Popular legend in my family portrays me as the catalyst that "saved" my family. According to the story, my four year old self "convicted" my family with the direness of their sins and lead them to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. This was a lot of responsibility to place on the shoulders of a preschooler but in our world even the young were chosen to serve God.
My religious world was not a world into which I was born. My very earliest memories do not have any religious overtones. But those memories are only fragments from fading photos. Blue night gowns. Fisher Price circus trains. A cat. My religious memories are sharper more there and present when I think back on my life. They are the moments that informed many years of my life and even now shape who I am.
Like most mothers in our small town, my mom used vacation Bible school as a break from our crazy summer energy. I suspect also that while we did not attend church regularly, she still wanted us to have some kind of foundation in Christianity. For a week, a white school bully with "Trinity Methodist Church" in purple on the side made its way down my street picking up children from the various apartment houses. We'd climb in our white tank tops, cut off shorts, and dirty knees, hot and resentful of losing any of our precious summer time. Soon we'd be deposited on the side walk outside the gray stone church with it's stately belfry and tastefully stained glass windows. We were a pretty ragged looking bunch as most of us were the town's poor. While we made up the majority of families in our dying industry town, we were still the lowest of the low.The other kids, the ones who parents worked at the paper mill were away at summer camp. We dutifully filled the seats in basement rooms giving earnest volunteers meaning in the hot July summer.
For five days we were soft served Jesus in coloring sheets, sweet crafts and a snack. At the end of the day, we were lead up to the chapel where we learned to sing "Jesus Loves Me" and "Jesus Loves All the Children." The elderly pastor would tell us a more or less boring story about this Jesus guy. We would go home with a cheap plastic prize and have our craft hung on the fridge with Scotch tape. We would then run outside to the freedom of no adults and hot summer sun until it was dark, and we were forced inside by the resounding of echos of our mother's voices.
In my memory, there is the musky smell of the church's old basement followed by the stuffy heat of the sanctuary. The warm sun sent rays of colors across our bare legs. Jesus was a pleasant person in the old pastor's wavering voice. I cam to associate Jesus with the warm feelings generated by VBS. He was higher than all of us but he wasn't like the mean kids with better clothes. Instead Christ was benign like the women who served us apple juice and AP brand sandwich cookies. Everyone was kind and gentle here even if they did talk to us like we were slow. People didn't yell here. They weren't sad. Everyone spoke in carefully modulated tones that blended with flowery perfume to create an affable if sleepy atmosphere. There was a complacent peace to the whole affair that was a bit appealing to a child from a rather explosive home life. None of the passion from my family, no boisterous energy that my family generated had a place in this sober world.
And this feeling was what propelled me to go up to the front on the last day when the old past asked if we wanted "Jesus to be our special friend." I was not quite sure what that mean but to me Jesus was this limp calm, this placid ennui that I associated with these sweet old ladies and the old man up front. Jesus was like a kind rich man who would give out candy and cheap plastic toys. He seemed like the kind of guy one wanted to have as a friend. Now years later I wonder how that Jesus managed to propel me into making my family realized their own destruction. How did this Christ become the angry Christ that threw sinners into the lake of fire? How did this peaceful setting lead to the passionate cry of tongues and the riotous chaotic energy of dancing in the spirit? How did this benign God lead to a grandmother prophetess?