First, Do No Harm

In the aftermath of Amendment One’s passage, I started thinking tonight (Wednesday) about my history with churches. And it is history – other than for weddings or funerals or youth basketball ceremonies, I haven’t set foot in one in at least 13 or 14 years.

But it wasn’t always that way.

I grew up going every Sunday to Shady Grove United Methodist Church in Virgilina – a small white wooden church back in the country. My parents went there, and it was understood that my sister, brother and I would do likewise.

It was a small enough church that it shared a preacher with two other churches – the good news there was that meant they only had preaching the second and fourth Sundays. The other two Sundays of the month (and the occasional fifth Sunday), there was just Sunday school. That was relatively painless – it was over by 11, we were back home by at least noon. Which meant I could watch the Dean Smith Show (or the Bill Dooley Show during football season).

Preaching. That was another thing altogether. I was bored early on – I’d daydream during the sermons, peek around the church during the prayers and wince during the screechy hymns. My folks never talked about the sermon on the way home; it was more what so-and-so was wearing, or didn’t so-and-so look sick, and so on. Every Christmas we’d draw names in Sunday School and exchange gifts. And every year I’d get chocolate-covered cherries, which I hate almost as much as bananas.

I can’t exactly remember when they started leaving it up to me whether I wanted to go – I almost never did. When I did it was to see my friends Mitzi and Jane and Dean and a few others.

But I do remember when I went back, not to Shady Grove, but to the First Baptist Church in SoBo. No, I didn’t undergo some sort of conversion on the road to Damascas (or Halifax, for that matter). I started going because it did cool stuff like take the young people to the beach.

That’s right. I started going to church so I’d have a chance to go the beach. They really left you alone and you only had to put up with a couple of hours of religious stuff a day before you could soak up the sun and ride the waves and enjoy yourself. My friends Tommy and Howard went there, and we actually had pretty good times. I even made it after some pretty rough Saturday nights to see my friends. Even took part in the youth choir.

I remember one funny thing about the church’s youth center. It had a bunch of religious stuff, but it also had a couple of albums that didn’t really fit in. One was Blind Faith, the Eric Clapton-Steve Winwood supergroup that must have made it into the collection based on the name alone (though there was one vaguely religious song on it – and I’m not talking about Wasted and I Can’t Find My Way Home). The other was Aqualung, by Jethro Tull. Too funny: I don’t even know where to start.

The other attraction besides the beach was the women: I liked the cast of girls that went there.

Of course, sometimes I’d have to sample some strange – either at the Methodist church down on the corner across the street from the gas station where we often got a soda between Sunday School and preaching, or at the Presbyterian Church across the street.

I ain’t going to lie: I liked a lot of the Presby girls and probably would have gone over there more except it always made Tommy’s parents upset when we did. But I also liked to hang out at the gas station near the Methodist Church – the major crush of my high school years went to the Methodist Church and sometimes she’d come hang out with me and we’d skip preaching.

I stopped going when I left for college and didn’t really go back to a church for a long time, except, as I said, for weddings and funerals. Which was fine with me. I remember an Episcopal funeral I attended in Jacksonville where I was jealous of the corpse – she didn’t have to endure the interminable sermon. And I remember showing up an hour late for a wedding in Charlotte once and still sitting through about an hour of praying and singing and preaching before the reception. And this was a butter mints and peanuts and lime sherbet punch reception on top of that. Not even a root beer in the fellowship hall.

In 1997, Karen and I moved to Henderson, a really small town just on the outskirts of the Triangle. We wanted to fit in and my publisher, Rick Bean, advised us to pick a church and go. So we went two or three times to the local small Presbyterian Church. Until we got accosted by a member who told us we talked too much because we were trying to explain what was happening to the kids. So then we went to Rick’s church, a Methodist outfit that was a bit bigger. It wasn’t big enough. The preacher started stalking us. I swear I’m not making this up. He’d drop in at our house and make Austin sit in his lap and wouldn’t leave. I was working about 80 hours a week at the paper and was very jealous of my time away from work. We ditched that church, too.

And never looked back.

But let me say one thing: I know, love and respect plenty of deeply religious people. People who wouldn’t hurt another or deny another or be mean to another. They live their beliefs in every way, every day, and I appreciate them for it.

And then there are those who pick and choose the parts of the Bible they want to believe and want to make you believe. And if there are parts that contradict those edicts, they just smile and say, “You just don’t understand.”

And you know what? They’re right. I don’t, and I don’t want to. They may be the majority in my state right now, but they sure ain’t moral in my book.

I don’t fear much in this world, but I fear them and their influence and the people who kowtow to them to ride that influence. That’s what makes me so mad and sad and frustrated about Tuesday’s outcome.

I don’t understand that kind of thinking. I won’t understand that kind of thinking.

A few years ago, and I don’t want to be more specific than that, I was a witness in a child-custody case on behalf of a friend. The worse-than-deadbeat dad of her son was suing for custody. The reason: He said she was a lesbian and unfit to raise the child.

She was one of the most fit mothers I’ve ever known. I didn’t know she was a lesbian and frankly I still don’t know whether she was. And what’s more, I don’t care one way or another.

Fact is, she was a great mom who rearranged her schedule to meet her son’s needs and her employer’s. She did everything she was supposed to. She lived on a goat farm out in the country and she loved her kids and her kid. And this drug addict slimeball of an ex-husband challenged her maternal rights just because of her possible sexual orientation. She didn’t lose the case, but she didn’t exactly win either, as I recall (and again I don’t want to be more specific than that).

She got the equivalent of a split decision from a country judge in a rural North Carolina county with no one watching. I shudder to think how the case would turn out today. The climate just seems worse.

First do no harm. It’s that simple. Love thy neighbor. It’s that simple.

If only it were that simple. That’s why I’ve been so angry.

I still believe in love, and I always will.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King Jr.


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