I had known there was something wrong with me for quite a while.
At a fifth grade choir concert, I asked the church’s musical director if we could sing Scar’s theme from the Lion King. She said no but did not elaborate as to why a song about dictatorial overthrow sung by goose stepping hyenas was inappropriate. Before the show i asked her what our motivation was and she said to share the word and love of the Lord, something vague like that.
My Sunday school classes tolerated my friends and I with gentle bafflement and frustration. At times, out strangeness was an overall boon, like when we were reenacting Yael’s murder of Sisera and I volunteered to be killed, and decided to simulate blood by having Elaine Sayler pull a skein of red yarn out of a babushka on my head after stabbing me repeatedly.
At other times we were pure annoyances, like the bi annual church retreats where we ran off in the woods to get lost and pretend to be possessed.
By middle school, I felt how different and irritating my behavior was. Our Sunday school teacher was virulently anti-gay (and closeted, as we discovered ten years later, naturally) and we debated with him. We enacted Bible skits with the same goofy enthusiasm, but the messages bothered us, and we asked questions. Why didn’t we all give our money away like Jesus said?
We started skipping Sunday school and instead went out back to smoke or eat Swedish fish. Everyone must have known, because we slipped back into the building at the end of the hour so our parents could pick us up. We concluded that we were not missed.
The time for confirmation came and, while I was certain I had doubts, I didn’t yet have the will to express them.
As a young kid I’d been possessed with faith of a kind. I prayed for God to rid the house of ants, and I tried to talk to my dead grandfather after he keeled over of a heart attack. Over time, however, I noticed the bugs had not fled, my deceased grandfather stayed that way and others joined him, and that no matter how much I begged to God at night, he gave no answer.
And then I was blessed with friends who asked questions and found the Bible’s messages unnerving. I was blessed with teachers who gave me a lot of space and who always seemed uncomfortable when I talked. My interpretation was always wrong; my prayers always too bizarre.
I remember very clearly thinking God wanted me to be an atheist. An absurd thought, but it was true, I saw that as my duty. I talked to God and he didn’t answer. He implanted in me all kinds of questions and doubts and gave me no answers. His messengers were hateful, apathetic, or inept. I went to Sunday school, I befriended other children of believers who did not believe, I did puppet shows for the preschoolers at the church, and I felt an expanding philosophical emptiness. If I feel and think this way, I reasoned, it was because God had set me up to be like this. I was made to be an atheist and God wanted that from me; I sensed it very strongly, and I complied.
By the time of confirmation, my friends and I had been feeding each other anti-God lines for years. Methodist confirmation is not like Catholic, I should note. Instead of a big ceremony at age six with poofy dresses and lots of pomp, we Methodists get a camping trip, a private inquisition with the youth pastor, and a church name tag with little fanfare.
The camping trip was the usual bust. My friends Katie and Andra blew off their shifts of doing dishes to go make a horror movie in the camp showers. I joined them but hung back, dulled inside with an implacable dread.
They got through their interviews by lying and being flippant, respectively. Then the time for mine came, an hour or two before we were supposed to pack up and leave as newly minted Christians. I went into the banquet hall where the pastor sat, my stomach vibrating.
She was a round featured woman with dark hair and eyes. Everyone found her approachable and easygoing, with sermons that were easily parsed. Lots of metaphors involving animals. She used to be a gym teacher until God called her to service, and it showed.
I settled into a sticky vinyl chair and looked at her. The confirmation interview was open-ended but highly standardized, though I had no real idea what to expect. No one had told me to prepare. There was no rubric, of sorts, or rules, or curriculum.
“What is your favorite Bible story?”
I looked at the ceiling. Fuck. Tears were already forming, and my nose was beginning to tingle and eke mucous out. I raced through all the stories that I could think of the names of. What was the right answer? Daniel in the Lion’s Den? No, I thought, I don’t know what happens in that one. The Good Samaritan? No, no, too obvious. Samson and Delilah? I didn’t know that one either, shit, I might get quizzed on them. I didn’t know enough New Testament. What about Saul of Tarsus becoming Paul? I knew that one, I had played him in a church play, I memorized everyone else’s lines too and helped them —
But now it was too late. Or so I thought. I sniffled and looked away. I dug my nails deeper and deeper into my palm, because sometimes pain kept tear bursts at bay. I felt like I’d been in that plastic hot chair forever.
“I…don’t know,” I said. My voice broke and quivered, betraying my probably already obvious nervousness and oncoming crying.
“Okay, okay,” the pastor said. There was a list in front of her, on the table between us, which listed all the questions, though she knew them by heart by then. “What skills can you bring to the church?”
My nose began to burn, shooting hot liquid up into my eyes. I rammed them shut and looked down, trying frantically to think, dammit, to earn acceptance. I had no skills. I was uncoordinated and strange. In gym class I would often sob and hide, telling whoever asked that I was Not Good for Anything.
“I-I don’t know…I don’t, I could help move furniture, set up chairs for events, or something?”
She nodded and gave me a beatific smile. I stopped talking, trailed off. Stupid stupid stupid.
“What have you learned during your confirmation?”
By now my breath was heaving and rapid, my palms were cold and marred with claw marks, and my sinuses were jammed with snot and fluid demanding to escape. Soon a thin, clear trickle would begin coming out of my nose, which I would cover and not-so-subtly wipe at with my fist, while avoiding eye contact with the pastor and moving my head back and forth to an awkward rhythm.
I had learned what all the numbers on the Bible pages meant, using a flip workbook. I had memorized the books of the Bible, using a song that still comes to me in the shower at odd moments. I had painted the walls of the Sunday school room, babysat the children of the people who came to AA at night, donated food, sung songs. I had gone on retreats and been beaten up with pillows and luggage by the other, normal girls. I had gotten lost in the woods at night. I had puked on a dog named Deeohgee and watched him eat it. I’d been grilled. What had I learned.
“I…don’t know?” I said, choked up.
There were several more questions. I am sure some of slipped from my memory, drowned in the sopping wetness of all the sick snot that was percolating in my eyes, nose, and throat.
“What does it mean to be a Christian?”
“……I don’t know.”
“What do you hope to get out of the church?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want to be confirmed?”
The last question wasn’t accusatory. The words came out as flat and as rote as any of the others; it was peeled off the list, nothing more. But she never acknowledged that I was shaking, sniffling, curled up on the chair with my knees to my chest, red-eyed. She never made note of the fact that it took me five minutes to answer each question. Everyone else had been in and out in ten or less. I was withdrawn and waiting, unsure I’d ever escape.
Did she ask if I believe in God? If she did, I said I didn’t know.
That moment of truth, of taking on the banner of being an atheist, is one I don’t recall at all. It probably happened a few years later, at a debate tournament during the chatter that exploded between rounds of competition. If I had been able to articulate my nonbelief at thirteen, I wouldn’t have been rendered such a numb-tongued dumbfuck during my confirmation interview.
Instead, I was gripped with the panic that something in my present situation was undesirable, incongruous, but I couldn’t pin it down. I was torn between two poles and unable to access a value system that could orient my movement. When I find myself in frustrating situations where my drives are similarly conflicted or my will ineffectual, I’m moved to sloppy tears even now, though I have gotten better at avoiding such situations.
A few hours later, we all piled into a van and drove back from the camp where the retreat had been held, pulled into the parking lot in Berea, and went our respective separate ways. I crawled into my parents’ car with my luggage and my mother’s ancient purple-and-mint sleeping bag, propped my knees against the dash, and let the worry fall behind me onto the unfurling road.
A week or two later I was in the confirmation ceremony. The pastor had, apparently, passed me, and everyone else who had attended the requisite sessions, checked off the ritual boxes. We stood before the congregation, maybe sang (I don’t remember), and received our nametags. Thick red plastic, Erika Bohannon, and the United Methodist symbol, a cross with a wispy flame.
After a few years had passed, my friends and I snuck into the church late at night to steal/borrow a folding wheelchair for our friend, whose electric chair was too large and unwieldy to fit in the trunk of our vehicle. United Methodist of Berea kept a row of grey-green, vinyl coated wheelchairs gathered together in a closet by the rear doors, for the benefit of its numerous elderly patrons. Everything was unlocked and we slipped in without trouble.
The wheelchair acquired, I decided to roam the dark halls of the church and reorient myself. Everything now looked trifling and small. After I was confirmed, I was never required to attend church again, and the place had grown unfamiliar. I went into the entryway by the chapel. There were two long wooden tables with recessed edges, in which sat the dozens of church members’ name tags in alphabetical order.
I scanned the tables. My name was gone. We returned to the car with our temporarily pilfered chair, threw it in the back, and drove off to the Denny’s or wherever the fuck we were heading, my name firmly and secretly removed from the list of the faithful.