I have never known a time when God was not in my life. He was a foreboding presence from my first memory. God was everywhere, critically watching everything. I never questioned his existence. Not the way I did Santa when I realized there was no chimney in my house for him to come down. There may have been no Santa, but God was absolutely real.
I grew up going to Pentecostal churches with my mother and my younger brother. First in D.C., where I was born, and later in Philadelphia, where I lived from the time I was nine until I went to college. My father believed in God but saw no need to go to church.
In both cities, my church was predominately black. You dressed up for service. Men in suits, women in dresses — never pants. The adult women like my mother typically wore lace coverings that looked like doilies over their hair.
The differences between denominations were confusing for me at that time. I just knew Pentecostals to be a lively group. We sang a lot, danced a lot, ran around the church a lot and stayed in church – a lot. A lot, a lot. At least until two in the afternoon, and sometimes we went back at night.
Sunday mornings would dawn with dread because God and church were a constant source of guilt and fear for me. Sunday School could be fun and time would fly, but church lasted foooorever. Sermons weren’t just messages of believing in and accepting Jesus but the importance of doing it right now because he was coming back soon and very soon. My little kid’s imagination went wild with what that could look like, the doom constantly looming.
When the preaching concluded, congregants were invited to go to the front to join, get saved or maybe to ask for prayer or baptism. All the ministers, deacons and deaconesses would line up in front of the pulpit, stretching from one side of the church to the other, hands held out palms up to invite whoever was willing. The choir was on its feet, sometimes singing a soft melody, sometimes making a joyful noise depending on the mood of the moment. From the pulpit, the pastor entreated. Descending to the floor, he paced, seeking to reach those in the congregation who were quietly teetering on indecision. And we, the congregation, would stand, moving out of the way of and cheering anyone brave enough to go.
To me, this was a moment of trepidation, and I couldn’t have told you why. Watching people go up made me feel like I had to as well. People would ask for healing or to receive the Holy Spirit, so the preacher would simply touch the congregant’s forehead in Jesus’ name. Then the recipient would fall into someone’s waiting arms, eventually coming to rest on the floor. Sometimes they were passed out. Sometimes they were crying or thanking Jesus repeatedly as they shouted. They might run and jump as they felt moved. Typically, they spoke in tongues. With music leading the way, the energetic display of gratitude could go on a long, long time.I felt like a failure for not being able to do what I thought everyone who was saved should be able to do. I watched the activity around me, and I wondered if I would ever do that too. If I didn’t, did it mean I wasn’t saved after all?
The ongoing source of my contention was around the Holy Ghost. It seemed that to receive the spirit of God meant that you would automatically speak in tongues, a language only understood by God or someone who had the gift of interpretation. Everyone around me seemed to be doing it. But I never could. I wouldn’t pretend to do it like some kids would. I waited to see if the Spirit actually came upon me like the adults said it would. It never did. I felt like a failure for not being able to do what I thought everyone who was saved should be able to do. I watched the activity around me, and I wondered if I would ever do that too. If I didn’t, did it mean I wasn’t saved after all?
College was my chance to break away from all that stress. There were no guilt trips for not going to church. Still, the idea of a disapproving God kept me from doing most things one might normally try in college. That was probably a good thing.
It wasn’t until I had moved to Connecticut for my first full-time job that I had the desire to return to church. During one of my weekly hair appointments, I met an older woman who had the sweetest spirit. She invited me to her Baptist church, which I instantly thought would feel stiff and traditional based on prior experience at such a place. But when I visited this new Baptist church, I was amazed. It felt just like the Pentecostal churches I had grown up in, with their spirited singing, preachers with moving messages that built up to a crescendo and got the congregation on their feet. Yet they weren’t the same at all. The pressure and guilt weren’t there. These people greeted me with loving acceptance from the moment I stepped into their doors, and I was…comfortable. I joined right before they hired a brand new, young pastor. He was congenial and relatable. His wife had a certain glow and a genuine smile for everyone. I found out she was from Philadelphia and had graduated from my high school. That sealed it — I belonged.
For years, I worked in my church home in my spare time. I volunteered in the office. Because I worked for a newspaper, I ran the church newsletter. My friends and I became this group that supported the pastor however we could, and we had fun doing it. There was no judgment; it was just life.
I learned much from my pastor and in this church. Eventually, I came to understand that speaking in tongues is one of God’s many gifts and my not having that particular one meant just that. I did not have THAT gift. But I did have others, and I learned what they were. This church and my true gifts fit as effortlessly as the right pair of Sunday shoes.
My relationship with God was maturing, my faith becoming certain. Things weren’t so black-and-white anymore. You weren’t necessarily holy because you did what the church expected, nor were you automatically on the list for Hell just for bad thoughts. I have come to believe that even hot-button issues like homosexuality and abortion aren’t so clear cut.
I was seeing God for myself, while alone in nature or talking to him as I drove, instead of through the eyes of a child. Church still mattered, but in other ways I was feeling more connected.
All that said, it’s been a while now since I’ve gone to a Sunday service. About five years, I think. At first, it was due to changes at my job that took up so much of my time. Eventually, I just wanted to sleep for one day without an alarm going off. It’s important to me that my kids have a strong spiritual foundation. So I talk about God, use lessons taught in the Bible to explain some things, and they know they can go to church whenever they want, but I try not to place an unnecessary burden in their lives. I never wanted them to feel browbeaten. Instead, I pray for God to just prove himself to them like he did me.
These days, while Jesus remains key for me, I say there are many ways to know God. I think of that old saying about the blind men and the elephant. They each feel their part and think they understand the whole, but there is much more beyond their senses; ways to find God beyond church membership, like in our talents and interests. I have always had a general interest in astrology and numerology because of just how much they seemed to explain people and things with eerie accuracy. Could it be that some people had learned to see method in the madness of the stars he created? What about numbers? They hold meaning for the church too. Three is holy. Seven is the number of completion. There is just one God. It seems possible to me that God as we understand him is in more places – and more people – than our limited minds can conjure. I find that comforting.
Maybe I will just keep talking to God on my own and looking for Him in unexpected places. Maybe I will eventually decide I should go back to church regularly. I don’t know right now. I am just open to wherever God takes me. A high school friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that she’d read the Bible in a year. What a timely idea, to read the Bible cover to cover, with no one to interpret anything for me. So I will. I wonder what God will reveal.