Christianity seemed like a logical next step for me, especially because my immediate family was kind of a mishmash of Catholicism and my mother’s hereditary Presbyterianism, plus my best friend was heavily involved in his family’s Presbyterian church. Since the basis of Christianity had many similarities with Judaism (add the New Testament and mix on high for three minutes), it wasn’t that big a psychic leap for me. Grandma Blanche had passed away by that time, so I had lost my strongest living link to Judaism.
My mom and I started attending Presbyterian services, mostly so I could join the weekly Wednesday youth group. On these evenings, we kids would run around the church’s gym like maniacs, and then practice choir and handbells. Afterwards, a prayer group, and then dinner. I loved all of it equally—well, except for choir, because I had a shitty voice and would often get in trouble for shyly mouthing hymns instead of singing them. Otherwise, I fell in line with the religion almost instantly. By my 10th birthday, I had not only been given a gift of a silver cross on a chain, which I proudly wore everywhere, I also starred in the yearly Christmas pageant as the angel Gabriel, the biggest role in the whole production. OK, stop making such a big deal about it, guys! It was a long time ago—people barely even ask me for my autograph anymore.
The summer of my 13th year on earth, I jumped at the chance to go to a community service camp in Pittsburgh with the youth group, where we would do free construction and repair on houses in low-income neighborhoods in the name of God, although it kind of sucked to give all the credit to Jesus when yours was the back that hurt from clearing out people’s scummy drainage pipes all day. Tons of churches of varying denominations from all over the world came together to stay in a huge dormitory compound. During the day, the congregations would split up to hammer, drill, and paint at different homes throughout the city. At night everyone would come together for dinner, prayer, and the kinds of organized fun-tivities that are typical of any camp, except with added Christian twists. When we did trust falls, it wasn’t just the arms of our fellow campers we were tumbling into—Jesus was there to catch us, too. I believed at the time that God was truly with me—not just as a participant in team-building exercises, but all the time, everywhere I went. I loved the idea of never being alone. Forging a personal bond with God was a huge comfort to me at this time, when I was feeling frustrated with everything else—school, friends, family.
But soon camp familiarized me with other aspects of Christianity, ones that made me question whether the religion was for me. The prayer groups were really intense, and very different from the laid-back, God-loves-you-and-everything-is-awesome-type ones that I was accustomed to. Since this camp was multi-denominational, many of the churches involved were evangelical, which is a Christian movement characterized partly by a belief in the Bible as a literal document as opposed to a symbolic or interpretive text (though there’s a lot of variance among different evangelical groups, and some newer ones de-emphasize this stance on the Bible). Others were Pentecostal, a denomination in which some worshippers “speak in tongues.” This is when, during particularly passionate moments of prayer, practitioners believe God is “speaking” through the vessel of their bodies in sounds that they interpret as a sacred language. But to me it sounded like gibberish, and the wild abandon with which the Pentecostalists hollered and thrashed and stretched their arms wide scared me.
The girl who spoke in tongues most frequently was in a smaller study group with me one night. I was taking issue with the Old Testament book of Leviticus, which contains two lines that seemingly denounce homosexuality. I said that I thought it was really unfortunate and awful that just two lines could dictate so many people’s attitudes towards gayness over hundreds of years, and that I didn’t think God would want us to discriminate against people. I don’t remember exactly what the girl said in response, but it was something to the effect that the Bible was a perfect text exactly as it was and that if I didn’t want to follow its rules as they were laid out, I wasn’t really a Christian. I let her yell at me for a moment, then asked her, “Do you eat shrimp?” She told me that yes, she enjoyed shrimp from time to time. I flipped to the page of Leviticus, just a few paragraphs before the part about homosexuality, that reads: “These ye shall eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales… And all that have not fins and scales…they shall be an abomination unto you.” This basically means that you can eat fish, but not crustaceans and shellfish, and the full passage from which those lines are excerpted is waaaay longer than the one about homosexuality. So why, if the Bible was a flawless rulebook that was meant to be followed to the letter, did she allow herself to get down with the world’s best appetizer? She sputtered some things about how some laws didn’t apply to modern life, which was basically exactly the thing I had said that made her so angry in the first place. The conversation had a very real effect on me. We weren’t even teenagers yet, but were having a heated argument about whether gay people should go to hell, or if shrimp cocktail was sinful.