by Anna Wermuth; illustrations by Emma Kerr

In 1976, a nurse named Karen Quigley walks into a hospital room in Charleston, South Carolina. Her patient is a 26-year old male with thick, bushy brows, blue-green eyes, a wide nose and a head of wavy dark hair. He has a herniated disc, and a pinched spinal nerve is sending sharp pain down his leg. He asks for something to read, so she loans him her pocket Bible. While reading, he has the urge to make marks in it. He asks his mother to buy him another copy, so as not to write in the nurse’s.

About a week later, he is discharged from the hospital, but still has extreme difficulty walking. He sets up a hospital bed in his duplex. His mother stays in town. He continues reading the Bible, and he remembers the nurse’s name. One day, he craves a cigarette, and thinks to call out to his mom to ask for one. He stops himself, knowing that once he recovers he will want to be normal—he wants to play tennis, go on dates, and walk without pain. He wants to be healthy, and cigarettes aren’t a part of that equation. So he quits cold turkey.

Before long, he regains the ability to walk. He walks to the grocery store once a week, and on his way there passes the local church. He makes another big decision: when he’s fully well, he will become a member of that church. It’s time he becomes a believer.

In 1983 he moves to St. Louis, Missouri to attend Covenant Theological Seminary. He fills his shelves with theology books. He remembers the nurse who lent him that pocket Bible, that first copy that really moved him. He reads, and he prays and sometimes he gazes at the sky, up where many people think God sits.

That man is my father. I’ve heard the above story—like all of his stories—many, many times. He has been a devout Christian since he was 26, when his world opened up to the teachings of Christ. At the same time, his world closed the doors to many others. I can’t imagine what kind of person he would be if none of it had happened. Maybe he would believe that the Earth is actually 4.5 billion years old, not a mere 8,000.

Part of growing up is shedding the illusions you have about your parents. When you admire them and have fun with them, they are superheroes. When you fear them and resent them, they are villains. To humanize them is to begin to see the full picture. With empathy you can step into their big, worn-down shoes and notice that parents are volatile, confused and brave. From family history, you can align the puzzle pieces of people, places and events that influenced them to be who they are. Then, naturally, the way you see yourself begins to change. For the last few years, this personal awakening has been rapid and intense. It involves making complex connections between my memories, ideas and more recent observations, all while recognizing that my perspective is limited by what I think I know. Most of it hurts like hell.

I never had to dramatically sever myself from my dad’s belief system, because it never really resonated with me. Sure, I went to church with him, sang the hymns, attended Sunday school, made friends, went to cookouts, even had fun at Vacation Bible School during the summer. Some part of me has always been attracted to the mysticism of religion, and sometimes I wish I still had those guiding principles to fall back on when I feel lost.

Yet, in shedding my illusions about my father, I have needed to scrutinize the limitations bound up in his faith. It is, of course, impossible to trace the full effect of Christianity on someone whose entire adulthood has been devoted to it and whose values and habits have been formed through it. I could never guess what my dad has seen and felt. Even now, I’m still trying to understand precisely how Christianity has shaped my father, and how Christian principles, though never at the front of my mind, have deeply impacted my family and my life.

My parents met at Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church (PRPC) in St. Louis in 1991. He was 41, she was 29 and the mother of three girls—ages six, five and two. Her first husband, who was supposed to become a pastor but never did, left her when she was pregnant with her youngest, my half-sister Janell. When my mom and dad met, she was caring for her three toddlers with the help of her sister Lori, and it was Lori who brought my mom to PRPC for the first time, thinking it was a better community than the one they already belonged to.

They grew up attending the Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) church. It was formed in opposition to the many Baptist congregations in the early 20th century that were adopting modern, liberal characteristics. IFB rejected such changes and strictly established more conservative values. Rules for female members included: no pants or slacks, only skirts; no dancing, drinking or smoking at any age; no physical contact with the opposite sex. A six-inch ruler was placed between young boys and girls if they sat next to each other in the church pews. As a teenager, my mom was subjected to repeated emotional and mental abuse from ministers and physical abuse by the youth pastor. Her family moved about once a year, so she was able to escape those men eventually. However, the trauma of the abuse never left her. My maternal grandparents and four of their children remain members of the IFB today. 

Ironically, there are some strong similarities between the IFB and Reformed Presbyterian churches. Both fall under the larger umbrella of Protestantism and tend to be critical of other factions of Christianity. The Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1646 and adopted by the Presbyterian Church in 1789, says, “The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become not churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan.” Similarly, IFB believes in absolute separation from any church not associated with their traditions. They refer to Ephesians 5:11, “Have nothing to do with fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” I remember hearing, as a 12 or 13-year-old, the pastor at PRPC vehemently shaming any denomination outside of ours, warning against the evils of paganism. I stopped attending my father’s church soon afterward.

Another part of growing up is learning that the world is plagued by inequality and prejudice. Christianity, along with many other world religions, is not exempt. The Bible is a patriarchal text and is rife with gender roles that subordinate women into positions of powerlessness. An example: “Tell the older women to be reverent in behavior… They are to teach what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good managers of the household, kind, being submissive to their husbands, so that the word of God may not be discredited” (Titus 2:3). While many modern forms of Christianity distance themselves from oppressive ideas found in the Bible, both the Fundamental Baptists and the Reformed Presbyterians revere the Scripture as the ultimate Word of God and tend to interpret it literally. Looking back, I can see how the value of scripture was put into practice at PRPC. Much of my time at church was spent memorizing passages. It was deemed imperative, even for children. I often didn’t understand the meaning behind the words, but the adults only emphasized accuracy in memorization, not comprehension.  My mom says that though PRPC lacked the specific, sexist rules of her parent’s church, it was more “blatantly judgmental” of its female members. Until she was able to fully comprehend the patriarchal pattern, she and my Aunt Lori continued to attend, hoping to find a more welcoming space than the one they were used to.

Initially, my dad was charismatic and considerate of my mom and her young daughters. The two of them dated for three years before marrying in 1994. By the turn of the millennium, there were six children and two adults living in a three-bedroom house.

Once, my mom was offered a part-time job playing the organ at a Catholic church. We desperately needed the extra income. My father refused to let her take the job. Meanwhile, he continued to donate to PRPC on a weekly basis, in order to contribute to the pastor’s salary, fund the maintenance of the building and support whatever else was in the church’s budget. He still does this today.

The way I remember my dad from my childhood is that he was quick-tempered, harsh and scary. He was easily upset by the smallest mistakes—spilling water at the dinner table, leaving a towel anywhere but the drying rack, dropping and breaking something of no particular value. He expressed his anger through yelling and he punished with spanking. Though I was disciplined often, I never received more than 12-15 strikes at a time. Once, he spanked his stepdaughter Jessica close to 30 times for leaving her hairbrush on the kitchen counter. Regarding discipline, the Bible says, “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him,” (Proverbs 22:15) and, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). I can see now that, according to scripture, we were to fear our father the way he fears God. In Christianity, “fear” implies that you are capable of humility, repentance and devotion. If a father is to bring up his children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” the element of fear is crucial.

Gradually, my mom began to question everything she knew about the religion that dominated every household she’d ever lived in. What was it about my father’s faith that moved him to such cruelty? Why should she continue to tolerate unkindness, when she knew somewhere in her heart that she was worth so much more? How could she sit by and watch yet another man be a less than adequate husband and father? When could she finally break the cycle of abuse, which seemed rooted in an interpretation of the Bible?

After years of questioning, my mom initiated a divorce. It was 2001 and they’d been married for seven years. When PRPC caught word that she’d left the household, she was excommunicated from the church, meaning she was officially excluded from any future participation or affiliation. My Aunt Lori was also excommunicated when she ended her much longer marriage with a physically abusive husband.

The way the church responded to my mom taking care of herself was the last straw in her severance from Christianity. She now considers herself an atheist, though part of her income comes from playing the organ (she’s very good and enjoys the music). She pays close attention to developments in science and played a major role in my affinity for scientific thinking. She taught me to question systems of power, defend myself against any degree of abuse and to always do what I must to take care of myself. If she hadn’t left my dad and the Christian faith altogether, I probably wouldn’t have learned any of those lessons. She is the only person in her family who has ever left and many of them, especially her father, gravely resent her for it.

These days, my father is different. He is subdued, stationary and inevitably lonely. He is 66 years old and would like to retire, but doesn’t have enough in his savings. He rarely talks about his emotions, but the one vulnerable feeling he has shared with my siblings and me is that he’s disappointed in himself for not making enough money to take us places like he used to. That disappointment, along with our increasing independence, has resulted in sparse interactions between us.

Besides the thrift store where he works, church is one of the only places he regularly goes. Last December, on his 62nd birthday, he was returning from a Sunday morning service when he got in a minor car accident just down the street from his house. A woman wasn’t paying attention as she pulled out of a parking lot, and the front of her car collided with the side of his. I don’t know for certain if PRPC pitched in when my dad bought another used vehicle after that, but it’s quite likely. I suppose his years of giving tithes helped him in the end.

When I was home for winter break last month, I stayed in a spare room at my mom’s, but one night I crashed on my dad’s couch after staying up late with my little sister. On Christmas Eve morning he woke up at 6:30 and went straight to his computer, where he spends most of his time. He didn’t know I was sleeping in the adjacent room. Suddenly, I heard a strange, ominous male voice begin to read. After a few sentences I could tell it was a Bible passage. The man spoke of chariots going up in smoke, hungry locusts, furious dragons, woeful sinners, suffering prostitutes and countless other images that haunted me as I tried to go back to sleep. The recording must have lasted almost fifteen minutes. When the sun came up, my dad discovered that I was there all along, and apologized for making noise. Neither of us mentioned the apocalyptic voice.

So much about Christianity makes me angry or uncomfortable. Coming to terms with what that means for me is nothing short of perplexing. Yet, there is one conclusion I feel ready to make. Despite its oppressive and restrictive nature, religion is not inherently bad. It has given billions of human beings a way to navigate this bizarre and terrifying world. It’s often divisive, but it also brings communities together in reverence and gratitude. It can help some of us to see beauty in what we will never understand. My dad is a human being with flaws and he adopted a flawed belief system because it was familiar and accessible. His faith is a comfort to him, when nothing else seems to be. If, as he gets older, it brings him solace to think that God will deliver him to a realm of everlasting rest, I won’t try to take that away.