It happened in my landlord’s office.
And at the laundromat.
And at my grandmother’s funeral.
And as well as I know myself, I was still shocked at my own reactions.
Seven years ago, I was sitting across from my new landlord, signing a lease for an apartment. His office decor indicated that he was a Christian. When we reviewed the maintenance section of the contract, he said I could be assured that their handyman was perfectly okay to enter my apartment alone if there was a maintenance issue that needed to be handled during the day while I was at work. “He’s a good Christian man,” the landlord said, with a reassuring smile. I was aware that I visibly reacted, and I said, “I don’t want anyone entering my apartment without my explicit authorization unless it’s an emergency.” I could see I had surprised him, but he respected my wishes.
Three years later, a man sat in the laundromat as I folded my clothes. I watched him interact with other people around me and knew I wanted nothing to do with him. I sat down in the only available chair (next to him, of course), and answered a company call regarding our web site. As I told the caller the address of the site I was trying to fix, the man interrupted me and said, “You should visit www.jw.org. You’ll get more answers there.” I knew he was a Jehovah’s Witness, and I glared at him and returned to my phone call. Now ornery and emboldened, he said it again, looking me straight in the eye, purposely interrupting my call. I dropped the phone for a second and said, “You should probably leave me the hell alone.” He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair with an expression that said I was destined for Hell myself, and that he’d enjoy seeing me go there.
Last year, at a luncheon after my grandmother’s funeral — my father’s pastor — a man I had never met — approached me and asked for a sidebar conversation. He had just given a fire and brimstone message at my grandmother’s service and was good friends with my father. He was wearing a very nice suit. He pulled me aside — his young daughter in tow — and told me some nice, kind things about my grandmother and said other things about my relationship with my father. I don’t remember all of it. I only knew I was uncomfortable, and I wanted to get away from him as fast as possible. In words, he did nothing wrong, but the conversation bothered me, and I walked away irritated and shaky.
I started thinking about why those three encounters really bothered me.
I’ve written about my experiences as a child growing up in a conservative Christian household, but I’ve never written about the involuntary reaction I have to “men of God.” To be honest, I haven’t totally understood it until now. But writing helps me understand myself and aspects of myself I haven’t yet understood. So I guess the time is now and the place is here.
Growing up, “men of God” were all around me, but they weren’t always good examples.
- My father hid his explosive temper and blinding pride from anyone outside of our home. (He has since lightened up quite a bit.)
- A deacon in our church confronted me about the state of my faith in the CVS parking lot.
- A church member never looked at anything but my budding teenage breasts when he spoke to me.
- A church member cheated on his wife and told the whole congregation about it.
- My friend’s father dressed in women’s clothing on the weekends.
- Another deacon attempted to excommunicate me from our church congregation when I was 15 years old.
- A member of our church verbally abused his wife and children until they split off in different directions and left him alone.
- A married former pastor promised to help me further my career and tried to sleep with me instead.
- A pastor embezzled insurance money from one of his trusting congregants after her husband was killed in an accident.
So yes, I’ve been burned by “men of God.” But it’s more than that, because — in point of fact — I have had countless good Christian men in my life.
- Aneesh, my best friend through elementary and high school, is a doctor and a leader in his church.
- Dan is an Episcopalian minister who helped me clear my head when I was going through the worst of my faith “withdrawal.”
- A high school teacher (also Dan) forever impacted me with his love of history, film, and theology.
- My dear friend Bill (may he rest in peace) was a loving pastor at the very same church where I encountered so many other toxic “men of God.”
- My childhood friend Kenny is a walking, talking personification of the modern day Christian man. He fights to keep his faith despite witnessing failure after failure of “men of God” who were, in fact, his mentors.
- My son’s Taikwon-do teacher, Tony, who loves God with all of his heart and incorporates his strong moral compass into his martial arts practice.
These men have one other thing in common: they know following Jesus is not about loudly professing to be men of God. They know that actually being men of God speaks loudly enough.
But I don’t trust these men because they share any specific belief. I trust these men because I know them.
And that’s when I figured it out. It’s not the religion that bothers me so much — it’s the men themselves.
As a woman, I’m conditioned to be suspicious of men I don’t know. There are some — like Mr. Fussypants — who are so completely clueless that any ulterior motives are easily uncovered. And some men I’ve trusted have run me through the wringer. Not every man, but a few.
To me, being approached by a man I don’t know about something as intimate as my faith and belief system is — in two words — highly offensive. The best illustration I can equate with my utter disgust is the reaction of teenage girls in the movie Napoleon Dynamite when Uncle Rico rides by in his 1970s swinger’s van handing out flyers for breast enhancement supplements.
You see, my faith is something I discuss freely in my writing with you as my audience because pressing you to explore your own faith is important to me. But it is not something I discuss in conversations with ornery, random creepers in the laundromat.
Not only that, my beliefs have been carefully cultivated over many years of education and deliberate self exposure to a variety of cultures and belief systems. I’m a deep thinker and feeler, and it takes a lot to convince me of a spiritual truth. I don’t respond to evangelicals well, because I’ve heard most — if not all — of what they have had to say. In some cases, I may know more about their specific strain of religion than they themselves do. (A recent convert to Christianity, for example.)
And finally, I am a devout feminist, which means I believe by default that all of us — regardless of gender — need to prove our own worth. (This belief did not go over well with my ex-father-in-law, who felt that respecting one’s male elders should be of the utmost priority, no matter what.) In other words, just because a guy says something doesn’t mean I have to respect it any more than if a woman said the same thing.
Those three elements come together to make the prospect of being approached by a random male evangelist at the very least uncomfortable and at most ready to chew him up and spit him out. I find it pretty disturbing that he assumes I will a) feel comfortable because of his obvious appearance of status as a religious leader and b) be in need of whatever brand of redemption he is selling.
There is also another aspect to this — the assumption that being outwardly religious is an instrument by which to measure a person’s inner workings: their morals, motives, and value. When a man believes he should command my trust or respect simply because he is a “man of God,” it is in direct contradiction of what life has taught me: that more often than not, the fanciest, most put-together packages are often hiding the most horrific secrets.
Just because a man looks, walks, and talks like a “man of God” doesn’t mean I should take his advice. It doesn’t mean I should trust him. And when he assumes a pontificating familiarity with me — a woman — because he feels I am in need of his counsel, it only displays his own naivete about the intimate nature of faith. Put simply, if you wouldn’t feel comfortable asking me what color my panties are, you’d better not expect me to accept your assumption about my choice of religion.
Real men of God know that love — not judgment — is the basis for any real evangelism. They know that showing kindness to others will open opportunities for witnessing. They know that by being men of integrity first, they’ll emerge as leaders in whatever faith they choose. They know that treating women as intellectual and spiritual equals leads to garnering their respect. They know that being men of God means being humble. They know that treating their families the right way commands respect from their wives and children. And they know that sharing one’s faith is best done in small circles, once trust has been established, and not in the damn laundromat.
As I’ve written numerous times, I believe in the sanctity of all spiritual beliefs and I respect people of all faiths, as long as no one is shoving their beliefs in my face and expecting me to accept them as true, right, or infallible. It’s not my place to assert that they’re wrong and I’m right.
Religious choice is a personal, intimate thing, and I think we’d all be better off if we tried to remember that.