“Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee, / And I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.”
It was always the same, walking into the large, wide open sanctuary. Hundreds and hundreds of seats, padded green cloth atop stark metal frames interlocked to form the most modern version of the pew, something to keep a congregation comfortable. Before the newest renovations, before the multi-million dollar construction of a white building that sat on the hill, echoing Zion, before the patronage was large enough to provide a steady income for the pastor and his family, there were real pews. Great wooden things that curled the spine, stretching across the building and accommodating whole families on single benches. These awkward, rigid, imposing pews encouraged encouragement, because a back that’s stiff and legs that tingle from lack of circulation are all too willing to leap from their seats and exclaim, “Yes, Lord!” or “Preach it, Brother!”
I don’t remember being introduced to Pentecost. I inherited it, as my father did from his father, who discovered the charismatic religion after the birth of his first child. I don’t remember learning about faith, either. There was Sunday school, of course, but that was more of a forced memorization, an indoctrinating pressure that’s a far cry from any proper classroom or lecture hall. Some things are just too important to learn, so you have to be told.
There was no Pentecostal movement to speak of until the early 1900s, when a one-eyed preacher named William J. Seymour lit the Christian world on fire with a nine-year revival in Los Angeles. Revival, in the realm of charismatic religion, signifies a period of extreme spiritual fervor. Think of it as the holy equivalent of an all-nighter; a few cups of coffee and final papers due in the morning. That’s revival, a week, maybe a month, jammed full of all-night prayer meetings, daily intercession for the world and the lost, church meetings whenever and wherever the congregation can find some time. Revival doesn’t generally last too long. People get tired; it’s easy to burn yourself out on anything. That’s what made Seymour’s revival so noteworthy, a nine-year period of ardent, draining church, the sort of service that leaves you sore the next day. In this environment, this fertile soil, the early Pentecostal church flourished, burgeoned by the new, a sense of strangeness, exalted exhaustion, something physical that you can feel. They tapped into something that religion had long since left to tribes and pagans and ritualized dance. Pentecost brought the feeling back to Christ.
When I was a child, too young to understand the concept of shame, ignorant of the way guilt makes your face hot and your insides churn like a tea kettle, I would lie beneath the pews during services and draw pictures of tigers and dinosaurs while my parents were taught the proper way to indoctrinate their freckle-faced little boy. With my cheek pressed to the ground I would peer at the world through the window between my father’s ankles, watching the hundred feet shift about nervously or dance with divine joy, working their soles across the sparse carpet, wringing their souls against the washboard of Old Testament fury. There was still no balance, just a reliance on the given, on the taught, on the told.
By the time our church had expanded enough to justify a new building, and I had grown old enough to wear a tie and sit still, comfort was key. The significant portion of our congregation that was elderly just couldn’t bear the cruel knots that old wooden pews so freely gave, so the iconic symbols of an old-world flock were replaced by the relatively comfortable green chairs that I knew until my late teens. I’m sure that comfort wasn’t the only motivation for so drastic a change in scenery. Those massive, sturdy pews can’t be cheap, and there are more important uses for tithes and offerings than carved, lacquered oak. As painful as those old pews were, I felt a distinct loss when I saw the new setup. There was something beautiful about the heavy old pews, beautiful in the way a weathered old preacher man is beautiful, unchanging in his fire-and-brimstone conviction, standing against the tide of worldly compromise. A harsh beauty, certainly, but beauty nonetheless.
At the front of the sanctuary the altar rose several feet above the floor by way of two carpeted steps that ran the entire breadth of the room. In the center of the altar was the pulpit, a great wooden block supported by two miniature Doric columns that spoke of strength and stability. It was painted a brilliant white, pure, and built to resist the pounding fists and heavy, leaning lamentations of the Pastor when he was incensed, when he was distraught, when his voice swelled to fill the whole building and then cracked, bubbling over into tears and cries of sorrow. “Oh Lord, may we forgive ourselves as you forgive us!”
In these moments of overwhelming compassion or righteous fury, the man of God was supported by his ministers, the distinguished gentlemen allowed the honor of sitting on the platform. Their chairs were on either side of the pulpit, set back a dozen feet to allow room for the Pastor to dance or stomp or pace. They weren’t subjected to the same chairs as we, bare little things that seemed to remind us of our place in the world. No, theirs were large and ornate, green leather with clawed feet and sturdy armrests. I suppose that upon reaching a level of spiritual enlightenment one earns a throne on Earth to match the crown of stars that awaits him in the After.
Pushing past the holy men reveals a large, rectangular indentation in the back wall, raised several feet above the platform. In it lies the baptismal, a white tub kept filled with warm, perfumed water. From eye level, all you can see is the cavernous darkness of the hole in the wall, but on the occasions when a lucky soul, a blessed soul, was lowered into the water and washed clean of all his sins, a huge swathe of the congregation would crowd on the platform and observe the ritual with a range of emotional reactions. Some cried at the beauty, at the gravity of the situation. Others laughed and danced, throwing their hands in the air and praising the Lord for He is good, He is merciful, and somehow the great HE deems us worthy of something so holy as forgiveness.
I had always wondered how Sin was inherited, through the blood of generations or weaving into the intangible spirit that connects us to our forefathers, stretching back to that first bite of sweet, juicy Knowledge. It never made sense to me, being held responsible for the sins of our fathers, but I suppose therein lie the true tenets of Faith—a distinct disregard for probing questions and answers to riddles best left unasked.
In Pentecost, baptism is something special, something important. It only happens once, in their house, and as such it’s treated with the respect that momentous occasions deserve. Inside the tub is a small seat, drilled into the wall, and further down is a bar meant to brace the tops of the feet, the sinewy crook where the shin meets the ankle. This might not make sense to those familiar with the Catholic concept of baptism, which is entirely different in relation to the physical, if not also to the spiritual. Far from the somber, ritualized sprinkling of the forehead that the Vatican promotes, our baptism was a much more uncouth affair. Sitting on the chair, the dirty soul would pinch his nose between the thumb and forefinger of his dominant hand. The pastor would hold the wrists of the penitent and plunge them, with no small force, into the water, letting it completely cover the body. I was under for longer than I had expected, and when I emerged, clean and pure as the driven snow, I sputtered and coughed the sweet-smelling water from my lungs.
Throughout the course of the baptism, the pastor, the ministers, the entire building, are actively praying. This isn’t the silent bedside prayer of the young child, or the whispered, insecure plea of the man in trouble, or even the loud, melodic reverie of the monastery. No, this is intercession in its most committal form. There is no room for embarrassment when you dance and cry out to your god at the top of your lungs. How quickly insecurity melts when a dozen hands push and shake and support you, each quaking to the personal convulsions of its body. How quiet must a bowed head and whispered confession be, set against such a torrent of shouting, of crying and praising and begging for forgiveness, as if the very face of God were present in the room, glaring into the depths of each and every pitiful child present? This is where the phenomenon of tongues enters the room, swift and contagious as an airborne plague.
Speaking in tongues has been practiced by various religions throughout time, each in a different way according to individual interpretations of whatever holy book or carved tablet is being followed. Simply put, it’s the act of speaking in a language, or multiple languages, that are unknown to the speaker outside of the instance of worship. It was a staple of the Pentecostal denomination, used in two distinct forms. The first is a solemn, prophetic fashion, one person bursting from his chair and speaking in a mishmash of what sounds like Hebrew and Spanish with a dash of German and a bit of Seraphim, followed by another, more poetic soul, heeding the divine call to stand himself and interpret these tongues. Sometimes the interpretations are regurgitated verses from familiar scriptures, damning or affirming the flock and offering a rather mystical conclusion to a mystical event. Other times the address is direct, as if God himself were speaking through the babbler, then through the interpreter, then directly into your ears. This form of tongues, known specifically as tongues and interpretation, happened fairly rarely in my own religious experience, once or twice in any given year.
The second and more common use of speaking in tongues in the church to which I once belonged was the general utterance of incomprehensible language during fervent prayer. During a worship service, which I loosely define as any sort of deviation from the standard singing-preaching-prayer-dismissal formula that the average Sunday (and Wednesday and Friday) consisted of, we would rise from our seats and clap our hands, singing along to whatever songs the talented musicians were led to play. In these instances it was but a matter of time before a lone person would step from his or her place and walk to the altar, sometimes standing with arms outstretched, sometimes kneeling and rocking to the rhythm of their own personal song. They would offer themselves as a focal point for the rest of us, an example of selfless bravery, willing to be judged as needing the attention of a hundred eyes. Others would invariably follow, stepping up near the first or finding their own parcel of altar to stake. Then we would all move up; placing hands on shoulders and sweating backs, gazing to the ceiling, through the ceiling, with bleary eyes, jumping, dancing, weeping, shaking, rocking, speaking in tongues. These tongues were far less organized than their interpretive cousins, generally sounding like gibberish, like a weeping child attempting to string together multi-syllabic words far beyond its comprehension. I suppose that was the general idea, though, a release of the self into the breath of a higher power. These sounds didn’t serve a distinct purpose, like tongues and interpretation. The words were, at heart, a form of worship, an expression of love, of brokenness, of sorrow or joy, used by every member of the congregation.
I did it, too, every step of the way. I jumped alongside my brothers and I wept on the floor with my sisters. I placed my hands on their moist frames and rocked back and forth, crying aloud with every ounce of devotion and familial love that I could wring from my doubt-filled body. I spoke in tongues, letting my jaw quiver and snap involuntarily, speaking words that I did not recognize. I thought, as they all did, and as many of them still do, that I was speaking in an angelic tongue, a holy voice cobbled together from the disparate languages of man and the heavenly voices of the angels, a set of unknowable grammatical rules and sentence structures fit only for the ears of the divine. I don’t believe that any more. After my doubts, which had been present since I knew the meaning of the word, took root, I began to examine these seemingly supernatural utterances and discovered that I was, for lack of a better term, parroting. The nonsensical syllables I uttered were bits and pieces from the “holy” words I heard around me. The first word I heard from Brother Rodney, then a few lines of something strange from Pastor Kinsler, then a sputtering declaration of unknown phrases from Sister Pruitt, from Brother Starr, from Brother Smith. I had been listening intently in my earliest religious days, absorbing the information present and re-appropriating it to serve my own needs, to fake my way into holy favor, or at least the favor of holy men. As I became aware of this, of the empty words and obligatory ritual, the stability that I had known for so long began to slip away. I had begun to lose my God.
I won’t say that I didn’t feel something when I engaged in such vigorous worship. There’s an undeniable emotional presence when one moves like that, in a congregation full of like-minded teeth-gnashers and robe-tearers. I won’t profane to call it holy—since my apostasy the word “holy” has taken on a new and far more beautiful meaning, becoming more holy than it ever was when uttered in faith. Not holy, then, but undeniably profound and affecting. I defy anyone not to be inwardly moved when surrounded by the fervent prayers and blatant, open love of a congregation unified in worship. It’s infectious, spreading like wildfire through the forest of people dancing and jumping and waving their arms, leaking tears at an astounding rate, unconcerned with their image, their persona, their individual faults, their pride and shame and weakness. There’s something beautiful in this release, not unlike the stoic beauty of the pew, the harsh beauty of the preacher man with his criss-cross scars and deep, gravelly voice.
Beauty despite horror, that’s where I’m constantly led when I examine my religious experiences. I was born into this, I was raised into this, I was expected to follow this unto my dying days, even then extolling the virtues of the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. Somewhere along the line, I tripped, and because of that stumble I never quite recovered. Mercy became a thin veil for cruelty; grace a mere shadow of guilt. The plain human influence on the church began to distract me—the intolerance, the sexism, the manipulation. All of the tenets of faith felt to me as a cat being stroked against the grain of his fur, a constant irritation because while the notions are right, while there is a fundamental understanding of something beautiful, something pure, everyone is going about it the wrong way. It’s unnecessary, the lot of it, and at some point I came to terms with my inability to have faith in the unseen. I have stripped my life of God, have left the church and the belief and the spirit itself behind me. Still, through all that I have experienced since my denial of the supernatural, a denial that I staunchly uphold as truth, I have not been able to wash myself clean of the sins of the past. The sin of weakness, of subservient belief and insecurity, the sin of judgment and arrogance, of wasted years and wasted words, wasted grief and wasted emotion. Above all, the sin of adopting a false identity. I have stepped away completely, removing myself from the world I came from in order to find something tangible, something fulfilling.
But no matter where I am now or what I believe, I can still close my eyes and see those rows of green chairs, locked together with small metal tabs on each side to create that false-pew sensibility of unity. I can smell the warm, tepid water of the baptismal, the sweat of my now-divorced brothers and sisters. I can feel the swell of emotion that comes with a favorite song, one that declares the might and power of my former lord in the face of the impurity of this world. My altar has no carpet now, but I can still feel the rough fabric pressed against my forehead, bowed to the ground in humble abandonment of the self. These images, these sensations, these memories haunt me more than any “sinful” deed committed during my Christianity.
That is the way it was, always, the pews and the chairs, the water and the sweat, the songs and the tongues and the guilt and the fear. It hasn’t left me; I still view the world through the judgment-tinted glasses of Pentecost, still run through the familiar verses in my brain. “You can take the boy out of church…” the elders used to say. They were right; it sticks with you, the way a honeybee leaves a stinger, still attached to vital organs and a pumping venom sac, lodged in your skin as it flies off to die. It has staying power, the Good Book, with verses that mimic LSD, that little tab of paper that creates chemical reactions in your brain whose byproducts never leave the body. Toxins, all of them, glued to the fatty tissue and nerve endings, waiting for the perfect moment to re-dose and take over. It has this staying power, this saccharine stickiness, because it’s trauma. It lasts forever, a scar on the heart and the brain.
Sometimes I catch myself praying, thanking God for a new day or a hot meal, a renewed potential to live for him, and I bite my tongue. The pews rush back, the worship rises in my chest and tears well up in my eyes, and I just keep biting.