My Father’s Cult

It’s a memory that has been locked in the back of my mind for a while now, the church my father used to go to. Faith Christian Fellowship, FCF, a large church on the outside of the county line that was a trek every Sunday to go to. We were one of the few black families in a predominately white church and the earliest memories I have of it was that it was radically different from the Catholic church I went to with my grandfather and aunts. It was always loud and rambunctious but personable and welcoming. It didn’t feel like the clinical ritual of the Catholic church but something expressive and bright. I thought things were fine and I was mostly just glad that it also gave my mother; sick with kidney, heart and lung failure something to do and have faith in. 

That was the beginning. 

Sunday school there was different. We said a pledge not just to the flag of the United States but also to the Christian flag. We only took communion every other service as they said catholics ruined it by taking communion so often. The children there didn’t play video games and didn’t watch TV like I did. They didn’t read the books I did or even lived like I did. They were sheltered and that was coming from a kid who was already excessively sheltered. I made friends, sure, but all the friendships felt surface level, even as a child. 

Dad blended in perfectly into the community of mostly older white men, something most black men simply didn’t do. Mom was welcomed in with open arms as as a unit we were accepted but I wasn’t accepted. I was quirky and strange thanks to unseen turbulent home life and due to the restrictive nature of children around me. I liked all the things they were told not to like but that friction didn’t stay in place for long. 

Faith Christian Fellowship was an anti-science church. They thrived off of faith healing and creationism and showed videos that explained that Genesis was a real factual account of how the world began and that dinosaurs and humans existed at the same time and had “proof” of it in the form of footprints and ammonites and pseudo-science and it was there that I began to fall in line. I was a lover of dinosaurs and paleontology and a naturally curious child so being able to see this as a giant puzzle that was some secret conspiracy that others did not want us to know was tantalizing to my little mind. I was able to make friends that way though I never gave up Pokemon and Harry Potter

I was willing to tell my Catholic aunts that they were wrong and that they took communion too often and I found my the church that I was baptized in and received my sacraments in boring and stuffy and wanted the cheap thrills of Christan Rock and pseudoscience and speaking in tongues and people just falling out after being touched by The Holy Spirit. I rejected Catholicism with my mother and we fell deeper and deeper into the church. 

Tithing was also incredibly important to the congregation as was just general monetary support. Pastors Force sold CDs, books, Bibles, all kinds of things and 10% of a tithe was the bare minimum accepted. We were told that the more we gave, the more we’d receive and as Pastor Force flaunted nice suits and nice watches and nice shoes my parents ignored bills and medicine to keep up with the Joneses and continue to pay the church. Pastor Force always made it sound like the church was one dollar away from closing despite the fancy earthly pleasures he had and that was enough to keep my parents engrossed and giving along with the rest of the congregation. 

There was a dove hunt one year that I never understood. I am still shocked by how many evangelical churches that have dove hunts. Aren’t doves God’s messengers? Why are they being shot, wrapped in bacon and grilled for the congregation to eat?

I spent many a formative Sunday at Faith Christian Fellowship with my parents learning and unlearning things and one thing that actually popped into my mind not too long ago: a latent memory that made me realize something that I had known all along but dared not to say. 

My father was in a cult.

Rapture Drills. There were Rapture Drills. We were preparing for the Rapture. You know, the event where God just decides He’s done with it all and yoinks up all the humans on Earth that are good and leaves those that are bad on Earth to suffer. Think the Left Behind series but somehow worse. We would prepare for the Rapture by praying and climbing under a chair for safety. 

A chair. 

That is what was meant to protect us from Divine Intervention and Rapture. A chair. 

I’m not sure why we needed protection from the Rapture; in theory, we were supposed to go up to Heaven, too. I think it was meant to protect us from earthly debris but we regularly held these drills. They were at random, of course, because we never knew when this would happen and they happened often enough to form a memory of them that remained locked in my mind for over a decade. 

My father died while we were at that church and the church quickly flocked around me and my mom. The church supported my mother even as she gave up her child, dated a drug dealer and told me that I was to be obedient to my mother even though she was willing to risk her safety and mine for the sake of tainted love. 

The church did eventually abandon my mother as she fell away from really all organized religion as her agoraphobia grew. I had also fallen out of love with most organized religion, mostly burned from the experience in my father’s cult and still disillusioned from what I knew about Catholicism. I made a choice to bury my mother Catholic as she was baptized, married and had her other sacraments within the Catholic church. I found much more solace and peace burying her within the church she was married in than I ever did at even the thought of dragging my family into FCF. 

I don’t think I’m a cult survivor or anything grand; it actually didn’t take long for me to either bury the memories of this place with maladaptive means and frankly just suppressed those memories. It wasn’t until recently that they started to become unlocked that I realized the gravity of the situation I was in. And to be clear I’m not some kind of anti-religious person; I don’t think Christianity or even Evangelical faiths are inherently cultish; just saying that if it acts like a duck and quacks like a duck and flies like a duck; you may be in a cult. 

The Woman In White

-Of all ghosts the ghosts of our old loves are the worst.-Arthur Conan Doyle.png

It’s that special time of year again. Last time, you all loved my little ghost story so much that I decided to tell another one. You may know where this story is going but that won’t stop me from telling it. And if you’ve heard this story from me, then sit back, pull up a chair because you know it’s a good one.

Let’s take a step back in time. It’s the 90s. My parents and I were on a road trip. My dad’s family lives out in the side/middle-butt part of Texas. On the way back one night we decided to stop in Corsicana. Corsicana has a strange little restaurant called Catfish Plantation. And the plantation part is very literal. It was an actual plantation house with a Master, a Misses and a modest amount of slaves. Well, the Civil War ended and now the establishment is a seafood restaurant for some reason. And like all things old and Southern, it was of course, supposed to be haunted. The restaurant prided itself on being extremely haunted and my dad being the large Southern skeptic he was decided this would be the perfect place to take his wife and young daughter. I couldn’t have been anymore than 8 or 9.  

It was late. Later than we normally had dinner since the drive back from the middle of nowhere Texas took a couple of hours at least and Corsicana is sort of the middle point. I had no interest in this allegedly haunted eatery. I just wanted chicken fingers and sleep and probably my GameBoy. Naturally, since this was a haunted establishment, there was a long and overdone tour. My mother was somewhat interested since she loved history and my dad was somewhat interested since he was the one who had this brilliant idea and he had a point to prove. I couldn’t be bothered. I was bored to tears and the entire time there was this woman behind me who seemed fixated by my hair. She didn’t say much. She was tall (well, tall to me. I didn’t reach over 5’0’’ until I was 13). She was pale and her clothes looked funny to me. So the little bit of interest that I had in this ghost-infested fish house was dampened by the fact that there was a woman who keep bothering me. She looked mean. She kept looking at me like I shouldn’t be there.

The tour group wasn’t very large but it did seem to go on forever in between mentions of how quality the catfish was. The overly enthusiastic tour guide continued to prattle on about how bad slavery was (which we are African-Americans knew) and that just before the battles really got down to business in the state, the slaves rebelled and took revenge against the master and his wife. All the while the same woman continue to leer at me and now had started to touch my hair which my mother had so expertly styled into twin braided pigtails.

After what seemed like hours of enduring this I finally snapped and shooed a hand away from me. My dad immediately reprimanded me. My mother followed up and said I was being rude. But I told them the truth. There was a woman in the tour that wouldn’t leave me alone. There was a woman bothering me and when my parents asked me who it was I pointed up and they saw nothing. They saw no one there. There wasn’t anyone there.

“Congratulations.” the tour guide beamed “Your daughter has met the mistress of the house. She’s been dead for over 100 years.”


No one said anything for a while. No one mentioned it for a while. My mom and dad rarely spoke of the fact that clearly their little girl had seen some sort of apparition.

We finished a satisfactory catfish dinner. We stayed in a kitschy hotel for the night and we as a family didn’t speak of the ghost again.

In hindsight, it made sense that a ghost would appear in front of me. I was a small black child running around this old Southern slave owner’s home. It was perfectly logical and there’s many theories that ghost appear to children because kids pay attention to them. Adults try to rationalize everything away but kids are honest. If they see a ghost, they say they saw a heckin’ ghost.


There’s something amazing about being spiritual, being Catholic and believing in ghost stories. To a good Catholic, ghost stories are the antithesis of faith. The dead are meant to rest until the resurrection. If you believe in a God, a heaven and a redeemer: then how could there be ghosts? But there was always a spiritual, almost magical, part of my family. My great-grandfather was a mystical man despite being a devout Catholic. My grandmother was also hilariously superstitious until her death. After my grandfather died, we would still hear his footsteps on the plastic slip cover in the hallway at night. My aunts took great comfort in knowing that their father was resting in heaven but still wandered his house sometimes. When I went through my magical rebellious phase, my aunts were horrified until they realized that the grandfather they looked up to (my great-grandfather) also had a tarot deck and could quote Edgar Allan Poe well into his 90s. Suddenly, I didn’t seem like quite the little edgelord anymore.  But knowing that I came from a legacy of magic, mysticism and spirituality helped make sense of the world I saw. My godmother’s Cajun and thus very spiritual. Both grandparents held long standing superstitions. My aunts believed in ghosts and my parents couldn’t help but admit that it was a compelling event that happened at Catfish Plantation. I was always a weirdly mystical kid. Dr. Langston, my rhetoric professor, called me an Indigo Child more than once and Indigo Children were always thought to be special, to be magical. And it never bothered me to still use the Roman Catholic faith while also still believing in tarot, crystals and reading about alchemy and the Fox Sisters. Catholicism still looks very pagan for many reasons to this day.


We tell ghost stories for a variety of reasons. We like to imagine that some people never leave us. If there are ghosts then there has to be an afterlife. There has to be something after death and that is much more comforting than facing the cold indifference of the universe. But ghost stories also haunt our hearts. They give weight to those we lost, even if that person didn’t mean anything to you. A ghost story forces you to care about someone. Forces you to carry the weight. And a good ghost story should stay with you forever.

I know I’ll never forget my ghost stories.

 

The Not So Grand Return

faithless-is-he-that-says-farewell-when-the-road-darkens

I have a conflicted relationship with my Catholic upbringing that you can read more about here, here and here. I am equal parts a puzzle: proud and knowledgeable of my faith and its teachings but deeply troubled and tormented by its bigger questions and at times lax morality. We’ve talked about religion a lot, and I promise that this is all with good intention and we’ll touch on that again at the end, so stick around.

I recently found myself returning to the Church after a small break from the tradition of Sunday mass and holiday solemnity. And it’s important to remember that Sunday mass was just part of my life for a very long time, but for varying reasons. When I was little, mass was something we as a family did. My grandfather was very pious and so mass on Sunday and mass on the TV and rosaries on special occasions; but at that time I think I enjoyed mass for the donuts and nachos afterwards in the church cafeteria and less for ecumenical reasons. In addition to mass, Sunday meant eating with my family afterwards: mass also meant pie at Tippins and pancakes: all of the pancakes.

I didn’t start associating mass with my own belief until probably junior high and didn’t start enjoying mass until high school: I even briefly taught Sunday school (even though I did use the Egyptian God Cards from YuGiOh to explain the Holy Trinity). I understood the tenets of my faith and understood what it meant. It didn’t bother me that my friends made fun of me occasionally and didn’t understand my somewhat devotion ( I had accepted from an early age that being Catholic meant people assuming that mass was a weird combination of vaguely pagan imagery and the fire, misery and velvet of the Disney version of Hunchback of Notre Dame.). What did matter was AFTER all of that.

In college, the rigors of facing a side to the Catholic church that was not one I had faced before took a toll. I had immense difficulty coping with judgmental priests who still had antiquated notions of rights, piety and what it means to be a person, a woman and a Catholic. Their view of the Church brought up a part of me that I had not yet experienced with being religious: cynicism. And that cynicism had to face the inequalities of a church that fundamentally saw me as as second-class citizen and one that languished in the moral superiority of calling everyone else a sinner frustrated me. I did not return to mass again until the time came to bury my mother. I was already a young woman far from home and far from the church that I was baptized in, held most of my sacraments in and was the church of my family. My newfound cynicism made it very easy to simply forgo looking for a new spiritual home despite going to a university that had three; yes, 3, chapels on campus.


But this isn’t about my issues with the Church: we’ve discussed that. This is the story of the return.

As mentioned before, due to a series of events, I found myself returning to mass. A dear friend of mine is in the process of converting so it felt almost hypocritical to be his spiritual docent through this process and myself having not been to mass in well…longer than a Southern lady would care to admit. The first time I went, I felt nearly overwhelmed. I was emotional and I couldn’t figure out if it was the famous power of Catholic guilt or if I just had particularly bad allergies that day. The church I found here in my new home has been particularly welcoming. They encourage parishioners to greet each other before mass. The priest takes out extra time to shake hands with his flock (though this did remind me again of the very Druid-like nature of Catholic priests). I felt mostly fine but there was one gesture that sent me over the top. A Eucharistic minister greeting me took firm hold of my hand was I walked by and said very simply, in a moment that if this was an anime would feature doves and bright rays of heavenly light:

Welcome, sister. We’re happy to have you.

Sister.


I’m an only child and while I’ve heard this term used over and over again in the remnants of vague casual racism and used in reading The Bible before but to be called “sister” was for me in this moment immensely powerful. The reason, I came to find, that I had struggled with mass was because I was far away from my family. Mass was always something we did together from the times spent with my grandfather to burying those we lost. Mass was always something to be shared with others: either with my family or friends. The words to prayers that flowed out of my like water from years of muscle memory were not echoed for once by my aunts, grandma, grandpa or mother: it was just my voice and my voice alone. The songs I sang in harmony because I came from a family that sang were only in harmony to the church’s choir.  So to go to mass alone, even as a young woman, was more than strange and painfully isolating for a good Southern Catholic girl like me. In being called sister, I was part of something greater. I was part of a family. I was a part of this family.

Now, this post won’t go into faith or anything: I do still somewhat struggle with the grander ideas of what it means to be Catholic. And those concerns you may have: let’s address those because I’m sure I can hear those close to me asking:

Oh well, now she’s all religious. Does that mean she’ll change?

To which I have this to say: no, of course not. Don’t be silly. I’m not going to stop being me; if you’ve read my other post on religion, you’ll know this about me and faith: my faith is a part of me but is not me. Being Catholic never to me meant that I have to give up cake, anime, cosplay and science. Being a Catholic doesn’t mean I’ll stop going to conventions, stop reading or stop loving Tarantino movies. It also doesn’t mean that my social and political views will change. It just means that I happen to go to mass and if any of you are aware of my love of brunch and sleeping in, mass is an option: not a mandate. 

Thank you all for reading; this is my last post of 2016! Coming up next is my Year in Review (which I don’t normally count as a usual post). This year has been interesting and there’s plenty more to come in 2017! I hope to see you all and to welcome many more new faces there.

Yours Truly, 

Amanda

 

Meditations from the San Antonio Missions

With the recent news about Islam and terror attacks there has been a lot of negative sentiment surrounding the actions of extremists that are in no way a representation of their faith as a whole. People say the Quran teaches violence and terror. That it teaches misogyny and death. These things are just not true.

Recently I took a trip to the missions here in San Antonio and I had to face something that is uncomfortable for many Catholics. Our history of violence, terror and misogyny. The Missions were witness to the mistreatment of native inhabitants, the systematic removal of indigenous practice and people. They witnessed terror and horror all in the name of a loving and accepting God.

As I sat in the church of Mission San Jose all I could think about were how many people sat here against their will. How many were ripped from their families and friends? How many were beaten, tortured and mistreated in the name of God?

It was really incredibly jarring and most don’t think of it when we go to Mass.

My friend and I toured the missions and while we were at Mission San Jose we met an incredibly kind Franciscan monk selling fused glass. He was kind and bubbly, he offered blessings with his dip into capitalism as he sold the crosses and fixtures he made himself with his own blessed hands. He commented on how nice it was that he got to continue to lead mass in this historic church just like the first monks that arrived here in this state and colonized this place in the name of St. Anthony.

But his order, the church’s will, his ancestors and brothers in the same cloth…they’re all a part of the same mixed legacy of misinformation and cultural destruction. At the time, I could barely comment. It was my friend, who was a historian and was visiting these historic structures with me, that reminded me that this excessive guilt is its own form of toxic thinking. It’s infantilization and it was removing the agency of those who did willingly convert. There are also several concessions the Catholic Church has made in blending the practices and traditions of many other peoples and belief systems. Many of our most treasured rituals are pagan or as assimilated from other cultures like Our Lady of Guadalupe or Dia de los Muertos. Many of our most beloved Catholic rituals stem from pagan practice.

 I’ll never forget sitting in that church. Feeling conflicted. Feeling awestruck. Feeling so close and yet so far from my Catholic heritage. I’ll certainly visit the missions again. They’re down the street. And if you’re ever in San Antonio or just haven’t been in a while, there’s no time like the present to check out the missions. They’re a vital part in our state’s history and our nation’s history.