There are several facts about me that should be known. I was raised in an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian church. The church defined my earliest assumptions about the larger world. And for the most part, it was a warm and welcoming place for me. If it sheltered any dangerous people, I never saw any worse behavior than a tendency of certain ones to gossip, and the normal percentage of bullies among the other youth group kids. The first minister I knew, Pastor McGarvey, wore his humility and humor as easily as any other human I have met. I do not know, in blindingly white Wellsville, NY, if he had any racist tendencies, but I doubt it. When he spoke about being God’s light to the world, the man positively glowed with kindness and compassion.
This was evangelical Christianity before it made a devilish deal with politics. These are the topics that I never heard Pastor McGarvey preach about: evolution, presidential candidates, abortion, homophobia, sexism, racism, talk show hosts, tv news personalities, wars, free market capitalism, and the communist threat. He preached about the importance of getting your soul right with God, of living a sacred life, of being a beacon of light in a dark world, and being always, always ready for the second coming of Christ. That’s what it used to be all about.
My Mother was the impetus for us to be church people. Hannigans had no particular affinity for religion. Somehow Catholicism was lost in the Atlantic passage. My Father grew up with a very loose association with a mainstream Protestant church, as in, he didn’t attend it, but he knew where it was. But when my Mother looked at her three sweet baby girls, something fiercely protective bloomed in her heart. She wanted us to be safe from an unspoken, but looming predatory world that she feared would chew us up and spit us out. She found the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church and Pastor McGarvey, and we were safe.
Until I turned into a 13-year-old who could pass for an 18-year-old, that is. As the baby of the family, it was my God-given right to upset the natural order of the universe. Suddenly bits of my Mother’s nightmare world began to take notice of me. There was a 21-year-old Ag-Tech student that started to hang out with the Youth for Christ group. I remember that he came in with some of my Mennonite friends, and then began to hover around me. I was flattered. I could handle this. I have no memory of him other than a typical hippy from 1972 – untrimmed brown hair, a mustache, wiry. He showed up at the skating parties, and pretty much made sure to be there whenever the mirror ball lit up for a couples only skate. Truthfully at this point, I had no dating experience, no flirting experience (other than being tormented by the kid who sat alphabetically behind me every year), and no useful sexual information. I was a sitting duck waiting for a well-aimed bullet.
But my Mother came to the skating rink to pick me up, and she came inside to see us spiraling around under that mirror ball. She bundled me up, gave him a frosty look, and when he attempted to call me, she intervened. You see, she was not having any of my nonsense about being almost an adult, and she was not having any of his nonsense about him respecting me. He was an adult; I was a child. End of discussion. Of course I wailed at her, wrote some truly bleak teenage poetry, and built this inconsequential man into quite a romantic icon for a week or two. And then the boy sitting behind me whispered in my ear some flirty joke, and suddenly his acne wasn’t such a problem, and the Ag-Tech guy transformed into something a little creepy, someone I was glad to have avoided.
That was how it worked.
Obviously, I know nothing about evangelical, fundamentalist church folk now. For how can they can be comfortable with men who once prowled for teenage girls, men who felt empowered to do this as long as some sort of parental permission was granted? No man could have asked my Mother for that sort of permission. I think that Billy Graham himself could not have gotten my Mother to drop her fierce protection of our innocence. And now today, I wonder if there are girls in those same churches, where congregations are rallying to protect grown men who should have known better, girls like 13-year-old me, who suddenly need the grown-up world to protect them. What lesson they are learning today, on top of the Bible verses they memorized in Sunday School?