I know, that sounds like a setup for a bad joke, but it is my reality.
I grew up in an intolerant Christian fundamentalist church, which tended to see other religions, or other branches of Christianity, as either (1) wrong, (2) dead wrong, or (3) heathen. Catholics were thought to be all three, and were doomed to eternity in hell because they were sprinklers instead of dunkers, although I always kind of admired them because they sponsored lively social events which sometimes had beer. My church on the other hand, was strict Prohibitionist.
I realized the depth of their isolationist approach to life when I was still a child in the 1960s, being subject to slide shows and missionary talks from what they called “Project Italy.” Now I knew about missionaries, and heard stories about going to third-world countries, building homes and bringing water to poor African villages, and that all sounded worthwhile and noble. But this church’s missionary work had none of that. No, their work involved sending young people to Italy to convert Catholics. Even at ten years old, I could see the absurdity of the whole concept.
It all seemed pointless, as the prevailing theory was that all non-Christians went to hell, all Christians outside of that particular church were going to hell, and most people in the church were going to hell too. It seemed like a losing game from the beginning. I recall a “fire and brimstone” preacher talking about sin, and how he himself had to repent from his misspent youth, when he was known for playing fiddle in barn dances (the horror!). You could also earn a spot in hell for being a woman and taking authority over a man, or for being a man and allowing it to happen. Their attitude towards women seemed normal to me at the time, reinforced by the social mores of the 1960s. I grew up thinking that all women (with the possible exception of my grade school teachers) stayed at home.
When my oldest sister fell in love with and married a Catholic man, my parents thought the world had ended, and my dad brought out his bible and set out to convert him, lest his immoral ways drag my sister down to Papist hell. But my brother-in-law, a good man, stuck to his guns and refused to succumb to fundamentalist glory, and married my sister anyway. By the time it was my turn to get married, my parents had already been softened somewhat by the experience, and realized that any such attempts at conversion would be hopeless. I married a Jew. There was much wailing and carrying on, but no attempts at conversion.
We moved to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, where all thoughts of fundamentalism became my past, with my present being an occasional foray into the world of such horrible delights as the Unitarians, which always had great donuts after service; the Baha’i, whose universal philosophy, egalitarian attitude towards women, and Persian hospitality was refreshing; and the Hare Krishna, which was delightfully Bohemian and had great Indian food at their meetings.
My second wife – the Christian – represented what was, in retrospect, an unfortunate instance of backsliding into my childhood. A southern woman who made chicken-and-dumplings, her accent, despite the fact that I grew up hearing my mother’s own southern twang, sometimes confused me. She insisted on having what I thought she called a cannon room in our house. I wondered if perhaps it was a throwback to the Civil War, where we would defend our homestead with armaments, but in reality she was referring to a “canning room” for preserving fruits and vegetables.
After I came to my senses and left her, I wanted to move as far away from my hometown as possible. I found that Bangkok was about as far away as I could be without leaving the planet, so I moved there, became a Buddhist and met my third wife. When we moved back to the United States, we did attend church with my parents once. Being as my new wife was from Southeast Asia and had dark skin, the reception was decidedly cold, and we never returned.
What I love most about Buddhism is that it is not an exclusive religion. If for example, my wife walks into my parents’ old church and announces that she is a Buddhist, she would be immediately set upon, Bible-thumped, told that her relatives are burning in Hell (yes, that really happened), and told to obey her husband. Buddhists on the other hand, don’t evangelize. If you want to know about Buddhism, most Buddhists will be happy to tell you, but they’re not obligated by their holy books to try to convert you. It takes a lot of pressure off of the conversation.
The one thing the church of my childhood did teach me – although unintentionally – was tolerance. I saw their intolerance and restrictive attitude towards women drive people away, never to return. I saw the futileness of attempting to force one’s beliefs on other people. The first time I saw a woman acting in an official nature in a church was with the Unitarians, and I was completely blown away. I never thought such a thing was possible, and came to realize that it didn’t mean the end of humanity as we know it.
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