I went to church on the fourth of July. It was Sunday. It was only the third time I’d been, each time to the same church, Smyrna Baptist in Waterland, South Carolina. I did it to understand the impact it had on the life of the woman I love. She grew up in Waterland, a member of Smyrna Baptist, although a rebellious one.
Before I visited her family she told her mother not to expect me to go to church.
“Why not,” her mother asked?
“It’s not his way,” she said.
Claudia has a knack for avoiding controversy while telling the truth. She could have said, “He doesn’t believe in God,” “He’s not a Christian,” or “It offends him,” all of which would have been more or less true, but she boiled it down, poured it over the phone, and her mother’s could only reply, “oh.”
She’s done that to successfully keep me out of trouble throughout my visits to Waterland. Once, an older church member, having heard of our engagement, surprised us from the pew behind and volunteered a little advice. As she dug (what seemed like) a claw into my left shoulder, she uttered something about putting Jesus first. “Don’t ever forget,” she added. “I’ve been around a long time. I know what I’m talking about.”
“Thank you for the advice,” Claudia responded with a smile, while I hesitated, looking non-committal. She went away and I survived.
On another occasion, her grandfather, who didn’t know we were living together in Georgia, asked her if she was, “Batching it.” I didn’t know what that meant, but she knew, said, “it’s too expensive to live alone.” And that, apparently, was enough.
Why did I go to Church after being so skillfully relieved of the obligation? I guess it was because I was convinced to by my own over-analyzing, freethinking, self-defined open-mindedness. I had to take this opportunity to learn, lest I be close-minded myself.
In an attempt to see the positive side of it I created allegories in my mind: The Starship Enterprise encountering an exciting new civilization; A Native American religious ceremony, interesting because of the identity it gives to the people of another culture.
I don’t doubt that if the church members knew I was comparing their beliefs to space aliens, and pagans, they wouldn’t be pleased, still, suppose it help me to accept people’s differences by relating them to a completely imaginary and unreal television story?
That’s what Star Trek tried to do, after all, in my mind. But the idea of space travel is as unreal to this fundamentalist community as God has always been to me.
Megan, my wife’s 6 year old sister once asked me to confirm something she was learning in school, that the dinosaurs lived before people. “Yes they did,” I said. I thought that was a fact.
“Even Adam and Eve?” she asked. Now how am I supposed to answer that without stepping on toes?
“mm hmm,” I said.
In church, I found Waterland’s finest to be more interested in what others were doing than in the practice of religion. They looked towards the pews behind them, whispered to their church partners of forty years or so regarding who was there, who wasn’t there, and who did what in this small town, where everybody knew everybody.
The preacher’s son was a restless boy sitting to my left and up one pew. He made paper airplanes out of the Fourth of July church Sunday program. Ross Airplane was written on the side of one. I recognized his name. Ross was Megan’s boyfriend even though, she told me, a few other girls had already tried to steal him away.
Megan sat behind Ross, alternating between watching him, playing with her new baby cousin, and simply acting restless. In the end she went to sleep, sprawled out but centered upon her mother’s lap.
The sermon melted together the rhetoric of nationalism and religious evangelism. Preacher Zack used the fourth of July to extol the way things used to be. He echoed the Christian right’s call for a return to family values. He warned that we were moving away from being a “Christian” country. I wasn’t aware that we were one (See, I did learn something).
I couldn’t help being glad that Megan slept through it. Her mother explained away her sleepiness as due to staying up late listening to me read stories by Sandra Cisneros, an author who wrote from the perspective of a young Hispanic girl growing up in a poor neighborhood.
“Good stories,” Megan said.
The House on Mango Street, was her favorite, Hair, her “other favorite,” and Louie, His Cousin, and His Other Cousin, also her favorite.
But we weren’t up that late. I think she just didn’t find the book they were reading to her this day to be as interesting.