I was raised as a pastor’s daughter in an evangelical church. It took me leaving the U.S. at the age of 25 to really begin to discover my own beliefs. It was only once I was outside of the circles of friends and family I was raised in and felt comfortable in that I began to be challenged in my beliefs and ideas. But I still joined a church when I moved to South Africa – and that church also enveloped me with ideas and beliefs that were extremely patriarchal. It actually took being married for three fight-filled hellish years and being separated from my partner for nearly a year for me to find my true self – and to step away from the Christianity that promoted being married even through hell, having to be a perfect wife and serving him as though he was my master no matter what. Fortunately for me, in spite of this type of Christianity, my husband was the original feminist in our relationship. And oddly enough, I was the one putting pressure on him and us to fufill these “christian roles”. WTF – right? Only once we separated and I was confronted with the reality of what divorce would mean – mainly failing at my “christian role”, failing as a wife, no longer a “good girl”, and once I gave those petty fears away – I began to uncover what I wanted from my life. And perhaps what I am still trying to understand more fully – the truth of the God that lives within each one of us – and not in a sermon or a big church that talks a lot but does little.
Looking back I can see the strong patriarchal role the church/religion played in my life and my marriage. I was devoted to two pursuits to give my life meaning: pleasing God and finding (and keeping) a Man. The idea was planted from an early age that I must follow very specific guidelines and abide by certain rules in order to be right with God and that my heart’s desire (after God of course) was to find a man. And so my life for about 30 years was devoted to these two tracks. I rode that train and steamed on until I finally was forced to jump the track – ie: confronted with divorce and with really shitty advice from “church leaders”.
My family was of a “liberal” Christianity (sort of), one that was more Pentecostal, hand raising, loud music type of “believers”. I was raised in this and knew no different. I attended a church where God was a “He” and there was a lot we had to do to please Him. As a girl child these included attending Missionettes (the Pentecostal version of girls scouts, only we didn’t even get to camp, instead we learned to sew), learning bible verses, accepting my role as a woman second to man and as his helper, singing in the choir, and being nice to pretty much everyone, even Joanne the bully. This last one was mainly due to being the pastor’s daughter. Since my father loved using his family as sermon material, from a very early age I was aware that a lot more people knew stories of my life and me than I knew of them. And so I learned to smile, and nod, and be a good girl.
The pleasing God activities that I employed in my life – that of “helper” was one of the most screwed up mixed messages I received as a girl. As the first child in my household, my father really pushed me to be independent and to take care of myself. He wanted me to be strong and independent. And yet, meanwhile, these other messages would surround me – “yes, you can be independent and strong” – however, I received an addendum to this – “but you must know your boundaries especially around men.” I was taught (both vocally and through example) that men will always be the leaders, there will be no women pastors for some reason that Paul the Apostle (not Jesus) talks about. Sure men and women were equal but at the end of the day men should have the final say. In fact, this was reiterated in many, many church services, and counseling session my husband and I endured early on in our marriage. I kept wondering what the point of a strong woman was. In fact, I was told at my wedding that sometimes I may figure something out before my husband, but that I should give him time to figure out, so as not to emasculate him! I was basically raised to be independent – sort of – but to not ask too many questions. And then as I grew up and that stubbornness would flair and I knew that it was not right that my only options in a career to serve God could be in being a missionary (because women could do that), being a Pastor’s wife, or being a teacher, I would become increasingly confused and frustrated because of what I was limited to. My generation was raised by parents that said you can be anything you want to be if you put your mind to it. Yet the church I belonged to seem to quietly push that the only way to serve this God was to go “into ministry” of some kind or serve your husband. And for women this was especially limited.
So I was stuck. I wanted God to know I loved “him” and that I wanted to be a good girl and do the right thing as I always had – but the choices to do so seemed so limited.
This type of indoctrination then led me to believe that I could only truly serve God through Man. And that I would need to find the right kind of man so that I could follow him and serve God next to him – or as many women evangelicals love to preach, “under him”. One very prominent woman evangelist talks about how even though she is the preacher her husband is still the head – and that when he prays she has to get lower than him to pray – because he is the ultimate authority and apparently in this physical stance he remains closer to God. WTF!
It sickens me that I believed so much nonsense for so long. One “christian” counselor that my husband and I went to looked at me one day and said “you are not allowed to have a bad day” and insisted that as a wife I had to ensure that I please my husband. I could go on and on on this topic … and I may just do that in a future post. But the true point of this rant is that religion reinforced some very f’d up views of life as a woman in the church, in society and in marriage.
A friend gave me a copy of Sue Monk Kidd’s “Dance of the Dissident Daughter” as I was working my way through a very hard time coming back from a year of on and off separation from my husband and having finally chosen to leave the church. I was angry at the church and the leadership. Sue’s journey was one that I related to – I began to realize that God is not male, and this was really the first time I could see that the American church really builds up a patriarchal God that keeps women confined to very small spaces. Over the last year and a half I have found a space to be open to God in much bigger and wider ways and to finally feel and embrace the feminine gentle aspects of the Divine. I can’t say I know exactly what I believe – but I certainly know what I don’t believe and can more readily spot the patriarchal religious dogma that still exists in such mass, particularly in America.
A few months ago my husband and I decided we wanted to move back to the U.S. from South Africa where we hope to raise a family and be closer to both of our extended families. But this is also a choice to go back to the place of unhelpful teachings and surrounding myself with those that still teach and believe in the Christianity that oppresses. On the 8th of May we return to the U.S. and to be very honest – I am incredibly anxious about returning home. The challenge will be living near and loving those that remain under a God of patriarchy without pushing them away, without getting angry. The challenge will be to keep nurturing that authentic self that has just recently found her voice and strength. The greatest challenge, however, in returning home is that I left America as a “good girl” and return a daring “rebellious” woman. What will they think of me? And how will I stay sane? … stay tuned! 🙂