“Mmm, four times, baby. Wow, that has to be a record or something,” I say, giggling and getting up to look for my underwear. “Can you check the time?”
“Yeah, it’s 6:55… 6:55! Shit, we have to leave for that goddamn church in five minutes!” Kenny, my boyfriend — and a recovering Jehovah’s Witness — knows the deal: I want to go to church for the first time, to experience something new, to write about it. “Maybe we just shouldn’t go,” he says, beckoning me back to bed.
“No, no, no no no, we’re going to church. And I need you there with me. Get dressed!”
I fumble around my closet for something that looks chaste, and settle on a navy blue corduroy jacket and a floor-length, hand-me-down, grey skirt I’ve never worn. “Are you wearing a tie?” I yell across our small, one-bedroom apartment.
“Fuck no, I’m not gonna dress up for those people.”
“Well at least wear long pants.” Churchies probably wouldn’t appreciate the Praise Seitan tattoo on his calf, a clever vegan pun, complete with a pentagram made of forks.
“Will you toss The Zombie Survival Guide in your bag, in case I want to do some light reading during the service?” Kenny asks, and we’re off, with 20 minutes left to get to the 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night service at United Pentecostal Church in Gainesville, Florida.
On the ride there, my tummy is tumbling. As a child, I often went to Synagogue, so I know how to hold my atheistic tongue. But this is different. This is church, and it will inevitably be filled with Christians.
My mind is back in 3rd grade, when my class wrote Christmas letters to American military members overseas. I was the happiest kid around, and amidst doodled hearts and smiley faces, I wished those GIs a Very Merry Christmas, as well as a Happy Hanukkah. The replies came pouring in. All the other kids got heaps of Christmas cards, patches, photographs, the whole deal. But never anything for me. Finally, an envelope for me! — one envelope, with no return address. And inside, written on the back of a tiny scrap of scribbled-on paper:
I’ve never had a problem with Jesus himself. My New Testament class taught me that if Jesus existed, he was probably a cool fucking dude. Paul’s the one I’ve got a problem with, putting all these words in Jesus’ mouth when he never even met the guy, and turning the religion into this exclusive, dogmatic club. Of course, what do I know? I’ve never been inside the clubhouse.
There it is, a neon sign announcing The Pentecostals, with a large cross in place of the t.
I picked a Pentecostal church because television told me everyone there speaks in tongues and dances with snakes, and that sounds like a fun night.
Cars are still pulling into the large parking lot, so we know we’re not too late. I grip Kenny’s hand a bit too tightly, and hope we won’t catch on fire as we walk through the doors of the surprisingly large church.
On stage, middle-aged men and women are singing, “There’s nothing I like better than God’s children getting together,” while a keyboard, guitars and electric drums back them up. Two large screens display the lyrics. We choose the very back pew and sit down.
The preacher steps onstage to announce that services will begin with a little meet and greet. Everyone hops up to commence with the small talk. I can’t help smiling when about a dozen people stand in line to shake Kenny’s and my hands and to ask our names. I was sure my pink hair and Kenny’s 1” stretched ear lobes would scare them off, but everyone wants to be the first to welcome us.
After everyone’s seated again, the preacher draws even more attention to us:
“If there are any visitors here today, please raise your hands.”
Out of a few hundred hands in that building, ours are the only ones up, and the rest burst into applause.
I was hoping for more singing, but instead, the bulk of the service consists of the preacher either grumbling about some letters he received accusing him of being mean and talking down to the congregation; or, worse, trying to be The Standup Comedian:
“So JE-sus says, ‘Hey, would you like to walk?’ What’s the man going to reply — ‘No thanks, I’ll just sit and get a sun tan.’”
The repeated calls of “Right!” and “C’mon!” (I thought they preferred “Amen!”) convince me that the congregation digs it, but I’m underwhelmed.
Where are the snakes? And why is everything in English?
“Any area of life that there is no hope, that is an absolute stronghold of Satan! Let me say it again….”
You already said it 4 times.
Kenny passes me a note: “Can I yell out, ‘Hail Satan!’?”
“Yes,” I write back, knowing he won’t. “Want the zombie book?”
“Nah, I’m not going to be able to concentrate on it with that guy screaming up there.”
The screaming, the endless screaming.
“I’m talking three chins hanging down. I mean, she was big enough to sit next to herself!”
The preacher just told a fat joke? And people are laughing. Oh God.
After two hours of ramblings, the end is nigh. The preacher states that his point is the testimony of Jesus can inspire faith, and so he testifies:
“Back problems, multiple sclerosis, goiters, blindness, all cured by Jesus!”
“The church cured my genital warts,” I whisper.
“Faith cured clubbed feet! Wouldn’t you like to see that?”
Yes, I would, actually. Bring on the fucking miracles already.
To wrap up the night, true believers are called to the stage (“Are you saved or aren’t you, Tom? Get up here!”). 90% of the congregation trickles up front, where the VIP Churchies put their hands on the others’ shoulders to heal them. Nobody speaks in tongues. Not a one.
We’re almost out the door when Jim, a well-dressed, grey-haired gentleman who played guitar on stage earlier, stops us to shake hands and exchange names.
“Have you ever been to a place like this?” he asks.
“I used to be a cokehead. I used to inject cocaine into my arm.”
An elderly woman wearing a wig turns Jim around to say goodbye, giving Kenny and I approximately 7 seconds to get our laughter under control. Did he just say that?
“I used to love drugs, sex, rock and roll. I had an addictive lifestyle.”
And now Jesus is your drug.
“Um… I’m sorry,” I stammer.
“I just wanted to let you know, we’re not all a bunch of Jesus freaks here. A lot of us have been there too. You know what I mean. Not to imply that you two are drug addicts or anything.”
Of course not.
“But this is real. Some people here tonight have seen people raised from the dead.”
He asks if he can pray for us. He holds our hands between his, bows his head and rambles on for a few awkward minutes, pleading for God to enter our bodies.
I try to clear my mind, to prepare myself for the imminent tongue-speaking, but when he’s done, all I can spit out is, “Sorry nothing happened.”
Coke-head Jim gives us his business card and tells us to call if we ever want to get coffee and hear more about Jesus.
Speeding out of the parking lot, I say to Kenny, “Thank you so much for coming to that hellhole with me tonight. I so owe you a blowjob.”
“Oh my God, you so do.”
Here’s something else I wrote about religion and atheism: