I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania dominated by Born Again Baptists. The first friend I met in elementary school happened to belong to a particularly devout family. Elisa was a very smart little girl with a caustic wit and sarcastic sense of humor. She could deliver a joke with a deadly serious tone that frequently went right over everyone’s head. I loved her for that.
Elisa was not allowed to play with Barbies, which were the popular toy of all our peers. I have never known the exact reason for this, though I suspect it had something to do with Barbie’s sexy appearance. So instead we would play Ghost Barbies using imaginary dolls when her parents weren’t looking, being very careful not to get caught. Talking about Ghosts (aside from the Holy Ghost) was also against her parents’ strict beliefs.
Looking back, I am surprised they let us play together at all. As a child of divorce, I was already on the goodchristian blacklist. I did not attend Their Church. But worse than that, my family was very sporadic in our attendance of any church at all. When my mother did take us to the Lutheran church, she did so “just in case it was true,” which is also the reason I was baptized. It was clear that Mom didn’t really believe any of it, although she kept an open mind. Nobody in my family was particularly religious except my paternal grandmother and she kept that to herself. We were godless heathens, through and through.
Anyway, some of my earliest interactions with proselyting Christians were through Elisa. She firmly believed that it was her duty to attempt to convert me, lest I go to hell. I firmly believed it was all nonsense. Despite all of the differences between us, we remained friends. Even when I declared my defiant atheism and refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance because of the God line, we remained friends. Years later, I attended her wedding, where she walked down the aisle in a White Dress and meant it. All along I secretly hoped that Elisa would go off to college and go buck-wild. She was too smart for all this nonsense, I thought. But it never happened. Elisa went to a Christian college, met a Christian husband, and is now raising three adorable Christian children. She seems pretty happy and for that I am happy. I am also secretly disappointed in a small way. Elisa would have been an amazing heathen.
I attended several events sponsored by her church throughout my childhood but one stands out in my memory.
I remember the excitement of being invited to a party at Elisa’s house with lots of other little girls and boys. This must have been around the fifth grade and parties were the highlight of our lives. It was not a birthday party though, and I thought this quite strange. Parties were generally for birthdays.
In many ways the party seemed like any other children’s party. There were snacks and balloons, decorations and cake, party favors and music. Then mid-way through the celebration, we were told it was time to watch a movie. So we gathered around the TV and VCR and Elisa’s mom pressed play.
The movie turned out to be a film about Satan and his evil plot to destroy humanity. Satan had a little impish demon helper slave that was wreaking havoc on the world and reporting back to his master with the news. It wasn’t a cartoon; it was live action. Satan and the imp were puppets I guess. Or maybe Satan was an actor with a horrible mask. At one point the imp said to Satan “Yes master, everything is going according to plan! People are reading their horoscopes and having abortions. It won’t be long now!” I didn’t know what an abortion was.
After the movie ended, we were asked to stand in a circle. Elisa’s father told us that all we had to do to be Saved was accept Jesus into our hearts and we would go to heaven! So one by one, we were asked if we accepted Jesus into our hearts. Most of the responses were not memorable as the majority of the kids were already a part of their church or another Christian church and they had already been indoctrinated to give the acceptable response. One girl, Marissa, who was partially deaf, broke down in tears because she felt that God had forsaken her by giving her a disability. “Why doesn’t God love me?” she wailed pitifully. The Christians comforted her and assured her that God had a plan for her and she should know that God loves all his children and she accepted Jesus into her heart through sobs and tears. Personally I thought it was a valid question. If God was so all powerful, why would he choose to make people suffer?
And then it was my turn.
“Do you accept Jesus into your heart?” Elisa’s father asked.
“No.” I said.
“Why not?” he replied with concern.
“Because I do not believe in God.” I said.
They didn’t seem prepared for this answer, so after some hemming and hawing, they moved on to the next child. Like dutiful Baptists, they continued to invite me to church things. I went to some of them, because I liked Elisa and found it to be an interesting experience. I went to quite a few churches, as a matter of fact, of my own accord. I was intrigued by them and their differences and similarities. I read the entire Bible (it was incredibly tedious and boring.) But never for a second did I waver in my belief that it was all a bunch of bullshit.
Elisa and I remained friends. Despite the bait and switch from fun-party-time to coerced-Jesus-time, I recall that party as a fun event and I laugh at fifth grade me. I was already so determined that all of these people were deluded on every level and living life for a non-existent God of an imaginary heaven, an opinion that has never left me to this day.