Courtship took my church by storm in the 1990s. While I never read I Kissed Dating Goodbye, I was given a number of books about marriage and intimacy and taught explicitly that dating was preparation for divorce. Having never dated, I was not in a position to protest. I listened patiently to the story of the couple in my church who had married without so much as holding hands. They were the happiest couple after Eamon and Pearl, so clearly they’d done something right. I learned that smitten young Message couples would walk around holding each end of a shared stick, in order to express their affection without risking finger-to-finger contact. I thought to myself that it sounded a bit contrived.
I was sure, however, that the first man to touch me would take away something of my purity: a commodity I was given at birth and must guard throughout my life. I was spiritually dressed in a sparkling white wedding gown, which I must constantly defend against the oil of someone else’s hands. Kissing was out of the question. Branham taught that there were “sex glands” in the lips of men and women, and that the two sets should never meet except for marital procreation. But it wasn’t just physical contact to be avoided: broken hearts came, too, from loosely guarded emotions. I must never say the words, “I love you,” to anyone until I was engaged. True love could only happen to the pure.
And so it was with dread that I, at age 15, received and read an email from my friend Karl. I’d known him online for a couple of years – we had joined a message board and discussed our shared love of Japanese anime there. He had been left hanging when I purged my life of secular influences – indeed, I had also purged my life of him, along with the anime and my other very close friends. But on a whim I had logged into AIM, we’d talked, and he’d got my email address. He wrote to me about a dream he’d had where everything was right and beautiful, where I’d come back from my strange and sudden disappearance and told him that it was all okay, now I could finally be with him. He said he loved me. I stared at the email in helpless frustration. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t date! Especially not an unbeliever. With my cheeks burning in the shame of hypocrisy, I clattered out a terrified reply. “It’s not me you need,” I wrote through gritted teeth and tears. “It’s Jesus.” I never felt like such a liar.
Feeling sure that God would bless my efforts to fully commit myself to Him, I deliberately cast Karl out of my mind and immersed myself in a mythology of my own making: a story running from the time I entered the Message to the present. I rejected the name I’d used online, telling myself all that was “Sierra” was sinful and rebellious. “I will not be Sierra again,” I wrote in my journal furiously. I would rededicate my life to Christ, and revert to my childhood nickname, Tara. And onto the set of my little drama waltzed Sven.
The month we finally moved out of my childhood home, into exile in my grandparents’ New Jersey basement, Sven and his family moved back from Connecticut. The coincidence disturbed me: was God telling me that there would always be a gulf in this friendship? Was He keeping me apart from my old best friend? I resisted the thought. Sven understood me like no one else, I thought to myself, looking at the old pictures of the family that brought us into the Message and smiling at our tiny faces. We’ll be friends again. I was hopeful that life without my father would be a purer one, focused on the Message, the Bible, and one in which I would never overeat. My sinful flesh was nearly gone. I could reclaim the innocence of my first days in the Message. And I needed a friend – the purge had swept away a social group of ten, my online lifeline when my world was falling apart. I needed to lay down roots quickly, and I needed to do it in the Message. With a youth group of twenty, I needed simultaneously to be connected and to avoid the advances of Jonathan. Sven was my perfect defense.
“You know,” Sara, the pastor’s daughter, teased me on one of the first autumn days of Sven’s return. Amid the homeschool group winding its way lazily through the zoo on a field trip, I was stealing glances at the newcomer walking amongst the boys. “Sven has a girlfriend.”
I stared at her. “No, he doesn’t.” No good Message boy would ever have a girlfriend! I thought. We don’t date. We court. Besides, people have been calling me his girlfriend since we were six.
“It’s not you,” said Sara. “Her name is Jennifer.”
I ignored her. Jennifer was back in Connecticut. God may have taken me farther away from the fold, but he had certainly taken Sven away from her. We still drove the two hours to church every week. They had not quite got rid of us. I started to borrow Sven’s books, and we established our old rapport again slowly over the Redwall series. It wasn’t long before Sven’s little brother adapted to my presence. He’d been just a baby when the family had moved away, and he initially called me Jennifer – our personalities were similar, I was told. After some months, I learned with satisfaction that he soon referred to us both as Tara instead.
I worshiped Sven’s family. “They are the perfect family,” I sometimes said aloud, catching strange glances from my mother. She’d had a falling out with Anna, his mother, before their departure. “I wish all the kids in the world could be raised by them,” I continued. Sven’s father, Richard, was a kind, easygoing man. He liked coffee and conversation, and we chatted pleasantly together on Sunday afternoons. I observed that he respected his wife, never giving commands. I thought, If I have to marry, I want a husband like that. Their adopted children were also delightful – well-behaved, but not as serious or shy as other children in the Message. They had spirit. The family had a television, and didn’t make a big fuss about watching Disney movies. Their home was filled with the scents of potpourri and spices, and their furniture was plush and inviting. Their home felt like a fairytale oasis after the cramped sleeping quarters in my grandparents’ cellar. I wanted, from the depths of my heart, to be one of their family.
“Ask your mom to adopt me,” I joked with Sven. “I don’t take up much space.”
He laughed. His mother grimaced.
In the summer of 2001, I was invited to drive with Sven’s family to the Believers’ Christian Fellowship Ohio Family Camp, a week-long event filled with services (two a day, four hours apiece) and activities like volleyball for the youth. It was possibly the largest gathering of Message believers in the country, and I was excited to have the chance to escape New Jersey and spend a whole week with my idol family. Soon I was strapped into the back of a nine-passenger van, entertaining myself and the children when Sven tired of talking and buried his face in a book. I felt his mother watching me, and smiled at her. Like me, I thought desperately. I need you to like me. I suppressed the feeling that somehow her gaze was disapproving. I had cleaned her house, babysat her children, brought her flowers, and always, always offered to help. I was blameless. But the sinking feeling kept creeping into my mind that she probably didn’t think so.
At Family Camp, I experienced a wave of culture shock so paralyzing that I felt like running all the way back to eastern Pennsylvania alone. Here the girls didn’t just wear jean skirts – many of them wore cape dresses in calico. Those who didn’t were waiflike, with long, streaming golden hair. They were demure. They smiled with their eyes downcast. Never had my limbs felt so unwieldy or my crooked smile so inferior. The women I observed were either mothers, heavy with the next arrow in their husbands’ quivers, or they were ethereal sprites, patiently awaiting their turn at the marriage altar. And all had their eyes wide open for the husband they’d been praying for since they were little girls. Family Camp was fertile ground for new seeds of courtship – especially since fathers were handily present to grant or withhold permission from hopeful young men.
I was still unconvinced of the benefits of marriage. I was terrified at the prospect of childbirth – let alone the birth of tens of children. I wanted to work, I knew that much, even if it had to be from the home. I needed an outlet, something creative to do with my mind. I could never devote my days only to children – what was the point? I wondered. My mother had devoted her life to me. If I was to do the same thing, would any girl child ever have the chance to just live?
Now, I’m not much of this modernistic taste of women working. When I seen these women with these uniforms on riding around in this city on motorcycles as police, it’s a disgrace to the–any city that’d let a woman do that as many men that’s without work. It shows the modern thinking of our city; it shows the degrading. We don’t have to have them women out there like that. They ain’t got no business out there like that.
When God gave a man a wife, He gave him the best thing He could give him outside of salvation; but when one goes to trying to take a man’s place, then she’s about the worse thing that he could get ahold of.
Now, that’s right. Now, we can see the spiritual application. I–I know that’s bad. You think it’s bad, but it’s the truth. We don’t care how bad it is; we’ve got to face up to the facts. That’s what the Bible teaches. See?
Now, we here see plainly the spiritual plan of God’s planning for His future home with His future Bride comes into view now. If a man marries a sex queen, you see what he’s looking for for the future. If a man marries a woman that won’t stay home, you see what he’s looking for in the future.
And I, one time… This sounds awful, and I–I just feel to say it, and I–I… Usually if I feel to say the thing, I ought to say it, and it–it’s usually God’s way.
I–I used to go with a rancher that I worked with to buy cattle. And I noticed the old fellow always looking right in the face of a heifer before he went to bidding. Then he turned her head and looked back and forth. I followed him along and watched him, and he looked her up and down. And if she looked all right in statue, then he’d turn and look her in the face, and sometime he’d shake his head and walk away.
I said, “Jeff, I want to ask you something.”
He said, “Say on, Bill.”
And I said, “Why do you always look that cow in the face?” I said, “She looks all right, a good–a good heavy cow.”
He said, “I want to tell you, boy; you got a lot to learn.” And I–I realized it after he told me. Said, “I don’t care how she’s made up; she might be beef plumb to the hoof; but if she’s got that wild stare in her face, don’t you never buy her.”
I said, “Why so, Jeff?”
“Well,” said, “the first thing is,” said, “she’ll never stay put.” And he said, “The next thing is, she’ll never be a mammy to her calf.” And said, “They put her in a pen now, the reason that she’s fat. You turn her loose with that wild stare, she’d run herself to death.”
And I said, “You know, I kind of learned something. I believe that applies to women too.”…?… That wild, starey, Ricketta look, better stay away from her, boy. All that there blue stuff over the top of her eyes, and I didn’t–I wouldn’t want that; I don’t think that’s becoming to a Christian. I don’t care how much the television and paper says it’s pretty; it’s the most horrible looking, hideous sight that I ever seen in my life.
The words fell on me like bricks. I knew I had the “wild stare,” and could not root it out of myself. I could not pray enough, work enough, or starve enough to break my own fleshly will to be independent. I bristled at the not-so-subtle assertion that I would one day be picked for a wife like a cow for breeding, but reminded myself that the Word of God was a two-edged sword, cutting away the desires of the flesh. Except it missed – it only stabbed me, leaving me bleeding, my desires intact.
Now, let us compare the natural bride of today with the so-called church bride of today. Compare a woman going to get married today… Now, just look what science has done for her. She comes out first with her hair chopped off, with one of these Jacqueline Kennedy hairdos (See?), or something like that. And you know what the Bible says? The Bible actually gives a man, if he wants to, the right to put her away in divorcement if she does that. She’s a dishonorable woman that’ll cut her hair. The Bible said so. That’s right. Didn’t know that, huh? Oh, yeah, I preached too much in California for you not to know that. That’s right. No. What good does it do me? They do it anyhow. You can’t take the pig and change his–make him a lamb.
Notice. You’re going to hate me after this, but you’re going to know the truth. See? Let’s–let’s compare it. Here she comes up with a whole lot of paint, something that she’s not, a modern bride. Wash her face and you’d run from her, maybe: scare you to death, take all that stuff off of her. And so is the church with the big painted front, a complete theological Max Factor. Both has a beautiful false face on: manmade beauty, and not God-made beauty, not much character in either one.
I retreated to my dorm room after the service, burying my acne-spotted face in the pillow. The ugliness of my rebellious heart was reflected in my skin. I’d never cut my hair. I’d never touched blue eyeshadow. But I wouldn’t stay in my pen. I wouldn’t be mammy to my calves. No wonder I was not beautiful. I was a wild cow and a nightmare, a modern woman despite my best efforts and sincerest prayers not to be. No wonder Message boys looked at me with disdain… except for Sven. I still had Sven, I reminded myself desperately. He was my refuge. I trailed behind him, hiding from the piercing gazes of young men who seemed to be searching my spirit for signs of the wild stare. Although none of them circled me or held up my chin for inspection, I knew that I was judged and found wanting when one of them slammed a door in my face, muttering, “Oh no. It’s her.” I had never spoken to the boy before.
I was determined to hide in the dorm room for as long as I could evade detection, but my plans were thwarted by an unexpected encounter.
A younger girl, only thirteen, looked at me with interest from another bunk bed. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Maria. I saw you talking to Sven – do you know him?”
I eyed her warily. “Yes. He’s my friend.”
She was incredulous. “My mom knows his mom from a long time ago. Want to go talk to him?” she asked. She grabbed my arm. There was a suspicious gleam in her eye. She looked barely twelve.
Maria taught me to French braid my hair, and to recognize my utility. I soon learned that she clung to my arm like the stick the young courting couples used to carry around instead of holding hands. I was her link with Sven, a tool she could use to get close to him. Too weary and distressed to think of a way to extricate myself, I allowed her to cling to me and drag me around the camp in Sven’s shadow. I kept my eyes downcast now like the other girls, afraid of betraying myself with my wild stare. All I wanted was to go to bed and throw the covers over my face, hiding there forever.
I was the lone girl brave enough to befriend a boy, and that was valuable currency at Family Camp. Several of my friends had met their spouses there. Indeed, the sparseness of the Message population made such places the only opportunities young people had to meet others outside of their individual churches. Forbidden to date or even court outside the Message, the stakes were extremely high. In a world where girls and boys stared at each other across a deep, dark gulf before they finally joined hands in marriage, I was an intrepid explorer. That made me far too useful.
At last we were headed back to Pennsylvania. I sat, quiet, in the back of the nine-passenger van, chagrined at the knowledge that I had been used to get to Sven. Worse yet, though, were Branham’s words, still ringing in my ears: Now, She, the true Bride, so sold out to Him that She use no mind of Her own. His mind, of course, is His will, and His will is His Word.
I still had a mind of my own.
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.