Owning My Journey from Christian Fundamentalism Pt. 1
I officially left the faith of my childhood about 6 years ago, and in the early days of leaving I was riddled with both grief from losing the only community that I had known my entire life and guilt for staying in the tradition for so long. In an effort to cope with the internal stress, I quickly learned to repress memories and developed quite a few avoidance tactics when discussing my background with new connections. However, this often led to shallow connections and felt as though I would never be able to live in my truth. I had just left a life where I was forced to hide large parts of myself, and I knew I did not want to go down that path again. It is unfortunate that it took this long, but with the help of my therapist and support network, I am now learning to sit with my lived experiences and recognize that they are indeed a part of my being. This is despite the fact that they often feel like memories from very distinct realities.
As a politically progressive, policy advisor in Washington D.C. I am often asked how I “escaped” an identity of religious fundamentalism and conservative political ideologies that were essentially formed for me as a child growing up in rural Mississippi. My response is often a varied mix of life experiences that collectively support the journey from where I was to where I am today. In the upcoming months, I plan to share some of those experiences with you here, with the hope that my story resonates with individuals who find themselves moving from a lifetime of beliefs into a undetermined new reality.
It was a little after midnight and I was sitting in a movie theatre with a group of new college friends. I knew nothing about the movie we were about to experience except that it was the first R-rated movie I had ever seen, and I knew my friends were eager to see it. I remember the feeling of déjà vu as I saw the main character appear on screen. I whispered to someone next to me that I thought I had seen the movie before, which was impossible as this was the premier showing. Twenty minutes or so went by, and I learned that the character was traveling across the country in a mockumentary of life in the United States, engaging with real people and real circumstances. I felt my anxiety worsen as the movie plot neared the southern portion of the United States.
There was an interactive map that showed him traveling, and I breathed a sigh of relief as it looked as though he would be skipping Mississippi, the state where I grew up. At the next stop, in Texas, the camera peered into a scene that I immediately recognized. I was in shock as I watched Sacha Baron Cohen enter the large warehouse type building in the small town of Raymond, MS, where I had spent every summer of my childhood. Sacha or “Borat” entered from the back into a Pentecostal “camp meeting,” a gathering of believers from around the state, often for several days and historically in an open air or tent setting.
If you have never been to a Pentecostal service, you must know that it is an emotional and lively setting with loud music, dancing, clapping, and demonstrative prayer. And these large gatherings, referred to as camp meetings, often attracted the most demonstrative members from around the state creating the perfect backdrop for an exposé film. On screen, I saw local politicians, friends, my brother, a guy that I dated, extended family members, and even myself as the cameras scanned the crowd. (*The scene with me in the background has since been removed from most streaming sites as there was a copyright lawsuit with the song playing in the background, but if you have an original dvd look for me in a black and white polka dot top.)
Borat walked from the back of the crowd and down to the front of the room during a lively worship service. He asked several of the men around him to pray with him. He was handed a microphone, and many have questioned why he was given this platform. I can only assume that those in charge were simply being polite. But it is also my understanding that leadership had been led to believe that this was a documentary on religion in the U.S. Therefore, I am not sure how much of his involvement was discussed prior to the meeting when he negotiated the use of cameras for this “documentary.” In a loud voice over the sound system, Borat asked in his fake accent, “Can Jesus heal the pain that is in my heart?”
As with most organized religions, there is a often a goal for church services. For this particular church the ultimate goal is to bring in as many new followers into the fold as possible. This is called “winning souls.” While I have seen documentaries and read books about large mega churches who are largely concerned with the money being brought in with new followers, this was not my experience. While there are certainly outliers, this particular sect holds a very deep conviction that the world is going to end soon based on their literal interpretation of the Bible. And if an individual has not followed through with the very exclusive revelatory instructions for salvation, they would be forever condemned to a literal lake of fire, or Hell.
In front of nearly a thousand people Borat gave a brief speech, that I know now was a part of the movie script where he asks for prayer for himself and a friend. In response, the elders and ministers in the room gathered around him and engaged in loud demonstrative prayer. The crowd surrounded him, and multiple ministers put their hands on him while speaking in an unrecognizable language. They were participating in a very common practice of encouraging him to speak in an unknown tongue in order to receive eternal salvation (an essential part of the organization’s recipe for new believers). Mocking the process, Borat began to move his arms and body in provocative motions. It was clear he had done his homework as he imitated the actions of those around him by violently moving his tongue up and down as if he were being overcome by the Holy Spirit.
This instance was not talked about broadly among the church members (likely due to the fact that many members do not watch movies, much less R-rated movies). But some of the leaders and attendees who were prominently shown have since tried to reframe the event as a God-given opportunity to share the Holy Spirit with a global audience.
My memory from that day is that I thought it was odd to have outsiders in this setting, and I made eye contact with one of the camera men who smiled mischievously at me as he moved through the crowd with a camera on wheels. At 17 years old, I had already begun the process of deconstruction or questioning of my faith, but this moment allowed me to view it from the perspective of someone on the outside. I was living in a parody, in a world that very few people — and now Sacha Baron Cohen — even know exists. In hindsight, this moment is where I knew that my daily life was deemed different enough to be portrayed in a blockbuster film.
I grew up in the Pentecostal denomination of Christianity. Specifically, I belonged to an exclusive sect that holds strong monotheistic beliefs and requires strict adherence to a set of standards for moral living derived from the 19th century Holiness movement. The defining characteristics of Pentecostalism include a literal interpretation of the Bible and the belief that supernatural gifts and divine healings mentioned in the New Testament should continue to be part of the church’s experience today. In large part, this faction of believers did not identify with the broader Evangelical community, much less the entirety of Christianity. They believe they have been given an exclusive truth and are responsible for bringing others to this life-saving revelation that is rooted in the experience of the followers of Jesus on the “day of Pentecost” as told in the book of Acts from the Bible.
I get no pleasure in knowing that my community was chosen to be mocked in such a public way. And as someone who grew up in that world, I know that there are more members than not, who hold sincere beliefs and have the best of intentions, however flawed or error filled they may be. This is why I believe it is important to understand how lived experiences are crucial in shaping our beliefs and ideologies. I am hopeful that by examining my own life trajectory, that I will learn to have more empathy and compassion for those who do not share my thoughts and opinions. Even if this means reckoning with the fact that I was a participant in a fundamentalist religious group that caught the eye of Sacha Baron Cohen.