Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fearless Females #10 My Religious Melting Pot

“What kind of religious upbring did you have?”

That's how the question goes.

“Not much, just a bit of Presbyterian, Methodist, & Baptist --- and a smattering of Pentecostal, ,you know,” says I.


This was the conversation that brought a sense of puzzlement, and a tad bit of embarrassment to me as a child --- and even as an adult. At this stage of my life, I look back and see the beginning in the weird religious mix that made up the church in the community where I grew up. The image of that little white clapboard church with its ostentatious steeple and bell still comes to me every Easter. I know it was Easter because I had the new pink organza dress that my mother made and shiny patent leather Mary Janes. I know it was Easter because I was mortified because my Aunt Gail would not come into the church.

She plopped herself down on the uncut grass, crossed her arms and said, “I can hear the old curmudgeon quite well while sitting here. His yelling will hurt my ears if I get any closer.”

I cringed because my Aunt Gail was just as loud as the Pastor. It seemed to me that the two of them were trying to outshout the other. He inside; she outside. I wanted to go in --- to show off my new Easter finery, but I knew everyone would turn to look at me, and snicker about my strange one-eyed aunt. As much as I wanted to go in and show off, I would not give them the satisfaction of whispering in their snide way about my Aunt Gail.

That fire and brimstone Baptist preacher gave way to a gaggle of new preachers; the strangely serious Presbyterian minister who always wore a very large black glove on his right hand. He was very serious, and he wore a black suit and black hat – to go with the black glove I thought to myself. He wasn't a loud as the Baptist preacher, but he was scarier. I only went a few times when he was the minister. Then there was the serious quiet old man, who I think was a Methodist, followed by the nephew of one of our neighbors who needed his first church. He may have been a Baptist, but he didn't stay around long. There was hushed grown-up talk about him having to leave.

About this time, this scattered rural community raised enough money to build a new church. That was a good thing too. The little pot bellied stove that was the old wooden church's only source of heat in the winter would turn bright red and had a most terrifying roar. I always wanted to sit in back so I could get out in case of fire, but the Sunday School teachers made all the kids sit up front. So we could be toasted, I suppose. The new boxy, dreary concrete-block church had one feature that intrigued me. When my best friend, and a regular church goer, showed me the structure, I was really excited. A swimming pool!

“I didn't know the church had a swimming pool!”

“No, silly, it's the immersion pool for when the Baptists get baptized”

“Have you ever seen them, you know, do it?”

“No, of course not, I'm a Presbyterian.”

“But, but, this is your church, right?”

“Yeah, but Baptist and Presbyterians are different. We even have a few Methodist here too.”

I was confused, and didn't think it was so interesting going to church if I couldn't use the new found swimming pool --- hidden behind the heavy blue drapes.

Not long after the swimming pool phase, my Aunt Wanda, who was a frenetic Pentecostal, manged to scare any real interest in churchgoing out of me. She told me stories of fire and brimstone, of little children who didn't believe (believe what, I dinna know) would roast in Hell. With all of that going on in church, I thought it best to keep as far away as possible. So my church going days tapered off, except for weddings and funerals.

Later on when I had children, the buzz was on. “The children needed some religious upbringing,” came out of some deep recess of my mind. We were at the university at the time, and the college Presbyterian Church seemed quite mild and people were quite friendly. Sunday mornings became filled with the quiet, though rather restrained music. A nice counterpoint to my Aunt Wanda's vision of church. We became involved enough in that church, so we were each baptized in the Pullman University Presbyterian Church. Even though this was a very nice church with quiet educate folk, my church days of thundering Baptists, pious Presbyterians, and the whatever method of the Methodist, laced with Aunt Wanda's Pentecostals left me always questioning the basis of religious folk idea of who was saved and who was not. So those church going days too tapered off.

My next religious epiphany came one night while we were still at the university. I sat bolt upright in bed! I understood religions! (Of course, it helped that I was taking a class in comparative religions at the time. )

I shook Ric awake. “Honey, I understand --- God is the same.”


“Ric, this important.”

“Joannie, go back to sleep --- I have early morning rounds at the clinic tomorrow.”

“Those dogs and cats can't be as important as this --- we are all the same.”

“ Joannie, for God's sake, go to sleep.”

He rolled over and began to snore. I stayed awake and looked out the bedroom window in wonderment at the moon and stars. By morning, the earth shattering importance of my moonlight epiphany went unnoticed – but still I held that glimmering in the back of my mind.

Over the next couple of decades, church and religion gave way to self help books, 12 step programs, and gurus of varying ilk. Then I started my family historical research. Gad Zooks, I had a whole passel of Huguenots, Mennonites and Puritans peopling my past. German Pietists and Puritans morphed into Lutherans, Methodist , hard-rolled Baptist, and later into religious benign neglect. What remained to me of those staunch and stalwart pietists was a silent rigidity of my mother's people, the unspoken right vs wrong, good vs evil.

To complicate the matters, my family religious melting pot tossed in the Cherokee naturalism/mysticism, which many historians say easily mixed with the missionaries' Methodist, Presbyterians, and Baptist. I think not. From my mother, her mother, and her mother's mother and grandmother – back to when the moccasined ones talked to the shaman and the beloved woman, came and unstated but ingrained belief in the purity of nature – trees, water, animals; the belief that good was rewarded and evil punished; and of course, the Stomp Dance, actually more of a shuffle. My mother would, not often, but periodically lapse into a gutteral ugh,ugh type chant combined with a strange stompy-sort of shuffle. This did not seem unusual to me – I thought perhaps she saw it at a movie, or wild west show – I thought everyone's mother probably danced like this in the quiet of their homes. In later, years my Aunt Gail, mother's sister, told me of an instance where their mother did this same shuffle-type dance with the chant. She said that their mother learned it from their grandmother. When this dance is done for real and serious, the stomp and guttural chant come from deep within the person – connecting the inner self with the earth itself. I don't go to Pow-wows and do Indian dances, but I have experimented enough that I know the difference between just doing the steps, and actually stomping/shuffling/chanting to make the connection between the center of self to the earth.

My Scots-Irish forbearer's brought another facet to the mix, a different brand of Presbyterianism. They dinna care what anyone else believed so long as they kept it to themselves. Of course, in my family the Scots-Irish kept marrying the the German Pietists, Lutherans and their later incarnations, who were proselytizers. O, Lordy, what marriages are made in church – or not.

Over the last couple of decades, I made my peace with the religion-church dilemma of my childhood and of the multifarious religious background of my ancestors. I followed my Cherokee great-great-grandmother's lead towards a naturalism/vague mysticism---without the chanting and shuffling, combined with my college epiphany that all religions tend to ask the same thing of their followers; to lead a good and true life, do good works, and be compassionate to one's fellow beings. The path at times frightening, torturous, and funny, but now tantalizingly simple --- sometimes punctuated with a chant and a shuffle.


  1. Too funny - I was raised STAUNCH Roman Catholic. Everyone questions at sometime I think and searches for what is the right way. I'm no longer Catholic but I'm not going to go into that here as I've too much family who is still alive and I don't want hurt feelings or bad memories brought back to life.

  2. Another great post, I love that you have managed to blend your history, your heritage and your religion! Love the simplicity of it!