By Richelle Kota.
At first my knees bruised and then they calloused. Prayer on bended knee was tricky for me when I was young. I never understood humbling myself in front of a god that was supposed to love me unconditionally, but I arched my back in silence just like everyone else and waited for the love of jesus christ to fill me.
We went to church if we were well to ask god to continue to bless us with good health, and we went when we were sick so god could heal us. As it was, Sunday mornings meant regrets that turned into repentance, communion grape juice stains I would not bother to clean, and unwritten rules I could not challenge. Initially, religion terrified me, but I held fast to it when I was young — a time when I was so full of honesty and fear.
Once, my mother asked me if I wanted to be saved during our daily bible study. In our family, being saved meant accepting jesus into my heart so he could change me, fill me with love, and somehow make me better. But I already liked the way I was.
I remember etching memorized verses on the headboard of my bed at age ten.
“Not today,” I remember saying.
I remember going to Christian camp and how the separation of boys and girls sexualized us before we even knew what sex was. But my parents told me it would make me a better person. It would make me a better Christian. It would make god love me more. I still didn’t know why god was dissatisfied with me, and I was still confused about how love worked.
My mother sat across from me and softly placed her hand on my leg. I tried to look away, but she found my eyes. She spoke softly, but with fervor: “If you don’t get saved, you are going to go to hell for eternity.”
The fear of the fiery pits of hell kept me awake that night. The thought consumed me. My heart was already full of love for my family and friends, but the next day I squeezed jesus in there, too. Just to be safe. I was four years old.
There was so much, and then all of a sudden, there was nothing. There was nothing for me but hurt I didn’t have enough hands to hold, and etched verses I was ashamed to scratch out. I could not unsee this upbringing even though I tied a blindfold on the past.
A couple of years ago, I heard a cover Sufjan Stevens did of an old gospel song, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, and I found myself singing along to every word. They did not mean anything more to me than old rituals I was still wading in, but it touched some small part of me that wasn’t still drowning. It was like a phantom pain and sorrow of sleepless nights I spent wondering if I died, where I would go.
Now, as an adult, I am still searching for the mystical and trying to reconcile the relationship I have with the universe, but the guilt of my childhood never seems to fade. For me, there is seldom shade in the shadow of the cross. The sun of religion has always and will always scorch me. I have sunburns that have never healed and I have scars that will never go away. When a Christian hymn begins, there is no doubt I will murmur along to the chorus, feeling parts of me that I thought had long disappeared. But then I hear the voices of those who condemn me and I feel shame, because, like a long lost parent, religion will always hold me and remind me that it was there to watch me grow up, even if I do not want it to.
Richelle Kota is a writer, nature enthusiast, and a student living in Philadelphia. Earlier this year she released her first self-published work, Where There Were Roses: A Memoir Through Poems. She aspires to live a very simple life on a farm with many pigs, goats, and dogs. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @tiniestdad.