In this week’s episode, we dive back into the subject of our evangelical upbringing and how it impacted our lives. If you missed Part 1, Elsie’s story, be sure to listen to it first, as it lays the groundwork for many of things that Emma shares in this episode.
Thank you for letting us share this little glimpse into our lives growing up. These two episodes are a topic that we heard from so many of our listeners/readers over the years that you wanted to hear more about, so here we are. It’s an intimidating thing to share, as it’s impossible to boil something as impactful and complicated as this down to a 30-minute podcast episode, but we tried!
As always, a huge thank you to this week’s sponsors! The podcast wouldn’t be possible without our brand partners, and we love sharing their offers with you! Be sure to check out Issuu, Agility Beds, Magic Spoon and Modern Fertility for the ABM listener deals.
Episode 79 Transcript
Emma: You’re listening to the A Beautiful Mess podcast, here’s part two on growing up conservative evangelical Christian in the Midwest. This time I, Emma, am telling a few stories that impacted me and how I’m still dealing with some of the lingering issues from this time in my life still to this day. And if you missed it, we had a part one where Elsie shared her experiences growing up, and I likely will reference some of that. So if you didn’t hear it, you might want to go back and listen to that one first. So when Elsie and I were preparing for this, I really wanted to make sure that I kind of organized my thoughts: one, but also shared some pros, as well as some of the things that impacted me negatively. Because growing up in the church, I don’t think it was all negative. I think there were a number of positive things. And I just don’t really want that to be 100 percent lost. But I won’t lie. The negative things impacted me a lot more and you’ll hear that. So anyway, I’m just going to go through a few — three things on the pros list. And these are very random. And these are not the only pros. I kind of was just sort of trying to put some lighter stuff on here, I’ll be honest. So here’s some pros and they’re kind of lighthearted.
Elsie: Emma is a very balanced woman.
Emma: (laughs) Thank you! OK, so pro number one of growing up in church: I got really, really good at taking notes during lectures. Another word for a lecture is sermon. (laughs) So and this turned out to be a very valuable skill when I went to college at our church, the youth group sat all the youth in one kind of area and it was up front and to the right. So you really couldn’t pass notes or talk during church. And we were, it was definitely, as Elsie mentioned in her episode, it was a kind of competitive atmosphere and it was a little bit militant. There is a lot expected of us. So you would not have been fooling around during church anyway. So when I went to church, I always had my Bible with me, a highlighter, a pen and my notebook. And I would take very good notes during every single sermon and I would go through an entire notebook. And I for years I had these, like, filled up notebooks that were like things I bought from, like Delia’s. You know, they had flowers on the outside because I was like, you know, a 14-year-old girl. But they were filled with sermon notes. And this was a pro because when I went to college, I was really good, really practiced at taking very good notes during a long lecture. I can — I have a very good attention span. And I think part of it is from church. (laughs)
Elsie: I agree with that one for sure. It was like — it’s definitely a positive thing to learn how to really listen and learn and engage in what you’re doing. So.
Emma: Yeah, I agree. Yeah. So that’s on the pros list for me. And again, that’s a little bit of a lighter thing. But still, I do appreciate that. OK, next one is I feel that my introduction to learning about personal finances happened at church. So sometime when I was in youth group, we did some kind of Sunday school unit, probably on Dave Ramsey. I’ll be honest, I don’t 100 percent remember.
Elsie: Dave Ramsey is a little bit on our shit list now because he has been having a big covid party, but he teaches some good stuff that is very accessible in that culture because he’s like the main author that everyone listens to.
Emma: Yeah, for sure. And I just — I didn’t grow up really learning about personal finance anywhere else. And I’m not a super math-y person or really a financially minded person necessarily. But I definitely took to this. And after this Sunday school unit, I started seeking out other personal finance books. I think the church gave me the impression that taking care of your personal finances was a godly thing to do. You should be tithing 10 percent. You should be giving back when you can. Sometimes there was too much emphasis put on that, I would say at times. But I do think thinking about giving and being a generous person is a good thing.
Emma: I like what I was taught that and I liked that. I was taught that I should think about my personal finances and that that’s a good thing because I think a lot of high schoolers don’t get that message at all. So I think that was really good. And I ended up kind of just reading whatever personal finance books I could find at the library. So I got into like Suze Orman and lots of other, you know, different personalities beyond Dave Ramsey. And I still feel like I’m on my journey of learning about personal finances to this day. And I think it really started there in church. So I’m grateful for that.
Emma: So that and then my third positive is I was really close with all my friends at church. I had a great group of friends when I was in high school and middle school. Really, really great community. And that is one thing that I still think is really great about church, is you can have a really strong community. Unfortunately, I lost that community of friends for the most part whenever I ended up leaving the church later, and that was an extremely painful time in my life, and so not to turn this pro into a con, because for the record, I don’t blame anyone at all. We were all kids. We were all just kids in a youth group. They were kids. I was a kid. We were learning to be the adults that we were going to become. So I in no way hold any kind of grudge about anything like that. But I will say once I started going to church again as an adult, I really had a hard time and I still do, connecting with people I meet at church. I can tell that inside my heart I have this distrust that I feel that they’re not going to be there for me unless I’m the right person, unless I keep going to church. And if I ever stop, they won’t love me anymore. And I think that’s kind of left over from this time in my life, which is an unfortunate lesson that I would like to unlearn.
Emma: Because it’s not true. So anyway, those are mostly pros, although that last one turned into a con a little bit, didn’t it. Well, OK, so now I’m going to tell you some negative stories, some things on my cons list and things that impacted me and some of them I still carry in my heart today, unfortunately. So the first one is I’m going to tell a story of the summer in between sixth grade and seventh grade. So I would have been something like 13 years old, 12 or 13, maybe 14, probably 13. And so I wasn’t quite in the youth group yet because at my church, youth group was seventh grade through senior year of high school. And me and my friend, I’m going to call her Jill just because I’m not in touch with her anymore. And this story has to do with her. And I would prefer to ask her before using her real name. So I’m just going to call her Jill. So me and Jill were helping out at VBS. We weren’t really kids, so we weren’t in VBS, but we weren’t really in the youth group yet.
Elsie: It was your first year not to be a kid.
Emma: Yeah. So we were just trying to help out any teachers who needed things or whatever. We were just around and helping out and it was summertime. So it was hot. And I remember after VBS one summer evening or whatever, the pastor of our church came up to me and asked to talk to me privately. And this was a big deal to me. Like I said, I was a 13 year old. This was the pastor of our church. He’s like the main spiritual leader of our church. And he wanted to talk to me. And I just felt like really special. And he said that he needed my help with something. And he explained to me that some of the other men in the church, like elders or deacons or whatever, had spoken with him. And they had noticed that Jill’s shorts were very short. And could I talk to her about how her shorts were too short and she was becoming a woman and she needed to dress more modestly? Because if you don’t dress modestly, then you’re sometimes making other men stumble or sin because they think about you in a sexual way. And I remember just feeling…so…I didn’t know what to say to him, to this grown man who is asking me to do this. And I also, like I was the same age as Jill and I was also wearing shorts. And I didn’t know that men thought about us in that way. I knew that, you know, I had crushes on boys and things like boys my age, but I never pictured like a man my dad’s age thinking about me in that way. It was a very strange introduction to thinking about yourself as a sexual object. And I also was just at an age where, like I was growing. I like my body was changing. I think I had just got my period in sixth grade. So I was still kind of a kid. And also when you’re that age, you can’t have a job. You don’t really have your own money, you don’t have a driver’s license, you can’t drive. So all the clothes you own, your parents buy for you or your guardians or whomever. So Jill didn’t really have like she had just gone through a growth spurt. Basically what it was was she had she had just gone through a growth spurt and she was taller. And her clothes from the previous year that her parents bought her didn’t fit as well. That’s what happens when you’re a kid and you’re growing. So it was just this very weird moment and weird introduction to becoming a woman where it just felt like I needed to be ashamed of my body. It was my job to police myself and police other women my age, and that older men, much older men, my dad’s age, possibly were thinking about me in sexual ways. And I needed to know that that was just part of life. And that really impacted me a lot. I’m a pretty sensitive person generally I think would impact anyone. But looking back on this story, I think it’s pretty fucked up.
Emma: But at the time I didn’t really have the language for that. This was. The spiritual leader of my church, yeah, a man that I looked up to, and so I just thought that this was a normal ask and that this was something that I needed to do. And we’re going to take a quick break in here. A word from our sponsor.
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So that was a big theme. And Elsie talked about this in her episode was needing to dress modestly and that you need to keep yourself sexually pure and that you need to cover your body and not let other people lust. So on the flip side of that, here’s what’s kind of strange about my experience in the church. So Elsie and I are sisters. We’re about two years apart, two and a half years apart. So a lot of times in high school we would share close like literally the same dress or the same shirt. Like I would wear it and two weeks later. Elsie would wear it. You know, we’re sisters. We share clothes. Yeah. And there were many times where Elsie would get in trouble for wearing something that it was immodest and I wouldn’t. And I, I wore the same thing. And so in a very — and it’s not that I wanted to get in trouble. I was definitely a very follow-the-rules person. But it just in a very weird way, I learned from the church that I was not sexy. I was not the kind of…I didn’t have the type of body that was going to make men lust. I just wasn’t you know, I never got in trouble for that sort of thing.
Elsie: It’s so sad, Emma. I like can’t get past this one. This is so messed up and sad.
Emma: And I actually I think that’s a little bit why I kind of got into personal finance stuff. I think I sort of started to get messages around the way I looked and the way my personality was that I just wasn’t really going to fit the mold of what men were going to desire and also like just what a godly woman was. So I needed to make my own money and do my own thing because I just wasn’t going to…I probably…I always thought I wouldn’t get married. That’s kind of what I grew up thinking from the messages I got at church, because beyond the dressing modest stuff another thing we were told very often when we were in high school, when we were in middle school, you know, when we were being taught the Proverbs “a wife of noble character who can find” we were taught that one day when we married, our husbands would be the head of our household and we would be the helpmate. And that, you know, our husbands would be the spiritual leader of our household and we would be the secondary. You know, and I just didn’t have the language for this at that time in my life at this age, but I just didn’t see myself fitting that. I just felt that it’s not that I. I thought so. I should also say, like our church was the type of church and perhaps Southern Baptists have updated this since then. I have no idea. I haven’t kept up. But women could not be pastors. Women could not be deacons or elders. Women could be involved in children’s ministry and youth ministry. They could teach other women’s Bible studies. When women did come teach and teach the entire congregation, they would give them a music stand to stand behind. They would not stand behind the pulpit. And it was just a very clear, you know, message for a young woman to see, which was that I was not going to be a leader because of my gender, because of my sex. And it’s not that I wanted to be a pastor or that I thought of myself as a leader. I just didn’t see myself being the helpmate. I didn’t see my you know, I saw the women that were pointed to as these are the great examples. And I just didn’t see myself fitting the mold. And I knew I also wasn’t sexy. So I was like, I guess I’ll just never get married. I’ll probably end up like a missionary in another country who runs an orphanage or something, because I’m just not…I don’t fit this mold and I don’t know why, but I want to be a godly person. So I guess I’ll just find a different path because I can’t fit in here with who I am.
Elsie: My heart is breaking.
Emma: So, um, so, yeah, so I just always I think this was a big motivator for me to, like, be really good at school and to be really good at…I just always figured I’d have to take care of myself, so…sorry.
Elsie: No, no, Emma, I’m so proud of you. They taught they emphasize the like man and woman roles a lot in our experience…
Emma: Yeah a surprising amount for high schoolers. (laughs) Like, uhhh…
Elsie: Yeah, they talk about it all the time. So it’s something that for me, I, I never questioned it. I just thought, OK, in a good marriage, you’re not equal. But your husband will like, act like you’re equal, you know, and in a bad marriage…
Emma: Yeah, he’ll be nice to you.
Elsie: …the woman’s is like trying to like be equal or trying to like, make decisions for her husband. And that’s bad. Like, that’s basically what I learned growing up. And then now that I’m, you know, in a marriage where we like, believe in equality completely and make our decisions together completely, I think it’s really bizarre that we’re that we’re taught that that’s impossible. You know, that like that kind of equality just won’t work, like according to the Bible because it fucking does work. So I think it’s it’s one of the parts of the Bible. I think that’s overemphasized and super oppressive and also just like bizarre that people believe that that’s like the only way and that it has to be that way because I feel like if you just tried it the other way, you would see very quickly that it’s so much better and it’s not that big of a deal.
Emma: Yeah, it turns out equality is real and it is a real possibility in the world. Yeah. Yeah. But yeah, I just felt very limited and I felt very that I needed to make myself very small since I was a woman.
Emma: And, you know, I did for a long time.
Elsie: Oh my Gosh.
Emma: And I also just assumed that I I didn’t fit and that that didn’t mean that God didn’t love me, but I just wasn’t I just didn’t fit. So I just, you know, was going to have to do something else. So anyway, so that was kind of some of the sexist things that I dealt with growing up. And I didn’t even, you know, realize at the time what you know, that they were sexist. But so there was that. Switching gears, another thing I was taught growing up that I now strongly disagree with is that homosexuality is a sin. So this was something we were taught many times. Elsie talked about this a little bit in her episode. And we were just you know, I never really questioned it until…I never really questioned any of the things we were taught. That wasn’t really part of it. You weren’t really supposed to do that. You were supposed to take the notes and execute. It wasn’t really a seeking, ask questions, pick this apart type atmosphere.
Emma: So at a certain point, I just left the church and I wasn’t really going anymore. And I was around my senior year of high school and into my first year of college. And I actually think that age is kind of a time a lot of people go through this where they just kind of start to, you know, question some things they were taught growing up and see if they hold water for them. And I definitely went through a time of that. And I remember — so I ended up majoring in philosophy in college. And I think it was in large part because it was an atmosphere where I could continue to kind of look at some of the big picture questions that were in my heart and in my head, but not through the lens of religion. And I think I really kind of needed a place to do that. And I really liked it. I felt like I finally was getting to think critically in a way that I had always craved, but I never had really been able to before. And so I really, really appreciated that. And…
Elsie: That’s amazing.
Emma: …also I had a bunch of friends. The philosophy department was not very big, so I had a bunch of friends. But anyway, I had this one young man, we’re not in touch anymore, so I’ll just call him Drew. But he was gay. I knew he was gay. He was openly gay. And I — we became really good friends. We’d sit by each other a lot in classes and things like that. And it’s like he missed part of it we’d share notes or vice versa. You know, we were friends. So anyway, I knew he was gay. And I one day was like, hey, I know this is a such annoying question, I’m sure, but do you mind if I ask you a little bit about that? And I’m actually really embarrassed of this story because I hate the idea of putting on someone else to answer your questions. But I also think I didn’t know who else to ask. And I had grown up with such a narrow point of view on homosexuality.
Elsie: You were trying to learn.
Emma: Yeah I wanted to hear from him. But I also think I kind of put that on him and that’s really not his job to educate me. So I anyway, so I feel very embarrassed about this story, but I was probably 19, maybe 20 years old. I’m not sure. Anyway, I was like, hey, I grew up in church and they taught us that homosexuality is a choice. It’s something you choose and that it’s a sin. And I don’t really believe that anymore. But I just would love to hear what you think about that. I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, you know, and he was like, oh, yeah, I’ve heard this. I grew up around here. (laughs) You know, he was just really, really gracious about it. Like I said, we were friends and he was really kind to me and just shared with me his perspective. And he was like, well, let me ask you this. When did you choose to be straight? When did you first choose to be a heterosexual? And without thinking at all, I was like, oh, I didn’t. I just, I just like men. I was just born this way. And he was like, me too.
Emma: Yeah. And that was the first time that had never occurred to me.
Elsie: What a little angel. What a smart college student.
Emma: Yeah, he was awesome. He’s awesome. Drew’s a really cool guy. He’s just real smart. Real sweet and. Yeah. And just he wasn’t condescending to me and he definitely probably should have been but he wasn’t.
Elsie: He could have put you in your place for sure.
Emma: He really could have and probably should have. But he didn’t. He just answered my sincere question and. Yeah. And I think that made it really clear very quickly. And it also I immediately was like, wow, I never questioned this. I just accepted it and now I need to dismantle it. It made me start questioning a lot of things I’d been taught at church and dismantling a lot of the things that I just took for granted because I had been a kid and I hadn’t really looked at them critically. And he really opened my eyes to that. And I really appreciate him for it. And yeah. And so I was like, oh yeah, it’s not a choice. That’s just total bullshit that I was taught. Cool. Moving on from there, so.
Elsie: Yeah like we had never grown up with any gay friends or I guess we should say any openly gay friends, and in fact, you know, there were like people that would like stand up on stage in our church and like tell stories of how they used to be gay, but then they overcame it. So it yeah, I think, again, it does take like some time to, like, dismantle all of that in your brain and then build it again. I never questioned it either. And I never I, I just assumed that it was true.
Emma: Yeah, I did, too, and then as soon as I talked to someone about it who was not didn’t show me, he was very open and very helpful. And I’m still to this day, very appreciative to him for like talking to me in love and not just putting me down, which he totally could have done. And now we’re going to take a short break and hear a word from our sponsor.
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Emma: I went through a phase after that for many years where I was just kind of dismantling. I wasn’t really, I don’t know, maybe I was angry at church in some ways because of some of the hurt that I had gone through. But I definitely just was more questioning. Just questioning. I just wanted to look at it critically and pick it apart kind of without too many feelings. And it can take time to do that whenever something very traumatic happens to you. Like sometimes you can’t think critically about it right at first, or at least I can’t. It takes me a while to kind of let the feelings come and then go and then look at it again. So I had many years where that’s really what I was doing with my faith was I didn’t really feel like I was abandoning it. I just didn’t know if church was going to be part of my life because I had so much baggage from it. And I just kind of was seeking out spiritual things in very different ways through lots of different like books and audio books. And eventually when podcast started being a thing that and I had lots of different friends who had different backgrounds and different faiths. I had moved to L.A. after college and I just met a much more broad range of people. And I just really opened myself up to look at it all critically and try to learn. So that was it for many, many years for me. And I didn’t ever know if I’d go back to a church in the Midwest until Trey and I started dating seriously and eventually got engaged and got married. And church is very important to Trey. And he grew up in a church that was very different from the one I grew up in. His was much more, you can ask questions. It’s much more centered on basically helping with poverty issues. And it’s just kind of also, I guess I would define it as liberal.
Elsie: It’s definitely a liberal church.
Elsie: But it’s sort of like we’ve got traditional — a traditional American church, like…
Elsie: …they still have like the praise and worship band and like kind of a traditional trendy church, if that makes sense. But a little more liberal on their beliefs.
Emma: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And I actually really align with a lot of the beliefs of the church that we had been attending that we kind of still attend, although it’s been covid year and now we don’t really attend together and, you know, whatever. But anyway, I kind of align with a lot of the things they teach, but when I first started going back to church with him, I probably was like twenty six, maybe something like that year before we got married, got married when I was 27, I started — I’ve talked with my therapist about this, and this is my kind of present-day struggle, is I have this thing where I basically have what feels like sort of small panic attacks when I’m at church. It especially happens during worship music. What happens is my heart beats really, really fast. I can feel it beating really, really fast in my chest. I start to sweat a lot. I get like sweaty armpits. So I’m very strategic about what I wear to church because I get sweaty. Yeah, I know. It’s pretty gross. I’m sorry.
Elsie: You need like some paper towels up there or something.
Emma: Yeah, I pack like tissues in my bag because I also pretty often cry and I’m not having a spiritual experience. I’m just — it just feels like my body is reacting and I don’t know what it means.
Elsie: Like releasing old trauma?
Emma: Yeah, I guess so. It just it feels like I’m panicking, but for really no reason. Like I’m like I’m just at church and there’s just music playing and everyone here is nice. And I believe in a lot of the things that the sermon is going to be about. And but I just have these things and it happens. I thought at first that it was just I was like, OK, you just haven’t been to church in a long time and it feels similar, so you just need to get used to it. You’ll be fine. And eight years later, I still have this and it’s just made it where I feel like I can’t enjoy church. I feel like one of my favorite parts of church is the community, the people. And I feel like I just don’t feel like myself when I’m at church because I feel like I’m having kind of panic attacks. So a lot of times how I cope with it is I sort of I’m disassociating from my body and zoning out because I don’t want to sweat and cry and, you know, my heartbeat in a way that makes me feel like I’m going to die. So I’m I — if you’ve ever met me at church, you’ve met a really weird version of me because I just don’t feel like myself. And it sucks because I would really like to connect with people at church. I would really like to connect more with the messages. Many of them I really believe in. We’ve you know, I love so many of the community projects and the emphasis on eradicating poverty that our church is about. I love that. I think that’s really the only true religion — that and love. But I just …and so I kind of resent the way I grew up because I feel like I now have this thing that prevents me from getting to be involved in church in the way that I actually would like. And it also, of course, caused some issues in our marriage because church is really important to Trey. And I would like to make that a part of my life, too. But I just can’t get past these weird panic attack things I have. And it’s super frustrating and it’s really frustrating to feel like you’re not in charge of your body and that you can’t control your reaction to an environment.
Emma: And anyway, like I said, I’ve been talking with my therapist about it more recently, and she’s given me some additional ideas and things that I can try the next time I go. This year, I haven’t been much because of covid, so I don’t even know, you know, when I’m going to go to church next. But I also am like I have a feeling church may be a part of my son’s life one day. I want to be a part of that too. I don’t want this thing where I can’t connect because I’m kind of disassociating from my body all the time. So, yeah. And it’s just really, really embarrassing. And it’s been a big kind of thing in my life and I don’t like it and it makes me resentful. (laughs) So yeah. But I have some new things to try the next time I go and I’m excited to try those and I’m, I’m hopeful. But I also think if those don’t work, I’ll keep talking to my therapist and try something else, and that’s fine too.
Elsie: Yeah, I had the response to worship music as well and also specifically like the music at Hobby Lobby, because I worked at Hobby Lobby during like the darkest time of my life and the music fucks me up like it really does. Like I try not to go there specifically to avoid the music. I like it when it’s Christmas time and they play Christmas music because it’s like a break from it. But for our job, we sometimes have to go there. Yeah.
Emma: And it’s frustrating too, because Trey plays music.
Emma: And I love to hear and play music and I always have and I think it’s really cool that he’s into music and but it makes it where I can’t enjoy it when he’s a part of the worship band because I yeah. I have this weird reaction to worship music that I thought would go away by now, but it hasn’t. And it’s super frustrating.
Elsie: Yeah, no. OK, so Jeremy and I both have it. So when we’re searching for a new church to try for the future, we’re going to try churches that specifically do not do praise and worship music, that only do traditional hymn music or no music. And so it’s like our workaround because we just both, like, hate it more than words can express. And it is because it takes us back to a time that isn’t healthy, you know?
Emma: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s like, I love this church, my present day church. Like, there’s no — it’s not the same, but some of the songs are the same and it just it’s just there’s something in me…
Elsie: I think it’s giving you like sensory memories.
Emma: Yeah, I guess so. And yeah I mean it is so. Anyway so that’s my present day. I actually would like to connect more with church, but I have a really hard time with it that’s why. And I’m still on my journey with it. But I really believe in love and I really believe in finding ways to give and to get involved to help with poverty issues.
Emma: And those are big emphases in many churches and in the one I’ve attended. So I’m a big fan of that. But yeah. So that’s where I’m at on my journey now. Thanks so much for listening. We’ve been really nervous to share very much about this topic because we never want to take away from somebody else’s positive experiences, but hopefully us sharing some truths from our own lives doesn’t feel that way to you. And we are very grateful to have a community where we can share. So thank you for being here and thank you for listening.