This short memoir is an amalgam of five pastors at two churches. I scrambled the timeline for people’s anonymity.
“Doesn’t Sarah Mattea go here?” I asked the pastor of my new church. “I knew her a long time ago.”
”She used to,” he said, pain in his eyes for Sarah. “I can’t go into specifics, but it’s a situation that requires a lot of prayer.”
Was she addicted to drugs? That was my best guess based on his expression. Or simply a wayward wife. Yes, too high to come to church or too ashamed to show her adulterous face. It was obviously one of those.
Years went by. Years during which women of the church told me that I could tell my husband my opinion but he got to make the final decision and that divorce was only an option in the case of physical abuse. Mind you, some of them had stayed through physical abuse and their husbands had changed. They never said it was the wrong choice.
Once, during a meeting, the pastor referenced the verse that says to be ready with the gospel, and a church member added, “When asked.” The pastor denied that “When asked” was part of the passage. I saw him flip through his Bible, close it, and change the subject. I looked the passage up later. Why didn’t I call the pastor and tell him to apologize to the group?
When our church was going through a churchy book together, I posted on Facebook that I thought a particular point in the book was unbiblical. A pastor called my house to tell me I was gossiping. I asked him whether I was wrong about the book. He wouldn’t give me a straight answer. Why didn’t I tell people that he told me that my posting these things on Facebook would “Make people question the church?” If God’s word needs my secrecy to spread, well it’s not much of a word. At least I answered the pastor, “Good!” But I never told anyone, until now. And still I’m afraid to say which pastor it was.
I began to feel unincluded. Was I crazy? Was I paranoid? Or did the powers that be truly not trust me? One church woman I didn’t really know posted that she was desperate for child care, and when I messaged her offering my services she ignored the message and continued to post that she was desperate. Another woman gave every excuse imaginable not to do a Bible study with me and then posted that she was looking for someone to have a Bible study with. Before “the incident,” I was going to be part of a worship songwriting team, and after, when the team was assembled, I was forgotten. I had to be paranoid. Right?
As I said, years went by. Someone brought up Sarah. I wondered how she was. Probably living on the streets by now, poor soul.
“Oh, she left because she was mad about the discipline policy in the Sunday School,” they said.
Hmmm. To put it mildly, hmmm.
Who was right, I asked myself. And then I realized that no one had to be right and wrong. I had made up the wayward Sarah character based on nothing but a pastor’s sad, sad eyes. “The situation needed prayer.” Yes it fucking well did.
But I still kept going to church for a while, and I still wondered a little whether the Sunday School version of Sarah’s departure had been wrong, or at least not the whole story. I mean, those sad, sad eyes! And I wondered whether people were spreading the word that I “needed prayer.”
Then I felt left out one final time, and stopped going. Two years later, a church friend whom I’ve gotten to know better since then said “I used to think you were crazy.” I wondered, was it because someone told him sadly that I needed prayer, or was it that my eyes darted around at church because I didn’t feel trusted and I was sprung tight as a fake snake in a can from trying to fit in where I simply didn’t fit in and maybe didn’t even want to.
It’s sad that I reminisce about my churches and think, “At least there were no molestations or sermons for Trump.” Only the long, slow burn of a gaslight. No big deal.
My friend Viv told me why she left her church. It was a typical story. Nothing earth shattering, and certainly nothing like the rumor I heard about her later.
I wonder what they say about me now that I’m gone. Whatever it is, I’m sure it needs a lot of prayer.
(For reference, here are some places I have not felt paranoid. The school districts where I worked, the music store where I work, my family, my high school friends, my college roommates, my neighbors…)