Two weeks ago, my boyfriend suggested we attend a Baptist church on a Sunday morning. Grown from seeds sown in the bible belt, I shrugged back into a Tennessee mindset and thickened my skin in preparation for the fire and brimstone.
Dragged into services by assorted old people, friends, and old friends, I have felt the heat from the pulpit before. I have sat in the third pew and felt the spit of the preacher speckle my cheeks, watched his arms wave frantically as he denounced equality for the minorities that I am, cringed as he shook his flabby cheeks in an effort to show that Jesus was expelling himself through his crusty mouth. I wrapped my skirt around my finger until it wrinkled into purple, and marveled about how much it resembled the preacher’s face on Sunday morning. Sitting dutifully in the house of the Lord, I silently checked out the Christ-stuffed girl whose hips were swaying to the hymn on page 12 of the book I didn’t even have open. If swinging both ways is a sin, I was prepared to be a sinner. I wondered if the preacher would have thought me past the point of salvation.
Seven hundred miles north of the bible belt, I walked into the first Baptist church I’d ever entered by choice. Feeling my chest tense against the yet unspoken word of God, I shuffled on tentative legs and placed myself properly within reach of the angry outpouring of salvation I was prepared to feel battering my face like the preacher’s spit.
I watched the old woman in front of me. Her head shook uncontrollably as if just keeping it upright forced her nearly into exhaustion. Her spider-veined fingers tapped the tops of her thinning thighs in beat with the hymn on page twelve of the book that finally lay open on my lap. I wrapped my skirt once again around the end of my fingers and they purpled as they should – but the preacher’s face never did. Slow speaking in a riveting bearded baldness I couldn’t feel Jesus creeping into my bones but his words hit my cheeks like poetry and the crosses carved into the walls never seemed to be trying to carve themselves into my forehead.
I left as I came in: a godless heathen riddled with Tennessee street-corner guilt, throat stuffed full of bible verses and skin thickened to withstand the eternity they had saved for me. But seven hundred miles north of the Appalachian country-side I never felt the heat from the pulpit and the preacher’s eyes never saw satan behind my dilated pupils. As I learned to brace myself against the heavy walls of bible-belt bible-thumping, I had denounced religion in a haze of hatred and had built up my own supply arm-waving fire and brimstone. That street-corner guilt had filled the dusty spaces beneath my own rebellious teenage purple-faced atheist preaching and I was afraid to admit that I had accepted the eternity the bible belt had saved for me. I left the first Baptist church I’d ever entered by choice as I came in: a bisexual, pot-smoking, godless heathen. But for the first time, seven hundred miles north of the bible belt, I no longer felt like I needed to be saved.