“What did you think?” My mother asked, as our blue Chevrolet rolled smoothly out of the parking lot, mingling with more expensive cars on a fresh-paved freeway.
“I liked it,” responded seven-year-old I. “I actually listened.”
We were talking about our first visit to Anna and Sven’s church, an informal affair that gathered weekly in the upper annex of a suburban YMCA. The church had begun in the pastor’s living room, hosting only two or three families. Over the next few years it had grown to six or seven. The pastor and his wife had six children, the youngest still a newborn. They’d welcomed a new child every two years since their eldest.
Church wasn’t a new experience for me. I’d been christened in the Catholic Church my grandparents attended and carried along to various non-denominational meetings, ranging from an informal Bible study with a lone guitarist to a somewhat larger group of mild but friendly moderate Christians with a slightly aging pastor. My mother had been put off by the impersonal feeling of the Catholic mass – and so thoroughly terrified by the severity of the nuns at her Catholic school – that she sought instead a familial atmosphere, a place where God was personal and the congregation close.
Before we met Anna and Sven, we’d been attending a local community church that I remember only as belonging to “Pastor Haines.” We celebrated Palm Sunday there with candles and palms and Easter with bright, fluffy dresses, flowered hats and patent leather shoes. Still, I hadn’t heard much of what Pastor Haines taught. Instead of sitting with the adults during services, I attended “Children’s Church” with the pre-teens. There I shyly interposed my hand at games of Jenga and filled out brightly-coloured Sunday School worksheets. I didn’t concern myself with what the adults were doing in the sanctuary; it was boring to sit and listen to the man in the faraway pulpit talking about things I already knew.
The first day in Anna’s church, however, brought a jolt: children were expected to sit quietly through the whole of the service, she told me sternly, as though expecting that I would protest. I nodded, surprised. Of course you didn’t make noise when someone was talking. I’d brought a Christian colouring book with me and doodled as I listened to the pastor. I thought it was very silly that everyone felt the need to sit still and stare at the man; I could hear him just fine while I enlivened a picture of Jesus with a bright purple robe. Pastor Jacob spoke in simple words about the love of God; he’d been commissioned by the Holy Spirit to “tell the people I love them, I died for them, and they’re free.” These words caught my mother’s heart and attention, and I liked them, too. I gave Jesus a rich auburn beard in my colouring book – the same colour as my own hair – and for one of the last times in my childhood, reflected on how loving and kind he was. Every now and then the sermon was punctuated with a hearty “amen” from a member of the congregation, and I jumped in surprise. What were they saying that for? The pastor is talking.
The service ended with praise songs, largely unaccompanied, with just a guitarist and flutist joined by a tambourine for the quicker tempos. Ahead of us in the next row of folding chairs, a woman lifted her arms and looked soulfully into the air as she sang. I glanced at my mother, confused, and tentatively pointed at the woman, only to have my wrist slapped down with a warning glare. “Don’t point,” she whispered, embarrassed. “It’s rude to point.” Still, I wondered what the woman was doing.
After church, I began milling around underfoot with the other children. I already knew Sven from the homeschooling group, but he’d run off with some of the other boys and I felt obliged to get to know some of the girls. The pastor’s daughter, Sara, was a petite girl with a long, dark ponytail, just one year younger than I. Cheerful and capable with her four younger siblings, she was also the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. She and I would become friends, but I was never quite sure what she liked about me. I was awkward, bumbling, and shy, a wretched contrast to her cheerful, easy frankness. Always tall for my age, I felt like a horse among ponies as I stood beside Sara and the other girls. I sensed distinctly that they were something other than what I was. They were delicate, sweet, even ethereal – I was clumsy, huge, boyish. I felt a nagging sense of regret for something I didn’t yet have the words to describe. I felt worldly next to these girls, raised from birth to be perfect, quiet, holy.
I was decked in a bright, ruffled dress that my mother had picked out for me. The ruffles only seemed to accent my size, making me all the more conspicuous as I tried to blend in with the other girls. I noticed that they all wore dresses, too, but plainer ones. They wore them unself-consciously, as though they did so every day. Their hair, too, was much longer than my shoulder-length bob. I learned that some of them had never had a haircut, and I felt tainted – as though the scissors had robbed me of something intangible, like virginity.
I understood virginity for what it was, but I couldn’t shake the sense that there were lots of trappings to the ideal, virginal young lady that had nothing to do with sex. There were times I felt sexually spoiled, just because my body was so large, awkward, and appallingly physical in its presence. I was too big to be hid by soft, feminine curtains of hair and fabric – I felt that everyone could see right through them to the ugly, dirty core that was me – a sinful monster who carried the weight of her dead brother in the back of her head and the deadly pulse of untamed womanhood already beneath her skin.
I was seven years old – at once naïve and childish, but at the same time older and corrupt, like a withered witch. I didn’t know what it was I was guilty of, but I knew I lacked the glowing purity of these innocent girls. Unknowing of the world and its threats, I was not spared the sense that somehow I’d already been corrupted by them, and therefore was unable to understand or guard against the accusations of those who knew.
Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog The Unspoken Words: A Non-Prophet Message.