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You could spend your whole life inside the Repentagon, starting in nursery school, continuing through twelfth grade, getting married in the chapel, attending adult Bible study every weekend, baptizing your children in the Worship Center, and meeting your fellow-retirees for racquetball and a chicken-salad sandwich, secure in the knowledge that your loved ones would gather in the sanctuary to honor you after your death.The church was founded in 1927, and the school was established two decades later.I would regret this situation when I was in high school at the age of twelve. I pointed my toes in dance class and did all my homework.
On Sundays, as we drove into the city, I sat quietly in the back seat next to my cherubic little brother, ready to take my place in the dark and think about my soul. I prayed every night, thanking God for the wonderful life I had been given.
On weekends, I would pedal my bike across a big stretch of pasture in the late-afternoon light and feel holy.
A circular drive with a fountain in the middle led up to a bone-white sanctuary that sat eight hundred; next to it was a small chapel, modest and humble, with pale-blue walls.
There was also a school, a restaurant, a bookstore, three basketball courts, an exercise center, and a cavernous mirrored atrium.
During the holidays, I acted in the church’s youth musicals; one of them was set at CNN, the “Celestial News Network,” and several of us played reporters covering the birth of Jesus Christ. Back then, believing in God felt mostly unremarkable, occasionally interesting, and every so often like a private thrill. Fathers offered their children up to be sacrificed. The horror-movie progression of the plagues in Exodus riveted me: the blood, the frogs, the boils, the locusts, the darkness.
When I was still in elementary school, my family moved farther west, to new suburbs where model homes rose out of bare farmland. I was taught that the violence of Christianity came with great safety: under a pleasing shroud of aesthetic mystery, there were clear prescriptions about who you should be.When I was in high school, the church built a fifth floor with a train for children to play in, and a teen-youth-group space called the Hangar, which featured the nose of a plane half crashed through a wall.My parents hadn’t always been evangelical, nor had they favored this tendency toward excess.I’d been taught that my relationship with God would decay if I wasn’t careful.I wasn’t predestined, I wasn’t chosen: if I wanted God’s forgiveness, I had to work.I started to feel twinges of guilt at the end of every church service, when the pastor would call for people to come forward and accept Jesus.What if this feeling of uncertainty meant that I needed to avow Him again and again?A teacher advised us to boycott Disney movies, because Disney World had allowed gay people to host a parade.Another teacher confiscated my Archie comics and my peace-sign notebook, replacing this heathen paraphernalia with a copy of the new best-seller about the Second Coming, “Left Behind.” Three girls were electrocuted when a light blew out in the pool where they’d been swimming, and this tragedy was deemed the will of the Lord.They had grown up Catholic in the Philippines and, after moving to Toronto, a few years before I was born, had attended a small Baptist church.When, in 1993, they moved to Houston, an unfamiliar and unfathomably large expanse of highway and prairie, one pastor’s face was everywhere, smiling at commuters from the billboards that studded I-10.