“Would you like a picture of Jesus?” said a young man, standing on the sidewalk.
I was in a hurry to get to the community garden before the worst of the noonday heat, but I stopped anyway. I haven’t talked to anyone outside the family in awhile. I was lonely. I saw there two young men, in white button-downs and black ties, nametags, conservative haircuts that made them look like twins. I knew very well that this was a sales pitch, but I said “yes.”
He handed me a card with a painting of a rather Caucasian Jesus on the front, and a phone number and “Jesus loves you!” handwritten on the back. I haven’t been a bouncy Steubenville Charismatic in years and years. Nobody’s randomly handed me a prayer card or said “Jesus loves you” in so long. I hugged the picture and pocketed it. And then I got the talk and a free copy of the Book of Mormon, and I listened and asked questions. I always find it fascinating when people who actually believe their religion tell me about their religion. It’s so very different from hearing about their religion from an expert who’s studied it, or looking up their religion in a book about religions. Religions are lived. Religions don’t look like books, they look like people.
The young men were very pleasant. We talked and bantered for awhile. It felt good.
I took the Book of Mormon to the garden with me; I brought it home and stacked it on to of my To Read pile. I actually will read it, because I like learning about religions. Maybe God will inspire me. But I certainly don’t plan to become a Mormon– I think I’d make an even worse Mormon than I’ve made a Catholic.
I chatted about the experience with a friend online. She reminded me of what I already know: what the missionaries were doing is called “Love Bombing.”
Love bombing is a technique people use to get you caught in all kinds of terrible situations: recruiting a convert to a high-control religion or a cult; fast-talking someone into a pyramid scheme; getting an escaped family member back into the clutches of an abusive family. Once I was right where I wanted them, the love and attention would dry up. If I dared ask the wrong question or do the wrong thing, the love would evaporate completely and I’d be shunned.
I thought about being welcomed when I first came to Steubenville, and then the welcome dying off. People fawning over me and telling me “welcome home” and treating me like family, and me autistically assuming they meant it, and then they weren’t family anymore. This happened again and again. I thought about joining Totus Tuus Maria and the other girls telling me that I was to tell them everything about me, that I was to give them all the details of my life and my sufferings so they could pray. I thought about how they told me to ask for help whenever I needed it and to have the courage to be vulnerable with them so they could “serve me” and I could offer up my suffering for the group. And then I got thrown out, because they found me a burden. I thought about trying to be Byzantine Catholic and thinking I’d found my niche, and that blowing up in my face as well.
I thought about my family starting a Charismatic Community, and the whole community folding within a few years. After that we had the books and the propaganda and the fear and religious trauma, so much of my childhood was still like growing up in a cult, but we didn’t have a Charismatic cult to belong to.
I thought about the girls I knew who were sent to the Legionnaires of Christ’s infamous boarding schools, and were told that Jesus was going to marry them, and given a ring. And then, on a whim, they were sent home in the middle of the school year with no ring and no explanation, except that Jesus changed His mind.
Always the love bombing, and then the abandonment.
I thought about how angry I’ve been, the past two and a half years. I’ve been sick with fear, so overwhelmed with panic attacks that I can’t go into a church, so sad I feel like my whole life was wasted, but I’m also angry. I’ve been telling God how unjust He is, to abandon me in the Ohio Valley.
Religions look like people. Have I been assuming that God looks like religion?
The fervor I used to have, the way it all went wrong, the horrific realization that my particular sect of the Catholic Church had always been a vicious cult. Have I assumed that God love bombed me and then threw me away, because that’s what God’s self-appointed mascots here on earth did?
I think I have.
I don’t blame myself for thinking that. I can understand the logic. But what if He didn’t?
What if He’s still here?
What if I’m too shell shocked to see God, but God hasn’t changed?
I’ve been trying so hard to earn God. I’ve been following every rule, avoiding so many harmless things, trying to make my repentance perfect whenever I fail, because I thought God would yank His love away. And for the past few years I’ve felt that it was gone, no matter how hard I tried to earn it back.
What if God doesn’t look like people, because God remains faithful?
That’s just something I’ve been pondering, sitting here next to my pile of books, with the Book of Mormon and a stuffy picture of Jesus on the nightstand next to me.
We’ll just have to see where we go from here.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy