I was terrified of sinning when I was seven. My messy ponytail was the only thing visible over the back of the pew. My head was down, my eyes closed tightly in prayer. I might have been asking Jesus to forgive me for sneaking a Pepsi out of the fridge the night before or for blaming the coloring on the bedroom floor on my little brother, Sam, who sometimes squirmed beside me at this point during the service. Today, Brother Beebe was going to call all the sinners to receive Salvation; I just knew it. I saw the brothers approaching the front before we started the closing prayer. After the congregation echoed Brother Beebe’s Amen my scuffed black church shoes found their way to the familiar stage.
I chose to go to church even when my family and friends laughed, they never understood. I never wanted to miss a Sunday because Jesus could return at any moment. Brother Beebe, his wife and other members of the Waterloo Baptist Temple thought Jesus was coming any day. I took notes in church but sometimes my thoughts would wander away from God. I carried the burgundy Bible she gave me the first time I got saved to church every Sunday. It had thin, nearly translucent pages covered front to back in thick black ink with deep red lines indicating where Jesus spoke. Its front was emblazoned with golden letters: H-O-L-Y B-I-B-L-E.
I drew doodles in the margins of that morning’s Sunday school activity as various patterns in the ruby and emerald stained glass windows distorted any sense of sunlight, obscuring dust particles that seemed to dance, swirling in the stale atmosphere of the church. I knew most of the Old Testament stories and had learned a great deal about Jesus but the sermons that stick out in my head are the ones about the end of times. Revelation was scary but exhilarating. Jesus was going to come again, and this time, Brother Beebe shouted, nonbelievers would be left behind and eternally separated from God.
On May 15, 2009 part of the ceiling of The Waterloo Baptist Temple collapsed and the building was completely demolished a few months later. I still look for it every time I drive down Church Row. My hands grip the wheel tighter when I can’t find its crumbling staircase. Now only seven one hundred-year-old churches once stand in historic Church Row, a two block area where Greek Orthodox, Presbyterian, First Congregational, United Methodist, American Lutheran, Catholic and until recently First Baptist were represented.
Growing up Baptist chances are good that you’ve be told to be “not of this world.” I believed in the Bible and Jesus and felt affection toward Brother Beebe and all the adults at various churches throughout the years, but I always carried the guilt of secretly wanting to be part of the world of imagination and magic. I started questioning a lot of the things I once took at face value.
In the beginning, church was my escape, it was blissful singing worship songs near the lake on a wooden dock at church camp, or waking early to meditate in a hazy clearing; being one of countless in a crowd of singing people, bearing my souls to perfect strangers.
When I was little, I mimicked the booming voices around me, understanding their words only on the surface. I stared at notes on the page, but to me they were tiny spots hanging on perfectly spaced strings. Eventually, I didn’t even have to look at the hymnal. The old woman behind me must have been ninety years old and knew every word: Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.
One night I was watching television with my parents and a documentary about the rapture came on right before bedtime. I tried to push the terrifying images out of my mind. I couldn’t stop myself from praying to die in my mother’s arms with my little brother curled up between us. The only thing that could make me feel better about the end of the world was to think that my family would be fast asleep, bathing in the glow of the television when our home crashed down on our heads.
Sometimes, I still can’t sleep at night. When that happens I can’t stop the questions from flooding my mind. I wonder if when my heart stops I’ll forget all the names I’ve ever known. I make myself dizzy dreaming up possibilities.