by Kayla Michelle Smith
One Friday each fall, Missionary Baptist girls from all over the state of Mississippi were excused from school to journey in their church vans to the cabins of Camp Garaywa for the annual Girls Missionary Auxiliary overnight retreat, which was kind of like the Missionary Baptist Church Association’s version of Girl Scouts. Starting in fourth grade, girls completed one step of the GMA program each year through the end of high school. We began as Maidens, and then progressed up through Ladies, Ladies-in-Waiting, Princesses, and then finally the Queen steps: Queen, Regal Queen, Imperial, Superior, and Sovereign. For the rest of the year, we met at church every Wednesday night to scribble the answers to the fill-in-the-blank questions in our Bible-study workbooks and memorize passage after passage of scripture. The annual overnight retreat was the pinnacle of our efforts, the unofficial transition from our current program step on to the next, and most importantly, the only night of the year we got to spend with our friends in a cabin away from home. Since my mom often went as a chaperone as soon as my older sister began the program, I got to attend the retreat years before I was even old enough to be a participant. There were few things in the world I was more excited about than being old enough to start GMAs and few nights of the year I looked forward to more than the retreat.
Between our arrival and the evening worship service, we’d have arts and crafts, dinner, and then reconvene in the cabin to put on our favorite dresses and fix each other’s hair. At the service, we sang hymns and a preacher gave what felt like a never-ending sermon. Sometimes a guest missionary would speak. We’d recite together our AIM (a pledge promising to keep our minds centered on the Lord, to keep our bodies as temples of God, and to help Missionary Baptist Churches spread the gospel), Allegiance, and Star Ideals, vowing that we would “ever seek to dwell in the realm of prayer, Bible study, faith, love and service.” I didn’t know much about personal Bible study, service, or what my body being a “temple” meant, but I knew these rituals were important.
During fifth grade, Camp Garaywa was booked for another event, so our GMA retreat was in a different camp for the first time with what I assume were different organizers. During our evening service, there was a praise band — something I’d never seen before — with acoustic guitars and a drum set. We sang a few contemporary praise songs, lively in comparison to the traditional hymns we usually sang with only piano accompaniment and the lyrics of which we’d known for much longer than we’d been able to read them in the hymnal. We swayed to the soft drum beat and guitar rhythm. Some of the girls from other churches clapped their hands. We hadn’t known before that worship music could be fun.
Mrs. Ruth*, one of my church’s GMA Bible study teachers, had come with us as a chaperone. She was probably in her mid-60s, made of sharp angles, and had tall white hair that reminded me of a bird’s crown. She waited until the service was over to tell us that our behavior was ungodly and sinful, and that we should be ashamed of ourselves. Mrs. Ruth lived her life by the scripture that she surely knew better than we did, and maybe better than any other person alive, so who were we to argue? We stood, somber and guilty, just as we did on the Wednesday nights at church when she scolded us for wearing shorts in the house of God, telling us that young ladies were to wear skirts or dresses.
Mrs. Ruth asked us to go around the circle and take turns confessing what we’d done and why it was wrong. Singing the song “Jesus Party” turned out to be our biggest transgression. We each took our turn saying that Jesus was not a party.
The music wasn’t the only problem. That year, the pastor preached with a contemporary translation of the Bible, and during service the next morning, a magician was supposed to perform a magic show. My mom, who’d also come with us as a chaperone, watched Mrs. Ruth demand our confessions, feeling as uncertain and confused as we were. She’d liked the music and didn’t think anything was wrong with our swaying. But she had no experience with other translations of the Bible, and she didn’t know exactly what the Bible said about magic being evil, so she didn’t feel like she could defend us. I don’t remember feeling guilty. I also don’t remember feeling like Mrs. Ruth was wrong.
Mrs. Ruth demanded that we leave early the next day before the morning service. That was the last year I went to GMA camp. My sister, Whitney, left that church for another one a few months later, and I joined her as soon as I was old enough to start the youth group at the end of sixth grade. That same year, my mom joined us in an effort to be supportive. My dad continued to collect the offering each Sunday at our old church, appalled at our betrayal. It was a couple of years before he joined us, too. At our new church, Whitney and I sang in the youth choir, where we were encouraged to sway and clap all we pleased.
Things I learned in my first 14 years attending church:
- How to find any verse in the Bible in less than 10 seconds
- How to recite the 66 books of the Bible in order
- How to memorize and perfectly recite dozens of chapters and hundreds of verses of the King James Version of the Bible
- Every word to several dozen hymns, especially if the hymn was over a hundred years old and featured a lot of “Thee’s” and “Thou’s”
- That homosexuality is a disgusting sin for which one deserves the fires of hell
- That interracial marriage is unnatural and against the will of God (according to scripture, they say — though no one can tell you what scripture)
- That abortion is murder
- It’s not important to know anything about politics, but if anyone asks, you definitely vote Republican
- The world is a terrible place and we all deserve punishment
- How to feel guilty about everything
At my new church, I joined a Bible study class for 8th grade girls. Our group leader, Claire, was a senior with blonde hair and the whitest teeth I’d ever seen. She was captain of the cheerleading squad and had won the Junior Miss Pageant title for the county the previous year. What this Bible study actually entailed was a lot of boy-talk. During a few meetings, we each wrote letters to our future husbands about how we were “waiting patiently for them.” This necessitated the assumption that we would all have future husbands, which didn’t seem to strike anyone as particularly presumptuous at the time. During one meeting, Claire brought her boyfriend, Matt, and had us write anonymous “boy questions” on slips of paper for him to answer. How often do guys really think about sex? How can you tell if a boy likes you? Matt must have been 17 or 18 at the time, which seemed old, but not old enough that I didn’t feel humiliated on his behalf. He was quiet and avoided eye contact as he answered our questions. I don’t remember writing any.
During a weekend retreat that spring, our youth leader, Dan, preached about the sin of sexual desire. He told us about the time that the sin of lust overcame him, but all I could really parse out of the story was that he kissed his high school girlfriend while they were watching TV alone. Is he censoring it, I wondered, or have I missed something? We signed abstinence pledges that weekend, as I had before and would many times after that at various other camps and retreats.
Making promises made me nervous. How could anyone know how they’d feel in a year? In five years? What if you changed your mind?
During another retreat, Dan spoke about repentance and forgiveness, which prompted an intense two hours of public confessions. One of my classmates admitted to cutting herself. A guy I didn’t know confessed that he’d attempted suicide. One of the most popular senior girls stood. Her friends in the pew next to her and behind her pressed closer for support. “I never told anyone,” she said. “At a party last year, I got really drunk, and I … and …” Her friends reached out to squeeze her hand or touch her shoulder. “… I lost my virginity. And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” And then she was buried by the mob of friends embracing her in a weepy and impenetrable group hug. I watched from a few rows behind her. Who was the guy? I wondered. What did it feel like? Did you like it? Does he regret it, too?
I couldn’t relate to any of it. At 15, sex was so far outside of my reality that it may as well have belonged to a different species. The church taught me almost everything I knew about sex — that it was a frightening, sacred, and consuming thing that had the ability to destroy a person emotionally, a dark form of magic to never stray near until after your wedding ceremony. This seemed obvious to me. My body was a “temple,” after all. Plus, I was too shy to talk to guys, much less to touch them, and it was hard for me to imagine that social anxiety going away.
Of course, I was fascinated by sex, in the same way that I was fascinated by all things mysterious and powerful. The Bermuda triangle. Hitler and his Nazis. Ouija boards. I saw what it did to my classmates — buried guilt so deep they could never dig it out. I was afraid of sex — afraid of any physical intimacy — but not as afraid as I was of regretting it.
Though most of my peers were raised Christian, not all of them stayed that way. It’s sometime during middle school or high school that the change often happens — the angst and cynicism and rebellion. Most of my classmates had a lapse in faith that lasted a few years before they found it again, even stronger than before. They flood social media now with Bible verses and prayer requests, pictures of their toddlers in matching pastel dresses for Easter Sunday, pictures of their husbands/boyfriends with captions proclaiming them “BLESSED!” But there are also those few who felt they were being brainwashed, completely denounced their faith, and never went back to it. They are angry still — presumably not at the God they no longer believe in, but at the family and culture that forced religion on them.
Curiosity was my own form of rebellion. In sixth grade at my old church, the Sunday School teacher told us we shouldn’t bring any version of the Bible that wasn’t the King James Version to church, because the other versions were written by “Satan worshippers.” But then who wrote the King James Version, I wanted to know. God did. No, but I mean, who physically wrote it, I asked. No one knew, and no one cared — God wrote it through people. It’s wrong to question or doubt. The lack of answers and the discomfort people had with the questions made me want to ask even more. My new church was less resistant to questions than my old one, but too many were still left unanswered. I developed an unspoken fear then that by the middle of high school had became too overwhelming to ignore — the fear that intelligence and faith were mutually exclusive. Church started to feel like a tedious ritual that only made me sad. If being a Christian meant succumbing to ignorance, then I didn’t want it anymore. I never admitted it aloud, but I quit going to church and tried to ignore the look on my parents’ faces when I told them I didn’t want to sing in the youth choir anymore, didn’t want to go with them on Sunday morning. I kept grasping at belief in God but let go of my belief in the church.
By the end of high school, I felt trapped in a protective bubble of homogenous thought where I felt I never really belonged in the first place, and I wanted out. I applied to colleges that emphasized creativity and individualism as much as knowledge. I got into Brown University, which embodied everything I wanted in a school, but also happened to be one of the most aggressively liberal universities in the country. It seemed like the world existed for people both at home in Mississippi and at Brown in black or white, and all I could see was gray.
When I saw men passing out Bibles near the entrance gate at Brown the next spring, I felt guilty. Some people stepped around them the way they would step around vomit on a sidewalk — averted eyes, pained expressions. Others openly sneered as they walked past. Surely these men knew they’d be laughed at when they made the decision to come here. They hardly spoke to passersby, just smiled meekly, miniature Bibles extended in wrinkled hands. I stopped.
“I already have one in my room,” I told one man, “but thank you so much.” His smile didn’t change as he nodded, “God bless you,” and I walked away feeling guilty for not taking it — guilty for my classmates’ scorn, guilty because I knew he didn’t believe me.
In fact, I had four Bibles. Two were at home in Mississippi — the leather one my grandmother gave me for my 12th birthday and the one my church gave me for graduation, both engraved with my name in silver. The one I actually brought out in public was my copy of The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings for my New Testament class. And there was the one I didn’t show people because it made me look like a religious fanatic — the one I read in its entirety in 9th grade, encased in an aqua, flowery Bible cover and highlighted with so many different colors it looked like an 8-year-old tried to decorate every page, with notes in the margins from various summer camps and weekend retreats.
My favorite of those summer camps was called Centrifuge, which for several decades has been considered the official youth summer camp of the Southern Baptist Convention. The staff and band members at each of the 20 or so camp locations are practically celebrities in the Southern Baptist bubble. I attended Fuge for the first time the summer after seventh grade on the campus of Mississippi College, a Baptist college near Jackson. It was the first church camp I’d been to since the disastrous overnight GMA retreat, and for my 13-year-old self, nothing could have been more life changing. The worship services were like concerts, complete with the cute band members that all the girls spent their free time trying to find and take pictures of. The staff members were in their 20s, tan from two months of mega-relays and ultimate frisbee, outgoing, confident, and happier than anyone I’d ever seen. I was happy there, too. I imagined attending Mississippi College (which I assumed must feel like Centrifuge year-round) and being a Fuge staffer in the summers. The campers would love me because I would be effortlessly cool and not care about it. I would no longer have crippling social anxiety. I would fall in love with one of my fellow staffers and be this happy forever.
A year later, my sister Whitney did go to Mississippi College. She worked at Centrifuge as a staff member and then as assistant director for six years. While on staff at Mississippi College, she met her now-husband. They still live near the college, which is coincidentally in the neighborhood where we used to attend the GMA retreat. She chose the life I once thought I wanted.
Things I believed I should feel guilty about before I went to college:
- Any impure (aka sexual) thoughts, curiosities, desires
- Questioning/doubting God
- Not loving people enough
- Loving the wrong people
- Disappointing my parents/family
- Leaving them to go to Brown
- Refusing to go to church
- Feeling guilty
My friends at Brown were atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers — and they assumed I was, too. People rarely asked me what I believed, and I didn’t know what I would have told them if they had. Calling myself a Christian didn’t feel accurate when I resented every connotation that came with the word. I didn’t want to be pegged as a judgmental and righteous prude. But I wasn’t sure I could face the guilt of refuting it, either. If I’d had strong beliefs, I wouldn’t have cared if they were ridiculed. If I didn’t have beliefs at all, I could have defied my upbringing completely. But I was always existing between things, always half part of them, always on the periphery ready to step back.
While shopping for classes during my second semester at college, I wandered into the first humanities class I found during a spare hour between two other classes — a religious studies class on the New Testament and the beginnings of Christianity. During the first half hour, I learned several things: 1) I knew more about the text of the New Testament than anyone else in the room. 2) I also seemed to know more theology than anyone else in the room. 3) I knew almost nothing else.
The class would be reading the gospels and Paul’s epistles in the New Testament as well as related texts that weren’t part of the Biblical canon — gospels that had been left out, texts dating from the same time period that had recently been discovered, controversial texts that theologians had no idea what to do with. The class had hardly anything to do with theology and was instead about history — when the books were written, who the authors were, their context in history, discrepancies and contradictions in translation, how “The Bible” came to mean this particular collection of books instead of others, and historical truths that would disprove and discredit much of theological belief. These were answers I’d sought for a decade. I registered for the class that day, ravenous for as much as I could get.
“I’m worried about those religion classes,” my mom told me on the phone when I rambled for too long about what I’d learned that day. “I’m worried those people are putting weird ideas in your head.” Those people. Those atheists.
“I’m not interested in believing anything that can’t stand up to questions,” I finally told her. She was horrified.
The next semester, I talked my way into an advanced senior seminar about Gnosticism and religious diversity in early Christian history. I spent the semester in coffee shops with stacks of ancient texts and Bible translations writing exegeses of the Gnostic texts discovered in Nag Hammadi in 1945. The following year, I took a senior/graduate seminar on the origins of western philosophy. I met with the head of the religious studies department to talk about declaring religious studies as my second major and to ask about Ph.D. programs in early Christian history.
“Why don’t you find a church you want to go to up there?” my mom would ask. Because I want this instead, I thought. Because I’d learned more about Christianity in three years of secular study than I had in 18 years at church. I hadn’t known I’d been running from anything until I realized I wasn’t running anymore.
During college, I worked for two summers in Rome, where I walked for miles down the Via Appia Antica to tour catacombs that once hid the bodies of martyrs. I went to a different Roman church every day — Santa Maria in Trastevere, the first place of Christian worship in the city; the Pantheon, converted from a temple to a church in 609 AD; St. Peter’s Basilica, where Saint Peter is buried. I found a kind of validation in the crumbling buildings. This was history I could see and not just read about. It’s possible for knowledge to inform faith, I realized. Not eradicate it. What I still couldn’t reconcile was the guilt.
I didn’t taste alcohol until I turned 21. I saw a naked man in person for the first time when we did figure drawing in my freshman art class in college. I was afraid of physical intimacy even though I craved it. I was intensely private about the things I still feared regretting. I became an expert at evading the truth without lying. I stopped feeling the familiar jolt of surprise when my professors used profanities in class, but they still weren’t part of my own vocabulary. College was the first place I’d ever met Jews and Muslims and people who practiced religions I knew even less about, and I couldn’t make sense of the superiority I’d been taught I was supposed to feel — that my beliefs were right and theirs were wrong. By senior year I felt less guilty about toeing the imaginary line of what I had been told was immoral, and instead I felt ashamed by my lack of guilt.
The delineation of faith and intellect continued throughout college and graduate school. One of my grad school professors spent an entire lecture berating Christianity.
“This book is a great success among us unbelievers,” he said. Us. “Intellectuals aren’t religious,” he told us. “Religion equips you with a kind of knowledge, but a false knowledge. Lack of religion frees you of false consolations — it’s a more reliable criteria of truth to live your life by.” It never occurred to him that anyone might disagree.
I was amused during class, but also defensive. Of my family, mostly, but also of myself. And then there was the guilt — there were truths behind his stereotyping. I made some of the same criticisms of Christianity myself, even though I didn’t want him to make them. I’d left one kind of persecution only to find another.
During my last year of graduate school in New York, I started having chronic pain that no doctor had answers for, and which caused anxiety that was equally debilitating. After hundreds of dollars of lab work, scans, physical therapy, muscle relaxers, and benzodiazepines, I felt like I’d run out of options, so I canceled all my doctors appointments and went to church. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for.
I went to a small church in the East Village that sang hymns and reminded me of home. I went to a larger church that met in the ballroom of a hotel next to Penn Station. I signed up to go to one of their small groups during the week in an effort to make friends. The first email I received from the group leader told us where to meet for that week’s “servant evangelism.” I cringed. Servant. Evangelism. I imagined passing out pamphlets on the street and proselytizing. I had no interest in pushing something personal on anyone who didn’t want it. I never went to the group.
I went to a megachurch so large that thousands of people waited in lines that wrapped all the way around the block for each of their eight Sunday services. The church met in whatever venue they could find that could hold the congregation — ballrooms, theaters, dance clubs. I went to the Sunday morning service in a theater in Times Square where I had to walk through a metal detector and have my purse checked to get inside. There were no more empty seats, so an attendant directed me to an area of the bottom floor where a crowd was sitting on the ground. The congregation contained both celebrities and people who hadn’t showered in two weeks. A professional light show accompanied the praise band’s music, the lyrics of which were displayed on multiple jumbotrons throughout the room. People around me screamed the lyrics, danced, cheered, and wept with what I presume was joy. After the music, the pastor came onto the stage for the sermon. He was in his mid-thirties and looked like he had stepped out of a Rolling Stone photoshoot. His tank top displayed his chest, and his leather jacket covered the tattoos on his arms. He stood onstage with the band, and I’d never seen so much leather in one place. He was magnetic. The sight of him would have made Mrs. Ruth’s heart stop.
Was this closer to what I wanted? Had it been my subconscious goal to hang onto faith while getting as far away as it would allow me to get from the brand of Christianity that existed in those cabins in the woods? I left before the service ended so I could beat the crowd to the subway. Just as I would the next week.
*Note: Most names in this essay have been changed.
Kayla Smith grew up in South Mississippi but spent the past decade living in Rhode Island, New York, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C. She received her Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University and her Bachelor of Arts from Brown University. Her work has appeared in The Toast, Deep South Magazine, Allegory Ridge, and Gravel.
Featured image courtesy Leland Francisco.