Undercover Heathen: Tales from a Baptist Christmas Party

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“You should pull up your top, you’re showing too much cleavage,” my mom said, eyeing me critically.

I knew then I’d made a huge mistake. But it was too late. I’d been trapped. I was was on my way to a party at a Baptist church dressed, apparently, like a small-time prostitute.

The hook had been baited earlier that week when my mom suggested we should have a girls’ night together soon. So I’d invited to her over for Sunday evening to watch Inside Out and eat sandwiches, since my husband was out of town and my father would be completely unable to comprehend an animated movie starring anthropomorphic versions of a young girl’s emotions. It sounded about as relaxing as an evening with my mother could possibly be, and like the introvert I am, I planned on making it an early night and probably not changing out of my pajamas the entire day. Well, except to change into fresh pajamas after my bath – I’m not a barbarian.

Two hours before our movie date, my mother called.

“Hi, honey! I’m so sorry but I completely forgot that I had a work party scheduled for tonight, since we hit all our sales goals for the last six months.”

My mother works at an evangelical Christian bookstore, a job for which she is more than suited. In fact, it might be the only job for which she is suited, since she would be immediately fired from any other sort of employment for rabid proselytizing.

“Oh. Okay, well we can watch the movie anoth-”

“I’d like you to come with me and meet my coworkers.”

There it was. She knew I didn’t have any other plans, and she didn’t make the rookie mistake of asking if I’d like to come. That one had been tried out a few weeks ago in regards to the Ladies’ Christmas Luncheon – after suffering through it last year, I hadn’t been able get my “No, thank you!” out fast enough.

This time she was smarter. There was no way out of an “I’d like you to come” when she knew I had a wide-open evening. I was about to point out my car was in the shop but she beat me to it.

“Of course, we’ll pick you up. And we’ll only stay about an hour – I know you like to go to bed early on Sundays.”

Damn it. But what I could I do? Wanting to show off one’s only offspring to friends and coworkers is a near universal impulse. It was a perfectly reasonable request. Only a monster of a daughter would say no. I agreed, miserably. I don’t even like to leave the house on Sunday nights to see my own friends, much less anyone else’s.

And I’d long since left my mother’s brand of fervent evangelical Christianity, for a laundry list of reasons ranging from my body being treated like it was some kind weapon of mass destruction to my friends being ostracized for their orientations. Not to mention the general and comprehensive number the whole experience did on my sexuality and self esteem. But she was still going strong, and did not find my protestations that I suffer from Post Traumatic Evangelical Disorder to be amusing.

About an hour before the party, I started getting anxious. My parents and I have somewhat of a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding the state of my religious beliefs/sexual orientation, which works best when I’m not directly put in situations that require me to worship, pray, or answer questions about my life to church busybodies. As much as the impulse to cause havoc by spouting my liberal humanism for all to hear exists in me, publicly humiliating my mother in front of her friends and coworkers is not ideal. But I wasn’t going to lie if asked point-blank about my religious affiliations or any other topic that might clash with fundamentalist dogma.

I decided a small drink to calm my nerves would be best. At least there was some upside to not driving myself. Unfortunately, I miscalculated what small meant on my very empty stomach, and shortly before my parents arrived to pick me up I found myself definitely tipsy, blasting “Stronger Than You” on an endless loop to psych myself up and trying to figure out what kind of eye make-up qualified as modest.

The comment about my shirt came just as I was grabbing my coat and realizing I’d overdone it on the cocktail. I was wearing a pretty basic scoop neck tank with a sweater over it. I regularly wear this to work. Technically, no cleavage was actually exposed, but I suppose it did look a little suggestive on me. Then again, with size 36HH boobs, a burlap sack looks suggestive on me – particularly if you equate “suggestive” with “existing” as many of the churches I’d attended seemed to do.

Since this was exactly the interaction I’d been dreading, I didn’t respond particularly well, asking my mother acerbically if she’d like to go pick out a shirt she thought more adequately concealed my tits. She backed down, probably realizing she was pushing her luck after the blatant trickery involved in getting me to this thing, but it ultimately worked out in her favor. I immediately felt awful for snapping at her, despite the twenty or so years of body policing that made it more than justified. I’ll see your Catholic guilt and raise you some Pentecostal-style shame. Yeah, I fell in line like the thirteen-year-old Sunday School teacher’s pet I used to be.

I managed to hold my tongue through the half hour car ride with its Christian rock-worship music soundtrack, despite the fact that “Power of Your Love” will now be stuck in my head for another half-decade. I did not voice my thoughts regarding how the church basement gathering resembled nothing so much as an AA meeting. I smiled and met all my mom’s coworkers and their attached family members. I didn’t wince visibly when she made awkward personal comments about them, nor did I scream out “I’m drunk in a Baptist church, bitches!!” even one time.

This wasn’t my first rodeo. I’d been to tons of corny, awkward, faith-based gatherings. I was polite to everyone and quickly identified an ally – a stock boy in his twenties with Disney princess tattoos and and a pink “Mean Girls”/Pokemon crossover t-shirt. We quickly paired up and dove into Doctor Who, Attack on Titan, Marvel, and Star Wars while my parents joined in when something they recognized came up.

My post-alcohol filter remained strong enough that I refrained from asking my new friend how being such a flamboyant employee of a conservative Christian establishment was working for him. Although it wasn’t quite strong enough to keep me from muttering “I think I know what the Doctor would say about that” when my dad started in on how collateral damage to innocents from fighting terrorism was for the Greater Good. I don’t think he heard me though.

Really, I was holding it together quite nicely. Even through the ice-breaker game which involved trying to draw a decorated Christmas tree with our eyes shut and resulted in my mother uttering the word “balls”, without irony, approximately 57 times in the space of three minutes. Despite this bait, the snickers stayed internal.

That is, until it was time for the white-elephant style gift exchange, sponsored by the store. I’ve been to a number of church gift exchanges before, and while the rules vary the gifts tend to range from the completely normal to the mildly religious – a mug with a scripture on it or a devotional calendar. They are generally the most fun part of any obligatory Christmas interaction and even if you hate what you end up with, it’s usually good for a laugh or a re-gift. A workplace white elephant was how I got my dad his most treasured Christmas present ever – The Clapper.

But this was a completely different beast.

All the gifts were rectangular, about the same size, and wrapped in plain brown paper, with no ornamentation whatsoever. The person running the game, a store manager with a bristly, Texas-style mustache and a Christmas t-shirt with Snoopy on it, explained we were all to pick a number and and choose a gift in that order. Fine, that’s normal. After the first two people had selected their featureless parcels he said, “Now, if the next person wishes, they can swap with someone else whether that person wants to swap or not.”

“Oh, you mean we can steal gifts!” I piped up, happy to be in seemingly religion-neutral territory.

Mr. Mustache fixed me with a humorless glare. “We don’t say steal,” he informed me sternly. “Stealing is a sin. But if it’s your turn, you can switch gifts without the other person’s permission.”

It was probably for the best that I was literally stunned into silence, as the first thing that sprung to mind after that involved a treatise on the problem with rape culture. Alcohol makes fun connections in your mind, doesn’t it?

Of course, no such non-consensual swapping occurred, as everyone’s gifts looked pretty much identical. Once we were all positioned with our packages, it was time to simultaneously unwrap them.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, really. I should have read the room. But nevertheless, all my self control, my years of training in the ways of evangelical gatherings, even my rapidly sobering Savior-Sense did not prepare me for the contents of the gifts.

Every last one of them was a Bible. Different versions, but all Bibles.

There was the large print edition, the side-by-side King James and New International comparison edition, the Women’s Study Bible, and a hip-to-the-youths-of-last-century paraphrase version, The Message. There was even a small electronic device the size and age of a Palm Pilot which contained a digital version of the Bible. Presumably for those who lacked smartphones but wished they had a pocket Bible that would not fit in any known human pocket.

If a Hollywood producer had tried with all his might to come up with a parody of what he thought a Baptist Christmas gift exchange would be like, it would have looked exactly like this. “You can never have too much of the Word!” Mr. Mustache exclaimed brightly.

And then there was my gift. A version of the Bible that focused on how all of Scripture fit together through the lens of Deuteronomy. With commentary.

Deuteronomy is only the second most judgmental book of the Bible, but it still contains some special wisdom about homosexuals, whores, and ladies who wear pants. Not to mention thoughts on the great crimes of planting mixed crops or combining linen and wool in a single garment. I couldn’t help it. I let out a snort so loud all conversation ceased. There was an infinite silence. My mouth opened of its own accord, and my only regret in life is that I never found out what I was about to say.

“Well, I think we’re going to head out, I promised my family we’d only stay an hour!” my mom announced to the group, shrilly and too quickly. There was a beat, and the social contract kicked back in.

“Aww, are you sure?” said a jovial, red-headed man. “We were just about to play Apples to Apples.”

My mom looked uncertain but hopeful. “Well, I’m not much for games but… you like that game, don’t you, dear? Do you want to stay?”

It was tempting. It was so tempting. Despite the G-rated cards, my approach to playing Apples to Apples usually manages to make even experienced Cards Against Humanity players blush. It could have been the most satisfying card game I’d ever played, even including the time I cleaned up against a group of Rounders-obsessed boys in a college poker tournament. But then a voice in my head reminded me that I do not, despite the very special hell church events represent for me, hate my parents.

Plus if I horrified this crowd with my crass humor, they’d probably all just pray for me.

After a short internal struggle, I demurred. My mom looked relieved and we headed for the car. I tossed her my tome of draconian law, to go with her New Hebrew (Annotated) Translation.

“Are you sure you don’t want this?” she asked, meaningfully.

I paused.

“Nah,” I said finally, my restraint for the evening now completely used up. “I’m already due for a stoning – this cardigan is made from two different kinds of fabric.”

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