Tag Archives: protestant

Rural Religion

I took a speech class at community college when I was nineteen, and during one class around this time of year, I noticed the teacher had a huge black smudge right on her face. I spent the class wriggling uncomfortably, debating if I should raise my hand and call attention to it, or just let it go. Nobody else was saying anything, but they had to have seen it. All I could think of during class was the smudge. All I could see was the smudge. She didn’t seem to have any clue it was there. And as class wrapped up, I mentioned it to a classmate, incredulous that we all just let her continue with an hourlong class without a single word.

And that’s how I learned about Ash Wednesday.

Growing up, most churches were mainline Protestant denominations: Lutheran, UCC, Methodist, an occasional Baptist or Presbyterian church. I went to Girl Scout meetings in their basements. Genealogy books that list my ancestors mention Reformed churches and Union congregations with German names. My Sunday school was UCC, and I have early memories of being picked up by my parents in the old brown trailer that predated the construction of a new wing of the church. For years, my grandmother coaxed me into uncomfortable nylons and dresses, and I went to the trailer and started the morning singing songs about Zacchaeus, about where the foolish man and the wise man built their houses, about Jesus loving the little children of the world, and begrudgingly repeating “This Little Light of Mine,” hating the melody and the fact that the little kids loved it so much. When I learned to read music, I would sometimes get permission to take the Wee Sing Bible Songs book home and attempt to play them on whatever instrument was at hand.

All the preschool and elementary classes were held in the trailer, tables separated by thin curtains with the youngest kids at the back of the trailer. As I moved closer to the door through the years, learning Bible stories and stories about being nice to others photocopied from workbooks, I could see a poster with a graphic of the earth from space, and part of John 3:16 trailing off: “For God so loved the world…” Sometimes I would stay for the church service, sitting next to my grandmother in the second-last row, making origami animals or drawing crude comics featuring one of the childless younger adults who sat in the last row, especially the one who looked like the long-haired redhead character in the Doonesbury comics. I would put the dollar my grandmother gave me into the collection plate and sing from the hymnal tucked into the wooden holder in front of me. I’d come up for the occasional children’s sermon, where a friend’s grandmother would tell a story with colorful felt people and animals, smoothing the felt pieces down as she placed them on the felt board, or the pastor would tell a story and then line us up to place his warm hands on our heads for a blessing. Once or twice, around Easter, the children’s sermon featured a lamb that we got to stroke. Sometimes, I would sit still while trays of crouton-sized cubes of bread and little red glasses of wine and grape juice were passed, then trays to collect the emptied glasses. I remember once watching my grandmother prepare for communion on a late Saturday afternoon, pouring out the bread cubes from their plastic bags, and the sweet, Niagara grape smell of the wine when she decanted some for the pastor to use.

When I was six or seven years old, I was recruited to play the virgin Mary in a Christmas play, which required wearing an oversized blue robe over my head and body and holding a baby doll while kneeling next to a boy in a brown robe. I was a shy kid at that age, and I dipped my head down so low, my grandmother exclaimed afterwards that nobody could see my face. I would later play a mother going to cut down a Christmas tree with her family, intentionally matching a green turtleneck to brown corduroy pants for the performance, and I had a line or two in an Easter play.

When I was 10 or so, my grandmother took my brother and me on a bus trip to see the story of Noah at Sight and Sound Theatre in Lancaster. Before pulling out of the church parking lot, I answered a trivia question of some sort and won a Good News Bible, and, voracious reader that I was, I cracked it open immediately. Over the next few days I would read familiar stories, creation and the fall of Adam and Eve, and the flood, and the dove that came after the flood. Then I reached the story of Noah, post-flood, drunk and naked in his tent, and how his son Ham saw him and his other two sons covered his nakedness, and Noah awoke to curse Ham’s son and all his progeny. With many questions in my mind, I set down the Bible. I didn’t reach for it again for nearly 20 years.

I’d had doubts before, for sure. As a little kid I could take in that Abraham had lived hundreds of years, but it seemed unlikely as I got older. The Earth couldn’t have been created in six days, either, and it didn’t coincide with what I learned in science class. I prodded my teachers with questions about whether things in the Bible had really happened. I asked for explanations for the post-flood story of Noah, and I couldn’t get an answer. I asked why there was evil in the world. I asked how, if we were really made in God’s image, we humans could do such horrible things to one another. I thought about how the pastor, the religious leader of the church, had told racist jokes at holiday dinners. My parents’ reply to my stream of questions, and the holes I found: that’s why they didn’t go to church. I knew they didn’t pray, because I had suggested it to them when they’d separated for a few months and they told me it wouldn’t do anything. When I said I didn’t think I believed in a literal hell, my father said that hell was what we were living here on earth. My mom taught me the word “agnostic.” I liked it.

I had two friends, siblings, whose grandparents were friends with my grandparents and who went to another school district. We would swim together in my grandmother’s pool in the summer, play with my brother’s Tonka trucks in the mountain of sand placed next to the volleyball court in the picnic grove, and eat turkey barbecue – simple shredded meat in juices held warm in crockpots – unadorned on hamburger rolls. The girl and I traded complaints about being made to go to Sunday school, our doubts over what we were being taught, and about the other kids in our class with whom we didn’t get along. We both went to an information session one summer on the confirmation process, learning about choosing a mentor and what the process meant. My friend wasn’t given a choice in whether to go forward, but I was. I decided not to continue on with confirmation. When marching band came along in the fall, the late-night bus trips back from competitions prevented me from staying over at my grandmother’s house and going to Sunday school the next morning to see my friend. It meant the end of my religious education.

In school, I knew of two Jewish kids and a handful of practicing Catholics, who you could identify by their pale skin and freckles. In the World War II units in school, we learned that Catholics and Gypsies were among those killed by Germans in addition to Jews. Judaism and Catholicism were both different religions compared to mine, both an other. I, like many people I see on Facebook and the comments section of YouTube, learned to confuse the term “Christian” with “Protestant,” so in the semantics that followed, it was easy to fall into the assumption that Catholics were not Christians.

There was a discussion once, when I was young, and I asked which religion I could be when I grew up. I ran through the ones I knew. Baptist, I asked? Yes. Jehovah’s Witness, like the older ladies that came to our door and my mom invited in for tea when she had time? Yes. Amish? Yes. Jewish? Yes. Muslim, I asked, thinking of the Quran my mom had bought and started reading? Eh… sure. As long as I didn’t become Catholic. When I asked why not, my father mumbled something about them gambling in their church basements. (Later that summer I put tickets in a raffle at a church picnic and played basket bingo with my grandmother.)

Around the time that child sexual abuse by clergy was in the news, I overheard that Catholic priests wouldn’t make housecalls or leave their churches to visit the sick, not even to deliver rites to the dying. Or that they would charge lots of money for it, and any other services. Friends attested that nuns teaching in Catholic school were strict, like in the movies. Family members told stories of being excommunicated for marriages, or shown records of their monetary contributions to the church in the past year when they requested services. In my community college history class, I learned about Martin Luther’s theses, the indulgences, and the Great Schism. In a comparative religion class I took as an elective, I learned about transubstantiation. I went to Rome with yet another class and visited St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, and wondering at the arches and the marble floors and the Pieta and Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment, I remember somebody remarking how much money it would have cost to construct it… and how many mouths could have been fed with that money.

This was all in contrast to Protestant expressions of Christianity, such as the Lutheran church of my maternal grandparents. After my parents divorced, my mom took us to their Christmas Eve services once or twice, and with encouragement from my maternal grandmother, I joined their orchestra and later their weekly adult choir as a musical outlet during my time at community college. I’d always liked the music at church services, and I had given performances at local churches with the vocal ensemble in high school. There was something in the Lutheran services that I liked, too. I liked the reverence for the bread and wine, and how everyone stood up and went in line to receive it in the front of the church, instead of staying seated. I liked that the Nicene Creed was recited every time, even if I didn’t believe all of it. And I loved the late-night Christmas eve service, where they would turn off the lights and we would light candles and sing “Silent Night.”

But the faith just wasn’t there. And there were so many choices, too. I had no doubts that there was a god, a force of some sort that had created the universe and kept it all from falling apart. Comparative religion class had introduced me to new ideas, too, like that the force, the divine, was in all of us. There were concepts in Judaism and Islam that I liked, and the idea of nonattachment in Buddhism stuck with me. Deism came up too, the Enlightenment-era idea that God exists but is not involved in human lives. That sounded most in line with what I could empirically observe about the world.

I was struck, though, by how our instructor, a very knowledgeable adjunct, a Jewish lady with frizzy hair and a warm personality, described the Bible. She had started the semester by writing the word “ineffable” on the whiteboard and talking about its definition, and we kept coming back to the idea of the ineffable. When we discussed the Bible in the Christianity section of the class, she described it as a book written by man, an earnest attempt to capture the truth, to give words to the ineffable. It wasn’t perfect, but the effort, and its very imperfection was, in her words, “beautiful.”

I had to agree.

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Raised Rural: Part 1

The Connecticut suburb where I live voted overwhelmingly for Clinton at 69%. But the rural township where I grew up in Pennsylvania voted 68% for Trump. I might have voted in Trump, too, if I had continued to live most of my life there.

When you think Pennsylvania Dutch, you might think of Amish folk in Lancaster County. I think of my family. The Dutch – or “Pensylfainya Tutch Nah” if you’re one of the old ones who grew up speaking the language and went to a Grundsau Lodge like my grandfather – are overwhelmingly Protestant, German immigrants who arrived decades before the American Revolution and settled in a swath moving west and north from where their ships landed in Philadelphia. Where I grew up is the very northern end of where they settled. Going through old documents and books from one side of my family, I know my first PA Dutch ancestor came here as a French Huguenot in 1738. His son became an officer in the Revolution and then a state representative, and the generations after him made their money off coal, slate, and other natural resources. There are pictures of railroads and factories in the old photograph albums, next to photos of round-faced women in fashionable dresses and stern-looking men. And pictures of the hotel that my great-grandfather owned but that didn’t get passed down to my grandfather, who I only know to be a bus driver with antiquated, oftentimes unintelligible speech patterns that were made worse over time by multiple strokes, calling homework “lessons” and fond of the phrase “gee almighty.” Picturing him, I see him sitting in his chair in the basement of the split-level, the chair draped in a sheet to protect it from doghair from the Golden Retriever, watching NASCAR with the volume up on Sundays but also Formula 1 on Saturday afternoons, and chewing flat toothpicks or Wrigley’s Doublemint that he bought in 5-packs and kept in a Christmas-themed, mailbox-shaped tin that once held Russell Stover candies, wearing a white T-shirt and shorts with a black belt, long legs out in front, mesh hat on his head, mostly quiet but sometimes vocalizing what might have been a complaint.

My dad inherited the bitterness, and once or twice as a kid he erupted about how someone long-dead in the family had squandered some sort of fortune. He would work at a company for 2 or 3 years before moving on to something else. There was the year or two that he worked in maintenance at the local amusement park. We got free season passes, and he would sometimes bring home sunglasses or hats for my brother and I that unfortunate roller coaster passengers had lost. When he worked at a place that manufactured diamonds for drill bits, he would bring home razor blade-sized plates of carbon with little diamonds growing on them and stress balls with the company logo. They lived on top of the microwave, next to a boom box whose dial never changed from the local rock station. There was the year he broke his leg falling down the old wooden stairs with the broken toilet he was replacing, the EMTs that came, the cast we signed, the metal pins in his leg, the explanation that the first doctor had messed up and he would need another surgery. Later that year, going to the supermarket and standing not at the checkout counter where I’d usually pester my mom for Chiclets or Fruit Stripes, but another counter with a glass window, no cart with us, my parents looking tense and ashamed. Kids at school making fun of me after I told them how the food fairy visited my house and delivered boxes of bananas and oranges. Going from paying 35 cents to the ladies at the lunch register to saying “free.” My younger brother and I being told to be on my best behavior while my parents, somber-faced, met with a well-dressed man in an office with leather furniture and a credit card company logo on his door. A report card where my teacher expressed concern that I constantly talked about my family being poor.

But later came my mom going back to work after my brother was in school, the housekeys, and once or twice, an afternoon with the nice old lady across the street when we forgot our key and the windows were also locked. Buying the acre of land next to the house and making garden plots, building a bridge across the stream on the new property where my brother and I played with our two Black Lab mix rescues, erecting a toolshed. Associate’s Degrees for my parents from the local community college. Replacing the old diesel Volvo wagon for a used F-150 that we would take camping to New York on vacation, then the excitement of trading in the other wagon for a brand new Jetta for my mom to drive to her payroll job at a construction firm. $1.25 for lunches, and a little extra for iced tea. Me turning 14 and getting a job at the same amusement park where my dad worked years ago. My dad’s promotion to supervisor, business cards, button-down shirts, and new stress balls that said “Move over, Silicon Valley. Here comes Lehigh Valley.” A trip on a plane to Disneyworld. Replacing the big blue stones of the driveway with asphalt and paying a company to construct a two-story garage. Then came the market crash, the layoffs, coming home to an unlocked door because our dad was inside, looking for jobs or doing coursework for his online university. My mom taking a second job, at that amusement park. Eventually my parents’ final split and divorce, community college for me when my hazily-planned dream of going to Ithaca for music fell through, and buying fruit and $0.50 misshapen loaves of French bread at the grocery store for a late lunch on my way home from campus because it was cheaper than a sandwich in the cafeteria, but sometimes I’d splurge on a $2.19 cup of soup. It took me several months to realize I had a PELL Grant in addition to my PHEAA Grant, and that I had money to put towards my books.

But that’s a lot of time I just covered. Let’s back up to my childhood again. My grandmother would take us to Sunday School in the mornings, and my mom or sometimes my dad would pick us up. My first years of Sunday School were spent in a trailer next to the UCC church on an aptly-named Mountain Road that wound past cornfields and single-story homes at the foot of Blue Mountain. As far as I could tell, everyone else at the church was also Pennsylvania Dutch. As were most of my classmates, who could choose between German and Spanish if they wanted to take a second language in high school. My high school had between 600 and 700 students over four grades, with less than 10 Black, Asian, or Latino students who were there throughout high school. In elementary school and junior high, kids with names like Desiree and Jaritza would appear for a year or two, tough girls from Allentown or Bethlehem with loud voices, low grades, lip liner, hoop earrings, and tight clothing, who hung around with the disruptive kids who smoked. They were different. We had a word for their difference: ghetto. The single cheerleader of color, a skinny pretty girl who wore Abercrombie like the skinny pretty white cheerleaders, wasn’t ghetto.

I never shopped at Abercrombie, being taken instead to Sears, Kids R’ Us, and the Vanity Fair outlets in Reading for nice school clothes as a kid with my mom and grandmother (who worked as a teller at a local bank) and sometimes my aunt (who worked at a travel agency), and going to Old Navy, Deb, Kohl’s, and JC Penney as a teenager. Band concerts and Sunday clothing usually came from the Fashion Bug in town, which specialized in dark-hued, shapeless, uncomfortable polyester dresses and pants. When I wasn’t forced to look nice, I was wearing oversized t-shirts. There was the t-shirt with wolves in the woods from the Woolrich outlet, where I also got a rabbit pelt. There was the tie-dyed shirt I got from the Independence Day celebration in north central PA where relatives had a hunting cabin, and where I also got a second rabbit pelt and attended the rattlesnake hunt festival one year. There was the Bob Marley t-shirt from the boardwalk in Maryland (a camping trip), soft hand-me-downs, a tie-dye wolf shirt from a flea market, marching band t-shirts I had to wear to football games when I took off my jacket.

For fun, my brother and I watched Disney movies on VHS, either rented from my mom’s sister’s video store, or materialized in our house probably as extra stock from the video store. Or we played with the toys given to us mainly by our grandmother and aunt. Sometimes we went outside, but living out in the township next to a busy state route two miles outside of the actual town meant we had no local playmates. Our house was a farmhouse built around 1908, the farm itself long gone, and the living room never completely finished. Eventually we put drywall up along the walls, but the ceiling is still exposed beam, 100-year-old white hatchmarks on the wood. Because of its location outside of the town lines, among woods and scattered farmlands, whenever we called the police we needed to wait around 40 minutes for a state trooper to arrive from Bethlehem. The cities in Captain Planet showing trash cans were unknown to me, as were the city blocks in Sesame Street. I didn’t recognize the lush suburban streets in Wishbone, or in the bicycle safety videos I saw in school. Looking both ways and dismounting near crosswalks meant nothing to me. I could only ride my bike alone in the following places: on the quarter mile of back road that led to a steel fabrication company (my brother and I could see the welders’ torches from our bedroom windows), a defunct paint mill, and the crumbling foundation of a railroad station that had been abandoned decades ago; the rocky track next to the wooden railroad ties left behind after the steel had been ripped up; or the dirt track next to the fabrication company where four-wheeler enthusiasts had made loops and hills. Sometimes my brother and I would walk on the tracks looking for metal stakes or other strange-shaped rusted things, or look for owl pellets and rocks by the river. When he was old enough, my brother got a BB gun, and sometimes he could get me to shoot at empty soda cans with him. When my parents got handguns and my brother got a .22 rifle, we set up paper targets at the dirt track and took turns loading and emptying clips and learning how to operate the safety controls and load the chambers, the sound of exploding rounds dampened by foam plugs from my dad’s work or earmuffs. Sometimes I could be talked into spending an afternoon shooting at bottles and cans thrown in abandoned quarries, or at the rod and gun club where I took the hunter’s safety course and hit every clay pigeon they threw during my test, but I preferred the precision of the smaller caliber rifles to the loud shotguns that bruised my shoulder.

We lived near the Appalachian Trail, and my mom took my brother and I hiking sometimes. There was a shelter where sometimes we would find hikers with expensive-looking equipment. Most people from the area who ventured up to the trails didn’t venture far, hanging out at the Knob or by the cleared-out powerline towers, and both areas were spray-painted with graffiti and had green shards of Yuengling bottles strewn among the rocks. You could see fireworks in Allentown and Bethlehem from up there. When my husband and I first started dating, we would go up and walk around sometimes, and then run around chasing each other in the baseball fields where he’d played Little League, drive around on the rural roads and pass occasional memorials at the foot of trees or telephone poles, stop in cleared cornfields and beat each other with dead stalks, and make an occasional trip through the woods to check out any of the numerous abandoned, water-filled slate quarries where my parents and their friends would drink and hang out and sometimes jump and sometimes drown. Sometimes he used the money he saved from working at Taco Bell near the mall to buy Chinese takeout, or I paid for breakfast at the rural diner with money from my retail job at the mall.

The mall wasn’t technically in Allentown, but the suburb north of it. My family occasionally ventured into affluent parts of Allentown for doctor’s appointments and suit rentals, but there were never any trips into the center of the city until I had college classes downtown. Allentown was dangerous, it was said. The dark-skinned loud people I encountered at the nearby amusement park, teenagers with their pants hanging below their buttocks, brought to mind the word “ghetto.” (And we had a word for white kids who emulated that kind of dress and attitude.) In my young mind they were ill-mannered at best, and maybe dangerous, and this was reinforced by the adults around me. Bus trip to musicals in New York were prefaced with grave warnings to keep my belongings with me at all times. A childhood trip to Philadelphia with my grandmother (who has never left the U.S. as far as I know) and aunt, a 70 mile trip, merited a stay in a fancy hotel – but 70 mile trips to Hershey Park or Lancaster were done in a day. The country, the rural towns, that was where it was safe. That’s where I was supposed to belong.