals and regularly demonized Jews.
In Orange County, California, where I grew up, megachurches were like small cities run by pastors who somehow always had bigger houses than most in the congregation. Home to Crystal Cathedral, the Trinity Broadcasting Network and Saddleback Church, Orange County’s born-again believers were a powerful force but not immune to scandals.
During my childhood, evangelical Christianity went through numerous upheavals. In the ’80s and ’90s, pastors and preachers around the globe were exposed for various misdoings. Televangelist pastor Jim Bakker was sentenced to 45 years in prison for swindling $158 million from his followers in 1989. Another TV preacher, Jimmy Swaggart, was caught with a prostitute in 1991, prompting an IRS investigation into his $12 million annual salary.
As a seemingly endless conga line of Christian leaders was caught stealing, cheating and lying their way to the pearly gates, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something in the religion was wrong. Pastors who had once denounced homosexuality as the ultimate sin were later caught in the same acts they deemed “immoral.” It all seemed so tremendously hypocritical and false.
Despite my concerns, I learned how to bury my questions and doubts under piles of Bible verses, prayers and WWJD stickers. I couldn’t deny that my church provided a safe haven from the awkwardness of puberty and the fragility of my home life. I learned how to speak in tongues and allow myself to be slain in the spirit (which is basically a trust fall for Jesus). Throughout high school, I went on multiple mission trips to “preach the good news” and spent hours organizing events for the church youth group. Sadly, I also learned how to judge people harshly for engaging in such horrific indiscretions as swearing and kissing.
For years, I’d try to switch the internal volume off when a pastor would report that my school friends were likely to be tortured in hell, women couldn’t be leaders or antidepression medication was a way of avoiding God’s plan. I tried, I really did. At 18, I went to Australia and Uganda as a missionary. I wanted so badly to believe that the compassion and love I learned from Christianity could supersede all the hateful, sexist and prejudicial words I’d encountered from the church for much of my life.
I’d like to say that one day it all struck me and I finally understood that my conscience and religion could not coexist, but in truth, clarity took years. My faith in organized religion slowly unraveled and, like two pieces of paper glued together, I could not pull away from the church without also tearing myself in the process. I cried a lot, drank some and wandered around my early 20s trying to make sense of it all.
At 23 years old, I found myself sitting in a fluorescently lit waiting room. There were posters of smiling women on the wall and racks of STD pamphlets. An anchor of guilt sat in my chest for being there, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I was a college student without health insurance and like many women before me, I waited patiently for the Planned Parenthood nurse to call my name so I could get a prescription for birth control. The nurse had a gentle voice and was attentive throughout my visit. Somehow, in this supposedly godless place, I felt safe.
After that first appointment, I began to understand the pain and anger many of the people who saw me protesting the clinic must have felt. I was a little girl who didn’t know what she was doing but I sincerely doubt many of the adults around me understood the impact of our message much better than I had. We were protecting our beliefs while young women were attempting to protect their bodies. Certainly, I would have felt shame and hurt had someone protested my access to healthcare.
Beliefs and judgments aside, most of us can agree that we all have the right to take care of ourselves. For me, taking care of myself meant that I didn’t attend church anymore. It meant visiting a Planned Parenthood so I could take care of my body. For others, it may mean sitting in a church pew to garner some hope during a hectic week. It can mean whatever each of us chooses.
Eventually, I hope to stand proudly on my feminist pro-choice soapbox while enjoying the richness of a spiritual life. But for now, I’ll settle for dressing up on Halloween and being (slightly) less afraid of spooky noises in the night.