Finding My Religion | Essay | Chicago Reader

Finding My Religion 

To this day I maintain the confused respect for Christianity I acquired in my youth, when out of concern for my reputation as well as my everlasting soul, I began to go to church.

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I wanted to put on my black velvet shirt, the snuggly one that has the collar that lies just right, which I love, and which looks good on me, and which goes well with anything on any occasion, with the possible exception of Easter Sunday, which it was. I couldn't wear black, especially not black velvet, on Easter, even if it was 28 degrees outside with some ungodly wind-chill factor.

It was my first Easter in Chicago, and I wasn't sure what I was going to do even if I could decide what to wear. I felt sure that nobody back home in Vilonia, Arkansas, was wondering what they were going to do. Everybody would be going to church--a Baptist church, a Methodist church, or a Church of Christ church, because Lord knows there was plenty of theological debate among these three denominations without bringing in any other religions. Once my father came home from work disgusted with his boss, a member of the Church of Christ who had said to him, "It's obvious that our church is the best one. Just look at the name."

Everybody in Vilonia went to church every Sunday--everybody except my parents, or so it seemed. This didn't make my adolescence any easier. My sixth-grade teacher, a middle-aged Baptist bachelor who'd grown up in Vilonia, once asked a boy, right in the middle of class, out of the clear blue, what church he went to. I never heard what the boy said, because of the white surge of terror that rushed into my head. For the rest of the school year, I tried to prepare myself for the same question. I couldn't make something up, because everybody went to church, and any church I said I went to, some classmate really would go there, and I would be found out. Then I would not only be a heathen, I would be a lyin' heathen, and what could be worse than that?

My mom once gave me a stock answer to use in case people asked me where I went. She said for me to tell them that my family didn't believe we had to be inside a church to talk to God. I understood my peer group well enough to know that wasn't going to fly. People always said that this other nonchurchgoing girl in my class, whose father was a psychologist in Little Rock, was an atheist. My mom's stock answer had an atheist ring to it too.

Out of concern for my reputation as well as my everlasting soul, I began to go to church. I got involved with one of the larger Church of Christ churches, which ran a fleet of buses. They were white, with the church's name, address, and phone number and the words "Joy Bus" painted in red on the side. The Joy Buses made their rounds every Sunday morning and every Sunday night, collecting pitiable heathens like myself. No dirt road was too long for the Joy Bus to travel, no household too poor for the Joy Bus to visit. Sometimes we were joined by regular churchgoing kids who just thought it was fun to ride in the Joy Bus instead of their parents' cars, I guess.

There was a woman on the Joy Bus who kept the long rides lively with cheery and childish church songs. She'd call out to the bus driver and he'd respond, or she'd get one side of the bus to call out to the other:

I've got joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart

(Yeah!)

Down in my heart

(Yeah!)

Down in my heart!

Yes I've got joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart

(Yeah!)

Down in my heart to stay!

And I'm so happy,

So very happy,

I've got the love of Jesus in my heart

(Down in my heart)

And I'm so happy,

So very happy,

I've got the love of Jesus in my heart.

And if the devil doesn't like it he can sit on a tack

(Ouch!)

Sit on a tack

(Ouch!)

Sit on a tack

And if the devil doesn't like it he can sit on a tack

(Ouch!)

Sit on a tack and stay!

At our funkiest we'd sing "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." The bus driver would always shout out, "Sing it, sister!" to the song leader when we did that one.

My mom would see me off, maybe wearing one of the halter tops she was always making for herself--with cute little appliques and plenty of rickrack--and a fall wig, her real bangs sticking out. I could tell she was skeptical about the Joy Bus. She would ask me sometimes, Why don't you go to church with Shannon? Don't you like Shannon's church? She'd even offer to drive me there. My best friend Shannon had recruited me in the past for Sunday-morning services, just like all my friends did, probably at the prompting of their mothers. Shannon went to a little white church down a dirt road with a huge wild cherry tree growing outside. After Sunday-night services, the adults mingled outside before going to their cars and the children ran around in the warm, dusky evening, stuffing their mouths with delicious ripe fruit. The Joy Bus church was red brick, about five times the size of Shannon's, built on the side of the highway with a big sign out front, the kind some hotels or fast-food joints have, where you can change the message.

Despite my mother's hints, I opted to keep riding the Joy Bus for the time being. Mom decided that if that was what I wanted, I was going to need some new church dresses. Going to church with a friend occasionally was one thing, but if I was going to have a "church home" and go every Sunday morning and night and sometimes Wednesday for good measure, I would have to be appropriately attired. We got in the Grand Prix and headed to the Wal-Mart, where we thumbed through the McCall's and Simplicity pattern books and chose material. Soon I had a whole new Christianity wardrobe.

Still, I felt conspicuous. My dresses turned out a bit shorter than the other girls', and I seemed to be the youngest girl in nylons instead of kneesocks. Confident children all around me expertly turned to Colossians 2:23, while I fumbled with my Bible, trying to look smooth, wondering frantically, Colossians? Is that in the New Testament or the Old Testament? Where the hell is Colossians?

I eventually quit the Joy Bus, embarking on a more private journey to feeling like a bona fide Christian. This involved several attempts to read the Bible. Not wanting to cheat or anything, I started in the Old Testament, with Genesis1:1, in the beginning. I never got very far. I tried to start with the New Testament a few times, figuring that was probably the more important part, with Jesus's words in red letters and all, but I always lost steam during what I called the "beget section."

I even subscribed to Bible lessons through the mail: it seemed like homework, which I was more comfortable with. But I came away with more questions than answers. Was it really true that if you said "thou fool" you would burn in hell forever? And seriously, was it easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than it was for a rich man to enter heaven? And who exactly were you supposed to pray to? Did you pray to Jesus, or to God, or sometimes to one and sometimes to the other, or to both at the same time? And was it OK, when you prayed, regardless of who you prayed to, to ask for money or to be more popular, or just things like please help my parents not to fight and please let my missing cat come back home?

When I was in high school, long after my Joy Bus days were over, I had a boyfriend, and on the weekends we'd travel the typical Vilonia teenager circuit. There were no dances at Vilonia High School, because the one thing all the churches could agree on was that dancing was evil--something in one of those Bible passages I never got through said something about how you shouldn't move your body in dirty ways. There was a yearly exception made for prom, but purists didn't go. The Church of Christ didn't even allow musical instruments, not even an organ, inside the walls of the church, though tape recorders were acceptable. The few Church of Christ weddings I attended included taped renditions of the wedding march.

So with little else to do, on Saturday night we'd drive to the Wal-Mart parking lot in my boyfriend's pickup truck, find our friends, talk to them for a while, then head over to the video arcade: Ms. Pac-Man for me, Joust for him, Billy Squier's "The Stroke" or Prince's "Little Red Corvette" on the jukebox.

Now, those are some songs that make you want to move your body in dirty ways. After a few distracted games, we'd head to the cemetery by my house and engage in heavy petting until 11:55, because my curfew was 12:00, not 12:01, young lady. Sunday mornings I'd wake up feeling like Vilonia's biggest Jezebel, swearing never to engage in heavy petting again until I was married--a resolution I broke over and over.

To this day I maintain the confused respect for Christianity I acquired in my youth. So on this Easter Sunday, 600 miles from family with nothing to do and nothing to wear, what I really wanted to do was hear some gospel music. But I was on the horns of a dilemma, as they say in Vilonia. I couldn't just barge into somebody's church, tainting the group's quest for spiritual fulfillment with my desire for musical entertainment. So I looked through the paper and decided to do the next best thing: I put on my black velvet shirt and spent Easter Sunday at the Dick's Last Resort gospel brunch. But not before I called and asked about the dress code.

When I walked in a large man with a shaved head--let's call him Dick--looked at me and said, "Are you solo today, on Easter?" When he realized I was, he gave me a bear hug I can still feel. I didn't need sympathy until Dick gave it to me. It was a warmer reception than I had ever received as a guest at the Joy Bus church, and it was at that point that I remembered that this was one of those places where they're supposed to be rude to you. I realized that I appeared to be too pitiful to be subjected to the Dick's shtick.

"I'm here for the music," I said, extricating myself. Dick theatrically ushered me to a table in the front near the stage and called to wait staff as far away as the kitchen, "HEY, THIS YOUNG LADY IS HERE ALONE ON EASTER; LET'S GET HER SOME SERVICE!"

I thought about leaving, but decided that would draw even more attention. Whenever I visited a church in Vilonia, I lived in terror that the preacher might call me out: Brothers and sisters, we have a visitor with us today--Melissa, why don't you stand up so we can see you darlin'. Let's all welcome this poor heathen child, whose parents don't take her to church, and let's all say a prayer for her that she'll find it in herself to wear longer dresses and finish the beget section.

I buried my head in the book I'd brought to Dick's and fought a sudden urge to cry as brunching families wandered in and out. The band, two female singers and three male musicians, was late getting started, and Dick followed the organ player around as he was setting up, complaining about the tardiness. Dick was largely ignored. One singer was wearing a miniskirt, and the other was smoking a cigarette. Both were all woman, heavily made-up, with long red fingernails. They flirted madly with the musicians, prancing and preening like big flamboyant birds, cajoling the men into getting a move on. Finally they did an a cappella rendition of "The Old Rugged Cross," silencing the room with their beautiful voices.

On the Joy Bus, we also used to sing a song called "You Can't Get to Heaven in a Putt Putt Car," which had a verse that went:

Oh you can't get to heaven

(Oh you can't get to heaven)

In powder and paint

(In powder and paint)

'Cause the Lord don't want

('Cause the Lord don't want)

You what you ain't

(You what you ain't)

Oh you can't get to heaven in powder and paint

'Cause the Lord don't want you what you ain't

Ain't gonna grieve my Lord no more!

You couldn't get to heaven in a putt putt car 'cause a putt putt car don't putt that far, and you also couldn't get to heaven with hippy hair, 'cause the Lord don't want that mess up there.

There was a howling baby near the front row of Dick's, and one of the singers kept commenting on the noise, saying, "Yeah, he's singin' today, ain't he! He's got the spirit! You sing it, baby!" even though it sort of looked like the kid was giving her a headache. The band took requests for the Staple Singers and Al Green and even Ray Charles's "Hit the Road Jack." Adolescent white girls in big floral Easter dresses and white shoes held hands and danced in front of the stage, and older couples bobbed their heads and clapped their hands.

The black velvet felt light across my shoulders, and I sent good thoughts back to Vilonia.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.

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