From Pentecostal to Pagan With Some Side Trips

Testifying of the journey from doubt to true faith, is a tradition in many churches. But we Unitarians are contrary- we walk away from certainty and respect doubt.

We come to Unitarianism not for unchanging doctrine, but for fellowship as we seek right ways to live in this world.

I’ve been blessed in diverse groups- including some who think the others are going to Hell.

My religious education began in Catholic school during the changes of Vatican II. If you don’t know about Pope John XXIII, think Pope Francis. No one can beat Catholics at ritual. Gold, incense, candles and vestments, the Stations of the Cross and flowers for the Queen of Heaven, much of the mystery was lost when the Pope let daylight into the Church.

The school could have used some of that daylight, the nuns practiced corporal punishment until they got it right.

But although our peers had the newest textbooks in their well-funded heathen public schools, we did get the best civics lesson ever

We were ordered to elect a class president. First rule- the president had to be a boy. No one questioned that, it was a truth self-evident. One of the candidates was the class clown, the other was a quiet, smart boy. We never found out whether style or substance would have won more votes, because right before election day Mother Superior walked into the cafeteria and caught the kids talking during lunch- which was forbidden. She flew into a rage and cancelled the election on the spot, crushing democracy with raw dictatorial power. Pretty sophisticated for 8th grade.

Around this time, my mother joined the Catholic Charismatics in their active Providence community.

Catholic Charismatics speak in tongues and wave their hands in the air. The Holy Spirit was moving, inspiring good works and creativity. This being the 70’s there were a lot of autoharps and 3-chord guitar players. People would say that it wasn’t them who wrote that song- only Jesus in them could do this.

Although the congregation was diverse and welcoming, it was assumed that since we were all one in Christ differences could be smoothed over. There were no problems that faith couldn’t solve.

At some point the priest leaders revived the ancient and little-used ritual of exorcism. I think it’s important to know that this is not an uncommon practice even now. Oddball news items about politicians who either literally or figuratively demonize opponents really worry me, because I saw firsthand how quickly groups can slide into the irrational. Troubled people who needed more than a weekly prayer meeting were persuaded they were possessed. People were claiming that they had the ‘gift of discernment’ and telling you they saw ‘darkness in your eyes’. Almost anyone could declare themselves an amateur exorcist. Perhaps it was a sign of God’s mercy that we didn’t push someone into a psychotic break. I hope.

Exorcisms were performed in churches, in suburban living rooms, in the boathouse of the old Aldrich Estate on Warwick Neck, which looked exactly like the set of the 60’s gothic soap opera, ‘‘Dark Shadows’. The most unassuming people, it turned out, were tormented by demons of lust, blasphemy and gluttony. It kind of cast an aura of grandness on common venial sins, and the praying in tongues and screaming was dramatic. No one spoke openly about it, but some of the group were trying to get their homosexuality to go away, or to reconcile themselves to marriages that were better dissolved.

We were ‘high on Jesus’ and like any drug the highs brought lows. My teenage depression was not cured by being prayed over in tongues, clearly my faith was lacking. Petty spats blew up into supernatural battles. People were being people. My mother became severely disillusioned and left for the Pentecostal Assemblies of God.

This was where we first heard of The Rapture. Any moment we would be swept up to Heaven– or condemned to Hell. The terrible events of the 1970’s did not cause fear, but jubilation. It was all as prophesied, signs that the Lord was coming soon.

When our National Guard shot down students at Kent State, the elders said it was Communists and Satan that made the students rebel. When Israeli athletes were murdered by extremists at the 1972 Munich Olympics the church people praised the Lord, surely now The Rapture was at hand. The Church reality was almost a photonegative of the World, anguish and doubt in the World only reinforced the certainty in the Church. I was very immature with no sense of history, but I knew something wasn’t right. People exhorted me to have the Joy of the Lord. I was totally depressed.

Submitting to exorcism did not cure my depression..

But I think the Pentecostal church did, in Pagan terms, raise the cone of power. One time at an altar call the pastor touched me on the shoulder and I felt something like electricity come from his hand. People were ‘slain in the spirit’ and though I know there had to be a physical explanation it appeared that they fell straight backwards onto the hard floor without injury. Feeling this power in different groups taught me that no one owns spirituality, and a display of magic is not enough to make me a believer if you can’t reach me in the mundane world.

In the mundane world the Church chose to trust the gun more than God.

After repeated break ins and vandalism, the pastor set one of the men to guard the church at night. The guard shot the thief in the back as he tried to run away. Then he put him in handcuffs. He was a 17 year old boy from the neighborhood. His mother had tried to get him into mental health treatment. He ended up in intensive care.

The church prayed for him. The pastor was shocked at the negative response he got from the police and the community. He doubled down on the American values of property and guns.

By then I was on a downwardly mobile path. I found a room to rent on Waterman St., right near Jake’s cafe and the College Hill Bookstore. I bought books on Buddhism, which had an appealing tolerance and shelter from the glaring Eye of God and let you do your own thing- at least as far as my Christian mind understood Buddhism.

I was just beginning my independent life when my mother called with bad news. My grandmother, a widow living alone in her house in Washington Park, had been assaulted. A robber broke in and raped her.

My grandmother survived. In fact, she recovered physically, and resumed her life. I think she may have coped by burying the awful memory. She was a strong woman. But the crime was like a death–the death of the illusion that God’s people are under a special protection. The world became an even more frightening place. Providence in the late 70’s was a hostile place for young women, the Journal reported crimes almost every day, and men cruised around looking for streetwalkers, hitting on anyone female who happened to be walking on the street.

Fear led to resistance. I volunteered as an advocate at the Rape Crisis Center. I marched with Take Back the Night. I began to study AiKiDo with the dream of becoming an invulnerable martial arts expert.
No one is invulnerable, but martial arts was very rewarding, even more so when I discovered the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation. In martial arts there is a culture of respect and reverence for the teacher, the sensei. It was at the women’s camp, Special Training, that I first addressed a woman as Sensei and felt something change in my sense of self. The following year I bowed to a Black woman Sensei. That was a deep lesson in real empowerment. Not just integration in the ranks, but in the leadership.

I found a practicing Buddhist community when the Nipponzan Myohoji peace walk came through Providence. I walked with them from Quaker Meeting House to the Khmer Buddhist Society. This was a triple-decker near the Cranston Street Armory. The second floor held a temple where monks in saffron robes prayed before a great golden Buddha. One of the last surviving Cambodian Buddhist leaders, Maha Ghosananda, ministered there to the refugees who settled in South Providence.

The Venerable Maha Ghosananda came to the US from a refugee camp in Thailand. The Khmer Rouge had killed his family and most of his fellow clergy. Friends in the US sent him a plane ticket, which he cashed in to print flyers about lovingkindness to distribute to refugees and guards alike. In Providence he held morning meditation and teaching. I often saw our late senior minister, Tom Ahlburn, there. Tom was a great friend and admirer of Maha Ghosananda who was, simply, a saint.

Although Buddhist thinking and practice helped me along, I was still looking. It was during a few months managing the Dorrwar Bookstore that I discovered Paganism. With some trepidation, because it was forbidden knowledge, I picked up Starhawk’s book, ‘Dreaming the Dark’. It was not so much a new thealogy, as recognizing and validating what I’d always known to be true. I felt like I had lived my life with one leg tied up, and now could put both feet on the ground. Blessed Be.

Some time later when I joined a coven of witches, I saw how deeply immersed I still was in Christian magic.

My sister in law had told me that my little nephew was waking up at night and screaming inconsolably. She was annoyed at my mother for suggesting that she needed to get right with God, lest demons torment her baby. I mentioned this to the witches as we sat in our circle. They looked really concerned. “She should call her pediatrician.” one said. “Yes, let the pedi know.” said another.

Years later I attended a CUUPS (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) conference at Rowe Camp, and learned a great deal. As a Catholic I just had to do as I was told, and even though I had signed the book at First Unitarian I didn’t really get it. That the congregation makes the church, that ministers come out of seminary and look for a job, that they are regular people just like us. It was in a gathering of witches that I finally understood how churches work. It was there also that I heard the late Margot Adler, witch, Unitarian and journalist speak.

She said, “the challenge of our time is to learn to reconcile the rational and the mystical.”

It’s a blessing to be accepted under the sheltering roof of First Unitarian. It’s a blessing to count among the people I trust, who are on my spiritual wavelength, people from all religions and atheists as well.

Every group I encountered or joined had the same human bonds and conflicts. People believe differently, but we still get on each other’s nerves, or rescue each other, or fail each other just the same. We create our God or gods according to our needs. Some beliefs help us to be our best, others lead us to indulge our worst. I can’t tell my friends who draw strength from fundamentalism that they are wrong. That’s part of what helps them be the good people I love. We’re all in this river together and I can’t tell you what kind of raft to grab onto.

The early days of Occupy Providence four years ago in Burnside Park were lit with the same inspiration as the early days of the Catholic Charismatics. The breath of the Holy Spirit. And when exhaustion and frustration were setting in it was the Catholic Church that agreed to keep a homeless day center open so that the Occupiers could leave without abandoning the allies and friends they had made among the people who lived in Burnside Park.

During the campaign for marriage equality I was devastated to see a massive turnout of immigrant churches organized in opposition. These were some of the same people I had joined in a march for immigrants rights.

But we may find common cause with those churches now in the need for commonsense gun regulation, in the need for our police to act as officers of the peace, in the need for economic justice in all our neighborhoods.

I don’t know if I have faith anymore but I know I’ve been blessed. Lovingkindness will not deflect bullets, but it’s the way to go, because what else is there? Blessed Be.

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One Response to From Pentecostal to Pagan With Some Side Trips

  1. Matt Hodge says:

    Beautifully said Nancy. Lovingkindness sometimes is as challenging as the old narrow road to salvation, but it is universally applicable, and the way to go.

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