God, Guts, and Guns, Part 3: Jesus Loves the Little Children

This post is part of a series. You can read part 1 here and read part 2 here.

A rural church on a nice day. Text says: "You'll find bigots anywhere, but a rural church is a good place to start.

…All the children of the world…

But once again, it seems that some people have a hard time with the definition of ALL.

Instances of racism in my early years in the Methodist church weren’t nearly as abundant or as cruel as they could have been. My mother sat on the charity committee that decided which families received a turkey and a box of food from the church for their holiday meals, and so the lower income racists of the congregation feared that offending her might result in a leaner holiday for them. Ironically, my mother would never have held their bigotry against them because Jesus told us to love our enemies. So, I was aware, every holiday season, that my mom delivered boxes of food to people who absolutely hated us.

Maybe it was my mother’s unrelenting dedication to showing Christ’s love by example, but somewhere along the line, it became cemented in my brain that I, too, had to be a good example, not just as a Christian, but as a Christian of color. It was up to me (and my family) to change the small minds of our small town. Once, when a little racist girl from my school attended the Vacation Bible School class that my mom taught—and had really good time—I was excited that, “Maybe we changed their minds, and I’ll be allowed to go to her parties now.”

How naïve I was!

Racism and bigotry are antithetical to the teachings of Christ. Yet, I remember a number of occasions on which my mother had to wipe my tears and reassure me of that, because someone suggested that someone I loved was going to Hell. Not because of anything they did, but because they were part of a certain marginalized community, or not a Christian, or simply not the right kind of Christian. People had no problem suggesting that my dad wasn’t going to be in Heaven with me. Of course, it was chalked up to his being Catholic and not attending church and having nothing at all to do with the color of his skin, but a few of my white friends’ dads didn’t go to church with them, and no one told my white friends that their daddies weren’t going to Heaven. Or the time a Vacation Bible School teacher told me that my Mormon cousins were part of a cult and needed to find the real Jesus or—you guessed it—Hell. Or when my uncle died, and they whispered that he was most certainly in Hell because he was a gay man who died of AIDS. Never mind that he was one of the kindest souls that you’d have ever wanted to meet, a bit of a trickster, and exactly the kind of uncle I wish I’d had in my life for much longer.

My mother always made sure I knew, “That hatred is their twisted belief and misunderstanding of God, but it’s not true. We don’t believe that.” And I know that on a few occasions, she went to the sources of the nonsense and told them to watch what kind of crap they said to me. Still, the sheer number of times I had to be convinced that it was only a few, fringe bad apples suggested to me that the fringe was bigger than I was being led to believe. Eventually, my mom realized it, too.

Unfortunately, when the general toxicity got bad enough that we started trying other churches, and my mother no longer held the keys to the charity chest, I got to learn just how racist the white evangelicals in our little rural valley really were. 

The crown jewel was being told that I shouldn’t even exist. A “pro-lifer” told me that in my case, abortion would have been okay because mixed-race children are an abomination. Of course, it was twisted to sound like love, that God forbade race mixing for our own good because He doesn’t want us to suffer the hatred that mixed-race children face. Apparently, it’s easier to ask mixed-race kids not to exist at all than it is to ask vile racists not to be vile racists.

Turns out, micro-aggressions were the best-case scenario and a sign of acceptance. White kids looking to me to lead them in song and dance any time “Lean On Me” was played (because that’s obviously my thang), was a better experience than worshipping on Sunday next to people who attacked me with the N-word Monday through Friday at school.

Not in your church! Why, you’ve never heard any of this hateful stuff before! Well, let me ask you: Are you white? Are you straight? Was there ever any reason or occasion for you to have had to hear it? Because I assure you: Yes, in your church.

For the record, I know that #NotAllChristians are bigots. I personally know quite a few good Christians with proven records of calling out and standing against the hatred they see in their churches and communities, because they know that’s what Jesus would do. I’ve read numerous articles published recently (from both religious and secular publications), about Christians of all flavors taking stands against bigotry of all flavors. I’ve worshipped side by side with Christians who truly believe that Jesus loves all the children of the world—no matter their race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. ALL.

But I have to wonder, if I hadn’t grown up mixed-race in a sea of white people, if my family hadn’t been so diverse, if I hadn’t been told that so many of the people that I loved the most were going to Hell, would I have ever questioned any of the other evangelical beliefs that caused so much harm? Would I have ever gotten out?

I shudder to think that if I’d ever felt truly accepted in the white evangelical community, I might still be one of them.

Next: God, Guts, and Guns, Part 4: Where Do We Go From Here?

God, Guts, and Guns, Part 2: That Time I Fired Dirty Harry’s Gun at Church Camp

This post is part of a series. If you missed part 1, you can read it here.

Meme of Clint Eastwood as “Dirty Harry” holding a .44 Magnum. The image text says: “Do you feel lucky, punk? Lucky enough to bet your immortal soul?”

So, do you ever tell a story that seems perfectly normal to you, but then everyone looks at you like they want to give you hot chocolate and a hug? Well, let me tell you about this one time at church camp.

It was actually a winter weekend retreat with the youth group I was part of at the time. Social activities with the church were always parent-approved, and if I recall correctly, I was grounded otherwise for my garbage grade in Geometry, so the choice to go was a pretty easy one to make. I remember some grumbling about not being able to bring outside reading material besides, of course, my own Bible. The X-Men comics needed to stay at home, but at least I’d have something to do with my weekend.

I recall very normal, mundane things. Like how, in addition to my comics, I’d also left my coat behind. I’d taken it off while running around with friends at the pastor’s house before the trip, and had forgotten about it completely by the time of departure. So, I ended up wearing lots of layers the whole weekend. I remember some very normal teenage heartbreak when, shortly after arrival at the camp, a girl walked up to me and asked if I was who she thought I was, which I confirmed. She then introduced herself as the girlfriend of the “Good Christian Boy” I’d met at another Christian event and on whom I’d had a very significant crush. I hadn’t known he had a girlfriend. Thankfully, I was already well-practiced in hiding my emotions, so saving face wasn’t that hard. I might have been heartbroken, but I’d be damned if I let anyone know it. Sucky, but normal, teenager stuff.

I should also remind everyone that I’m talking about rural Pennsylvania, where the first day of buck hunting season and the first day of doe hunting season are holidays off from school. It is assumed that everyone hunts the American whitetail deer, and the age at which you can obtain a youth hunting license in Pennsylvania is 12. While I have never held a hunting license, I admit that target shooting is a lot of fun. I’m convinced that’s part of why we have such a gun problem in America. Just about everyone I know who has been shooting enjoys shooting. Conservative, Liberal, Progressive—it makes little difference. But I digress. The point is that there’s nothing weird about target shooting at a young age in Pennsylvania.

So, what, exactly, was weird?

Shooting a .44 Magnum—decidedly NOT a hunting rifle—while listening to the instructor talk about being good soldiers for Christ. While no one suggested that we go shoot non-Christians, metaphors about keeping our eyes on the target despite distractions from the outside, secular world made it very clear that there was an “us” and a “them” and that we had better be on the right side or Hell awaited.

It’s important to note that there were myriad other weapons available, which we all took turns firing, from handguns to rifles (thankfully, no military style assault rifles), to various bows and arrows. I only remember the .44 Magnum because of the smug smile on the instructor’s face as he put it in my hand and suggested that Dirty Harry’s gun was probably too much for me. (I did just fine, thanks.)

As the first line of this piece suggests, I hadn’t even realized that this wasn’t normal activity at a Christian youth event until I told the story to a handful of Catholic friends. “Oh yeah…The very first time I ever fired a gun was at church camp.” And that’s when I got that Red Cross, hot chocolate and a hug look. The more I tried to explain it away, the more it looked like I needed a hug and lots of therapy. It was concerning for them that I thought this was normal.

They were right.

I talked to my mother about the guns at the youth retreat years later, and she’d had no idea that shooting had been an activity. She’d never signed any consent forms for me, older than 12, but still a minor, to fire any weapons. But most importantly, I don’t recall anyone at all asking any questions at all about the activities. It was simply assumed that because it was church, it was automatically good and wholesome. All parents needed to know, all youth leaders needed to know, was that it was an evangelical Christian event.

Please check out any church or church sponsored activity before you just send your kids. You may not think they’re getting extremist messaging—and they may not be, but they very well may be. Ask the questions, no matter how outlandish and unnecessary you think they are, because you may be surprised by the answers.

If you ever question whether my Catholic friends were right, I need to ask you a question. The very same question you might have been asking yourself while reading and that I’ve asked myself a million times: “What if we’d been Muslims?” Or literally anyone not majority white and evangelical…

Next: God, Guts, and Guns, Part 3: Jesus Loves the Little Children

God, Guts, and Guns, Part 1: Background

Lately, I find myself in a lot of conversations about Christianity, the nature of Christ, and how the Bible is interpreted—or misinterpreted. My opinions are often dismissed by a certain demographic that sees my melanated skin and my mixed-race family and assumes that I’m a “big city liberal” who has never seen the inside of a small-town church or attended a humble Bible study.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

A crowd of young people at an outdoor Christian music festival. Some people have their arms raised in praise.
Image from the Creation Festival Facebook page. The Creation Festival is an annual Christian music festival held at Agape Farm in Shirleysburg, PA (near Mount Union, PA), which I attended a few times in my youth.

I don’t often talk about my early years. Growing up mixed-race in rural Pennsylvania was exactly as much fun as you’d think. So, I don’t like to think about it. But be assured, I grew up in “God, Guts, and Guns” country, as declared proudly on bumper stickers plastered to trucks with gunracks mounted to their rear windows. I only share this background now because people often try to discredit my experience by focusing on what they think are discrepancies in my story when I tell it in pieces. “Well, are you a Catholic or a Baptist? Make up your mind. You’re clearly full of shit.”

Oh, how narrow their worlds must be!

The short history is that my father is Black, and he and his side of the family are Catholic. My mother is white, and was at the time in question, an evangelical Protestant. I was baptized Catholic at the insistence of my paternal grandmother, but when it came to my spiritual upbringing, my father declared, “I was an altar boy and went to Catholic school. God and I are square.” (When I shared this with coworkers at a Catholic magazine I briefly worked for, I had to pause to let them laugh before I went on. Apparently, this sentiment is common?) And so, if I was to be raised in church at all, it would be white, evangelical churches with my mother.

We started out in a United Methodist church (my brother was baptized Methodist, and I had been an acolyte), but due to some spiritual trauma my mother experienced there, we left that church in my mid-teens and tried out a handful of churches over the course of a few years. I specifically recall a Wesleyan church and an Assembly of God before my mother, brother, and I were baptized again (by full submersion) as Baptists. I think I was eighteen. Nineteen, maybe?

There are some people who have suggested that not staying in one faith community was part of the problem. That we had too many ideas from too many places, displaying a lack of faith from the jump. That if we’d stayed in one community, we wouldn’t have been affected by all the outside noise. We wouldn’t have questioned. If that seems hinky to you, if it raises the hairs on the back of your neck, it should. And that sentiment was among the more benign suggestions. There are some who have appallingly suggested to me that my problem is being from a mixed-faith and mixed-race family to begin with, but I’ll get to more on that later.

For now, what I need to make clear, what I need to regretfully confess, is just how very “in it” I was. My mother was a lay speaker and youth leader. She had been a counselor at the same summer “Jesus camp” I attended. Church was a twice-per-week thing, and Bible study was a given. I was often embarrassed by my mother’s insistence on Christian radio when carpooling with my friends, only to be ashamed by that embarrassment later when I sobbed all over myself during altar calls, rededicating my life to Jesus after a particularly fear-based, fire and brimstone sermon. On my knees shaking, crying, and begging for forgiveness and salvation from Hell.

It wasn’t just church, but activism, too. You want to talk about cancel culture? I learned about how a boycott works in Sunday school. You want to picket the porn shop down the street? I know how to organize that. And—perhaps most regretfully—you want to know about protests and marches? My first protest was a “pro-life” march.

So, I was in it, friends. Talked the talk, and quite literally walked the walk. I often cringe at the shameful things I said and did as an evangelical Christian trying to impose my beliefs on others because I was told that’s what good Christians do. But if there’s an upside to any of it, it’s that those evangelicals trained me (and I use the word “trained” for a reason). I understand the logic of their illogic. I know what their goals are and what they’re going to do to achieve them. And that’s why it’s time—past time—to write about it.

Next: God, Guts, and Guns, Part 2: That Time I Fired Dirty Harry’s Gun at Church Camp