1972: I turned fifteen years old. I was in tenth grade at Hempfield High School. Daddy was 43, and he worked as a research chemist at Armstrong Cork Company in Lancaster, Penna. Mom worked as a nurse at a local clinic. We lived on Dale Avenue in West Hempfield Township. The #1 most popular song on my fifteenth birthday was “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash. Mom snapped this photograph.
My parents and I attended church on most Sundays at the Holy Spirit Lutheran Church on Columbia Avenue in Lancaster. It was a relatively new church. My parents weren’t charter members, but they joined the congregation soon after it was established, in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Before the actual church was built, the group met at the Hambright Elementary School, a few miles east on Millersville Road.
Both of my parents were born and raised as Lutherans. Mom had been a member of Christ Lutheran Church in Allentown. Daddy was part of the small family parish at St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Macungie, where nearly everyone in the congregation was related to one another. Neither one of my parents questioned their roots. We were a Lutheran household.
Each Sunday we’d drive the two miles to get to the church. The ride took all of five minutes. But it was long enough for my pain to begin. On a regular basis, I’d lie on the back seat and moan that my stomach hurt. As I recall, I was really only halfway making this up. I simply did not want to go to Sunday school. I didn’t see the point. I didn’t care about or see any relevance in the stories that we were told. The little arts and crafts activities that we did when we were younger were mildly entertaining but hardly educational. I didn’t like the place or the experience. And the repetitive and meaningless church service was even worse.
My revulsion renewed itself each time Sunday came around, and it grew exponentially with every passing second in the car. At times I even felt myself getting physically sick. I suppose I had the whole mind-body connection going. I complained. Loudly. But my protests were ignored, and we continued on to Holy Spirit anyway.
We were moderately involved in the organization. Daddy played the flute for occasional services. Mom sang in the choir, and when I was deemed old enough, I joined her there. Once I even had to portray Mary for the Christmas program -- promoted from my original part as a walk-on second angel -- when a sudden snowstorm prevented the girl with the leading role from getting to the church in time. Ick. This was the penalty for living too close to the place.
To myself, I’d been questioning the whole operation for a number of years. I realized that I was going through the motions of the weekly liturgy without understanding or accepting any of its basic tenets. When I finally took the time to think about the symbols and their underlying meanings, I decided that I didn’t believe in any of them. It then seemed ridiculous to recite or sing words that I rejected. So I stopped. I didn’t bow my head, I didn’t mumble the responses or the creeds or the prayers. When the hymns came up, I moved my lips but just hummed the alto parts. I made sure that the actual words didn’t come out of my mouth. With these coping mechanisms in place, I could be true to my own feelings, and still acquiesce to my mother’s wishes. I hoped that no one would notice.
Somewhere along the line, an adult who led our Sunday school classes asked if we had any questions. I decided to speak up and to go for the big one. I asked for proof that God existed. As I recall, he didn’t hesitate a second. He opened his arms wide and said, “Just look at our wonderful world! Who but God could have created it?”
Well, that was no answer for me. I think I mustered up an “Oh, right,” and turned away to shake my head. I was disappointed, but not surprised. He was just someone else who was going through the motions without thinking too deeply about what he was doing.
By the Spring of 1972, I had turned the magic age to get confirmed in the church. I went along with the scheme. My parents, especially my mother, expected it of me. We had no discussions on the subject. My participation was just assumed. We were steeped in a German and Pennsylvania Dutch heritage. We didn’t talk about these kinds of things. Well, first of all, we didn’t talk about these kinds of things. And second of all, I knew I would be opening a gargantuan Pandora’s box if I voiced my concerns and objections. So I kept quiet and went along.
There were four of us in the confirmation class: two boys and two girls. We attended a few sessions in combination with some fellow confirmees at another local Lutheran church. I remember that we were assigned to read the beginning of Genesis and had to understand all of its “begats.” Why? I don’t remember why.
At the end of the process, we each had a one-on-one office meeting with the minister who would confirm us. Once again, I was asked if I had any questions. Once again, I decided to speak up and to this time go for number two. I asked for proof that the stories in the Bible were true. As I recall, the minister pointed to the overflowing bookshelves on the opposite wall. He began to ramble about all of the volumes that had been written about the individual books in the Bible. Would I like to borrow any of them?
I scanned some of the titles on the spines. I sure didn’t see anything that looked as if it would give me the explanation I wanted. I shook my head and said No. Once again, I was disappointed by getting a non-answer. If two of the top administrators of this outfit couldn’t sufficiently summarize the basics of Christian faith to my satisfaction, why should I go along with it? Was everyone just going through the motions? What kind of gig was this, anyway?
Alas, I had misjudged the confidentiality of the minister’s office. Soon after this meeting, my mother casually mentioned to me that the minister had spoken to her. He told her that one of the four confirmees had doubts about joining the church. With a plummeting stomach, I tried to look innocent as I replied, “Really? Who?” I expected her to say me. Instead, she named the other girl in the class, Vicki. “Oh,” I said, with inner glee. And I thought to myself, How cool is this? It turns out that I’m not the only one with questions. And I went on my merry way. Mom never continued the conversation.
It’s only been in recent years that the truth has dawned on me. The minister would only have shared with my mother any concerns he had about me. He wouldn’t have told her anything about his meetings with Vicki or the others. Mom knew all along what question I had asked him. And yet she never confronted me about it. Germans!
On March 26, 1972, the four of us were confirmed at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church. We each got a copy of the then-current Lutheran hymnal (The Red Book!) with our names embossed on each cover. Yes, I still have it. It’s difficult to donate a book anonymously to any library sale or used-book venue when it’s got your name printed right on it.
|"The Red Book," complete with my name on the cover|
I continued to suspend my disbelief in organized religion for the benefit of my mother. Then, wouldn’t you know it, a higher power intervened. A handful of years later, in the late 1970s, my father and I both got kicked out of the Lutheran church. I could not believe my good fortune!
Here’s what happened. Holy Spirit was between ministers at the time, and a lay committee gained control of the parish. Its members decided that anyone who had not taken communion in a while would get a letter saying that they would be removed from the church register unless they came forward and acquiesced or repented. Today my father and I can’t remember the particulars: whether it was three months or six months that the committee used as its cut-off point. I was at a college five hours away, and I rarely went home during the course of a semester. I got one of the letters, because I hadn’t taken communion within the expected time period.
My father got a letter, too. But Mom didn’t. Why? Because a week earlier, both of my parents had attended what was then the once-a-month communion service. Mom had taken communion. But my father was playing the flute that Sunday, and he and the organist kept a steady stream of music going while everyone else filed up front. The two musicians never took communion that day. So my father didn’t fill out one of the little slips of paper you were supposed to hand to the usher after the wafer and wine bit. And that’s why Daddy got a letter, too.
Mom was outraged. She was livid. She vowed to never set foot in that church again. How could she ever go back to a place that treated her husband and her daughter so callously? I was at college, so I didn’t witness the ensuing commotion firsthand. But I know there was a lot of it. The committee was deemed to have had no power to issue such declarations. When Holy Spirit eventually got another minister, he spent some time back-pedaling, apologizing, and trying to win my mother back. I’m not sure he ever did.
I saw the situation as My Way Out. Finally! “Well, I got kicked out of the Lutheran church,” is all I would need to say to anyone who would ask me about any religious affiliations. I wouldn’t even have to supply details.
And that was my last formal affiliation with a church. Oh, there have been a few digressions in the intervening years, but only a few. The biggest one was being married for eight years to a musician who happened to also be a choir director. I was rather forced to sing in a Presbyterian church on most Sundays because of him. Eventually I came to my senses, exerted my authority, and said I couldn’t and wouldn’t sing there anymore. A mutually agreed-upon divorce followed not too long afterward. (To be fair: Singing in church was only a minor issue involved in the break.)
In 1993, we held my mother’s memorial service at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church. I’m not sure she would have wanted it that way, but my father and I had few other choices to consider. Technically, she was probably still a member. Or were all three of us still members? I don’t know. I’d been kicked out, remember?
I’ve probably sat in on fewer than two dozen church services in the last 20 years. There have been a few weddings, a few funerals. I still refuse to aimlessly recite any words I don’t believe in. So don’t be surprised at my non-compliance, if you find yourself sitting next to me in such situations in the future.
If I wasn’t a Lutheran, or even a Christian, what was I? An atheist? Agnostic? I knew what I didn’t believe. What did I believe instead? Of this, I was not sure. I was still thinking.
1972 marked a variety of confirmations for me, and the most public one was a sham. But don’t cry for me, Argentina. Other mentors with brimming bandwagons would soon come my way, and I would be a willing jumper.