Christianity and me, Part 1: Losing My Religion

By the time I got to 10th grade, I had started carrying around my Bible.

losing-my-religionArnoldo Romero is one of the regular ABC Wednesday participants. On his E is for Ecclesiastical post, he talked about his faith journey. Hey, he’s a PK, or preacher’s kid; I know a few of those.

He wrote, “I have even considered going into the ministry at a couple of points throughout my lifetime.” I responded, “When I was 12, most people thought I would become a minister, and I tended to agree,” to which Arnoldo responded, “I’d love to learn more about your spiritual journey and what led you to have a change of heart about going into the ministry sometime.” My answer: “That’s going to take a blog post. Or two.”

Or more, because, somewhere tied in there, I need to respond to an earlier question from Arthur – no, I haven’t forgotten – about the author Ta-Nehisi Coates, and specifically his atheism.

Let’s start at the very beginning. I was raised in the church, specifically Trinity AME Zion Church in Binghamton, NY. AME stands for African Methodist Episcopal. Like the AME Church, founded a decade before in Philadelphia, the AMEZ church was founded as a result of racial prejudice on the part of the M. E. (white) church, this time in New York City, “licensed a number of colored men to preach, but prohibited them from preaching even to their own brethren, except occasionally, and never among the whites.”

I was baptized when I was five months old. My paternal grandmother, Agatha Green (nee Walker) was one of my Sunday school teachers. The junior choir, under the direction of Fred Goodall, who was there for decades, included both my sister Leslie and me.

When I was nine, I was “saved.” I was at someone’s house on Oak Street, about a half a block from my church, but I wasn’t with folks affiliated with my church, and in fact, I’m not remembering whose house it was at all.

What I do recall was watching a Billy Graham crusade one afternoon or early evening on television. The evangelist Graham had a regular column in one of the Binghamton newspapers at the time. On the TV, he did his usual altar call, where he asks if we in the audience, as well as those gathered wherever he was, wanted to accept the saving grace of Jesus Christ. It sounded good to me. So I said yes.

The secretary to the principal of my school, Daniel S. Dickinson, was named Patricia J. Gritman. Though I don’t remember the process, at some point, Pat asked if I wanted to go to a Bible study at her house on Front Street, a half dozen blocks from where I lived. I attended Friday Night Bible Club for at least five years, as did Leslie. We memorized Bible verses, some of which I STILL know; sang songs; and, according to Leslie, ate a lot.

I was still attending Sunday school at my church, As I got a bit older, my father, Les Green, led a group of kids, including Leslie, our cousin Debbie and me, in a group called the MAZET singers, MAZET being an anagram of our church’s acronym.

At school, I tried not to lord my religion over others, but issues came up. For instance, the vast majority of my classmates found a way to cheat on some written tests in biology, but I was unwilling to do so, to the detriment of my grade.

By the time I got to 10th grade, I had started carrying around my Bible. I didn’t discuss the Book unless asked, but it was my statement of faith.

If someone were to ask me what I was going to be in this period, I probably would have said “a minister.” I got the feeling that others in my church thought so. I was becoming familiar with Scripture, and I was an active church participant, reasonably intelligent, and very well-behaved.

Around that period, I started attending another church on Sunday evenings, Primitive Methodist Church in Johnson City, a primarily white church. Usually, I’d walk about 0.6 mile to my friend Bob’s house, then we’d walk over 2.5 miles to the service; sometimes, we’d walk back, too. This was a more, for lack of a better word, fundamentalist POV.

A funny thing happened, though. As I got even more knowledgeable about the Bible, I found it more confusing, at least if one were supposed to take it all literally, as opposed to reading parts of it as allegory. Part of the problem was sheer mechanics. Genesis 1’s and Genesis 2’s creation stories deviate from each other. If Adam and Eve were literally the first people, who did Cain and Seth have children with?

More problematic was the notion that we American Christians had to send missionaries all over the world to save souls, lest they all go to hell. The narrative was that some person, even a child, in India who wasn’t even aware of Jesus Christ was sentenced to eternal damnation? I had a great big problem with a loving Jesus being part of that, but I received no satisfactory answer. There were other issues, too, but that was the big one, presumably tied to John 14:6.

Then, I started poking at even the most prosaic issues that Christians I had associated with had been telling me. Some thought going to the movies was sinful, or maybe that Disney movies were OK. Playing cards were wrong, even though my Sunday school-teaching grandmother taught me how to play canasta. I never much bought into these minor issues, but they made me much more cynical about the whole faith thing.

Little by little, doubt crept into my previous impenetrable fortress of faith. In retrospect, I find it interesting that I never made any active attempt to find a church when I went away to college in New Paltz, even though there were at least three within walking distance.

(To be continued, at some point.)
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Some R.E.M. song.