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That Time I Went to Church

This is a true story, remembered to the best of my ability:

On Sunday, I dredged wrinkled khakis from the bottom of my closet as Frau, my wife, pulled a summer dress on over winter leggings and we loaded Boo into her stroller. We rambled up Roermonderstraße, stopping at last before a big yellow church on a hill behind a gas station, where people were waiting for us, the service about to start. Last year, a friend of mine had a baby, and on Sunday, the boy was getting blessed.

This was only the second Protestant service I’d ever been to. The first was back in 2002, at a St. Bernard Parish non-dom church called The World Prayer Tabernacle. My German friend, Freund von mir, and I were begged to come by a girl I was sweet on, and we acquiesced, all of us piling into my mom’s Dodge Caravan and trekking to old Paris Road, two lanes parallel to its five-lane replacement, cut through marshes pinioned between Chalmette and New Orleans East. Like the church this past Sunday, it was non-denominational evangelical, and in Senior year, it was all the rage at my high school, another fad, like safety pins and frosted tips. It was the youth service, Wednesday night, and the parking lot was packed with scraggly teens in borrowed cars.

The church itself was enormous, red brick interspersed with corrugated metal that rose beyond an acre of blacktop, scooped out of the marshes that clung to old Paris Road, swallowing it over the course of generations, savoring it. At the foot of the lot rose a massive sign, glowing like fast food logos off the interstate. I knew nothing of the service, save that it was popular. I had grown up Catholic, had voluntarily attended church through most of my early teen years, and at St. Maurice, where I’d been baptized, I knew what to expect: solemn pageantry from men wearing white robes and lugging gold staffs, as censers puffed choking incense and aspergilla flicked out holy water.

But there’s a reason places like the World Prayer Tabernacle are popular with the young: they had a rock band.

Freund von mir and I slipped through the main doors and past the lobby, sticking close together as the crowd of regulars swelled and began taking their seats. Before we knew it, though, we were being dragged to a front pew by the friend who’d convinced us to come, here named Xena, because her dad had a life-sized cutout of Lucy Lawless that he used to stash in her room to scare her. We milled awkwardly as Xena danced and whooped, the five-piece blaring their sound to the heavens, other congregants swaying and bouncing and rolling across the industrial carpeting as they were seized by their god, or not.

Freund von mir and I held very still, watching as teenagers from the width and breadth of St. Bernard Parish, people usually so wrapped up in the desire to look and feel cool, flapped their arms and shimmied and rocked.

As the crowd gyrated around me, part of me wanted to belong. I wanted to “get it,” whatever it was, and feel the way they did, but I couldn’t. Even now, I don’t know how. Maybe the key is just to fake it. Pretend to feel a certain way until that feeling becomes real.

Eventually, the music subsided and the dancing ceased, people sweaty but smiling, exchanging glances and nods, like they were all in on a big secret. The pastor ambled out then, microphone in hand. He was young, grinning, jeans and a collared shirt in lieu of the vestments one expects of the clergy. Xena turned to us then, bouncing on the balls of her feet, beatific grin splitting her face, a smile like sunshine, like something that made me want to believe.

She told us, “Just wait. You’ll see. Just listen and everything will be clear.” She had a way of doing that, of putting her faith in people, which I envied. Later that year, she and a church friend, the one who’d eventually box me and her other secular friends out, cruised across the stateline to the Mississippi coast, where beaches stretch for miles, man-made but good enough to pass for the real thing. They went to catch some sun, and there they met a drifter whose name I’ve since forgotten.

He was a prophet, and he looked the part. Rough-cut hair, like someone held him down and took a pair of scissors to him, sprouted in tufts over restless, shifting eyes, casting about like he was on the lookout for miracles. As a prophet, he had a lot of ideas about how he might save our souls. Xena and Church Friend spoke to him a while and then they brought him back to New Orleans as a favor to his ministry.

As with every great prophet, however, it was not to last. He began to speak of his people, and how he alone might deliver them. Xena and Church Friend, they heard the h get capitalized. They heard “his people” become “His people.”

Church Friend confronted their tinpot prophet then and unmasked him for what he was. She told him: “Satan, you have revealed yourself!” And they were disciples no more.

At the Tabernacle, the pastor was a little more refined, speaking more the lingo of his teenaged audience and less the pseudo-archaic jargon of Bible scholars (and schizophrenics). I forget the exact topic of his sermon. Something about purity.

I tried to think critically as he spoke, weigh what he said with an open mind. I was still on the fence about the whole God thing, and if events since then have put me squarely in the apostate’s category, it’s not because of his sermon.

After his speech there came more praying. The people around me bowed their heads or raised their palms. They squinched their eyes, willing their greatest desires into existence. They were building something, praying all together like that, just as surely as a hundred people pulling a rope and lifting a stone. They were becoming a cohesive body, unified by a common belief that, even if their prayers might be different, the mechanism of their delivery would be the same. They whispered their fondest wants to the wooden backs of pews or showed their palms to the steel-timbered roof. They were moving forward together, traveling along a spiritual plane that didn’t seem to open to me. Freund von mir and I tarried, awkward in our skepticism, waiting for them to finish.

Somehow I’d missed the exit to paradise. I was making the same motions, bowing my head to be polite, and sitting in the same chairs, hearing the same words, but I could feel myself sliding out from the bloc of earnest pray-ers, pushed out like a foreign object from a suppurating wound, an agent for infection.

After the prayer, the pastor asked if anybody in the audience was new. Xena leapt to her feet, fingers jabbing in my direction, as she shouted, “Him! Him!” and so Freund von mir and I were made to shuffle forward and stand in front of the thinly carpeted altar as the pastor, clear-voiced and self-assured, prayed that we might be kept from the clutches of Satan.

Then they brought us backstage and asked for our contact information, including our phone numbers.

When we at last rejoined the congregation, Xena grinning at us ear to ear, the service was nearly over. Freund von mir and I slouched toward the exit, past smiling people milling together in little knots, discussing the service, and out into the parking lot, where Church Friend turned to me and asked what I had thought about what we’d heard.

I answered something non-committal.

“Okay,” she said, “But aren’t you hungry for the holy spirit now?”

I scraped a shoe against the edge of the concrete curb, afraid to be found out for what I was–someone on the outside looking in.

“Well, I’m hungry for a cheeseburger,” I mumbled.

And honestly, they were just as confused as I was. How could I not be overwhelmed by love and commitment to their God like they had been the first time they’d sat in those pews and heard those words? Was I immune to their effect, or was it that I was already too damaged for the word of their Lord to take hold of my soul?

We awkwardly piled into my mom’s minivan, because nobody carpools like cash-starved teenagers, and Xena settled into the passenger seat, a hint of doubt clouding her normally rapturous smile. She’d sat there a hundred times as we roamed the streets of the parish and beyond, and she was looking at me now, appraising. Maybe I wasn’t the person she thought I was all those months we jogged the loop at Val Reiss Park, or snuck into dance clubs in the Quarter, or just lounged on ratty sofas in living rooms, still children in everyone’s eyes but our own.

We swung from the parking lot onto Paris Road, and she pressed me for my opinion.

And I told her. I said it was a cult. She accused me of thinking she’d been brainwashed. That was one of the last times we spoke.

A week later, Freund von mir and I were lying around my parent’s living room, watching TV and bullshitting, when someone from the Tabernacle called me and asked if I would pray with them. I told them no, so they prayed at me instead. I listened politely, awkwardly, not getting what he was trying to tell me, counting down the seconds till I could hang up.

But they never called Freund von mir. He had given them a fake phone number.

In retrospect, thinking back on the kids we were and the quest, eternal, for meaning that for a few years took the form of an evangelical church up Paris Road, I can only say:

I did not begrudge them their sense of togetherness, but nor did I envy it. They looked like posers, as if 17-year-old me was capable then (or 31-year-old me now) of distinguishing between the in-crowd herd and the real deal, a devout self-surrender into the hands of a higher power. The older I get, the more difficult it becomes to separate the two concepts, that somehow legitimate self-expression and pretendership are mutually exclusive. I didn’t think so then, but more and more I’ve come to believe that authenticity is a myth, and we are none of us True Scotsmen.

We fake it, in all things, till we make it.

Amen.

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