My father put his hands on the wheel of the car while my brother and I sandwiched ourselves between him and my mother. Seat belts and car seats were not invented. When we wiggled and squirmed my mother’s hand reached across our laps to hold us still. We were on the way to church.
I walked into a classroom where I played with other children my age. I remember sitting in one of the wooden chairs arranged in a circle. My feet didn’t touch the floor so I dangled them back and forth, looking at my black patent leather shoes, my “Sunday shoes” that I only wore for church or special occasions.
While I waited for the teacher to gather her papers, I smoothed the blue smocked dress, made for me by my mother’s oldest sister, Aunt Helen, a relative I had never met. Red, white and blue thread criss-crossed my chest. I moved my fingers over the bumpy surface feeling the fabric gathered like an accordion. Maybe one day I might learn to smock. The puffy sleeves made me feel like I was a princess.
I heard the teacher call my name to make sure I was listening before she started the story about Jesus feeding many people from a boy’s small lunch of five fish and two loaves of bread. .Each week she read a Bible story from a printed pamphlet. She taught us about people who lived long ago and had adventures I didn’t quite understand, and about God and how God could help us. I did not know what God meant.
One Sunday we learned about prayer. She said prayer was talking to God. I still didn’t know what God meant, but I did understand how to talk to someone.
We weren’t old enough to ask questions, but everyone, especially me, enjoyed the coloring page attached to the story. At home, my mother hid the box of broken crayons on the top shelf of the coat closet in the hallway. I could only color a few times a year when she put the box on the kitchen table. She said coloring was a waste of time, but I liked to draw shapes and houses and think about what colors I wanted to use. At Sunday school, each child had their own box of brand new crayons. As I opened the box, I breathed in the smell of wax and fresh cardboard.
After church, my parents picked me up from the classroom. I clutched the handful of papers the teacher gave us about the lesson. She suggested to my parents, “You can review the story we talked about at home. Your daughter can tell you the story in her own words. She is a good listener.”
I smiled hearing the teacher say something nice about me. I rarely heard the adults in my life say that I was good at anything.
When I got home and changed my clothes, I looked at the pictures and thought how the teacher described God and people in the Bible. In time, I had a stack of these handouts on the floor in my bedroom. Anytime I wanted, I could look at the pictures and think about God.
I looked forward to going to church each week, being with someone who smiled at me, and having an opportunity to color.
God became more of a reality in my life when I was seven. I realized my home wasn’t normal because I started looking for another mother. I observed the way other mothers in the neighborhood acted toward their children in loving and kind ways. They combed and brushed their daughters’ hair and put ribbons or barrettes to hold their hair in place. I did not feel loved or cared for. I easily noted the favor my parents gave my younger brother. He was the center of their lives and I felt left out.
During these times when my heart ached for attention, I went to my room to read the Sunday school papers about God, how God listens to our thoughts and how we can talk to God anytime. I remembered how much fun I had coloring the pictures of the stories.
I walked to school by myself envying the two sisters across the street with their matching dresses and hair bows. I wanted to have a bow in my hair too. When I arrived at school, I found my desk and got ready for the day’s assignments. I had trouble keeping my mind on what I was supposed to do. I had to read the same paragraph over and over to remember what Alice and Jerry were doing. Numbers were confusing. I kept writing them backwards. I could add two numbers together, but subtraction didn’t make sense .
My spelling book was a mess. The letters I wrote were too close together, according to my teacher and I could hardly identify the word. My pencil point kept breaking and I was embarrassed to get up and walk to the sharpener. I was sure everyone was watching, and I wanted no one to notice me.
I wore dresses that were too short paired with my ugly brown leather shoes. My parents only bought me one pair of shoes a year and by the end of school in June, my toes pressed into the front of the shoe.
Although I didn’t know the word anxiety, I feel certain my emotions could be described as anxious. One day sitting at my desk, looking out the window at the school yard, I remembered what the Sunday school teacher said about talking to God. I didn’t say anything, but I thought about God. In a few minutes I felt different inside. Back then I didn’t have a word for what I felt, but today I would call it peace or comfort. This new feeling brought me back to my desk. I held my pencil a little tighter and worked with a little more clarity to solve the problems in my math workbook.
Walking home from school that day I remembered when I said the word, God, and how I felt inside. Maybe that’s what the teacher meant: God can help us, because God surely helped me stay calm during the rest of the school day.
My family didn’t talk to God and my parents often yelled at each other, but despite what was happening in my home, I could talk to God and feel calm inside. At night before I went to sleep, I shared my fear with God and prayed, “Please help me live tomorrow.”
When I was in fourth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Rossi, had us sing hymns while we passed our papers down the row of desks. Some of the hymns I remembered from church, now that I was old enough to attend the service. “Come thou Almighty King,” and “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” were two of her favorites. Mrs. Rossi didn’t attend my church, but she knew the same songs I did. Hearing about God in music, even in my public school, nurtured my growing understanding of God.
“Come Thou Almighty King” praised God as “Father all glorious” and described God as “Holy Comforter.” “All Things Bright and Beautiful” told how God created flowers, birds, mountains, rivers, the sunset, cold winter wind, and food in the garden. I learned God gave us eyes to see what God created, and lips to tell others about God and what God had made.
I don’t remember if Mrs. Rossi wrote the words to the hymn on the chalkboard or how we learned the song, but all of the children joined in to make music and keep from talking while our papers were collected. She didn’t realize how closely I was listening to these words and absorbing their meaning describing God and how God had created everything on the earth including me.
My family moved to Pennsylvania when I was in the middle of fifth grade. At my new school in fifth and sixth grade, we formed a line to walk to the cafeteria each day.
Before we left our room, the teacher would say a prayer for lunch. I didn’t know about praying before eating, but these two teachers helped me realize it was good to thank God for the food I was going to eat. In sixth grade, one student was Jewish. About once a week, my teacher asked her to pray. First, she said a short prayer in Hebrew, then gave the English translation. I realized that God was present in my friend’s prayers too, even in another language.
Even though God was never mentioned in my home and my parents never read from the Bible, I was learning about God in school and Sunday school. Praying at school and at night, I was slowly learning to build trust in something I couldn’t see or even understand. I experienced how a single word, “God,” made my heart feel lighter and not alone.
When I was in sixth grade I memorized the catechism of the church outlined for confirmation. I didn’t understand what the words meant nor did the classes I attend make my concentration any clearer. What I did know was that “God” was becoming as “real” as someone could be without being seen.
I felt God in my heart when I prayed. I knew I wanted to thank God for the food I ate. I liked going outside and looking at the mountain at the end of our gravel road. Seeing the birds in the trees reminded me of the hymn I sang with Mrs. Rossi “All Things Bright and Beautiful” describing how God made every living creature.
After I was confirmed, I received a certificate of confirmation in the Episcopal Church, and a silver pendant embossed with a picture of Christ on the front and the words, “I am an Episcopalian,” on the back. I wore this necklace every day. I never took it off. Sometimes, friends in school noted the necklace and asked if I was wearing a dime around my neck. When they realized I had a religious symbol they stopped talking and seemed to feel awkward. I sometimes felt a little shy about this public display of my faith, but I kept wearing it because it helped me feel the strength of Christ.
Right before I entered seventh grade, I made an altar in my closet. On top of a burgundy train case I placed the brown cross necklace I used for singing in the children’s choir at church. Next to the cross, I placed a bright red picture book of children’s prayers along with a copy of “The Book of Common Prayer” from my confirmation.
When I felt lonely or discouraged or left out I went to my closet and sat next to my altar not knowing exactly what to do, but feeling comfort knowing God in some form was close by.
One day my mother saw my altar and said, “What are you doing with this silliness in your closet?!! You need to take the necklace to church so you don’t forget to wear it on Sunday.”
I was used to my mother’s criticism. Her favorite words to me were, “You need to change your ways.” I didn’t know what she meant because I thought I was an ok person and didn’t know what I needed to change. I never heard her say, “I love you,” ever.
When I was twelve, attending church took on more meaning. My faith was developing. Although I still wasn’t sure about who God was, every Sunday the familiar words of the liturgy wrapped around my heart like a cloak. Holy Communion was the first Sunday of the month, the rest of the Sundays the service of Morning Prayer. I knew what to expect when I went to church.
liturgy was a constant to counter my chaotic life at home. I continued to have
difficulty concentrating at school, spending many hours reading and re-reading
history and English, and trying again and again to focus on solving math
problems. I felt frustrated at my inability to retain what I learned. I knew I
was smart, but I know now that the difficulty I had at home clouded my
I prayed each night throughout junior high and high school. Although the nature of my life at home didn’t change, God sustained me. My life with God was simple. I said a short prayer every night before I went to bed and continued my practice of thinking about God when I was in school. I did not have a Bible, but I occasionally read prayers from the two books on my altar.
I couldn’t quote scripture like my friends who were Baptist, but I knew the reality of God in my heart, an immediate source of comfort and strength wherever I was.
Throughout elementary school, all classes began by saying the Lord’s Prayer and standing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. My ninth-grade homeroom teacher read to us from the Bible each day following morning announcements. Many of the ways I learned about God, especially in the public school, would not be permitted in this day and age.
The early formative years of my faith were foundational to who I am now as God’s child. I’m so grateful for the ways I learned about God despite not growing up in a home where faith was nurtured. Never underestimate the power of teaching a Sunday school lesson to a four year-old, the effect of passing along the words of a beloved hymn, or how your encouragement as a confirmation mentor might help a child. You never know what a child may be dealing with at home. Your words can be a beam of light directing them toward a life sustained by God’s presence.
(a poem about my childhood faith experience)
Every Sunday I climbed the steps
Half-awake, opened the door,
Entered the tiny vestibule
Tables on both sides,
Held booklets for devotion
Pamphlets about the church year.
I walked down the aisle,
My hard, leather shoes making noise,
In a place meant for quiet.
Seated myself on a hard, wooden pew,
My soul cradled by liturgy.
People good and bad dotted the rows
I sat near the cross that hung over the
In the choir loft,
In front of the sanctuary,
I sang God’s praises
And watched those
Who fell asleep.
My faith was sustained and
Refueled by liturgy,
“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.”
I carried the echo of
Those words in my heart
Wherever I went.
In my fingers, I pressed the
The size of a dime,
Dangling around my neck.
Up close the face of Jesus
Beaming at me with strength
For my climb back down the
Steps of the church
To go home.