When I was 9 years old, I lay cradled in the meaty arms of Pastor Morrison as he asked me if I would accept Jesus Christ as my savior. It was 1986 at the Church of Christ in Canal Fulton, Ohio. I said yes and pinched my nose. My legs went slack and he plunged me below the cool murky surface of the baptismal tub while the congregation watched as I was washed clean of all my sins.
Previously, the Church of Christ had been a dinner theater. Instead of stained glass there were no windows at all; instead of pews there were tables and chairs that crowded onto platforms positioned auditorium-style facing the pit of center stage. Every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening, Pastor Morrison manned that stage. He still had the stocky frame of his boxing days. When he got worked up about the Lord, he’d cuff and roll up his shirt sleeves, revealing disproportionately large forearms and giving the impression he was about to mount a horse, wring the neck of a chicken or dig up potatoes, all things he did with regularity.
I was the last one of my family he baptized. Earlier in the year, he’d submerged my mother and my older sisters. We had all been reborn.
At the back of the church, my mother, with lips painted red and in a royal-purple, button-down dress, bowed her head, squeezed her eyes shut and pleaded with God. For her, religion meant salvation, shelter and safety. Abandoned as a child, she’d been deposited at the doors of a Catholic mission in New York after barely surviving diphtheria, tapeworms and severe neglect on the streets of Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico.
The nuns and priests were her surrogate parents, and God the Father lorded over them all. There she received three meals each day and an education. She washed every day, prayed mightily and slept in her very own bed every night. Little surprise, then, that in the decades to come, whenever my mother was down and out—poor, battered, desperate—she’d return to the solace of the church and rediscover her faith more fervently than ever before. This was how we ended up at the Church of Christ. My mother was going through another divorce, unable to support us—her three daughters—and feeling lost and dejected. This was the first time I had experienced religion; for my mother it was a continuation.
By age 15, I rejected Christianity and religion as a whole. That’s when I realized—after migrating to so many impoverished churches in small Midwest towns, year after year—that the central message of the bible and the pulpit was fear. Fear of going to hell for eternity and suffering with an intensity unfathomable to the human mind. Fear of disobeying authority. Fear of finding oneself alone in the world.
My mother was constantly afraid. I watched as she ran through countless boyfriends and four bullying husbands. When things were good, she made the assumption she was doing right by God and that her sinful nature was down to a minimum. When things were bad, she stuck her head in her bible, knelt down, and went about her days praying out loud and praising the Lord. It was in those rock-bottom moments that God became the perfect man, the perfect father and husband she had yet to experience. Held up to this divine example, no man in her life ever stood a fighting chance. She wanted to be loved unconditionally. She wanted a mansion in heaven on a road paved with gold. She wanted a reason for the suffering in her life.
In return, though, religion stole her freedom. At the orphanage, she was harshly punished for speaking Spanish and made to feel ashamed of her culture, her color and her feisty, spirited nature. She was forced to give up her birth name—given to her from a Spanish radio soap opera—for an Americanized equivalent that was easier to pronounce. Through these acts of assimilation, she was stripped of any connection to who she was. In place of all of that, she was given religion.
As for me, becoming an adult meant finding my own explanations for the mysteries of the world and not submitting to a spoon-fed, damnation-enforced brainwashing. I crave my independence and view Christianity and all other religions as stories, old and worn, used to control and dictate, dominate and reduce the complexity of the world into two simple labels: good and evil.
I’m 32 now—not that much younger than my mother was when she was rescued by Pastor Morrison and the Church of Christ congregation—and I cannot comprehend for even a moment submitting to any faith that believes love, kindness, compassion and purpose are owned by God and those who follow him. It has taken my entire adult life to unwind the deep conditioning imposed by my mother’s need to live an unconscious life motivated by fear and zealotry, the life that on the one hand offered stability and on the other caged her, demanding unquestioned devotion.
My mother will forever be that lonely wounded child who long ago reached out to an all-powerful God instead of gauging her life through the clear and logical lens of cause and effect, of reason. Instead of accepting responsibility for her choices and correlating her suffering directly to those choices, she chose to believe that if she just prayed harder or had more faith her choices would, for once, have a different outcome.
This was true when I was a child; it remains true now. She continues to bear down when times are tough, fasting and meditating on the word of God. I, on the other hand, am the black sheep of the family, a stubborn goat really. What sets me apart from my mother and the rest of my fundamentalist family is that I see their interpretation and experience of God as a device. I see religion as a human creation made to aid them in their efforts of trying to understand what is not understandable, a coping mechanism to steer them through their suffering.
It is because of this viewpoint that I reject religion. I refuse to sacrifice my free will and curious mind to any system that seeks to control me in exchange for a false sense of security, in exchange for what rightfully belongs to me.
Jamie Figueroa writes: “I am returning to college this year after a lengthy timeout spent in the workforce. I will be in my second year, attending the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where I will major in creative writing. In addition to literature, my interests include dancing, taking long walks, picnicking in the park with loved ones, enjoying a wide variety of music and watching foreign films. For over a year now, I have hosted a weekly writing group for local women. I also volunteer with a community arts ensemble named Common Ground that uses art as social transformation.”