Guys I can’t stop ranting about religion.
I’m in the South. It’s EVERYWHERE.
And: it’s annoying (SURPRISE!).
It’s been six months and I am still uncomfortable when someone tells me that God will bless me for all of the good work I am doing. It’s as if people think I am helping them stay in their homes because I am saving up brownie points for the after life.
Down here, people ask what church you go to as casually as they ask which high school you went to. Perhaps even more casually than the high school question, actually. After all, not everybody went to high school. At first I was taken back when folks started asking me this. I thought to myself: and what makes this person actually think I am a Christian?
The obvious thing that would cross most individuals’ minds at this point is: You’re in the South, Lizy. Everybody and their mother belongs to a church. Where did ya THINK you were going?
One of my favorite interactions that I’ve had with someone occurred a few weeks ago when a stranger struck up a conversation with me about the kind of work my organization did. I was truly a blessing to many people, he pointed out. He assured me that God would bless me later in life for my good deeds (*cringe*). Then he wanted to know what church I went to.
I should have lied. I’ve attended St. John’s Episcopal twice since I’ve been here; I should have just dropped their name. Nope, I told him the truth: I do not belong to a congregation out here.
He could not believe his eyes. Who was this creature standing in front of him? What was wrong with her? She is only led astray; surely her problem is simply that she has not found a fitting congregation yet.
He asked why I did not go to church. Another opportunity for me to lie. I should have said “because I have yet to find a good fit. Perhaps you could help me out and then you can receive brownie points with your pastor and get a spot at the table closer to Jesus when you make it to heaven?”
Nope. My response: church isn’t for me.
Of course, he didn’t understand. Why? he asked.
Ready for the exciting part?
The correct explanation as to why church isn’t for me is complicated and full of too many intricacies to fully explain in one passing conversation with a wide-eyed stranger who could not believe he found someone in Alabama who has lived here for 6 months and still hasn’t found a church.
If I had time, cared to explain, or was a bit more articulate with my incredibly complicated relationship with religion, I would have probably explained to him that I was fairly positive that Jesus didn’t exist and that I felt “God” isn’t an entity that feels or thinks, as the way we personify him (yes, I intentionally lowercased that “H,” just to bother my religious friends). I feel that the thing that is greater than humans is closer to something like the Force in Star Wars. But that’s a different conversation for a different day and the purpose of this blog isn’t to sermonize a dismissal of the entire Christian faith as a fallacy.
Instead of going into my pantheistic views, I threw the word agnostic at him to make the conversation easier. I hoped it would end there. I certainly wasn’t going to acknowledge that Jesus is real and I sure as hell wasn’t about to drop the A-bomb (ok I’ll say it this time: atheist) in front of him.
In the lands of college liberals and Southern Californians, the only two worlds I have known before Alabama, just about everyone is an agnostic. Many don’t know what they are or they aren’t bold enough to publically identify as an atheist or a theist, so they choose the middle ground. Many are atheists until they try the right drug that gives them psychedelic feelings which lead them to conclude that there might be something greater than their brains out there. And, of course, many truly have thoughtfully considered a zillion different types of religious beliefs and have more respectfully come to the conclusion that they are agnostics.
But, in the land of sweet tea and Confederate flags, perhaps this view isn’t so common. The stranger who was so invasively questioning my religious alliances did not know what “agnostic” meant. Again, I should have lied. It means I just don’t go to church right now, I should have said. It means I got an abortion so I am waiting seven years before the Catholics let me back in, I should have said. It means Robert E. Lee came to me in a dream and told me not to go to church anymore, I should have said.
But, again, I told the truth: it means I am not sure that Jesus existed.
(Don’t tell him I am actually fairly positive about this claim)
Again, his eyes widened. He could not believe it. You really don’t think Jesus existed?
In a very signature Southern way, he was respectful of my viewpoint. He just could not believe it. It was as if I was genuinely the first individual he came across who did not go to church because she was unconvinced of Jesus’s existence.
After a few more minutes of back and forth, I finally found an appropriate time to excuse myself from the conversation. We wished each other a good day, and life went on.
Our interaction was so typical of what I have experienced here. And I don’t like it. The South has been too respectful of me for me to really disrespect this very real part of their culture, but I still am uncomfortable with it.
And it’s not so much the question of which church I attend that bothers me. It is, more frequently, a very selfish attitude I have noticed among the church-going individuals here (though I suppose “church-going Southerner” might be redundant) that bothers me. They are nice and they genuinely wish me the most blessed life, but I do not think they realize that I am not doing what I do so that God will bless me with a multitude of lattes later in life. I did not commit to a year of community service so that I could live a life of luxury in my later years.
I have spoken with many homeowners who have applied to our program who advocate for themselves to be selected for a free home repair by saying they have been good, God-loving Christians. One recently guilted me over the phone by saying “me and Jesus will be waiting.” They think that loving Jesus, and making sure everybody knows they love Jesus, will increase their chances of getting a free home repair.
What would they say if I informed them that whether or not they were chosen for our program had nothing to do with how frequently they publically proclaimed the word of god (lower case G, because I’m a rebel…#yolo) ? What if I told them that I didn’t give two poops that they went to church three days a week? What if I told them that whether or not they received our services had to do with only two things: their immediate need for repairs, and our availability of volunteers?
I have received business cards for churches. I have seen billboards for Easter services. I have seen televised broadcasts of sermons. It all makes me uncomfortable. God bless freedom of religion (capital G because it was the start of a sentence), but really?
One individual with whom I had a conversation about Jesus even expressed her disdain with several doctors who did not pray with her before she went into surgery. She was moved when her fourth surgeon sent a message up to Jesus before cutting in. Before I moved to Alabama, I would have been insulted if a surgeon asked to pray with me before digging around my insides. Today, I would still cringe a little, but I would probably be less likely to slap him and say “I’m a Muslim!” before running in the opposite direction. A surgeon’s bromance with Jesus isn’t indicative of his ability to cut along the dotted line. It just means he’s probably a Southerner. It’s part of their culture, and perhaps even more so than going to high school.
And here’s something extra exciting to my Southern homies: as an AmeriCorps member, I am not even allowed to participate in religious practices. Did your brains just explode? Granted, I’m allowed to do what I want on my own time, but not as the role of an AmeriCorps member. That being said: please do not take any of the statements I’ve made in this post, any other post, or on my Facebook wall to heart as said from the perspective of an AmeriCorps member. Repeat after me: Any time Lizy opens her mouth about something political or religious, as she is wont to do, she is no longer an AmeriCorps member.
And so here I am. A preacher’s daughter who doesn’t go to church. Many, many, many people have told me that they hope I am blessed. They have told me that my good work will pay off. In what, I’m not sure. Big screen TVs? A fancy car? My student loans will be paid off? Or maybe I’ll finally be able to afford a microwave? One can hope.
I’ll keep on being a good person, the way I know how to be (ironically, many of my first life lessons came from my first school: Sonrise Christian). I’ll have an army of Southerners praying for my well-being in exchange for their free home repairs. And I also look forward to getting back to St. John’s La Verne so I can be a part of one of my favorite communities.
May the Force be with you.