What I Know About Going to Church
Generation’s of varied experience and perhaps its outcome.
The story goes that when my Grandparents got married they tried to decide together what religion they should follow. The families blended by their marriage were already subjected to a variety of widely different sorts of systems of belief.
On my Grandmother’s side, my GGGG Grandmother was Ojibwe, raised to believe that rocks, rills, wild places and animals all had spirit, efficacy and interest in human matters. That’s really all I know about that though I wish I knew more and that some of that was still intact somewhere in our family.
My GGG Grandmother was taken by the Jesuits and raised in a Catholic school, forbidden to use her language, her hair cut, symbolically severing her from millenia of the ways of being. When she married she chose a white man whose French family had two hundred years plus of history in Canada, oppressing not only the Ojibwe but all the other First Nations. Actually, I am not sure if she chose at all. There is much evidence that shows that women, especially Native women, were effectively ‘sold’. Her training, both religious and domestic assured that she would be a ‘good wife’.
Pierre, her husband died at Andersonville. He’d come down from Canada and joined the Union Army in Wisconsin. His daughter, my GG Grandmother was educated in another ‘Indian School’ and it was there she met my GG Grandfather.
GG Grandmother was, of course, Catholic by that time. My GG Grandfather was a white man who came from a Congregationalist background. But, in his family were sprinkled such notable desenters as Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the founders of transcendentalism: an idealistic philosophical and social movement which developed in New England around 1836 in reaction to rationalism. Influenced by romanticism, Platonism, and Kantian philosophy, it taught that divinity pervades all nature and humanity, and its members held progressive views on feminism and communal living. Interesting. This does sound familiar.
When these GG Grandparents married there was nominally an agreement that the children would be raised Catholic but nobody adhered to that condition. Soon, they upped sticks and moved West to the Washington Territory. It was there they decided that my GG Grandmother was ‘French’ though half the children favored their mother’s side and ‘looked quite dark and exotic’ (this from an ancient letter in the family archives) and half had their father’s blue eyes. But to follow on, there were Methodists, a travelling Priest, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists and others as well as those of no religion evident in the Washington town where they settled.
One of their younger daughters, my Great Grandmother, fell in love with the scion of a local powerhouse family who were staunch Methodists. They looked fully askance at her because they thought of her as a ‘half-breed’ but more importantly because her mother was Catholic. To them, being Catholic was worse than being anything else you can say that is objectionable about a young woman. But when he turned twenty-one my Great Grandfather married her without permission and against his family’s (principally his mother’s), objections. My G Grandmother was not quite fourteen. It was a Justice of the Peace that performed the ceremony, so no religion there, instead it was State sanctified. Her brother was her witness because it was done without permission or even the knowledge of parents who were understandably, even in that time, quite disturbed at the idea of their little girl marrying so young. There is more to this story but that’s for another time.
So far there was Catholicism, Methodism, Transcendalism,
Congregationalsim or any number of other religious systems to think about giving your loyalty to, if you were my Grandmother. Then my Grandfather added in Lutheranism. I have a picture of him in his way too big confirmation suit, a hand-me-down from a much more robust older brother.
Grandfather didn’t have any religious loyalty to Lutheranism. He didn’t object when my Grandmother went religion-fishing. They both had some views, a tick-list of attributes they did or did not want a church to exhibit. None of those systems of belief listed above held any attraction for various reasons.
They decided they wanted a ‘young congregation’ with children so that their two would have peers for fun. They also wanted less ceremony and more
fellowship, but not too much. My Grandmother was something of an introvert and didn’t enjoy crowds and she had no patience whatsoever for ‘busy-bodies’. To make a longer story short, they started out ‘testing’ churches, staying with this one for a few months then that one for a few more and then settled on the ‘Christian Church’ or the Disciples of Christ Church. Their attendance lasted for a while but had faded away by the time I was born.
The first church experience I really remember was going with my father’s mother. I couldn’t tell you what flavor it was but every Easter until I was about ten I’d get a new dress and a couple of times a new hat and go to church with her. My brothers also went decked out in little boy suits with their hair slicked back with either gel or brylcream. My grandmother was a Christian Scientist. But I don’t know if that is where we went. My grandfather’s family on that side were all Quakers but I did not know him nor had I ever met him although he didn’t die until long after I was an adult. He and his religion if he had any, were just not present.
But the first church experiences I participated in without my grandmother were the one where I was given a goldfish for attendence and the one where, as a questioning seven year old, I was kicked out. I’m pretty sure the latter was a Presbyterian church.
We did the religion-fishing thing again when my mother married Mr J. He was adamantly irreligious and did not want to ‘waste his Sunday sitting and listening to someone who had his head up his b***.’ At first, Mother thought it was necessary to make sure we had the kind of upbringing that gave her legitimacy and I’ll never forget the church service that solidified that view for me. It was the Mother’s Day service during my ninth year. Mr J had begun to show his true colours and I was questioning everything while trying desperately to traverse a tightrope without falling into the pit of his angry disapproval. I went to church in some small sense of rebellion against him but my mother went to prove herself.
At the end of the Mother’s Day service there was a ‘fellowship’ activity of ‘who is the best, most prolific mother.’
“Which mother here has three children?” queried the portly pastor.
My mother’s hand went up. I relaxed against her and she shook me off. Her face was strangely intent.
“Which mother has four children?”
Again, my mother’s hand went up. I looked at her strangely and something stirred in my heart.
“Which mother has five children?”
My mother’s hand went up and I looked around. There were no other mothers who claimed that many children. My mother looked determined and she hissed at me, “Don’t you dare say anything.”
Mother was presented with a bouquet and some kind of plaque that said ‘Five’ on it. Everyone crowded around her with sympathetic murmurings as it was clear she only had three children left. Where were the other two? They assumed dead and so they weren’t surprised at Mother’s tears.
“God moves in mysterious ways.”
“I’m sure they are happy in heaven.”
“You’ll reunite with them when you are gone.”
“At least you have three beautiful children left,” were among the sentiments expressed.
We never went back to that church again. Mother had exposed herself and the fear that the real truth about the missing children would come out was too great for her to risk it. From then on Sundays were for sleeping in, keeping quiet so as not to wake her and for getting into various bits of trouble.
My brothers and I made another stab at church attendance when we were in our teens. Mother got scared that we didn’t have a ‘moral’ foundation. But she couldn’t sustain the interest in it herself and Mr J attended once with ill-grace. Others would transport us so I had some fun but depression hit me hard by my sixteenth year and I couldn’t sustain interest in much.
I had a few other experiences with religion or perhaps I should say church as I sidled through life. I flirted with the Quakers and found them committed and the system they adhered to attractive but I’d begun my study of religion by then and I had too many doubts. One of the twins had discovered The Latter Day Saints while he was in college. He sent missionaries my way and for a time I thought ‘why not?’. Perhaps I’d find a husband there that could replace the missing and divorced philanderer that my oldest daughter’s father had proved to be. However, it was soon very clear that I didn’t fit the ideal. Divorced women, especially divorced women with opinions were not wifely material. I did try for a while to fit my square self into that round hole but, nah, patriarchy personified is not my cup of tea.
Then, I joined a large concert choir and the director there was also the choir director for a local church. She asked me to round out the soprano section in the church and I said yes. It certainly wouldn’t hurt my voice to have another practice. I was a bit skeptical about the church but hey, my kids would have the experience and perhaps that would be helpful to them. I told them carefully that choosing for themselves when they grew up would be expected. They had fun there, we learned some things about community and caring but most immediately I grew to enjoy the sermons and the friendship of the Minister. The first sermon of his I heard contained the words ‘cast the clear light of doubt on any dogma’ and I sat up straight. I could endure this.
I wish I could say that I was able to find peace in this church. The experience did last for a little while. But things end. My children got older and less willing to go. I got busy with work but most importantly I began to remember my serious questions. When my mother died and the fault lines always present in my family widened to chasms, I stopped going to church entirely. Somehow the two seemed linked.
I wanted for a long time to retain a ‘spiritual’ system of belief. I wanted to eliminate the patriarchal god of Abraham, relegate the bible to the library of other religious tracts where it could gather some dust, study history and find some inner truth. In the end that didn’t work either and despite myself, I became a Humanist. That is, if I became anything because perhaps that is what I was all along, what many members of my widened family were all along, what Ralph Waldo Emerson was if he’d had the concept.
The twins still go to church as far as I know. The one is still a Mormon; the other was baptised in the Catholic church coming full circle in some ways. To them I am apostate and so this is another brick in the wall we’ve all built between us. Me, I don’t want a church but this time of year I usually enjoy the music and the colour and food and festivity when it is allowed. Not having all of that to fall back on has left me thinking. The fruits of that will, I hope come later in another article.