Everyone has a Story. These are the Loser Stories.
Losing Our Religion is a podcast framed around human stories, losing religion, and letting go of ideologies that divide us from one another. Oh, and drinking together. This is Ron Smith's story, written by Ron himself.
No matter which side of town, there are unfortunate similarities to the churches in Indianapolis; but I have four examples of my own experiences. The first church I went to was Agape Christian Church.
I was nine when we attended our first service, and the reason we started going is my great-grandmother gave my mother, who is quite cynical towards organized religion, a severe guilt trip about going to church. The reason the guilt trip had any effect is we lived on the other side of her in a double. My father had been angry at God for the death of his father and stayed away from church, but he agreed to go to keep peace in the home. Before I was exposed to church, my father was strict concerning moral behavior; and his moral outlook was influenced by Immanuel Kant.
One of the things I learned from him is that if you do the right thing expecting a reward or to avoid punishment then your right action is empty of any merit. After church, the moral radius encompassed the biblical understanding of morality; and when he became an elder, I felt the strength of my father's right fist. It wasn't as authoritarian as it seems. My father listened to outlaw country like Johnny Cash, Waylan Jennings, and Willie Nelson. He would also have a beer when he studied his Bible while watching Notre Dame football or IU basketball depending on the season.
I could listen to whatever music I wanted, dress how I wanted, and watch whatever I wanted on television. My father wasn't concerned with external behavior as he was with motive. If he saw my actions were motivated by deceit or loopholes, then I would feel the full brunt of his religious anger. In that respect, I was quite fortunate compared to my friends whose parents policed their music, television, and clothes in the name of God and their church's doctrine. My father's religious ethic was strict, but I knew I had space to breathe.
Agape, though was quite fundamentalist which caused my mother constant annoyance; but she was able to play piano, and playing music made her happy. The happiness stopped after my father was publicly humiliated and eviscerated by the church. My father wasn't harsh as an elder, and he took his responsibility as an elder seriously—even going so far as quitting smoking cold turkey. Up to that point, he had been smoking Kool Filter Kings at five packs a day for eighteen years, and when he was ordained, he threw out his cartons. I asked him, "Hey Pop where are your smokes?" "I threw them away." "Why?" "I became an elder." "So." "So, there are people in our church who are trying to quit smoking. As a leader, I need to set an example."
He wasn't above applying the same discipline to himself as he did on us kids or people in the church, but the people in church experienced his gentleness. He cared about the people's faith and encouraged them using the Bible. When the church attacked and removed the pastor, my father applied the same encouragement defending his pastor and friend; and the people turned on him—they treated my mom and us the same way. She told them to go to hell and left the church. There were people in the church who recognized both my ability to retain what I read from the bible and interpreting what I had read. They said I had a gift and I was called to be a pastor.
After I saw what they did to my father, I said to hell with that. Why would I want to lead a bunch of nasty people who want somebody to think for them so when life doesn't go their way they can blame somebody other than themselves? In the late 1990s, I went to Horizon Christian Fellowship on the Northeast side of Indianapolis—close to the suburb of Geist. It’s a church that is a branch of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, CA started by the late Chuck Smith as a small evangelical group that reached out to the local hippies during the Jesus Movement in the 1970s. They specialized in church plants across the country and across the ocean as Calvary Chapel or Horizon.
This church is a right wing church that holds to a literal interpretation of the Bible, anti-Catholic, affluent, mostly white, and treats women as second rate people who should be happy to be under the shadow of their husbands. They base this treatment of women on the list given by the author of Ephesians where he lays out the second-century patriarchal Roman household. I say author because the Paul who wrote in the epistle to the Galatians that “there is neither male nor female, Jew or Greek…, but all are one in Christ.” is not the same Paul who wrote Ephesians. Galatians was written by Paul, and Ephesians was written at least a century after Galatians. The writer did what was considered normal when writing religious or philosophical texts: write in the name of a teacher long dead to convey that teacher’s influence on the work.
Even then, the author of Ephesians was not commanding a subservient hierarchy in a Christian home, but to illustrate the relationship between Christ and his followers. The husband symbolizes Christ and what he had done to redeem people and the role of the wife symbolizes his followers and how they are to behave accordingly. The remaining groups of children, slaves, and masters communicated the different stages of Christian development. That is based on my own academic research into biblical scholarship, but Horizon is suspicious of anything resembling scholarship that challenges their comfortable position.
The pastor, Bill Goodrich, is authoritarian and every word that comes out of his mouth "was breathed from God." If a person disagrees with his assertions that person is removed from whatever position they hold in the church, are asked to leave, and are whispered about once the doors are closed. There is one exception, though, and that is if you are favored by Bill Goodrich all your sins can be absolved with the snap of the finger.
One example was Billy Brandle who was an associate pastor at the church and had been caught multiple times cheating on his wife. His wife constantly took him back when she had every right, according to the church’s literal interpretation of the Bible, to divorce him; and he was never asked to resign from his position. One would think that if a church took the bible as literal and used the criteria of pastor based on the epistles of 1st Timothy and Titus, then it would be reasonable for a pastor caught in adultery to resign his position; however, the word of Bill Goodrich covers a multitude of sins.
Another instance happened during a point in my life when I began to question the existence of God. The idea of God has been an intellectual issue with me because God is not tangible and the feelings I have heard to describe God’s presence like joy, peace, and love are emotions and states of mind cultivated by the observer—a cynical way to put it is God is a product of wishful thinking, and these questions became incessant as I watched my father deteriorate from cancer. I have a tendency to get lost in my own thoughts until they become stale, and I did not want to assume my point of view as the right one, so I questioned people close to me.
At the time I was attending The Dwelling Place in Broadripple pastored by Shane Fuller, and it was an offshoot of College Park Baptist Church located at 96th & Township Line Rd. I had been friends with the pastor and the worship leader, Scott, for twelve years before everything disintegrated. Scott was growing frustrated with my questions and developed a relationship with my fiancé after sleeping with her. This contributed to the breakup, but what followed after was a string of violence from him. He called me to tear me down for my failings in my relationship with my ex and threatened to call the cops and lie about me abusing her. I never did anything like that, and I asked him,
“Scott, with all the Christianity you preach at me, doesn’t lying go against what the Bible teaches?”
“You are a filthy, worthless sinner. How dare you quote the scripture at me?”
After that, he kept calling me, but I let his calls go to voicemail where he left message after message promising all manner of violence in Jesus’ name—he even had his brother coming after me. I called Shane to tell him what happened and do something about his wayward worship leader. He told me, “Slow work of God, Ron. Grace of God, Ron. You did bring this on yourself because you frustrated him with how you live and the questions you ask. Until Scott calms down, you need to stay away from the church.” “Why is that? I did nothing wrong. You should kick Scott out of the church.” “Just stay away, Ron.” Then he hangs up on me, and I find out later he lied to the church that he did not kick me out, but I made the choice to leave.
Finally, Redeemer Presbyterian Church located at 16th & Delaware is filled with leadership from the affluent areas of Indianapolis, and their motive for moving to the downtown area was to preach the gospel and transform people into the image of Christ—instead their goal became transforming a person into the image of the affluent, white, middle-class Christian. On paper Redeemer looks like they have a good impact in the local neighborhoods because of their connection to the Herron Art Gallery, opening up rooms in their basement as studios for local artists, forming summer youth activities, and hosting the IMA Festival (Indianapolis Music and Art). The church posts in their bulletin monthly and yearly tithes that range from six to seven figures; and based on the homes and cars owned by the staff, the money is well spent. There is no place for women in the leadership even though the epistles of the New Testament in the original Greek spoke of women leaders, which they acknowledged, but did not want to pursue because they didn’t want to lose their place in the PCA (Presbyterian Church of America).
I have a friend who is gay, and when he came out he was reported to the leadership of the church, and they asked him to leave. They also care very little for poor people whom have nothing for them to use. I did not live far from the church, but I was getting evicted by my landlord who was also a friend and a pastor. His reasons were personal because I didn’t want to join his group of believers because he ran the group like a cult, and I told him so. I had to act fast because I was also going to school full time at Ivy Tech so I talked to one of the elders who was also the leader of my house church, “I’m not looking for money, but I noticed that there are unused art studios in the church’s basement. I just need a place to be while I go to class and figure out where I can move to next. Is that possible?” He went to the elders of the church, and they told me I needed to take ownership of my situation. I thought I had been doing that, but I guess not. During that same period of time, Redeemer was holding classes called Poverty 101 teaching the congregation how the poor, middle class and upper class talk and view the world. The teacher went down the list of the poor involving knowledge on getting a weapon, eating enough, getting people out of jail, guarding the washer and dryer at the laundromat, etc. I grew up on Indianapolis’ East Side—I know what it takes to survive—I’ve had my fair share of government cheese and canned goods labeled with white paper and black stencil; and had it not been for my great-grandmother’s knowledge in gardening and canning, I would have been just as hungry as many of my classmates.
The class was an insult to me, my family, and similar people in our situation; and the real slap in the face came when one of the deacon’s turned to me, “I bet you already know how to do all that.” It’s rare when I want to break the teeth of anyone in a church, but I came close to putting him on the floor that day. I could tell by his perfect teeth, soft hands, and Old Navy cargo shorts he’s never been put in the position where he had to learn to survive; and I knew he wouldn’t last five minutes in my old neighborhood with that haughty smile.
Redeemer is not about being a hopeful presence in the downtown area, but an urban country club where middle-class white people can feel relevant because they’re Christians who live in an urban neighborhood. The irony is, their presence hiked up the property values and rents of many struggling people in their neighborhood causing those people to be put out of their homes. This critique and these examples are not limited to shaming Christianity and Christians, but to incite the hard conversations and make way for some housecleaning that is long overdue. Also in this piece, I have used precise language to communicate the irrelevance of Christianity in my own life; but this has nothing to do with belief in God—religion and theism, atheism, or agnosticism are entirely different matters.
I am not an atheist because I do believe in God, and I believe Jesus was an icon of God showing the love of God to the world. I believe God esteems women, but Christianity wants to control and oppress women. I believe God loves and accepts LGBTQ people as they are, but Christianity wants to shame them and beat them into an early grave. I believe God loves people of color, white people, and immigrants who are poor and marginalized, but Christianity shames them and disenfranchises them. I also believe God left the church many years ago to seek out people who will worship him/her in spirit and in truth. Jeremiah uttered his prophetic word when he wrote that people will find God when they seek him/her with their whole heart; and I believe Christianity has become a stumbling block in that search. The religion has been discarded by those who want to be free of hate and guilt—some go a step further by discarding God in the process. I am not arguing that people should believe in God, but I am arguing that people should have the opportunity to find out if a belief in God feels true without the barbs and distractions from a superfluous hierarchy. Until individual Christians and churches hold accountable their violent and oppressive individuals and groups, Christianity will continually stand in the way of truth-seekers, and turning new converts into twice the children of Hell it is.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author Ron Smith and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Losing Our Religion or the CounterCulture Society.