Other People’s Churches


First Person

Photograph by Nick Viola.

“Close your eyes,” the man told us, and we did. “If you died today, do you know for sure if you would go to heaven? If you don’t, raise your hand.” When my hand curled slowly into the air, two strangers rushed over to me, kneeling one on either side of my metal folding chair, as if I’d just been struck down on a busy street. They greeted me in warm, soft tones. One opened a small leather-bound book and ran her fingers along the close-set type, then inclined the page towards me. She underlined a passage with her fingernail and commanded me to read it.

For if you tell others with your own mouth that Jesus Christ is your Lord, and believe in your own heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in his heart that a man becomes right with God; and with his mouth he tells others of his faith, confirming his salvation.

At my feet, the two strangers blinked up at me expectantly. “I think I misunderstood the question,” I lied, because I hadn’t. 

The first friend to invite me to church was Joy. The year we turned ten, she asked me to a Wednesday night service and dinner at her little clapboard Baptist chapel, where we sat on a pew cushioned in blue velour alongside her friends, a pair of twins from her Sunday-school class. A man at the front of the big white room told us about Jesus and asked questions, dutifully answered. I sat on my hands and thought about the spaghetti cooking in the back hall.

Then, Jaclyn. Her Presbyterian church was bigger, downtown, its undercroft filled every Wednesday night with tables full of casserole dishes heavy with starches and cheese. No one asked questions here. We drank Cokes with other girls I didn’t know and giggled over paper plates of lasagna, and later they all recited Bible verses and then tore into candy bars plucked triumphantly from plastic buckets. Not the runty Halloween treats, either, but full-size bars. I tucked a slip of paper bearing the words of Matthew into my pocket, making eyes at the Whatchamacallit I planned to claim as my own the next week.

Though I accepted a number of these invitations, based largely on the promise of free food, it wasn’t that I was starved, literally or spiritually. My family had plenty to eat, and always one or another church of our own. For most of my childhood it was the stately, brown-brick Episcopal church across town where my grandfather was a priest. There, I was baptized as a squalling baby and, as a child, got the basic gist of things: Jesus was born on Christmas, died on Easter; be good, don’t lie, and if you’re lucky when you die you’ll just kind of float up into the sky and be done with it. The exact mechanics were hazy, but so were a lot of things, then.

My grandmother, one summer, even orchestrated the Vacation Bible School while in the midst of a fixation on Native American culture; we made macaroni-shell necklaces in the cool confines of a giant tepee constructed from canvas and wood poles, and one morning performed a rain dance that, by afternoon, seemed to have paid off. Had Jesus stopped by, we could have readily produced a construction-paper warrior headdress to drape over his crown of thorns.

After my grandfather’s retirement, my family relocated to a smaller church, also Episcopal, where I got confirmed and joined the youth group. The haze still lingered, but clarifying precise theological concerns took a backseat to a calendar of annual traditions: the Messy Olympics, the reverse fast-food dinners, the pancake suppers. We threw a fall festival every October, setting up carnival games and trays of caramel apples around the parish hall and draping the back of the room with black tarps, carving out a haunted house stocked with standard G-rated frights—polyester cobwebs, dangling paper ghosts, bowls of cold noodles and peeled grapes in imitation of disgorged body parts—augmented with morbid absurdity. One girl, after stumbling upon a cache of animal costumes, appeared as a rabid raccoon, red paint trailing from the corners of her mouth. The same year, I dressed all in black and sat on the top of a ladder in a dark passageway and hollered garbled nonsense at the families walking through. Next to Christmas Eve, it was the best night of the year.

And so, freshman year of high school, when my friends—the twins I’d sat with on the blue velour bench at Joy’s Baptist church, who I’d re-met a year later in sixth grade—asked me to come to their church’s haunted house, I thought fondly of my own and agreed.

We rode in a big white van to a mostly abandoned strip mall, where the haunted house had been set up inside an emptied retail storefront. Big vinyl banners flew the logo of the local Christian radio station, and the kids in the crowd around us wore cross necklaces and T-shirts bearing the Bible verses I’d never memorized at Jaclyn’s church, once I realized I could just buy my own candy bars.

This was, of course, not a haunted house, but a Hell house, a popular attraction set up across the U.S., especially in the Bible Belt, by fundamentalist churches every October, a fact I was only vaguely aware of as the line shuffled across the parking lot. Inside, the warehouselike space was divided into a maze of plywood walls that gave way to various sets: a house, a bar, a street corner, a graveyard. It was a more serious operation than I’d imagined. There was not a paper ghost in sight. It was more like one of the drive-through nativity scenes we toured at Christmas years ago, where my dad would not-quite-fully brake the minivan at each station, and we would watch kids swaddled in bathrobes corral confused sheep—a Methodist church parking lot transformed into a would-be Bethlehem. But this was darker, bleaker.

As our group approached each scene, a voice from above narrated the corresponding installment in the tale of a troubled, leather-jacketed young man: he lost his family, fell in with the wrong crowd, got a girl pregnant, pounded beers, did unspecified drugs, and eventually killed a guy. There were fake guns, sound effects, falling bodies, everything. The story was not unlike so many other cautionary tales we’d been fed at school by guidance counselors and friendly drug officers. Moving along with the crowd, I felt as if I was taking it all in from a great distance.

Then, the twist. In the penultimate scene, as the man sobbed over the grave of his victim, an actor dressed as Jesus emerged from the shadows and comforted him. It didn’t matter what he’d done, Hell-house Jesus told the leather-jacket guy; he could repent and be saved, and enjoy everlasting life. So he did.

Next, we were ushered into an adjacent room and seated on bleachers. Lights came up and a plump, twenty-something woman wandered onto the scene. She seemed bewildered, even more so when her life’s accomplishments were rattled off with apparent disdain by another Jesus: she’d gone to church, taught Sunday School, spread the gospel, lived what she thought was righteous life. But had she accepted Him as her lord and savior? She had not. And so, as she protested, pleaded, begged for mercy, two demons emerged, grabbed her under the arms, and dragged her down and away.

Below us, a hidden mass of demons pounded on the underside of the bleachers and my friends and I grabbed at each other’s sweaters and screeched. Even as the thundering of my heart calmed the demons were still scratching and banging furiously and crying up at us.

I was still shaking as we dismounted the bleachers, unsure of what was more preposterous—such a scare following half an hour of melodrama, or the unblinking judgment we’d just seen handed down. When we were led next into a small, gray room and asked to sit down, it seemed out of courtesy, to give us time to gather our nerves and laugh off the fright. My eyes ached in the glow of the fluorescent lights suddenly glowering overhead. I sat between my friends as a man stood up before us with a Bible in his hand and began running down what it was we’d just seen and heard. My mind wandered. I wanted to be home. Then he asked us all to close our eyes.

“If you died today, do you know for sure if you would go to heaven?”

The question was nearly as startling as the barrage of hellbeasts under the bleachers, and doubt surged through me, hot and bright. Did I? Would I? I had wondered this before, but had never been asked, had never answered. It was beyond me, then, to simply abstain. It seemed that my answer would be known, somehow, even if I did not volunteer it.

My hand went up; my eyes cracked open; the people swooped. It had seemed like a trick question, the kind a teacher might throw out to gauge the room and lighten the mood on the first day of class. Instead, it had been a test. And I had failed.

But failure was, of course, the hoped-for thing here. It was the goal of the whole enterprise, to nudge all the unsure hands upwards towards truth, towards the light. I don’t believe that the twins who brought me there thought that this would happen. They thought I was one of them. But I had thought they were one of me, that we were all living under the same haze of faith with the same huge unanswered questions that would linger until our deaths—that we were all just making do with the spaghetti suppers and the candy bar rewards and the rain dances with our grandmothers until the time we would finally know for sure.

Later, we would not talk about it. As we rode away from the place, I pressed my head against the van’s wide window, keeping the tears at bay until I was home, safe between my parents on the couch, when they spilled through my fingers. I could still see the expectant faces of the strangers and the open Bible staring up at me, blank with hope. I could still feel the hidden demons pounding under me in the dark.

But back there, in the gray room, I said I misunderstood the question, that I was fine, that I was good. I lied.

Rachael Maddux is a writer and editor living in Decatur, Georgia.