Going To Church In Your Hometown


You can’t go home again, the saying goes. Of course, that’s a lie. You can, but when you do you find that it’s exactly the same and totally different as when you left it, really left it – maybe that was moving away to college, or finding your own voice, or falling in love. You can go home again; you can drive there, you can fly, you can hitch a ride or take a Megabus and then go crashing into your hometown bar and your twin-size bed.

I sat in the pew at my childhood church on Christmas Eve, with my brother humming hymns and my grandma leaking memories all over the floor, staring up at the altar with its new, modern-looking cross and its slick tile floors. They remodeled it in my absence. It was suffocating under its ‘70s carpet and drab, pallid wood. I wasn’t really paying attention to the sermon or the stories or the singing because I’ve heard it all before; nothing much changes in a small-town church except people who once sat in certain pews are now greying or ghosts, and maybe the young pastors move away to greener pastures and higher paychecks. The kid who lights the candles changes over the years, too, and when he looks at you you know he has no idea who you are unless he’s seen your face on the wall at the high school.

The Christmas story is a lovely one, and as a child I always thrilled to hear it when my grandma read aloud from her Bible. The virgin birth, the shepherds out late hanging around when suddenly a bright and terrifyingly beautiful angel appears, a great and powerful baby surrounded by cows and sheep and men carrying precious gifts just for him. Then Jesus grows up – that part we don’t know about – but reappears as an adult and does miraculous things to fill up pages of the Bible. What did he do in the meantime? Maybe he kissed some girls and got drunk on that holy wine and fought with his mom.

Sometimes my motivation for getting out of bed is to see what miraculous things the news has to offer me: the money people donate to each other on “Humans of New York,” the 90-something lady who watched her young self dancing with silver screen stars for the first time, the dogs who care for their soldiers. These little things make me think that maybe there is something out there, something good and wise and fair who sends us little dollops of joy when we need them.

When I quit believing in God, my mom said I’d start again when someone I really loved dies. It took awhile for that kind of loss, but I lost my beloved grandma three years ago, and I still didn’t quite glom on to God. I tuned out the church part of her funeral. I always thought I’d prefer a real shoulder to lean on instead of some ephemeral one in the sky.

I used to recite a little mantra of things I believed in: coffee and candles and the changing of the seasons, children and bookstores and all my best friends. I believed in everything you ever told me when you coated it up heavy in booze and slid it into my mouth; back then I was still that little girl on my knees taking what I was given, all that skepticism gone right out the window.

You accept the religion you’re given as a child and you take it blindly, believing in the stories because they sound like they could be true, that if you’re a good little girl you’ll go to heaven one day and see Jesus and all your dead pets. And when you grow up, you believe everything that boy tells you, from blue-bubble texts to the words his whispers in your ear when you’re alone. You believe it all, because you’re supposed to.

It’s impossible not to accept what you so desperately want.