I live in Georgia. And not Atlanta. South Georgia. When I say that I live in Valdosta, people usually repeat the word back to me like they are auditioning for a part in Huck Finn, “Val-DOS-TA!” Then they tell me they stopped here once on the way to Atlanta because they had a flat tire or because they wanted a biscuit from Bojangles. Before Valdosta, I was living in Florida, and my husband at the time commuted 70 miles each way to work at the university here. Then I had a baby and decided that I could screw that kid up anywhere, so we packed and moved across state lines.
Not long after we moved into our new house, members of the local Baptist church started showing up on Sunday afternoons. The first time I was in the backyard with my son trying to blow up an inflatable pool and appropriately yelling, “Goddamnit!” Then a group of older ladies appeared at my fence. Skirts to the ground. Bibles in hand. They were just wondering if we had decided on a church in the area?
I like to picture these women coming directly from some kind of a situation room. There is a wall of photos with potential members/victims and post-it notes that describe specifics about the individual that might help lure them into the well-lit, air-conditioned halls of the Baptist church, things like “Marital trouble” or “Drinks too much” or “Stupid,” and then there is a large map of Lowndes County spread out on the table with a giant red circle around my house.
I told them that we attended church in a nearby town with my husband’s family, which was technically true because we did do that once on Easter. Then I tried to act like I was really busy, “Stop splashing in the pool!” I yelled to my toddler son. Then the next weekend, after what I assume was some sort of Baptist briefing about the importance of demographics, a group of women my same age showed up on Sunday afternoon. When I saw the minivan pull in the driveway, I appropriately said, “Goddamnit.”
They told me about their kids and how precious my son was as he kicked dirt at a squirrel. Also they were just wondering if we had decided on a church in the area yet. I said that we go to church with my husband’s family in a town about forty-five minutes away because that is how we like our religion: inconvenient. They kept making small talk, and I just stood there in my own driveway afraid to tell them my actual stance on church, and my complete lack of interest in attending any church in the area, and not just because I would rather dig through garbage at the dump than spend my Sunday mornings attending a lecture, but because I do not believe in a god.
The next Sunday they came back. It was like a horror movie. The kind where you think the killer is dead. There is no way he can come back! He doesn’t even have a head! But then you walk outside to get something from the garage and this white minivan full of Baptists pulls into your driveway, “Are you fucking kidding me?” I can see them after church, filing into the situation room, while a man points to my picture like a football coach at halftime.
You ladies get back in the minivan, and you bring me that new family! What would Jesus do? Answer me! Would Jesus let that woman say she goes to church in another town? Would he? No. Jesus saves. He is economical. He would mention the rising cost of gas prices. He would break her down to tears, bag her, and stuff her into the back of the van. Wait. No, that is not necessarily what Jesus would do, but you get the idea. Play on her weaknesses. There are plenty. Now, line up for a slap on the ass and then get out there and get me some new members. And tell them to bring their wallets.
At first I thought maybe they didn’t see me, and I could just go inside, lock the door, and hide behind the couch. But I stalled too long. Just like the girl who is murdered first because she is paralyzed standing in the kitchen staring at the guy with the chainsaw, while all her friends have run away—past all the possible exits and ground floor windows—and are hiding safely upstairs in a closet. I walked toward the van. Just get it over with.
They would really love to welcome my family to the Baptist church. There is childcare. For a brief moment I pictured myself sitting peacefully in an air-conditioned sanctuary dressed up like I was going to be a contributor on CNN while my son was in another room digging through a box of toys marked “Mythical Creatures” trying to fish out the T-Rex. I considered it. I thanked them for visiting me again, and I said that I would discuss it with my husband. They nodded with understanding, as if to say they know that he makes all the decisions. Of course.
One of my problems is that I am eternally optimistic, which is an interesting characteristic for an atheist, I realize, but I am one of those people who anticipates getting the mail because you never know. Maybe my boyfriend from tenth grade finally wrote me that letter he promised he would write while on vacation with his family, instead of not writing and never calling me ever again. Maybe there will be a letter from a publisher with a check for a book advance. Whenever the phone rings, I jump up mid-pee with pants around my ankles to run for the phone, and then get disappointed when it is just my doctor’s office calling to remind me of my next appointment. Yes. I will be there. We will have fun.
So the next Sunday when the doorbell rang, I ran to the door, slid on my socks, and swung it open hoping to find something like a video crew and a man with a giant check. Instead I opened the door to a group of men standing in a semi-circle dressed like they were doing a photo shoot for the Father’s Day edition of the J.C. Penney catalog. They wanted to know if my husband was home. Yes! He is! I left the pleated khakis at the door and found him in his underwear on the computer.
“Tell them I am not here,” he said.
“Goddamnit,” I said appropriately.
I went back to the door, hoping to just tell them he wasn’t available and goodbye, but they stuck a tassled loafer in the door and said they were just wondering if we had decided on a church in the area. Their briefing must have included some kind of pact to just make the pitch no matter what, and I imagined them standing there giving the same speech to my closed door. It was a dream, really. They mentioned that my husband worked at the university. Then they listed some names of other guys they knew—in alphabetical order—who also worked at the university in the same department. The men’s bible study this week must have included a lesson on the power of name-dropping. Next week: making it relevant.
Eventually they left and went home to mow their lawns and stare vacantly into the horizon, repeating the words, “Until death do us part,” not necessarily because they want to kill their wives, but it is a nice reminder about the real promise of heaven. Then they stand in front of their grills and think about putting their clean-shaven faces right into the flames.
The next weekend they came back to my house. I had never seen such a relentless pursuit. I really did not know what they wanted from us except 10% of our earnings and our souls. But was that worth this amount of effort? Again, I opened the door. “Goddamnit.” My son was holding onto my leg, looking at the array of Dockers, ranging all the way from khaki to dark khaki. It was like Stonehenge. “We are not interested in attending your church,” I said finally, “But thank you.”
They left me another pamphlet. Just in case. Just in case I decided at the age of 32 to suddenly become a Baptist. Looking back all these years later, I regret not telling the first group of women the truth. The fact that I do not go to church. On purpose. The problem is not just that I am a confident atheist, but that I have a problem with organized religion generally, and especially the dominant church culture in the South, which imposes judgment based on their personal beliefs onto the entire population. There are exceptions, but often times the church stands as a barrier to equality and human rights and problematically responds in fear to the country’s growing secularism.
Also—and this is the most controversial of all—I have no interest in exposing my children to Christianity. I do not view being Christian or atheist as two equivalent options that must be chosen between, like heads or tails or my place or yours. Christianity is a life-style choice, and if my kids rebelliously choose that life, then I will accept them. The same way I will accept them if they choose to be gluten-free or assholes.