Imagine this: a room full of people chanting the same prayer that has been chanted for decades in hundreds of other rooms just like this one. There’s a girl sitting in the back. She’s about 14. She’s wearing a dress from Jay Jays and she has straightened hair. The year is 2011.
The sound of these voices are alien to her; they sound like possessed zombies or something. She doesn’t know why she’s here, and not in an existential, totalitarian way, but in the sense that she doesn’t know what events have brought her to this weekly practice. Or why this had become such common practice and so comfortably adopted. I guess the fact that she’s been thrust into religion from the moment she was conceived has something to do with it…
It’s her fate, and she hasn’t got an ounce of control over it.
When I came into the world, my Mum thought she heard the voice of God. She worried that her child would not have a mother to support her. A few years later, she would come realise that my dramatic birth would lead to an even more dramatic child.
A big fluffy teddy bear named Albany was given to me for one of my first birthday presents from our Pastor. The teddy bear was named Albany after the street our Baptist church was on. If that doesn’t paint a clean enough picture for the rest of what my childhood would be like, I don’t know what could.
As I grew older, Albany became smaller and smaller. She became some kind of metaphor for how the rest of my life would play out.
I was always the naughty kid in Sunday School. I often got told off for picking my nose, hiding cardboard cutouts of Joseph and Moses from the teacher or for bullying other kids. I was never a girly girl, but my parents always made me wear dresses to church. They were normally pink, frilly or floral, and were often paired with sparkly jelly sandals. For the rest of the week I wore pants. My favourite things where dinosaur figurines and eating chicken nuggets. My favourite t-shirt was one my Dad had brought home from Darwin. It was red. One day when we were in a pet store observing the goldfish, I took it upon myself to instruct a little girl wearing a dress to “Only wear dresses on Sundays.” I would often request we sing “Amazing Grace” in the singing portion of Sunday school.
There were some pretty fucked up things that happened in my childhood church, so we moved to an Anglican one in the area. I was devastated to leave my childhood friends. The Anglican church was so different to me. There were all these traditions and rules that the congregation had to abide by. I thought it was weird and outdated. I felt like everyone knew exactly what they were doing all the time, including my parents, and I was just waiting to turn 18 because I knew it was a free ticket out of there. Church was the most tedious chore. I would often go to sleep feeling sick on Saturday nights because I knew what was coming in the morning.
The older I got, the more I understood what had actually gone on in my childhood church. It made me hate “God” and I came to believe that religion was something entirely fabricated, or at least, if it was true, someone had twisted it around in an attempt to govern and manipulate people. Whether or not there is a God, I don’t really know, but what I do know is he wouldn’t want his people controlling each other like that.
My teenage years were spent going to youth groups and Christian camps, were I was told not to have sex, do drugs, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, watch porn, swear or date non-Christians. I couldn’t read Dolly magazine or watch Gossip Girl, and if God forbid I shopped at Supre, I had to ensure I had a white camisole to go underneath so that I didn’t tempt young men with my small boobs.
For years I’d been told that dating a non-Christian would lead to abandoning my faith or, worse, having sex out of wedlock. According to some Christians, this is worse than dying. I never understood this, nor did I understand the heavy use of terms like “losing your virginity.” Virginity plays into one of those concepts that relies heavily on political and social contexts, and I believe that as women (and men) become more and more empowered and sexually liberated, terms like “virgin” and even “slut” oppress us even more, and take us back to a time when women were seen as objects and commodities.
When I was 16, one of my best friends introduced me to Tinder. I had never had a boyfriend, or even been kissed, and at 16 I thought this meant I would die alone with a couple of cats in an apartment that smelt of kibble and mothballs. Preferably located in Annadale or Dulwich hill. As soon as I got the app, I was flooded with likes and matches, and I instantly felt my self-worth grow. But that’s all it was. A quick fix for something that needed deep repair. And of course, with my upbringing, the only person I felt I could turn to was God, forgetting my relationship with myself completely.
After an abusive relationship resulting from my short stint on Tinder, I returned to Christianity and was quickly baptised a few months before I turned 18. It had all happened so fast, but I felt I wanted it to be, so that I could “join the family of God” and truly belong to something. I was flooded with messages of congratulations, cards, hugs, all from old friends and family who had almost forgotten about me for the past five years. Because I was professing my Christianity, they wanted everyone to know they were there for me.
But I still felt so empty inside. It was like pouring water into a glass with a huge hole in the bottom. The faster you pour it in, the faster it gushes out. I was lost. I felt I had to do everything “Christian” in order to feel loved and accepted. I felt trapped in something that I had no control over. I felt pushed into something that dictated every decision I made, I felt I couldn’t do anything fun, or be loved fully by people because all they saw me as was “that Christian girl”. It came to a point where I was living two completely different lives at the same time. As all things go, one takes over the other.
I had my 18th birthday in the church hall, just chomping at the bit to drink alcohol legally and maybe even smoke my first cigarette. A month later I decided to get a biblical tattoo, the letter “E” on my right wrist, for Eternity. I never wanted to forget the commitment I had made to the church, even though there was this little voice in the back of my head and at the pit of my stomach telling me something wasn’t right. I pushed it away even further.
One day, in the midst of my university studies, I decided that I didn’t want to go to church because I wanted to watch the Biggest Loser. The little voice that was once so small had taken over my brain. My lack of attendance continues.
The first few weeks were liberating. I felt silence in my head for the first time in years. I had always pictured my brain to be two voices arguing at each other, and the day I left church, was the day one of the voices were finally silenced. It made sense for me to leave. I had been living a double identity for the past few years. I would have sex with my boyfriend or get drunk on the weekend and then go to church – filled with shame and guilt that only lasted on Sunday nights. The moment Monday rolled around I felt good again. I felt like I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
A woman from church invited me out for coffee to “have a chat”. She asked me a lot of very personal questions like, “have you done drugs?” and “have you had sex?”. We barely knew each other, and these questions were asked in such a way that I felt guilty and uncomfortable.
In Christmas of 2016, I came out to my mum as agnostic. It took me the best part of a year to tell her. When you grow up in religion, announcing your departure to your loved ones is often the most terrifying part.
“Grace, I know” she said.
I let out an audible sigh of relief.
She poured me another glass of champagne.