Contemplating freedom in religion
While attending TraveCon19 in Boston in June 2019, I met a fellow travel-blogger the first day who, when I shared that I blog about religion and that my blog name was Church-Traveler, said, “That makes me want to run away.” They continued, “I hear the word “church,” and I can’t hear anything after that.” I know that this is a common experience. There are many people who are genuinely allergic to churches. Burdened by the baggage of the past, the weight of the crimes and sins of commissions and omission connected to institutionalized religion — perhaps even inflicted directly upon them — many people cannot relate, or think of a church as anything less than a sum of its past and they would certainly not go out of their way to visit churches, as a hobby like me! And that’s ok. They don’t have to go to churches, or read my blog or look at the photos I post.
I knew a woman once who told me how when she went into my church the incense made her feel ‘unfree’ and nauseous. I understand and don’t think that everyone should want to go to churches the way I do. But I find myself drawn to them, and so I go. I can’t seem to avoid them for long, and then I want to write about what I see and experience too. I notice religious themes everywhere in our modern world, and it fascinates me. So here goes…
Wandering downtown in Boston after TravelCon, I walk down Tremont Street, passing Temple Street, and approaching the Park Church I’m reminded of the first time I visited Boston when I was about 14 years old. It was an 8th-grade class trip I think, and a group of my friends and I encountered some Hare Krishnas on the street. They were wearing those well-known orange garments and had literature to hand out. I was a particularly young and late-blooming teenager, insecure, angst-ridden, with no ability to stand up for myself or say when I was uncomfortable — which was often.
The Hare Krishnas pressed a book into my hand after some initial conversation and made it seem like it was a “free gift,” as I began to turn to leave, the man-made it clear that I was supposed to pay actually, and it was $20 “donation.” Maybe it was only $8, but certainly some vast sum for me at the time. I dutifully forked over the cash. I never read the books.
That icky feeling I had of being manipulated and somehow unable to say “No thank you,” and just walk away, that feeling has been connected to religion for me for a long time. I have spent a good part of my life getting to a place where I can ask first “How much does this cost?” without any embarrassment. The feeling of ‘Ick’ is connected to someone wanting something from me.
What is it that they want? Money? Sex? My Soul? Or maybe my agreement and consent to their world and religious views. It varies, but it has taken me many adventures, both good and bad, to be able to assess much more quickly than my 14-year-old self which one of these things is on the person’s agenda.
“Are you saved?”
Other similar experiences which contributed to my fraught relationship with religion: While babysitting for a family down the street in my small town in Massachusetts when I was around 14–15 years old, the parents came home with their friends with whom they were on a double date, the mother introduced me to their male friend with: “This is our babysitter Bettina, her dad is a minister.” And so the interrogation began.
He thought he was having a conversation with an informed member of a church — me being a PK (Pastor’s kid, Preacher’s Kid, Priest’s Kid, a special club you may have heard of) — after all, but I knew nothing of his questions. Which Bible translation does your church use? What does your church believe happens after we die? Heaven or Hell? He kept going, explaining how he had been saved and born again after a life of sin and drugs, and it kept edging towards the fact that I was clearly not saved at all. I was headed for hell. I did just want to get the hell out of there and go home. But I couldn’t stop him from talking, I was unable to extricate myself from that conversation, which had quickly become very one-sided. The ‘Ick’ feeling was so strong I still can recall it like it was yesterday.
Another anecdote: In college I was sitting in the coffee-shop of the all women’s college nearby, with my freshly shaved head (one of those things you do in college), looking rather butch. A nice girl struck up a conversation and while chatting and getting to know her, for the life of me I couldn’t figure out whether she was a lesbian trying to pick me up, or why she was talking to me as the setting and my own appearance would have lent to that interpretation. I knew the feeling very well from men trying to pick me up, that flow of energy coming from below the belt, wanting something, aiming for something. At some point, the question came: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?” What?! I was getting the exact same vibes from this woman, and it was either an attempt to get in my pants or in my soul.
The standard by which I assess how much I ‘like’ or ‘approve’ or want to associate myself with any religion, sect, group, church, congregation, I encounter is always: Do I feel free? Am I being pressured or manipulated? I have a highly attuned sense of it. I know that is a tricky thing, a paradox even, because the mandate to convert is in the New Testament, but there is definitely a lot of room for interpretation on how to go about doing it. How to inform about religion, or of one’s convictions without imposing on the autonomy of another person? Is there really anyone by now who hasn’t heard of Jesus in some way, and so is free to decide on their own if they want to learn more?
Walking around Boston in 2019, I saw many signs that religion is alive and well and playing a role in people’s lives. I visited many churches and passed by as many others. The signs near Faneuil Hall alerting visitors to the fake monks scamming people, complete with photos, showed me that people are still willing to engage with people they think are religious, even to their detriment.
Entering the Commercial District I passed the Park Church on Tremont St., walked past the Granary Burial Ground where an early idol of mine — Paul Revere — is buried, and came upon the Tremont Temple, crossing over to get a closer look at the Greek Revival style architecture. It turns out it houses the Iglesia Bautista Hispanoamerica de Boston (Hispanic American Baptist Church of Boston) and there was a service being held! I was welcomed in by some friendly elderly ladies at the door, and they pointed me downstairs to the service being held on a Saturday evening in Spanish, with all-female singers getting the congregation in the praise-worthy mood before the preacher began his sermon. The preacher welcomed me and pointed me to a chair, but I said I couldn’t stay long and just happened to be passing by. There were perhaps 20 people total participating in the international bilingual worship service, and the music was so great I made a voice-memo of it so that you can enjoy it too.
According to the plaque on the outside, the Tremont Temple was a theater first before being bought by the Free Baptist Society in 1843 who had a racially integrated congregation. It continued to function as a theater where such greats as Abraham Lincoln and Charles Dickens made appearances, because as described by the Boston Literary District:
“The Tremont Temple was founded on the principle that worship should be free. It was begun by the Free Church Baptists, who opposed what was then a common practice of charging “rent” for space in a church pew… By using parts of the church as commercial space, and opening the theater for public events, the Tremont Temple was able to remain free, and therefore had the first integrated congregation in the country. The first two tenets of the church made these aims explicit:
...to make continued efforts to supply every human being with the privileges of Gospel...
...All who practice slavery or justify it, shall be excluded from the church and its communion..."
After listening to the great music for a while, but wanting to see more of Boston before the sunset, I left the Temple before the sermon began with spirits uplifted and feeling free as a bird.