I should have known better than to get involved.
If not when he invited me, and I saw all the teenagers falling to the ground, crying, with their hands raised, then surely later. A group of us stayed late, and he put up an extension ladder to retrieve a ball from the game that had been played earlier and gotten lodged in one of the high window wells.
In order to do this, he had to put the ladder up in the middle of the beam that was high enough that he needed the ladder - high enough to cause head trauma if he fell - and then walk from the middle to one end where the window was. He got the ball, and proceeded to walk back to the ladder, arms out, as if he were on a balance beam, or a seasoned construction worker on a project. The height was dizzying. He remained alarmingly calm until he reached the ladder and climbed down.
This was the church I attended.
I started coming after I confessed to him in a letter that I was struggling with anxiety and depression since two years prior, when a family member nearly died of an unexpected cause. He said he would talk to me about the note later. And instead, invited me to attend church with him the following night. And again, twice that Sunday. I, the sporadic-sometimes-childhood-Methodist had attended a nondenominational charismatic church three times in five days.
I was eighteen.
Near a decade later, at 27, I remain what I was then: a glommer. It's not something I'm proud of, but it's true. If I see something I like in a person, I want to be their friend, and be around them. It sounds normal. But it got me into trouble with the church thing. Because every time he asked me if I wanted to come to this event, or that conference, I said yes. I wanted to be liked at any cost.
Only a month and a half after I started attending there, I was saved. It wasn't a word I was familiar with in the context they used it. You saved money. Maybe you saved a sandwich or some candy for later. But I had never heard of being saved in the spiritual sense. And now, a month and a half later, I was. I was born again. I realize now, it was for the spiritual reasons, as much as it was so these new friends I had would continue to like me. I didn't want to be seperate from them.
I was in church all the time. At least twice a week. I suddenly was familiar with songs and terminology that was once foreign to me. Only a few times did a outrightly resist anything. Praying in tongues was one such thing. I didn't like the way it sounded or the way it made me feel inside when others did it. Even though I got prayer so I could do it if I wanted, and was encouraged to, I didn't.
If I wasn't in church, I was at Bible study or a prayer meeting. There was so much that made me uncomfortable. So many red flags. But each time I saw one, I raised a white one in return, indicating my surrender.
My mindset changed so completely that I look back at my writings from that time and wonder if I'd been brainwashed. I remember clearly, for example, being completely broken - inconsolable in tears at a prayer meeting with friends - because my family wasn't saved, and I felt I wasn't doing enough to bring them to faith. My friends answered by putting me in the "hot seat" a chair in the middle of many other chairs. After being put on the spot to share my reasons for being upset, I was prayed for, while they all sat or stood around me, laying their hands on me. It was awkward, having been raised where physical touch wasn't a primary way to show anything but discipline.
Another time, I was at lunch with him after church. We were at the house where he was living and I confessed my anxiety about praying out loud. In this church, praying out loud was much more accepted and respected than praying silently. When it was my turn to pray over the meal, I was struck completely silent. The anxiety of speaking to God so publicly paralyzing me, though it was just in front of him. So, in his way, he helped me overcome this hurdle. He prayed over the meal, and asked God to help me. And then waited until I managed to do it. I never got comfortable with it. I only remember praying aloud a couple of times on my own.
I got involved in helping with the youth group, with the other college-aged people. One Sunday, they said, we were going to help something called The Persecuted Church. Like nearly everything else, I wasn't familiar with this either. But it was so we in America, were reminded of the places around the world where it was punishable by death to practice Christianity. In these countries, church services were often broken up by officers with guns who took them away to be shot.
I participated in this reenactment. Even though my heart clutched at the sight of him and my other friends dressed in black and carrying fake guns, ready to storm the sanctuary after the children were safely in Sunday school. I thought of anyone who had ever been in a position where their life was threatened by someone with a gun. I didn't feel okay about this. But I was at my post at the bottom of the stairs, wearing all black myself - somberly pointing them in the direction of the church basement, which had been transformed into an underground church, lit only by candles. We heard stories from a book called Jesus Freaks, about people martyred all over the world throughout history for their faith. I understood the point. But I wasn't on board with it. And yet, I participated.
I went street-ministering at midnight in the streets of downtown, with groups of bold peers who spoke to people struggling with alcoholism, asking them, "Do you want to change?" I watched, terrified, as a knife-fight broke out just in front of us.
I risked my life in other ways.
On a camping trip with friends, we stopped at a lake. He offered to swim, with me on his back, out to the floating dock in the middle of the water. I don't know how I thought we were going to get off it once we were up there. But soon, he proposed it to me.
"Let's jump off this! You just let go when we hit the water, and I'll get you."
I was terrified. I couldn't swim. But I agreed.
At the time, it had been thrilling, especially once I was no longer submerged, feeling like I was drowning. I clung to his back like a koala and he swam us back to shore.
There were the Healing and Deliverance Conferences he invited me to. The first, only a year after I was saved. Being healed was another foreign concept for me. Growing up with Cerebral Palsy that effected my legs enough that I endured several surgeries throughout childhood to stretch contracted muscles, my ankles fused so they were unable to bend, etc, it was unthinkable to consider that God might heal me, if I just prayed hard enough.
As with everything else, I agreed easily to go to this conference. At the end of it, they invited people forward for the grand finale. The leader of the conference, a pastor I had never heard of (which I guess isn't saying much) prayed for the people. They called out in agonized voices. The collapsed. They shouted. It was all intimidating to me. But I came forward, because I looked to the stage, where he was playing guitar, and he was nodding at me.
By the time it was my turn, I was the last one.
"Do you believe that God can heal you?"
His microphone is thrust in my face.
"I--" I hesitate. I want to say yes, this is church! God will know if I lie. "I want to."
And so it began.
The pastor was walking with me, back and forth, in front of this huge auditorium full of people. All waiting for God to do something. He had taken my Canadian crutches away from me and propped them up on a seat. I felt vulnerable without them, holding the hands of this man I didn't even know.
It got worse.
As we walked, he tried to let go of my hands. At times, I was barely grasping his fingers, and it was only because I was so determined. I knew my own body. My lack of balance. My tense muscles - worse when I was stressed - and nothing was different. If he let go of me, and I fell, it would be humiliating for him and for me. I would let this whole group of people down.
In the end, the pastor gave up. He told me that God already healed me, I just needed to have the faith and believe it was true. It crushed me.
That was the start of countless people, in my own church and others I visited, wanting to pray for me to be physically healed. It was devastating because it felt like I wasn't accepted because of something I couldn't help. That was all I'd ever wanted. Acceptance. And when I struggled with anxiety, depression and worse, people who claimed God told them to come pray for me - for "my legs" - I knew no matter what, just by being there, I would be a distraction to people.
Mine was a church where you're healed if you have enough faith. Where depression is because you don't have enough faith. Where you turn a blind eye to things you should not. Where negative actions are Satan's fault, and the end of the world is coming in our lifetime.
Mine was a church where my college group watched a video about propganda. It showed people being executed and other horrible things. And when my reaction was anxiety, I was viewed as the offender. Didn't I want to get healed? When will I stop believing these lies from the pit of hell?
Mine was a church where the guest-pastors yelled. They had creepy, predatory eyes that only I seemed to notice.
But mine was a church where I chose to go. I gave up seven and a half years of my life. I chose to keep going. My need for acceptance was so deep and driven that nothing else mattered. I could have stopped going anytime I wanted - and finally - nearly two years ago, I did.
I lost him as a friend. We've known each other almost ten years. The minute I stopped doing what he did, thinking what he thought, living how he lived, he dropped me.
I'm left wondering how much of my spiritual life was ever genuine. He was the reason I got involved in the church in the first place. He was the reason I kept coming back.
But as much as I find myself blaming him as I tell this story time and time again, trying to work it out for myself, and figure out what happened and what the heck I'm left with, I know where the true blame lies:
It lies with me, for not knowing deep down that I deserved better.