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The church bus sat there at the end of the gravel driveway, the split doors spread wide and waiting for us to climb the three steps up into the inner madness of the Jesus transport.
My sister gave me a look (“Why do you always have to do really dumb-ass things that confirm your geekiness in front of my friends?”) and then she stomped up those stairs and immediately slipped into a seat containing two of said cool friends, both of them consoling her and patting her arms, murmuring that stupid brothers were the bane of civilization.
The bus driver glared at me impatiently as I hesitated at the door, not bothering to hide his dissatisfaction that yet another worthless urchin was holding up the child-gathering process and it would therefore be that much longer before he could dump us off at Bible School and then go drink whiskey behind the Ladies Auxiliary Memorial Fountain.
I gulped and somehow managed to send the correct neural signal to my legs, convincing my lower limbs that we had a mission to accomplish, however unsavory the task might be. I trotted up the steps and turned to look down the length of the bus, searching for either an empty seat or one that held occupants who had their own social issues and would welcome me in kindred spirit.
There was not such a seat to be found.
So I worked my way down the aisle until I found a possible place of refuge, a seat containing a young girl sporting a smock that had apparently been made out of a tablecloth manufactured somewhere around 1947. I smiled at her hopefully. She glanced at me briefly and then turned to study something nonexistent outside her window. This was not an outright refusal, so I quietly sat down beside her. The alcoholic bus driver ground the gears for a bit until he found a promising one, and the bus eventually rumbled down the hill.
Then the singing began.
At first, I wasn’t quite sure of what I was hearing. After all, it was a bus full of supposedly-Christian but still rowdy youth, and there’s always screeching in such circumstances. There are hundreds of conversations about this and that going on, creating a lot of white noise that can generally be ignored. But then the vocals and the lyrics became clear. Several people somewhere on the bus were tauntingly singing the same worship-based ditty that had inspired me to become Isadora Duncan whilst standing in the driveway of a country farmhouse.
I tried to ignore it initially, but you can only pretend for so long. Then my seat companion, she of the tablecloth modification, muttered quietly “Don’t pay any attention to them.”
I smiled at my seatmate, she continued to study things out the window, and the bus rolled on.
Of course, the teasing didn’t end with our drop-off outside the doors of the church. The doors of the bus had barely opened before the hooligans had raced to join up with the like-minded miscreants from the other collection vehicles, and I knew from the giggling and finger-pointing that this was not going to be a stellar day for me.
And it wasn’t. I couldn’t go fifteen minutes without some fool reminding me, with comments in the classroom and taunts on the playground, that I had done an incredibly girly thing and that my manhood was not only in question but it was firmly decided that I was a fag and that there was nothing but brimstone and some displeasing business about eternal flames in my future.
Good times, right? And I was maybe twelve years old.
But some growth came out of the experience. For one, it was the trigger point for me to begin questioning the concept of organized religion. How could people claim to love God and then be so cruel? Why was there so much hatred for people who were different? And that hatred seemed to be fortified by the fact that as long as you claimed to love Jesus, you could do whatever the hell you wanted to do to demonize people that you didn’t understand.
Heavy thoughts when you’re not even a teenager, fumbling through life in a state that didn’t yet allow progressive coffee shops where you could show up and release some of your anxiety through non-rhyming spoken-word poetry.
And the more serious aftermath of my exuberant pirouetting on a gravel driveway and the subsequent scarlet letter attached to my un-muscled breast? I decided to confront my Granny, and inform her that I had no plans to attend any further sessions of Vacation Bible School, come what may.
She was stunned, of course. I didn’t really tell her the true detail of what had transpired, only that I was having an issue with what was being taught and how it seemed that there was something missing in the whole situation. In a desperate attempt to seal the deal, because I knew I was in clearly uncharted waters and there would be unknown repercussions, I promised to read The Bible every night and try to learn on my own.
Granny, completely flummoxed by this turn of events (Who challenges the concept of Vacation Bible School, especially in right-wing Oklahoma?), decided to see how things would play out. But I damn sure better read that Bible, or somebody was gonna get a whippin.
So I did. From Page 1, struggling through all that Old Testament mess about the begatting and the apparent belief that lots of people in the olden days lived for several hundred years. (Why are people not living that long now?) And the increasingly complicated part where it becomes clear that women should be subservient to men, that any variance from doctrine means that people who don’t conform to such should be destroyed, and some random crap about the wearing of multi-fibered clothing means you are a sinner that can never be redeemed.
Really? Again with the mention of being twelve years old at the time.
To be fair, the New Testament was a bit more encouraging. You know, the part where Jesus actually shows up and starts sending emails to the faithful. You really should love one another, bottom line. Don’t be so quick to judge. Try to understand what everyone is going through, and then do what you can to make life better for all people on the planet. And hey, people in glass houses…
I’m guessing certain Republicans, with their insistence on destroying that which they don’t understand, never got to this part of the scripture. Maybe they have an outdated version of the Bible and forgot to turn on the “automatic updates” feature in their software.
I liked this concept of Jesus, I really did. I still had lots of questions, mainly about why all these other people who were clearly not Jesus were allowed to speak for him, especially when you get to that Revelations business that nobody truly understands, despite occasional self-imposed prophets who are firmly convinced that God wanted to destroy America with Hurricane Katrina because gay men dared to wear leather outfits in New Orleans.
I was befuddled, especially since the rumors of me being gay were actually true. I hadn’t told a soul at that point, but I knew it. Despite the people who scream “It’s a choice!”, it’s not. It just is.
Yet I didn’t share any of this with Granny. I simply explained that I was learning a lot with my daily Bible reading. Good stuff to ponder, sure was enjoying it, so glad you gave me this opportunity to approach scripture on my own.
Granny, of course, had other thoughts on the matter. Always mindful of her social position in the small town where she lived, she strove to counteract the fact that her grandson was not attending the requisite summer Bible Camp. (The horror!) She arranged for the daughter and son of a prominent local banker to spend some time with myself and my sister at her house, just to prove that we were dependable Christian offspring.
Granny went all out with this event, going so far as to create a dessert concoction that consisted of multiple layers of cherry and lemon gelatin, an extraordinary thing of great beauty for the time. The daughter of the banker, I believe her name was Cathy, joined me on a side porch of Granny’s abode, where the two of us could consume the sugar-based treat whilst out of range of our chaperones.
Cathy, slurping discreetly on the vibrant stripes of nectar: “So, you’ve stopped going to Vacation Bible School?”
Me, having no idea where this is going: “Well, yes. I was having a hard time with… well…”
Cathy: “I wasn’t singing on the bus that day. I would never do that.”
And thus the pendulum swung back. It’s not the people of strong faith who are the issue. It’s the weak people who subvert faith because they think it makes them strong. Slight grammatical variance, but a world of difference.
Cathy and I finished our dessert and just sat there for a bit, silently watching a small group of birds in a nearby tree, as they happily hopped around on branches and had no concept of being judged…