Written by Elizabeth Leila.
Art by Holly Anne B.
When I was a little girl I was in a cult. Mind you, we’re not supposed to call it a cult, even now. In fact, we’re not supposed to talk about it at all. But between you and me, I often recall fragments of our old “Church” and its compound. I remember the hot Southern air that made the backs of my thighs stick to the wooden pews. I remember sudden flashes of warm summer rain in the courtyard, or slivers of colorful light slicing through the damp darkness of the chapel from stained-glass mosaics above. Looking back, I can visualize the gift shop, the playroom, the wooded lot and car-park off to the back.
Most clearly, I can recall my aunt, packing up her pantry with canned goods and non-perishables (many of which are still perilously stacked in her kitchen, some nineteen years later) to prepare for the Coming of Days that was Y2K. According to the leaders of the “Church,” the end of 1999 would bring your classic cultish doomsday scenario: societal collapse, financial ruin, and an onslaught of violence and death. She even bought a bunker somewhere in the Midwest.
As a now (somewhat) well adjusted twenty-something, the most striking thing I’ve come to realize about my childhood is how little changed once my family decided to leave the “Church” and re-acquaint themselves with mainstream Christiandom.
Right now I am a young progressive, democratic socialist working with Planned Parenthood to help young women gain more reproductive and sexual autonomy. However, it wasn’t that long ago when I genuinely believed sexual education was a sin.
To put it mildly, I was a weird kid. Like bring-your-Bible-to-school, fast during lunch, full on Holy Roller weird. In Middle School my #girlcrush was Joan of Arc and I legitimately felt the need to make small apology prayers to God every time a schoolmate or friend would drop the F-bomb.
I often think about the strange détente period of my life. That time during which my entire world view was upended, when I first began to ask questions and look at the world through a dangerously non-conformist lens. What I went through isn’t an unfamiliar story; I believe as society trends toward the secular, more and more young people experience a sudden disassociation from religious extremes.
To me, the importance of this narrative and the point of this story isn’t really even about coming away from religion as a whole. It’s about breaking away from the oppressive elements within religion, the themes of power and control within organized religion that has the power to ruin lives. I won’t say that my family’s relationship with religion ruined me, but it certainly did a number on me psychologically and the same can be said for hundreds of thousands of other children growing up in ultra-religious homes.
To me, the importance of this narrative and the point of this story isn’t really even about coming away from religion as a whole. It’s about breaking away from the oppressive elements within religion, the themes of power and control within organized religion that has the power to ruin lives.
When I was younger I was afraid of going to hell. My pre-adolescent mind conflated the sexual maturity that comes with puberty with the deeply rooted belief that lust is really a sin. As I grew into a woman, my thoughts and feelings, my convictions and even the physical body that I occupied all lead me to believe that there must be something wrong with me. That I was wrong. The scripture that was fed to me as a kid did little to relieve these worrying thoughts. We were taught that being a woman was inherently more sinful that being born a man. I was raised to believe that women’s bodies are snares, vehicles of deceit and corruption. As a young woman of color, whose curves developed far before the rest of my friends or classmates, my body was a daily reminder of my sin.
We were taught that being a woman was inherently more sinful that being born a man.
It’s baffling for me to reconcile that little girl who didn’t realize how seriously fucked any belief system that aims to frighten young girls into demure submission was with me now: a kickass SJW who organizes slutwalks and hands out condoms to co-eds.
I suppose I have feminism to thank — or blame, according to certain members of my family — for this newfound worldview, and I am so incredibly grateful for that. Understanding how to ask questions, to be skeptical, to love and accept myself and others was something I had to learn pretty late in life. The process of stripping away the acrid ideas on race, gender and hierarchy that my ultra conservative background instilled in me began with the gradual understanding that tolerance and love — those values that I believe any God should reasonably uphold — and the intolerance and hatred displayed by ultra-conservatives were simply incongruous.
Elizabeth Leila is a writer from Miami. She’s a student, an activist and a global citizen.