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Becoming a Non-Member

By M.M. Perez ~

I grew up in a church that we, as members, referred to as "the church". My mom believed in raising her family as Christians, as she was raised.

The LeaveImage by Lutz-R. Frank via Flickr

All our lives we gave large amounts of what little money we had to the church, filled our lives with bible studies, clean ups on Saturdays, choir practices, youth group activities, and much, much more. My parents, my mom especially, truly and with all her heart, until the day she died, believed firmly in this church as a mediator to her salvation, her peaceful rest in heaven. She waited her whole life for the moment she could give her life to God, after giving her whole life to the church. As a member, I didn't feel like a fanatic and I certainly didn't view the church as a cult.

It's against the church to marry someone who doesn't already belong to the church. There are exceptions, depending on how well liked you are or how much money your family has, or how connected you or your family are to certain officers. In essence, deals can be made. Fast indoctrinations and baptisms are not uncommon so that you can stay a member, despite certain transgressions, for those select few that are deemed worthy of that mercy. I was even one of them.

I was a devout member and an officer all my life. But by the time I was 22, I started to feel like I hadn't lived much. I started drinking, smoking and started dating guys outside of the churh, and having sex. And I wasn't alone. That's right, I partied with other church members. In my mid-20s I got pregnant, with someone who wasn't in the church and my mom immediately reported me to the church administration, believing it her duty to present my case.

They allowed me to stay in the church on the contingency that I behave myself from then on. Had my boyfriend been a member I would have been forced to marry him or be expelled. With the church's blessing, I continued to go to church during my pregnancy, and after my son was born.

Certain members were understanding, and others were judgmental. My mom was no longer allowed to remain as an officer in the church. Since she obviously couldn't control her own daughter, she was in no position to advise others in their faith.

Being a single mother in the church was difficult. Even though there were people who were still kind, most people viewed me now as a bad influence, which was ironic since I had decided to be more devout since I was given a chance by the church. I was the local church's cautionary tale.

Be good or you'll end up like me, rebellious and in a state to be pitied. Strangely enough, I didn't feel like that except when I was in church. My mom couldn't help but love me and my son and she was supportive and stood by me. And despite being black listed at church, I felt blessed. My son was and still is a blessing in my life.

Being a single mother in the church put me in an awkward position. I couldn't date outside the church, but no one in the church would be interested in me because I'd been branded. I prayed and prayed for a good husband so I wouldn't be this Hester Prynne-esque pin up doll of sin anymore. I

stopped drinking and smoking and really really tried to be what I should have been all along. My friends, the ones in the church, who were still drinking and having fun started to drift away from me.

Eventually, I met someone online. He noticed an obscure band in my profile and emailed me. It started off as a really cool friendship, and we fell in love. He wasn't in the church. But I was really honest with him, and told him about church and what we believed. I asked him if he would consider going to see what he thought, knowing that if it wasn't for him, I'd have to break up with him. Being a single mother, I wasn't just dating anymore. I was looking for someone to marry and help me raise my son. In a hasty move, I asked him to move here to see if it would work. I thought he could stay with me and find his own place after he found a job. I figured, if he was here, he'd be more prone to go to church because that's where I would be. I honestly didn't see it as moving in together. But obviously, that's what it turned in to. So now I was in trouble. But I'd already used up my chances by getting pregnant. The church was not keen on helping me out again, seeing as I was, in the church's eyes "living in sin" and with a non-member to boot. And I really believe that his race, being different from my own and the majority of the church, was a MAJOR issue.

My fiance went to church and attended the bible studies required to become a member. He disagreed with some things but agreed that the basic Christian philosopy, if correctly followed, was not a bad thing: be nice to people and be fair. They strung us along with no real intention of letting him get baptized so we could get married. Finally, after 3 years of this, we finally gave up and stopped going. I didn't make the decision lightly. I was pissed, but I had grown up in the church, believing in the teachings, praying and living in the belief that God guided my life and would save me. My family valued faith and membership more than wealth, but also more than education. Growing up, nothing mattered more than "remaining faithful."

I read and studied. I thought and prayed hard for months before we actually quit going. My fiance and I talked and talked and talked about religion and politics and philosopy and what the church believes and what makes sense. I had to be sure I was making the right decision for myself and especially my son. After all, according to the church, we're damned to hell if I'm not a member of the church. I would be, in the eyes of the church, turning my back on God and salvation, trading the promise of heaven for "things of this world". Logically and after a lot of thought and reading, I came to the conclusion that love was more important than the church's red tape and bureaucracy. There's even a bible verse to support that. Of course, there's a bible verse for everything you're arguing for and everything against it. So it's been nearly a year since we stopped going. We tried other churches and we liked a Unitarian church for awhile. The Unitarian church even supported a gay rally in our city so we liked it a lot. At the time, I felt like I had to go somewhere. But eventually, I realized that if church, even one as good as the Unitarian Church, was just a moral compass then I didn't need to go to a Sunday sermon to remind me how to be a good person.

Now I just concentrate on loving my family and trying to be a good person, and raising my son to be a good person. Every day is a blessing to me, and I've never been happier. My son is 9 years old, intelligent, funny and talented. I have friends I love who are fun and supportive and even come over regularly for game nights, because they understand that I'd rather stay home than be out on the town away from my family. My fiance and I are getting married in August, we're debt-free and both have full time jobs that we enjoy. The only regrets I have about leaving the church and finding my lack of religion, is that I didn't find it on my own before I was forced to, and that I didn't leave the church and religion sooner. That, and that my mom felt like she had to be a part of that church to feel like she was a good person, when the truth is, she was a much better person despite of it.

My mom passed away last week. There was no sermon and no minister. The minister was out of town and the church no longer offers services for the dead, as I was told, by the minister. The minister seemed really sincere and I know my mom liked him. But I'm feeling a lack of payoff for all the time, money and sacrifices she gave. In the end, there wasn't even the lie. There wasn't even the pretense that she is guaranteed a place in heaven for her life in servitude to "the church". And now I have all these members who I haven't heard from in nearly a year, trying to get me to go back, to honor her wishes and go back to a church I don't believe in. Some argue that being among church people will make me a better person. But I never saw so much intrigue, drama, hypocrisy and sexual deviance in my whole life, as when I was a member growing up in the church. And by sexual deviance, I mean one girl sleeping with several guys, all of whom are in the choir every Sunday. I mean, shocking amounts of infidelity and sometimes even rape and incest. On top of that, I worry about the stories I don't know.

Some of these people advising me and trying to help, hiding under their thinly veiled self-righteousness haven't even spoken to my mom in years, and now they are telling me what she wants. And I just feel like, at this moment in my life, living with this pain and grief, of not having her in my life, how dare they bother me with this? Shouldn't they be busy tending to their own homes, like Christians are supposed to?

I don't believe in religion anymore. There was a time, shortly after we stopped going to church when I missed the feeling that I'm special, that God loves me and chose me above all others. Now I see how arrogant that is. I see how Christians are sometimes less "Christianly" than someone who just tries to be a good person and do the right thing.

I know people find comfort in their beliefs, and I don't hold it against them. But the fact that they hold my beliefs against me I feel is unfair. I don't need to think my mom is in one place or another to find peace. She's in a grave, and there is no life in her. I find peace in the fact that she survived cancer for 9 years, that she loved her family and a few close friends, and now she is no longer in pain.