BY KAYLA BRANCH, JMC3023

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” — Matt. 25:35-36

When I was 12, I spent a week at the office desk in my childhood home practicing for an interview.

I wrote out my favorite Bible verses, completed the applications, printed my testimony, recited what I might say.

My youth group leader was interviewing the students in our Southern Baptist church who showed the most spiritual promise, leadership, drive to further the kingdom. Those selected would go to an exclusive religious summer camp – three services a day, three small group sessions a day and an hour of free time at night.

I would attend this summer camp for six years.

                                                                       —

“For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.” — 1 Cor. 11:8-9

My oldest sister is 16 years my senior. We look identical, have similar personalities, have a close bond. I remember her boyfriends, high school and college. But until much later in my life I didn’t learn that my youth group leader once pursued her.  

Heavily.

He lived in our small town and would call, show up at our house, corner her if they ran into each other.

How strange, that the man who is in the position to lead and teach a group of blossoming young people aggressively pursued my sister, knowing she was uninterested and uncomfortable.

The realization was gradual, but I noticed it all at once. Why do these males act entitled and feel like they have ownership of me? It probably has a little something to do with what they are taught in the church.

                                                                           —

“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” — Matt. 5:16

When I was 15 and a freshman in high school, it was my personal duty to minister to the other girls at school. But really just the popular girls, the pretty girls, the “successful” girls. The girls who “got it,” and just understood their place.  

So I hung out with these girls and brought them to church on Sundays and Wednesdays.

Subsequently, I had meetings with the leaders of the church on the spiritual well being of many other people who visited our youth group.

I was to be a light and an example, they told me. Jesus had blessed me and I was to use these blessings – a smart brain, a pretty face – to further his reach.

It’s OK to be promote yourself if you’re doing it in the name of God, they said.

So someone is supposed to look at me and realize how good of a person I am and then trace that back to the fact that I’m a Christian and want to know more? No, people don’t do that. They do see the network of whispers and comments and ostracization when they are reported to the pastors, though.

                                                                              —

“And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.” — Isaiah 30:21

People talked a lot about “being called by the spirit” and “feeling God’s presence” when I was growing up, but it never made sense to me. If God talked to people out loud in the Old Testament, why hadn’t he done it in modern human history since? Can you really know it’s God, or is it just your moral conscience telling you what to do?

“There are no morals without God,” my mom would say.

“What about all the good people who don’t believe in God?” I would respond.

An angry look usually ended that conversation.

But still, I never heard that voice my entire life. I tried and I prayed and I journaled and I sang and I read the Bible every day for a year.

Still nothing.

Once, during my year of earnest effort to live my life for the Lord, I even participated in a ritual at the special summer camp I went to where I dedicated my future to the service of the Lord. I was to go into ministry.

I stayed late after the main service ended and spoke with a special counselor who could help guide me during this moment of heavenly movement. I filled out a card and received a devotional packet to study and to send in when I completed the various questionnaires.

Everyone told me how wonderful it must be to have heard and answered the call of God.

I was really thinking this might be the best way to travel and sing in front of large crowds as a Christian musician. I never sent in that packet.

Why would a person pretend to hear something or feel something they don’t? It’s about fitting in and trying to image they don’t have real issues to deal with.

                                                                           —

“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” — Eph. 5:22-24

When I was 16, my mom started to teach my Sunday School class. Most of the girls in my class were my friends, so they had been to my house and been around my mom.

My mom is wonderful. She would cook and clean and take care of me and my siblings and all our friends without any help from my dad. Every one of us loved her.

We told her that we wanted to learn applicable things from the Bible, not the boring stuff about who begat who and why sinners need to go to hell. So she bought a godly book on dating.

For 45 minutes every Sunday morning, we would learn how to be godly girls and how to get godly boys to like us and how we should repent after letting those boys take advantage of us. What more could you ask for?

Is my purpose to be decorative, a sidekick to better and stronger men? No, it isn’t. But that isn’t for lack of trying on the church’s part.

                                                                     — 

“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” — John 8:32

A boy in one of my high school history classes who thought it was funny to tell me to be quiet when I would answer questions or interject when we had class discussions.

“The Bible says women are to be silent. Look it up,” he would say with a giggle, as I got angry.

I asked my mom about that, about why the Bible would really approve of something so clearly ignorant.

“That’s a very old verse, a lot of the things in the Old Testament don’t apply,” she said.

Except I’d always been told you couldn’t follow God only halfway, that being lukewarm was worse than being cold.

So could a ‘true’ Christian dismiss things they don’t agree with? The answer is yes, apparently. But I was so sure in my thought of all or nothing, so what was I to do?

                                                                         —

“And Jesus said to them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were amazed at Him.” — Mark 12:17

When I was 18, I told my mom I wouldn’t be going to summer camp. We fought.

“Why are you doing this?” she asked.

“Why are you forcing this on me?” I responded.

Instead, I spent that summer working before I went to college. This was a new freedom I had never had – to make my own decisions.

I never questioned authority while growing up. “It’s just the way it is,” I would tell myself.

But I had good ideas, I had solutions, I had compromises. So I spoke them. Why did I then become ‘bossy,’ ‘loud,’ ‘confrontational?’

I wasn’t the only one who had experiences like this, but no one else I spoke with tried to change it.

I think it was comfortable, to be told what to do. From parents to teachers to boyfriends to religion, everyone was just being told what to do, even if they didn’t agree.

Why should I give up having a say in my life? I was no longer comfortable to simply be shepherded around my own life by God and by men.

                                                                       —

“And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” — 1 Tim. 2:14-15

When I turned 20, I went to the state fair with my mom, as was a birthday tradition.

Our relationship had become much better throughout the two years it had been since the summer I left for college, since I stepped away from organized religion.

I’d been exploring my own thoughts about what mattered and what life was about, very abstract thoughts. I wasn’t and still am not sure who I am, there isn’t really anyone I’m “supposed to be.” But I’ve found answers to some of my questions (the earth is older than 6,000 years) and I’ve become more compassionate and empathetic and I’ve begun to deal with experiences in my life that I had always been told were normal or “just the way things are.”

On our way there, our conversation kept circling back to feminism and women’s rights.

My mom had always been somewhat conservative, but her and my dad had recently separated and I think she was ready for a change.

The longer I’ve stayed away from church, the more I’ve been able to see how religion – in my hometown, in my school, in my family, in my life – was a way to be controlled, was a way to control the system in general. Was it just me?

“I think having a child is one of the most oppressive things that can happen to a woman,” I said.

“Why would you say that?” my mom asked quietly, slightly offended. She had given her life to her five children since she was 18.

I explained how women are usually expected to leave the workforce to help raise children; how every year a woman is gone, she is expected to earn less for the rest of her life, on top of the already decreased pay she has when compared to a man; how women are left to do their real jobs and most of the domestic jobs like raising the kids and cleaning the house.

“Women want to leave their jobs,” my mom said. “All the women I know wanted to quit working so they could be home with their children. They missed them so much.”

“You really think that all women want to quit the jobs they worked so hard for? You’ve told me so many times that you wished you had worked for the 30 plus years you were raising children, that you felt like you had no identity.”

I went on to explain how women are usually expected to quit their jobs because it makes sense that the person who earns less would quit, and that just so happens to be a woman; how child care is too expensive; how fathers aren’t given comparable paternity leave; how old men have made this system that supports and benefits them the most.

How I think religion has contributed to that.

How strange it was for my mom, a woman who was, who is the embodiment of a traditional woman who quit her job to raise her kids when her husband wouldn’t and who was continually taken advantage of, to look at me instead of the road and agree.

We still had 20 minutes before we got to the fair, but we had just traversed mountains and oceans in one 10-minute conversation. I was validated and she was liberated.

Was it wrong to feel this way, to have this distance between me and any religious belief? Some might say so, but I don’t.

“Jesus answered them, ‘Do you now believe?’” — John 16:31.

 

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