I walk slowly into the church. I try to look confident. People look at me with a look of interest. Some smile, but behind the smiles I read curiosity. Immediately I discern I'm underdressed. I find a seat and sit down. I hope I haven't unwittingly chosen a regular's favorite perch. I sit by the aisle for a quick escape. All around me I can feel the weight of obligation. There isn't anything overt. No slogans of oppression plastered on the walls. But I feel the expectations floating in the air like airborne spores waiting to land on me. It affects my breathing, as if I'm trying to prevent these spores from entering my lungs and infecting me forever. I've been infected before, and they're a bugger to get rid of. I'm not sure my immune system can resist them.
The singing and prayers are all fine. Most of the words aren't too bad. Nothing obvious, but again, there's something else clinging to them, desperately. These words are holy by themselves, but they seem to host countless parasitic ideas that would cripple me forever. I just know it. I've been there, done that, got the hospital bills. The offering is taken and I intentionally put in too little... a rebellious reaction to the "tithe talk" that was given by a child who really couldn't know any better.
Then the preacher preaches. Suddenly, the spores and parasites become even more dominant. No longer do the holy words keep center, but the spores and parasites that cling to them become the thing we are really talking about. If this was sex, this is the climax. The holy words are not enough on their own. They are powerless by themselves. They have to be used for something. They have to do something. They must accomplish something, and immediately. They have to be used to affect me. They have to be used to change me. Underneath all the smooth, silky subtlety of the sermon I hear an undercurrent, a subtext to all that is being said, and it is this: "Comply!"
When the sermon is finally over, I meet a few nice people who's happy handshakes beg, "You must come back. You must love us! You must become like us! You must validate us! Please!" I meet the pastor at the door. His handshake tries to feel permanent. His chatter is inappropriately intimate. I don't hear what he's saying, but I feel the stickiness of his speech. His smile is not sincere. It has intentions. His eyes have an agenda. I think he thinks he knows more about me than he thinks I think I know about myself. His soul is raping my soul, and mine lets out a silent scream to get the hell out of here! Fast! When I pry loose of his hands, I quickly step out onto the stairs and breath a deep breath of fresh air. The sky is blue. The trees are green. The grass is inviting. I touch my head, checking my skull for fractures. I feel my chest. My heart is beating, slightly rapid, but beating. I'm alive. And I am free.
The fine art photograph is the creation of my friend Mark Hemmings, and is taken from his Mannequin series.