PART ONE – HOW ABOUT WE JUST DON’T GO?
The generic iPhone alarm tone blared from across the room at promptly seven-thirty, disrupting my dreamless sleep and urging me to leave the warmth of my blanket cocoon.
“I’m not going,” Hannah groaned and rolled over. In my grogginess I could not agree more, but I reset the alarm for eight in case she changed her mind. As soon as I set the phone down, I immediately passed out again. Staying up past three in the morning had been a poor choice, but Hannah and I had been designated drivers that night and had gotten back late. We also couldn’t help but stay up talking for a little while – after all, we hadn’t seen each other in two months, and now I was finally home.
When I awoke to the second alarm, Hannah was just getting out of the shower. We were still just as tired, but we forced ourselves to get dressed and ready. I put on a black dress and tights, brushed my hair, and touched up yesterday’s makeup; she decided on a dressy mint-colored top, a white cardigan, jeans, and flats. As we were finishing up, Hannah’s mom came in her room to tell us to hurry and to warn Hannah to be nice to her grandma.
“But I hate her,” Hannah responded, annoyed at the thought of spending the morning with a woman who had always tried to force her religion on others, including Hannah. I had never been around Nancy, but Hannah had told me plenty of stories.
“Hannah! Don’t say that. You don’t hate her,” Tammie, Hannah’s mother, scolded. “Maybe church will do you some good.”
“Fine. I despise her then,” Hannah muttered, rolling her eyes. We were all laughing though, including Tammie.
A couple weeks previously, Tammie had gone to visit her dad and stepmother, and the women had gotten into an argument. Nancy told Tammie that being homosexual is a sin and that gay people will go to hell. Tammie argued that her lesbian best friend, Veronica, served her country in the air force and is a good person, but Nancy said that didn’t matter. Tammie then asked if she herself was sinning by being friends with Veronica. Nancy’s response was, “If you aren’t trying to change her, then yes.”
This and other stories Hannah told me gave me a pretty good (but essentially inaccurate) idea of how to expect the day to go. I could just imagine Nancy acting all superior and making judgmental comments the whole time – her church friends would probably be just like her, too. I understood Hannah’s reluctance to go. We stalled for a bit longer – Hannah taking forever to put on mascara and refusing to go start her car – then finally headed over to her grandparents’ house.
PART TWO – PEOPLE DRIVE THIS FAR FOR CHURCH EVERY WEEK?
“So you’re writing a paper on church?” Roy, Hannah’s grandpa, asked me as I was getting into their red Explorer. I nodded but didn’t elaborate, and his response was “That’s really great. You’re in for a treat today. Today’s service is going to be special.” I felt a little guilty; I wasn’t going to church for the reasons he thought I was, and I didn’t plan on writing the kind of paper he probably imagined I would.
Hannah and I are in agreement when it comes to religion: we don’t have one. Neither of us believes in God, though we both used to at some point when we were younger. So it was funny to me that when I called Hannah a couple weeks ago and asked if she would go to church with me over spring break she said yes without hesitation or need of an explanation. Of course, I provided one anyway: I had been assigned to put myself in some sort of uncomfortable situation in order to write an essay about it, and what better source of discomfort for me than something involving religion? Hannah arranged the whole thing, asking her grandparents if we could go with them. Neither of us thought we would enjoy it in the least, but she didn’t mind going for my benefit.
We girls – Nancy, Hannah’s Aunt Amber, Shelby (Amber’s four-year-old daughter), Hannah, and me – rode in the Explorer behind Roy’s truck. Nancy didn’t seem evil to me. She was really friendly, making conversation and offering us tic-tacs. Amber put on some Adele, which Nancy and Shelby sang along to, providing some entertainment during the forty-minute ride. I understand that the selection of churches in our town is very limited, but driving the thirty miles to Traverse City seemed like a bit much; I assumed their church must be something special.
Sitting in the backseat, I leaned my head against the window and daydreamed a bit. Though I had been exhausted only twenty minutes before, I couldn’t doze off. I wasn’t anxious or concerned about going to church, just curious. I was mostly wondering what the church would look like and how different it would be from my previous experiences. When I was a lot younger – too young to form my own opinion about this stuff – I used to go with my friend Katie to her Catholic church occasionally (religion wasn’t very present in my family growing up, so church with Katie was sort of an adventure for me). I don’t remember much about it except for eating snacks and playing the piano afterwards. Hannah had told me that her grandparents’ church is nondenominational, but I didn’t know what insight that was supposed to provide; perhaps their church would be less formal or more accepting towards outsiders.
PART THREE – “WE’RE GOING TO HELL.”
When we pulled up, I was surprised by how nonthreatening the building and half-empty parking lot looked. As we made our way inside, I started to feel slightly nervous. I didn’t want to be forced into participating in anything – like singing or kneeling – that would make me feel uncomfortable. I guess I knew I would feel like a fraud doing those things. Acting or playing pretend in certain situations is one thing, but masquerading as religious simply to fit in would be taking it too far; I don’t like to lie.
The “service” turned out to be all singing. We sat through song after repetitive song with devotional lyrics sang by singer after mediocre singer (a couple ladies were quite talented, but for the most part it was like bad American Idol tryouts). The songs were just shy of being upbeat enough to keep me awake and focused. Hannah and I – and nearly everyone, it seemed – were completely bored. When the not-so-talented performers gave it a shot, everyone perked up a bit. I didn’t think we were that immature that we would laugh, but I looked over and saw another woman’s reaction – her face was a twisted combination of shock, disgust, and hilarity – just as Hannah glanced over too, and we couldn’t stop ourselves. Even Amber was stifling chuckles, though she scolded us for giggling.
At one point, Hannah and I wondered about Shelby and the other kids who were in the basement doing some sort of activity. We envied them for not having to sit through the uneventful musical.
“Why aren’t we downstairs with them?” I asked. “They probably have snacks.” We had been wondering all morning if her grandparents would take us out to breakfast after church and were starting to feel the pangs of hunger.
“Yeah, little brats. They probably have fucking cookies and juice!” Hannah whispered back in envy. We started laughing at the absurdity of what she said.
“Oh my god, we’re going to hell!” was my startled response, which made the laughter even worse.
Of course, I didn’t actually believe what I was saying. Even though no one had heard us, I felt a bit guilty and disrespectful, but then I wondered why I felt that way. It wasn’t that I felt I was disrespecting “God” in “his own house of worship,” since I don’t believe in any of that. I think those feelings of guilt, misbehavior, and impertinence in a situation like that were ingrained in me at a young age – there are just certain places you are supposed to be on your best behavior, and I’ve always been a good girl. I tried to decide that I was simply feeling rude towards the other churchgoers, but as they hadn’t heard, this wasn’t it. Perhaps it was the thought of what they would have thought had they noticed – I’m not really sure.
I wasn’t the only one to claim a destiny in hell; the woman whose face had ignited our initial laugher used the very same phrase. She (not a stranger, but the mother of girls Hannah and I went to school with) and Roy had been discussing one of the singers, who sounded like a wounded cat, and had probably made fun of her a little. I heard her tell him that they were going to hell, but also in a joking manner – she obviously didn’t believe what she was saying either. I didn’t feel as bad for jokingly claiming the same thing, but she and I believed what we were saying to be false for different reasons: she didn’t feel their “offense” was bad enough for an eternal fiery fate; I don’t believe in hell at all.
A few weeks earlier, the very subject of the afterlife had come up with my friend Diksha, who’s a few years younger than I am. She was texting me about a boy she likes and said she wished Jesus would “do her a solid.” I told her, “I don’t believe in Jesus. You should do yourself a solid.” At the time, I didn’t know she thought anything of it, but a couple days later, she broached the subject again.
“If you don’t believe in Jesus, what do you think happens to us after death?” was her text message. I told her I have no idea – there’s no way I could know – but that I think we just cease to exist, or best case scenario, death is like going to sleep, entering a dreamlike state. This then brought on a pretty in-depth discussion. She had been brought up in a Christian home, but she was beginning to question her beliefs. She then pondered, “But then I can’t think of who would just make up the bible. Why the heck would someone just make that stuff up?”
“It’s human nature to question our existence. Humans want a reason for everything. We don’t want to feel like we’re just here for no reason. So people believe that if there’s some sort of afterlife, that there’s a purpose to this life, that it’s just a stage before the next one. And people also want order. It makes sense that they’d come up with the bible that way they can sort of formulate a set of rules.” My response to her was really long, because this is something I feel strongly about: someone should not believe in God simply because the bible exists; I think if there is a God, he or she has nothing to do with this book the people created. Today, we know so much about science and evolution that believing the bible word for word would be foolish. If there is a higher entity, perhaps he or she created the universe or the world and let life form and evolve on its own.
PART FOUR – STICKY NOTES AND THE TROUBLES ON OUR HEARTS.
During the hour-and-a-half service, a lady had announced that we could come up to take communion whenever we wanted, “whenever God led us to do so.” She also told us about the cross they had brought with them. They had sticky notes and pens available for people to write their concerns or worries – whatever was “on their hearts” – and stick to the cross. A group of people would later read them and pray for whoever or whatever the notes were about.
“I feel like I should write one for Kassie,” I whispered to Hannah. Kassie, a girl who had graduated a year before us and an old friend of mine, was recently diagnosed with stage four Lymphoma at age nineteen.
“Do it!” Hannah responded.
“No, I can’t,” I said, surprised that she wanted me to. “That would be weird.”
“Why? I think you should.” Her encouragement was futile; I did not approach the altar.
For some reason though, I had the desire to share Kassie’s story, via sticky note, with these strangers so that they might pray for her. But what power is there in prayer when they would be praying to no one? Obviously I myself would not be praying for her, but why should I have the momentary wish that others would? I didn’t want to write something down and put it on the cross because, again, it was something I don’t believe in. Something about being around all those people that were so sure that God would help them and answer their prayers made me think that telling them about Kassie would somehow do her some good. I thought if they just had her in their thoughts, not necessarily their prayers, that it might help.
But what really is the difference between hoping that someone gets well and praying for it? Isn’t having faith in some God nearly the same thing as being hopeful? Who am I talking to when I make a wish at eleven-eleven or when I’m about to check my exam results and say “Please let me get an A” under my breath?
Though no one “preached,” a couple people occasionally spoke over the choir when there wasn’t a soloist singing. We were encouraged to get on our knees, told that it would do us some spiritual good to show that kind of devotion and humility (this was one of those activities I did not want to participate in, but neither did anyone else in our group, it seemed). One guy, a grown man, practically threw himself across the stairs of the altar, head down and arms outstretched to communicate some intensely emotional message. Witnessing him break down like that, seemingly begging to be heard, was somewhat unnerving. During this part, Amber snuck up and got communion, kneeling up there herself for a moment or two.
Towards the end of the service, we were told that a couple pastors and other people would be available at the front for us to talk to about whatever concerns were “on our hearts” (she seemed to use this phrase a lot), while the choir sang some more in the background. Our group remained seated, watching both the people telling their problems and the listeners break down into tears. I couldn’t imagine telling one of these strangers my innermost thoughts and troubles, but it was nice to think that they were willing to listen and be there for us if we needed. Not many people actually want to hear the stories of complete strangers and offer support.
PART FIVE – “OUR CHURCH IS FULL OF WEIRDOS.”
Soon enough, we were filing out of the pew, into the entrance room, and eventually into the two vehicles again. During the long ride home, Nancy explained to Hannah and me that their church, as small as it is, is starting a hotel and training center for unemployed people to obtain necessary job skills and that it’s a huge and expensive project. She said the pastor’s wife got word from God a few years ago that they should do this project, but that it wouldn’t happen until now. It didn’t look possible, but somehow it’s happening. Nancy said it’s God’s doing.
She pulled a brochure out of her purse and gave it to me, in case I wanted more information and access to the church website (this surprised me, but yes, they have their own website). The cover of the paper had tennis shoes all over it, which she explained had to do with their phrase of the year, “running shoes.” She told us that the pastor’s wife receives a word or phrase from God each year (the message about the hotel wasn’t just a one time thing), and that the church focuses on it. Last year it was “fasting,” so they alternated weeks of abstaining from different substances for the year. This year it’s “running shoes” because life is going to be moving quickly, such as with their new hotel project. I had to make an effort to keep the amusement and skepticism from my face.
Once back at Roy and Nancy’s, Hannah and I went inside and visited for another hour or so. They both apologized for how lousy the “special” service had been and explained that it usually consists of their pastor’s sermons (which are “quite wonderful to hear”) rather than song. Hannah, for obvious reasons, never goes to church with them, so they thought this experience would scare her away from ever wanting to go again.
“Sorry it wasn’t much. Are you still going to be able to write your paper?” Roy asked, sure that this event wasn’t usable. “You could come with us again next Sunday.”
“She’s leaving Sunday,” Hannah interjected.
“Oh no, it’s fine. I’ll still be able to write my paper,” I assured him. They continued to try to convince us to come back, trying to find a way to make it work with my schedule. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to come back, I just wouldn’t be able to make it. They settled for telling us a little more about how their church normally works.
“Our church is full of weirdos,” Roy started.
“Roy!” Nancy was appalled at this.
“What?” he rolled his eyes. “We’re weirdos.” Nancy then explained how their church accepts anyone and doesn’t discriminate. She assured us they aren’t weirdos, there’s just a variety of people who go.
“You girls didn’t take communion, did you?” Roy asked us suddenly. “Why didn’t you go up there? You should have.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t think to. We didn’t want to just walk up there by ourselves,” Hannah explained. Neither of us had wanted anything to do with that discomfort.
“If I would have been thinking, I would have taken you up with me.” He seemed really disappointed that he hadn’t thought to do so earlier. “Although,” he continued, “the last person I got communion for died.”
“What?!” Hannah laughed, shocked.
“It’s true,” Nancy added, matter-of-factly.
“It was time for communion, and they told us to get it for those who couldn’t do it themselves,” he explained. “And I knew I had to get it for this one lady, so I brought it to her. Then after the service, she thanked me for getting it. She asked me my name, and when I told her, she fell over dead!”
“I remember seeing her go kind of slack in her wheel chair as I walked by, but I didn’t think anything of it,” Nancy reflected.
“The last thing she heard before she died was my name!” Roy exclaimed. “From my mouth to her ears to God. Isn’t that something?”
“Maybe it’s a good thing we didn’t get communion with you then!” Hannah said, laughing but half-serious. We were completely stunned.
Eventually we got on the subject of miracles. One day, a man from their church, who depended on his wheelchair and could not walk at all, said he was going to walk home, that God told him he should. He got up from his wheelchair, freaking everyone else out, and slowly but surely walked the block or two to his house. According to Nancy, he got better for a while after that, but eventually his condition worsened again. Still, that he had walked at all was a gracious act of God.
At one point, Roy himself had injured his shoulder so badly that he couldn’t lift his arm above chest level. He was scheduled to have surgery, but it wasn’t for a few weeks. At Roy’s request, Nancy prayed over his shoulder, asking God to heal him, and sure enough, Roy was able to lift his arm normally after that. They called the doctors and canceled the surgery immediately.
They continued to tell us stories like these, and the hopefulness and complete faith in their voices was almost contagious. Hearing about these “miracles,” which were far more believable when they told them, made me wish I could believe in God. I would love to have the comfort of believing in something that wonderful and feeling sure I would go to heaven when I die, but I just can’t make myself accept those ideas. So much of what most religions claim to be true is just so far-fetched, and where is the proof? Maybe I’m just the type of person who needs to see something before I’ll believe it, which I guess most people would call a lack of faith. But faith and religion are made out to be completely synonymous, and many of religion’s main ideas contradict what I can see – science and evolution. If I could just separate faith and the belief in God from the stories that seemingly must go with it, maybe I could have my own kind of faith.
PART SIX – ARE YOU SURE YOU DON’T WANT TO SHARE MY BLANKET?
“I hate you,” Hannah muttered, as soon as I shut the passenger door. We had said our goodbyes and were on our way back to Hannah’s. Now that she had gone once, Nancy and Roy wanted her to accompany them to church more often, an idea she was not very fond of.
“I know. I’m sorry,” I laughed. As we drove, I reflected on the morning. I began to realize that, though it’s not something I contemplate daily, I’m content with my current lack of faith. Just one day of going to church – and not even a good day – opened my eyes to my already changing views. I still don’t believe in God, but I don’t have as much of a problem with religion – who knows, maybe it’s a possibility for me someday if I find one that doesn’t have faith so twisted with the typical impractical ideas of most.
“You know, I used to think I was a complete atheist,” I told her, “but now I don’t feel so strongly about it. I’m not as set against it as I was in high school.”
I think I used to despise the idea of anything religious because I was always around people who talked about it so matter-of-factly and were horrified and scared for me if they knew I didn’t believe. And telling an atheist that you’ll pray for them due to their lack of faith does not go over well. I didn’t necessarily have anything against religious people, but I felt an instant sense of relief if I found out someone was in the same boat as me, our boat most certainly not being an Ark.
“I know. Me neither. I don’t care that much anymore,” she agreed.
We got back to Hannah’s house and immediately headed to her room, both looking forward to the comfort of her ever-inviting bed. Curling up under the comforter, I thought about how a lot of people make religion into something it shouldn’t be. They act as if life is a cold winter night and religion is a heated blanket they want to use to cover everyone. If people focused more on their own relationship with “God” and their own faith rather than constantly being concerned over everyone else’s beliefs, religion and faith wouldn’t be so off-putting for people like me.
“I don’t think we need to worry about religion to be happy,” I mumbled to Hannah through a yawn and rolled over to get more comfortable. I have my own blanket, thanks, I thought, and I closed my eyes.
||Above: Hannah and me on awards night, senior year.Left: The actual church brochure Nancy gave me. (That’s right, the people and events of this story are real, for the most part.)
Below: The location of the story – the lovely Traverse City, Michigan.
Here is Pine Grove Church’s website.