My mother married a devout Christian man the Christmas before I turned four years old. My earliest memories are of my mother, him, his son, and I going to church on Sunday mornings. I remember the light shining through the stained glass onto my innocent face, I had no idea what the pastor was talking about or what message he was trying to convey, but either way I remember sitting silently next to my mother who seemed to take in every word.
As I got older the messages became more clear to me. Wait until marriage for sex. Homosexuality is a sin. Women aren’t supposed to show too much skin. Abortion is murder. God is all powerful and does everything for a reason. There were definitely more messages that were taught but those are the ones I remember the most. Like most children that grew up in a church environment, I believed all that was taught to me, how could not?
As my step brother and I were growing up, our younger brother was born, after that we seemed to be attending church more often. Our parents would read us the Bible before bed and we would get Christmas gifts that pertained to our Christianity. I remember specificly one Christmas my brother got a huge book, it was the entire Bible turned into a comic, I thought it was so cool and I also wanted one. Instead, I got a godly women’s journal that had bible passages about women and a space under them to write. To say I was confused and disappointed was an understatement. I know my parents didn’t do that to make me feel lesser than, they would never, but I felt like it after. That was just one small instance of how women were seen in my church setting in the Midwest.
As I grew older I kept the same ideals with me that were so carefully placed in my head from years of bible thumpers. That is, until freshman year of high school. It seemed my whole life changed after that and it didn’t stop changing until Junior year.
My freshman year of high school my best friend (she still is to this day) came out as bisexual. I was taken aback, shocked, and confused. After years of teaching that homosexuality was wrong, here was someone I loved so dearly telling me she was a part of the LGBT community. I remember specificly thinking about it at lunch when a friend of mine decided to let us know how she personally felt about it. She had said that as long as she doesn’t act on her “homosexual tendencies” then my best friend would be forgiven in the eyes of God. I remember feeling immediately angry after she said this. I asked her why it was so wrong for my best friend to like whoever she wanted. My friend told me it was because the Bible said it was wrong. I kept quiet after that. In that moment I thought to myself that there was no way someone as kind and wonderful as my best friend would go to hell over something so trivial. That was the beginning of my Christian undoing.
Although that was definitely an important contributing factor to letting go of my Christianity, the main reason, and the first domino for the reason for my tattoo, came on March 15th, 2014. That was the day one of my closest friends decided to take his own life and shoot himself. The feeling I got after receiving the news was and still is indescribable, a mix of numbness and the worst pain I’ve ever felt. It was as if life had slowed down, my ears began to ring, my face went pale, and my body went cold. At first I thought it was a cruel, sick joke, I wish that it was. Instead I layed in my bed for hours, asking God, why? I had been an avid prayer every night before bed, and in those prayers I always prayed to keep my loved ones safe and healthy. Why had God failed to do so with him?
That spiraled me into a deep depression. My clothes became darker, my music heavier, and my attitude much more hateful.
I then became part of a youth group the beginning of my Sophmore year. I had some friends that had already been involved for some time and I figured it would be good for me. The youth group turned out to almost fully reject me every time I tried to participate. The other kids there had all grown up together and acted dismissive towards me. I ended up mostly sitting alone or with the friends I had come there with when I got the chance.
As for the youth pastor, he was very kind to me and tried to include me in things. I always thought that the reason I kept going back was because this man wanted me there. Looking back on it now, it was hard to see the red flags, but they were definitely there.
The last service I ever attended was on the one year anniversary of my friends death. They all gave us candles to hold and the youth pastor began giving a speech on life and whatnot. I remember looking around the room and seeing the other youth members, the ones that had decided I was not worth their time, crying. I felt enraged. They hadn’t known him, they hadn’t known anyone but the few friends I came with and myself who actually knew him. How dare they act upset. I don’t exactly know why I was so infuriated by this, but I vividly remember the feeling. I didn’t think I could become any angrier until the pastor looked me dead in the eyes and told me the reason he committed his suicide was God’s will. My face grew hot and red, angry tears pricked at the corners of my eyes. God’s fucking will? You have to be joking. You have to be fucking joking.
The rest of the evening was a blur. My mom picked me up and saw that I was upset, she probably assumed it was because of the anniversary so she didn’t ask. That was the last day I stepped foot into a church willingly.
As if that wasn’t enough to seal the deal for me, a few months later, at sixteen years old, I was raped, impregnated, and had a miscarriage. That was also the time I finally decided to change my views on abortion. I was so confused, angry, and distraught. How could the “god” I had worshipped for years let such traumatic things happen to myself and those around me? I thought I was at least a decent person, and I thought my loved ones were absolutely perfect. So why were these horrible things happening to us? I tried joining online church support groups for the answer, but the only things I got out of that were “it’s God’s will” or “He’s making you stronger”. I won’t get too into how I reacted to those messages, but to say the least, I didn’t like that one bit.
About a month after the loss of my child my mom knocked at my door, asking out of the blue what my old youth pastor’s name was. I didn’t think anything of it, told her and asked her why. She said it was nothing but that wasn’t very convincing, so I came out of my room and pestered her about it. She told me he was just arrested, frankly I was shocked. He was such a nice, god fearing man, there no way he’d do something bad enough to get arrested. She showed me the news article and sure enough his mugshot was front and center. He had been arrested for sodomy of a child and child pornography. The icing on the tip of the cake was that he kept all of his disgusting pictures in his office desk at the church. Later I found out he kept them in a unlocked shelf right above the shelf he let us get candy from, I’m baffled that no one discovered it earlier, and if they did they didn’t report it.
That was beyond my last straw. I quit praying, I quit believing, I quit everything. In a way it was very freeing, but is was also equally as haunting.
Fast forward to a few months after I turned 18, I had a very vivid dream. I dreamt of my friend before he died, I dreamt of my vile youth pastor, I dreamt of the disgusting man that took away something that was supposed to be special to me, and I dreamt of my unborn child. Near the end of the dream I landed in the middle of a tattoo parlor, getting a bright red church with neon orange flames coming out of it. After I woke up I couldn’t stop thinking about the church I saw in the dream. I had seen pictures of burning church tattoos fairly recently before then but this meant something to me. At work I drew it on a piece of receipt paper the way I had seen it in my dream, and decided to add one word under it. Repent. A word that had been yelled at me almost every church service since I was small.
I texted my boyfriend at the time and friend, telling them I was going to get a tattoo after work. They both were thrilled and decided to come along. They both saw the drawing for the first time in the tattoo parlor and supported me all the way. No matter what happened between the three of us, I will always be thankful for that.
Laying down on that bench I was so excited to feel the sting of the tattoo needle against my thigh. To my surprise, the longer it took, the less it hurt.
Finally it was done. I got up to look in the mirror and smiled. It seems like it was supposed to be there all along, and strangely enough I felt a weight lift off of my shoulders. I felt freed from all of the rage the church brought me for so long.
That was three years ago now. At first I was nervous about getting something so bold tattooed on my body forever at 18 years old. My parents weren’t exactly thrilled with my new piece, but they weren’t angry either, which I was surprised about. Looking down at my tattoo now it’s become a bit faded and needs touching up, but that same message is still there. All I need to do now to remind myself is look at myself and think how far I’ve come.