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Leopard Shoes

By Emily Camera ~

The words on the white church billboard are striking on this dreary Sunday morning.


I click on my turn signal and make a sharp left into the parking lot. My usual spt is available, the one I’ve used ever since I first started driving at sixteen. I turn off the ignition to my car and throw the keys on the passenger’s seat beside me, then pull down the sun visor to take a look at myself in the mirror. Repining a few rogue curls in my up-do, I notice every blemish and pore pocking my skin. I can’t help but think the difference a layer of foundation would make for my complexion. Not to mention a little mascara for my board-straight eyelashes. I snap the mirror back in place after applying a quick smear of Blistex to my lips. I’ve learned not to spend too much time with these thoughts. A slow groan escapes my lips and I slam the door to my silver Honda, tugging at my skirt to make sure it’s sufficiently below my knees.

The sky is dark with clouds the color of ash; it seems too dark to be ten in the morning. It has been raining for the last three days. Maybe not even enough to call it an actual rain; it’s the kind of relentless drizzle that isn’t enough to warrant an umbrella, but still enough to turn your hair into a dirty mop. I’ve been home from college for five months now, but I have yet to re-adapt to Pacific Northwest weather.

Evergreen trees surround the property on three sides, looming high above the top of the bungalow style, two-story building. The church’s front faces a lazy, winding two-lane road- one you’d expect to see in a rural country town. But Bellevue is anything but a rural country town, and we really do have an ideal location, tucked away from the city streets against the lush green hills. Visiting preachers often notice this. “God’s favor is on your congregation,” they would say, “just look at the spot God has given you, separated as unto the Lord!” They would follow this with an admonition to remain pure and separate; to refuse to let the World infiltrate us, God’s holy, righteous people.

I hold my large, faux leather black purse above my ahead, strategically shielding my curled french-roll from the mist. The rain isn’t violent but it is cold, and I let a deep shiver jolt through my body.

Walking towards the church’s lobby door, I can see the the profile of her face, head full of beehived silver hair bobbing up and down like an owl as she talks. Oh shoot, I think as I look down at my bare toes poking out of my favorite heels. Last week, Sister Kane had pulled me aside and told me to inform my Wednesday Bible Study class of teen girls that they were to wear nylons to church. “We need our people to hold the highest standard of holiness,” she said.

I understand her point. We are the church other churches within our organization look to for guidance in the area of Holiness Standards. When I go to revival services at other nearby churches, the girls from our congregation are considerably more modest in dress.

Not only did I not mention this new requirement to the girls, but I am now disobeying her rule myself. I walked quickly, hoping to slip past her critical eye, but she spun around before I could evade her sight. This is the sort of woman who never misses a beat.

“Emily! How are you, my dear? I was hoping to talk with you about the class you’ve been teaching. How is it…” Her voice trails off as her gaze rolls past my skirt to my leopard-print shoes and naked toes.

She reaches up and looks into my eyes with a pitiful half-smile on her face. She gives my shoulder a squeeze, and I know what this gesture means. She is prodding me to decide better next time; prodding me to fall into line.

I follow the rules for women well; I haven’t worn a pair of pants in ten years. Last week, as my family prepared to go salmon fishing on our ocean boat, Dad tried again to convince me to put on a pair of pants. “Please Em, for safety reasons” he said. I rolled my eyes and said, “if I can go skiing and horseback riding in a skirt, I can swim in a skirt, Dad.” He’s explained his stance before. Dad is nervous that in the event of an emergency, my stiff jean skirt and knee-length, uncut hair twisting around me would make it impossible for me to swim. He is practical, but at times can be dramatic.

My shirts all have sleeves at least to the elbow, and I routinely double-check my neckline to ensure it is no lower than two fingers below my collar bone. I haven’t worn make-up or jewelry since the days I used to play dress up as a young child, scouring my mom’s room for pallets of pink blush and sparkly necklaces. I can easily recite our Holiness Standards, and the verses from the Bible the patriarchs of our community used to develop these guidelines.

The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth until a man… for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God

But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.

Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and wearing of gold ,or of putting on of apparel.

Sister Kane decided to add this new pantyhose decree of her own. There is no questioning God-given authority, so I return her half-smile without a word.

I trudge up the familiar carpeted stairs to Life Tabernacle’s upper floor sanctuary, the murmur of passionate prayer becoming more intense as I near the side-door entrance to the church’s main room. Mauve twill pews sit atop paisley-carpeted floor. Church members are scattered throughout, praying out loud for God’s presence to move in the morning’s service.

I pause at the door for a few moments, letting the warm anticipation of Pentecostal prayer engulf me. An intense expectancy is attached to this sort of pre-church intercession. The air feels thicker, like it does on the second floor of my parent’s split-level home on a late August day. I remember the first time I walked through these doors at eleven years old with my mom and brother. The energy in the service was strong, like nothing I had ever experienced before. I don’t remember what was preached that day; I only remember the awe and terror I felt as I watched my mom and brother speak in tongues for the first time, sweaty preachers shouting prayers into their ears.

A few girls from my Bible Study class are sitting in the front row, heads bowed with their faces cupped into their hands, strands of long hair dangling towards the floor. Their prayers are muffled, voices coming out as a sort of suppressed garble.

“Shada-ronda-hi. Ohhhhhhhh Jesus. We need You Jesus. Sheeda-hoooooo.” Speaking in tongues is intermingled with fervent requests for revival. Pastor Kane paces back and forth in front of the altar, voice booming over all other sounds in the room. With him he carries a tiny jar of olive oil - the type meant for picnics in the park - and, every third lap or so, he stops in front of a praying Saint, removes the lid, and dabs a bit of anointing oil onto their forehead. It’s easy to spot who has been blessed already; a greasy dribble of oil can be seen on most of the front-row foreheads.

I walk to the back of the room and quickly tuck myself just two rows in front of the sound booth, and then I see Dana’s eyes catch my gaze from the front of the church. She makes her way back to me.

“Hey Em! What are you doing way back here? I can make some room for you up front.” Her voice is cheery, but the underlying concern is not hard to see. Dana knows me well. Endless hours of side-by-side prayer have bound us together.

“Nah, I’m okay,” I say. The first notes of the keyboard indicate the start of service, and I let out the breath I have been holding as I watch Dana make her way back to her seat.

The music is upbeat and exhilarating, the beat of the drums pulling you into a collaborative movement, inviting you to be part of the song and part of the congregation. I slip into an expert side-step, pounding the heel of my leopard shoes hard against the thin carpet. My hands are expertly clapping to the beat as the keyboardist belts out the words to the song.

God’s not dead!


He’s still alive!

Double clap.

God’s not dead!


He’s still alive!

Double clap.

The drums and bass vibrate throughout the room. Even the white popcorn walls are buzzing with excitement.

A few pews up to the left, Todd is dancing in the spirit, coattails bouncing up and down on his round but firm backside. His butt is one that is hard for me not to notice. Todd is in his mid-twenties and was raised in The Church, but had strayed from the Truth throughout his late teens and early twenties. He recently left a life of drugs and promiscuity to come back to the fold. I wonder what his life was like outside the church, and if he thinks I’m pretty.

The song continues into the second verse, and the hands clapping and feet stomping become more intense.

I can feel Him in my hands

Clap, Clap.

Feel him in my feet

Thump, Thump.

Feel him in my heart

Clap, Clap.

Feel Him in my soul

Thump, Thump.

I can feel Him all over me!

This is one of those customary anthems, a Pentecostal theme song of sorts. It’s a guarantee that worship is going to get interesting; a guarantee that Penny is going to receive a Holy Ghost blessing. I spot her three rows from the front, on the right-hand side of the room. She is never hard to find, not just because she is tall - she must stand at least six feet two inches, but because her movements are so distinct. I watch her begin to move , jerky convulsions flowing through her from the top of her raised hands, cascading down her long grey hair, and ending in her feet in the form of spastic taps. The rhythmic flow of her hair puts me into a trance, similar to the waves in the ocean. The rumor is that Penny and her husband were saved at a crucial time in their lives, plucked by God from their home in a nudist colony. I’ve always been interested in this detail; it reminds me of my own family. My parents were raised in Northern California in the sixties, and nakedness has never been something to hide in our home. It wasn’t until my late teens I realized it was not typical in most families to glance up from breakfast and see your dad pouring himself a bowl of cereal without a stitch of clothes on. But maybe the nudist colony story isn’t actually true, I think. Maybe it’s one we have chosen to believe because it makes an impressive praise report.

The worship leader removes the microphone from its stand and bellows a predictable, “aaaaaaaaaaamen! Can I get an amen, church?”

The service slows to a soft, prayerful chorus as the keyboardist begins to play a different song.

For above all else, I must be saved.

For above all else, I must be saved.

For whatever You have to do to me,

Don’t let me be lost for eternity.

For above all else, I must be saved.

The mood in the room changes, and the pews are now filled with heads bowed in reverence. Up until now, I haven’t been participating in service the way a Pentecostal service requires. But the words to this song have carried me through many fervent prayer sessions, on my knees crying out to God to make me better; to give me strength to overcome Worldly temptations.

My throat closes up, making it difficult to swallow. I stop breathing for a few seconds, as if cutting off this basic need will force my body to behave otherwise. But I cannot avoid the tears. They’re flowing freely in an instant, and I don’t try to brush them away. I’m hunched over the pew in front of me, snot and tears mixing on my cheeks and ending in an icicle-like drip at the tip of my chin.

I feel a hand on my back and hear a passionate, “shada-ra-da-honnndaaaaaa”. It’s Dana. My eyes are closed, but it’s not difficult for me to identify fellow church members by the sound of them praying in the Spirit.

“Jooooo-ta-he-haaaaaaa.” Sister Richards is here too.

“Adiya-shadahiiiiii.” And there’s Sister Stella.

Words I can understand are intermingled with the gibberish.

“Jeeeeesus bless my sister.”

“Holy Ghost give her strength to stand for You!”

“Lord fill her with a fresh anointing!”

My tears are not what they look like to the people around me. I am not weeping in repentance, desperate for salvation; I cry because I do not know if staying saved is worth it anymore.

Maybe I would be able to ignore the wrongs I’ve seen, it if wasn’t for my fourteen-year-old Bible Study student Leanne. All of us at church know she is pregnant, and the father is a barely-teenage boy from the youth group. News travels easily in our tight-knit community of believers. When you live a life full of so many restrictions, gossip becomes a vice.

“She wasn’t prayed-through.”

“She tempted the boy with her tight clothing.”

“She has The Spirit of Rebellion.”

I’d been hearing stories as to how Leanne got herself into this situation, but nobody was talking about how she was lonely, fatherless, confused, and in need of love. This girl needs compassion and baby supplies, and I am told to give her instructions about pantyhose.

I’ve tried to explain it away, to submit myself to authority as I have been taught. Lately though, something deep inside of me, something fierce and new, is rising. I find myself questioning the rules, stepping ever so slightly over the hard line of right and wrong. I didn’t wear the pantyhose. But each time I cross this line, I run back to safety because I am terrified. I wish I could have found the words to stand up to Sister Kane, but fear is my constant companion.

I used to spend my Saturday evenings at church. There is always either a revival service or special prayer meeting to attend. Last night I spent three hours on the phone with my boyfriend from college, and then proceeded to watch hours of television, tucked under a down comforter in my childhood bedroom.

This morning, I woke up groggy, head fuzzy, body slow. I wasn’t able to sleep the night before, until five episodes into Cosby Show reruns when I took a few swigs from the NyQuil bottle I have been keeping under my bed. Mom noticed this habit. “You should just have a glass of wine, ” she said, clearly annoyed. “Wine is better for you than that concoction of chemicals.” I clenched my teeth. “I don’t drink alcohol, Mom,” I say. “You shouldn’t either.” My mom attends the same church as me. I’ve never understood how she can choose the rules she wants to obey, flippantly dismissing the rest. Alcohol is not only a sin, but the start of many Saints slippery slide into Hell. I will not cross this line. Instead, I opt for taking NyQuil. The medicine doesn’t change the fact that I still wake up in the morning with the same thought.

What if I’ve been living this life for nothing?

The song leader ends the song with a prayer, and the circle of prayer warriors slowly disperse and make their way back to their seats. Dana hands me a tissue and hugs me, her wet cheeks pressing against mine, our tears mixing together.

“I love you so much, Em,” she says.

I give her a half smile and a nod, but I look away quickly.

I know you do.

I cannot face how much I love her, and how much her friendship means to me. I cannot stomach the thought of disappointing her.

Pastor Kane makes his way to the pulpit, and the song leader hands him the mic. The keyboardist is still playing softly, theatrically drawing out the notes. Her eyes are closed as her hands glide over the keys easily, like leaves in a soft breeze.

I’m sitting down, eyes still blotchy but now dry. I smooth out my skirt and cross my legs, concentrating on my breathing. The cry has taken all energy out of me, and my body feels limp against the scratchy pew fabric. As Pastor Kane begins to preach, I am looking straight at him without seeing him at all.

I see the little girl I was when at ten years old, before I knew about the Holy Ghost and speaking in tongues, before I knew it was a sin for a woman to wear pants, before I knew I wasn’t saved. I wanted to be a writer and a lawyer. When I would argue with my parents or siblings, my mom would say, “you would make a great lawyer, Em.” I took this comment to heart, and I didn’t doubt my ability to make my dream happen. I was a strong girl with strong opinions, and proud of it. I loved to write, and could often be found feverishly jotting down story after story of little girls whose horses took them on endless exciting adventures. When I wasn’t writing or dreaming of my life as a successful attorney, I lived a free and wild life with my best friend Sadie. In the winter, we would spend the entire day scouting for the finest sledding spots, only coming inside for hot cocoa and Kudos Bars when we could no longer move our fingers. The long, obligation-less summer days would find us trudging through cold Pacific Northwest streams looking for our pet turtle Dribble we had lost sometime before, or sneaking into our neighbor’s fields to maneuver ourselves onto a horse and ride bareback through the tall grass. Once, when her parents weren’t home, we stripped off our clothes and jumped naked on her giant front-yard trampoline, giggling and running for cover when the cars drove by. I will never forget the exhilarating freedom I felt in these pre-church days. The Church would say I was saved at the age of twelve when I spoke in tongues for the first time.

“Hello?” Pastor Kane’s voice raises to a shout, and I am snapped out of my daze. He uses a booming, “hello?” when he isn’t hearing the amens and “preach it, preacher” shout-outs he wants from the church.

Up until now, I realize I haven’t actually heard a word of what has been preached. I make an effort to listen as he continues the sermon. “We are called to be set apart from the World, not part of it. Men, you are not separate from the sinners out there if you let it grow!”

He is preaching against facial hair again.

I look around the sanctuary, wondering if anyone else feels like they want to laugh and cry at the absurdity of the message. Everyone has a serious face on. Some are even taking notes, as if their life depended on not forgetting what was taught.

I reach for my purse beside me and pull out my cell phone to check the time. It’s ten thirty-eight. This really doesn’t mean anything. The Man of God doesn’t need to keep within any sort of time limit. After all, he is “following God’s lead.” Today, God has led Pastor Kane to spend his sermon time teaching two hundred of us against the woes of growing facial hair.

To the left of me, on the other side of the aisle, I catch a glimpse of Sister Newman. She is sitting with her four young boys gathered around her, button-up blouse and long skirt disheveled as usual. I can tell she tried to do her hair; wispy strands fly about atop her head in what is supposed to be a bun as a toddler yanks on her shirt sleeve. He is standing beside her on the pew, and he lets out a loud, “puuuuleeeeaaaaase!”, giving her a swift kick in the thigh as he shrieks. I can see Sister Newman’s side profile turn deep red. Her husband, who sits on the same pew on the other side of their children, is amen-ing the preaching. He doesn’t so much as turn to see what the commotion is all about. I feel a pang of pity for her.

My gaze shifts to a few pews directly in front of me, and I am surprised to see that Catherine is at church today. Catherine and I were close friends a few years back, having sleepovers at her house on the weekends to chat about boys we liked while eating heaping bowls of sugary cereal - the kind my mom never allowed. Catherine was fun, but I always sensed she wasn’t as committed to the church as other girls in the youth group. She started running with the popular crowd at her private high school and then stopped coming to church. It started with her wearing shorts to soccer practice instead of the modest culottes sewed for us by the old ladies in the church. Then she fell into a promiscuous lifestyle, sleeping with high school boys at parties. Eventually, she was kicked out of school for smoking pot. Leaving The Church meant one simple thing for Catherine: she was going to Hell. We were admonished not to spend time with her unless she showed she was open to coming back to God. She lost all of her old church friends. Catherine comes to church every so often, face full of make-up evidence of her backslidden state. My chest aches when I see her; she has such a sadness in her eyes.

Pastor Kane continues the message. “You need to understand, People of God, that the Lord calls us to a higher standard. You are chosen! You are to be separate from the World, in deed and in appearance.”

Anger rises up in my throat, red-hot and strong. My eyes dart around the room, scrambling for another feeling. I sense something else arise as I look at the men and women in this room. I love these people.

My heart beats faster in my chest. The rhythmic pounding is leading me as move my purse to my lap. My senses are intensified, and I notice every bump and groove in the fake leather as I wrap my fingers around the straps. I stand, steadying myself on my heels before taking a step. I’m focusing only on the ground beneath me as I slip out of the pew and turn towards the back door exit. My head is ducked, but I see Caleb the sound man’s puzzled face as I walk past the sound booth. He knows that if I needed to use the restroom, I would be using the side-door exit.

The five yard walk was long, but now I’m here in front of the swinging exit door. It opens easily with the gentle bump of my shoulder, and I slip through to the other side. I stand on the top of the platform to the stairwell for a few moments, feeling the air from the still-swinging door swish my bare legs. I can still hear Pastor Kane’s voice, but it’s muted now, just background noise to the pounding heart in my chest. Slowly, my eyes adjust to the lack of light. The stairwell is empty and dark, but at the very bottom, underneath the outside door, a thin sliver of daylight shines. It’s just enough to light the path for my leopard shoes to lead me down.


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