There’s a story I’ve never shared. Never spoken of. Because. I know its words are divisive. I know its words cause harm, anger, mistrust. I know its words are not welcome. But, these days, I’m already unwelcome. So, it’s time to tell the story. Time to start putting into words the truth.
Disturbed, the musical group, has a song on their newest recording, named, “Who Taught You How To Hate?” I mention that here, because here is where I answer that question. I have no doubt I hate. It’s something I’ve been taught. And, once learned, it’s a lesson that can’t be unlearned.
Here’s the direct, blunt answer. Who taught me how to hate? The Christian Church.
Oh, I know, that sentence just shut down almost everyone who would have read this post. Everyone who needs to hear the words below has stopped reading. But, I’m going to tell the story anyway.
It ended, and it began, in August of 1976. A single day that changed the course of my life permanently, and guaranteed I would one day walk away from all churches.
The high school aged youth group of The Narnia Baptist Church went on an end of summer retreat to a place in Syria, Virginia. It was the third trip the group had made to that location, and my second trip to that place.
The Director of Youth Activities for The Narnia Baptist was Jane. I loved her as a friend then, and to this day, if she asks me for assistance of any kind, I will find a way to help. I understood she had genuine concern for me. I understood that of all the people, all the young people like myself, in that group.
It was on that trip when I finally admitted I did not understand the world the way I was supposed to understand it. On a Saturday night. I told Jane I knew something was wrong with my life. I knew it wasn’t a lack of faith, or a lack of God, or some flaw in my understanding of my religion. It was something inside me. Something that prevented me from being like the others in the group.
Everyone in the youth group had paired off, as teenagers do. They’d found girlfriends, and boyfriends. They’d experimented with dating. They’d experimented with many other things as well, including drinking, illegal drugs, and sex. Again, as teenagers do.
I was 17, never been on a date, never had a girlfriend, never tried any drugs, and was waiting until it was legal for me to try alcohol, if I elected to try it. I was also an honor roll high school student, headed toward a college education.
And I declared to Jane, that night, I knew I was different, I knew I reacted differently than the rest of the group. That was the first time I remember the words I hear in my head endlessly. “You can’t be that way. You can’t live like that.”
That’s all the explanation I could get. The way I lived, the way I did things, was wrong. I suppose it would have made life easier for me if someone could have explained why I couldn’t be how I was, why I couldn’t live as I did.
And why I couldn’t feel what I felt.
From that day forward, everyone in the church group tried to correct my behavior. Jane certainly tried. She was most tolerant, really, of my problems with life over the following school year, and the summer of 1977. She also suggested I obtain help, and helped me set up sessions with the church pastor.
Imagine, if you will, being a 17 year old, informed by everyone you know, everyone you care about, every friend you have, that you can’t live the way you live. That you can’t feel what you feel. That you have to change.
I remember the many Sunday nights, after church, when I drove the family station wagon, filled with friends from church, to eat pizza at Pizza Hut. Always, I was the odd numbered human. There were five of us, or seven of us. And I was always the odd number, the one, the single person.
Sometimes, I felt like I didn’t belong, like I wasn’t part of the group, and was only being allowed to tag along, because no one wanted to tell me to go away. And, over time, that changed. Over time I became the odd person outside the group. Allowed to sit at the big table and eat pizza, but when the pizza was gone, it was time for me to be gone too.
The same feeling of it being time for me to be gone spread to Sunday evening church services, and I soon found myself sitting alone at those services, with no one to talk with after those services. That continued to spread, until I was left with no one to talk with on Sunday mornings.
It was the first time I’d been isolated by any group.
In my senior year in high school, I got a part time job as a grocery bagger at a store. When that store started opening on Sundays, at first I told them I didn’t want to work on Sundays, because I had to go to church.
A month later, I told them I could work on Sundays. The isolation at church had reached the point where I knew no one would care if I wasn’t there.
And no one did. No one asked where I was, what I was doing, why I wasn’t there.
In my first year at Old Dominion, I tried to return to church on Sunday mornings. At least long enough to attend the pre-church bible studies. That didn’t work out. And that’s when I heard the next words I’d hear endlessly.
I spoke, more out of desperation than anything else, to a friend. Katie. I asked her if I should find help. “You need help, Mark.”
Those words ended my time at that church. I did visit during the next four years, to check on someone who mattered to me, although I never said anything, and never spoke to anyone of why I kept visiting every few weeks. Her name was Billie Sue Cruz.
When she graduated from high school in 1982, she moved away from that church. And I didn’t return until December of 2010.
By June of 1985, the damage was permanent. I’d learned to hate myself, to deny what I felt, what I wanted, what I cared about. Because, “You can’t be that way. You can’t live that way.” I learned to become what people wanted me to be. I learned to study people, to discover what type of behavior they expected of me, how they expected me to behave, what types of behavior were acceptable to them.
Being who I wasn’t, being what I wasn’t, and fitting the expectations of the people around me, became a feedback loop. If I followed that pattern of behavior, people left me alone, they didn’t tell me how to live, how to behave, how to think. They didn’t tell me I couldn’t be like I was, couldn’t live like I did.
I learned to deny myself.
I learned to hate myself.
I don’t blame anyone for what happened. Let me say that now. I don’t blame Jane. I don’t blame Katie. I don’t blame the group. I don’t blame The Narnia Baptist Church. It’s not worth blaming anyone. What happened happened. It’s the past. I can’t go back and redo it. It’s done. It’s over.
In the summer of 1980, when I was 21, the old group from The Narnia Baptist Church got together one last time, and made a trip to Syria, Virginia, and the retreat center there. I had just completed my 3rd year of college, had a part time job at a grocery store, and was earning enough money to pay for a car, thanks to the generosity of my parents, who allowed me to live at home, and paid my college tuition. I paid for my text books. I paid for my insurance. I paid for the paperback books I read. I paid for the music I listened to. I paid for the comic books I read. I paid for the repairs on my car. I paid for any trips I made to watch a movie. I paid for any dates I went on. I Syria, Virginia.
On that Saturday, at the retreat, the group got on their swimsuits, shorts, and shirts, and headed to the swimming hole in the mountains a few miles from the retreat. At 21, once again, I had to be the lead car that showed the others how to get to the parking for the trial that lead to the swimming spot.
And on that walk, I was the one who stopped what he was doing, and helped others up and down the hillsides along the trail in the mountains as the group made its way to and from that mountain swimming hole on that Saturday afternoon.
I even climbed down the hillside on the way back, beside Jane, to make certain she was OK.
And I heard the third set of words I hated passionately. “Good Old Mark.” I knew she meant it as a compliment. But those words stung in ways I could never have explained to anyone. Those word said I was who I was supposed to be. The observations I’d made of what the people of that group expected me to be, wanted me to be, were confirmed. I was as I was supposed to be.
And I hated every minute of it. I hated who I was, what I’d become.
On that swimming trip, I didn’t swim. I wasn’t part of the group. I stayed away, climbed the hills around the swimming hole, hid from the others, and licked my wounds.
And I watched them. Just in case something happened. And I was needed. Because, to keep everyone from saying those words, “You can’t be that way, you can’t live that way, you need help,” I had to maintain that image, that routine, that I was who they needed me to be.
I’d learned what I’d been taught. I’d learned I couldn’t live the right way. I couldn’t be the right way. I’d learned to burn myself to ashes, to keep myself away from others, so they could be happy. So I wouldn’t bother them, or disturb them, or disrupt them.
So they didn’t have to deal with me. The hated one, whose feelings, and thoughts were always wrong.
So, when you ask me, “Who taught you how to hate, Mark?” I have to answer with honesty.
I’ve tried returning to the Church several times in the past 20 years. Each time has failed. Not because I didn’t try. But because of what I have seen every time I tried.
I spent several years attending a church down the road from where I now live. It was called, at the time, God’s Place, and was Episcopal. In the three years I went there for Sunday morning services, I watched that church die.
It started when the Episcopal Church in the US elected an openly gay man as a church bishop. People, loyal Episcopalians, abandoned their church when that happened, as they declared the Episcopal Church had turned its back on God. Some of them pushed for God’s Place to separate from the Episcopal Diocese.
Then, the pastor’s wife left him. She moved to New Jersey. When she left, a slow decline in the regular attendance of the church began. I would learn why when the church pastor went on a mandatory six month sabbatical.
While he was away, the Episcopal Diocese placed another ordained pastor in his place. Before the six months ended, the church staff spoke with the pastor, and then with the bishop of the local diocese. What followed was in investigation of inappropriate sexual activity by the church pastor. That investigation not only revealed the inappropriate sexual behavior, it also revealed inappropriate manipulation of the church’s funds.
That church imploded, and wound up sucking itself into a black hole, never to be seen again. People split into two groups, those who believed the pastor, and those who believed the investigation.
In December, 2010, I visited The Narnia Baptist Church. As I’ve said, I harbor no grudge, I don’t blame anyone for what happened to me there. Many of the people who used to be regular church goers there have moved on. They’ve found other churches, or they no longer attend any church.
The Narnia Baptist Church is dying.
And part of me finds this sad.
And part of me feels it was inevitable.
After a few visits, I knew I wasn’t meant to be there. I didn’t fit in. I never really did. So, I left again, for the final time.
In May of 2011, I visited another church. Far Away Baptist Church, in Chesapeake. I visited on a whim, someone I’d known in highschool was there, and had invited me. I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.
I wound up attending most Sundays until November. Sometimes, it takes a while to figure things out, and to understand what I’m feeling. But, it all became clear one Sunday, when my friend told me she had worked hard to grow the way people of that church thought of her. She’d put a lot of effort into controlling the image they had of her. And she wanted to maintain that image.
And the scars in me were laid bare.
I knew exactly what she was saying, because I’d learned to do that very thing at The Narnia Baptist Church. I tried to keep visiting Far Away Baptist, but I couldn’t. Everywhere I looked, I saw that behavior, where people manage, and control, what others think of them. Where people are fake, and behave as expected.
So, in November of 2011, I walked away, and I have never returned.
I won’t be attending another church.
It’s taken me decades to undo the damage the Church did to me. Decades to learn I physically am different. Decades to learn we are all physically different. Some of us have healthy, strong bodies. Some don’t. Some of us have healthy, strong social skills. Some don’t. Some of us live pain free. Some don’t. Some of us can walk into a church, and fit in. Some can’t. Some of us don’t panic when we visit a new store, a new restaurant, a new doctor. Some of us do.
It’s taken me decades to recognize the self hate I was taught by people who honestly thought they were doing their best to help me.
I’m still learning to take care of myself. I’m still learning to speak my truth. To speak my story. I’m still learning I’m not evil, not wrong, not broke.
I’m just different. With a clinically diagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder, and permanent depression that’s biochemically based. And that’s OK. It doesn’t make me defective. It doesn’t make me wrong. It makes me different.
So, when you ask me, “Mark, who taught me how to hate?”
I have to answer honestly, “The Church.”
Who is teaching me to repair the damage done to my life?
God. And the people he’s put into my life that help me, including my doctors.
I can’t return to the Church. Some of us aren’t meant to be there. For some of us, it’s the worst thing we can do to ourselves.
You know my story, which features the same basic ideas.
I am proud of you for writing this, your truth.
For learning to love yourself, as you are. As God made you.
I’m glad you’re my friend.
And I am thankful this life has, for some unknown reason, blessed me with your friendship.