From ages eight to 16, I was part of a not-that-unusual but mostly ignored type of church: the one-off, non-denominational church with one man in charge. When most people think “non-denominational,” I think they imagine “Oh, how nice: they welcome all denominations and possibly even religions“, but no, that’s not it at all, at least in the case of my church and every other non-denominational one I know of. My fundamentalist church in Florida could not have been less tolerant of anything but strict conformity to it and its leader. I remember we were regularly told that our little 150-member group was the “only one that is actually close to God.”
Almost every family lived in the new suburban development surrounding the church, and everyone socialized together. All the kids went to the same school, too, which was basically a homeschool co-op in the church basement where our teachers were mostly the moms of kids who went there.
Like many non-denominational churches, ours cherry-picked traditions and doctrine from other denominations, primarily the Pentecostals. Like Pentecostals, we were “charismatic,” which means that we believed in speaking in tongues. We also believed in sacred dance, which would manifest itself in women spontaneously (or, looking back, and considering their ballet slippers, maybe not-so-spontaneously) running up to the stage during the worship service. Overcome with the Holy Spirit (or the Holy Ghost), they would dance with their eyes closed to the mix of traditional hymns (“How Great Thou Art”), contemporary worship music (“Our God is an Awesome God”), and songs written by church members.
The men and some of the younger kids would dance sometimes, too, but just in the aisles. Some adults were dancers. Some adults were tongue-speakers. Some, like my parents, were too shy for either. But all of them closed their eyes and raised their hands to heaven, giving a curious child the chance to watch them unobserved. It was impossible to look away when your strict math teacher stood just a few feet from you, face twisted with ecstasy and speaking in tongues without pause or self-consciousness, as if it were an actual dialect. And I was fascinated by the different sounds they made: I can confirm that the default language of tongues does sound like “shaka-laka-lah,” but a lot of people got creative. Like the dancing, it was almost a contest to see who could worship the hardest while appearing the most natural. Maybe anything that involves performance naturally becomes a competition.
I know I’m describing something that sounds ridiculous. I remember laughing until I cried when adults got so “slain in the Spirit” that they seemed to lose all control. It was definitely hilarious when two dancers would run up at the same time, and have to awkwardly share the stage. But there were moments, especially as I got older, where I too raised my hands and closed my eyes and felt my heart surge and heard a loud roaring in my ears. I felt part of something bigger, some great mystery, and I was filled with an overwhelming desire to worship. Religious ecstasy was a real, easily identifiable state. (Years later, when I first tried the drug ecstasy, I felt it come back like muscle memory. I think the first thing I ever wrote down while on MDMA was “this is like church.”) Whatever this emotional state is, it has to be hard-wired: it is, after all, the reason we go to concerts, and the reason musicians get laid.
When I was, 13 I went to a regular youth group meeting on Sunday nights. It was led by a couple in their mid-thirties. Let’s call them Tim and Alice. One spring evening, something was definitely different from usual. “It’s a special night, young men and young ladies,” Tim said excitedly, Alice standing next to him, grinning. “Tonight, you’re going to be filled with the Holy Spirit!”
I knew what “getting filled with the Holy Spirit” (or “being Baptized in the Spirit”) was: a rite of passage into the group of people who had that special language with God, who could channel the Holy Spirit through their bodies and speak in tongues. I knew that it had its roots in these verses from Acts 2:2-4 of the New Testament, which I had memorized as part of the scripture memorization we did at school:
Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Tim and Alice led the eight or so 12 and 13 year olds into the church sanctuary and up to the front of the stage. They pulled up a chair, and asked who wanted to go first. Being a little goody-goody hand-raiser, I immediately volunteered, even though I had no idea what actually went into this process. They had me sit in the chair, and asked everyone to “lay hands” on me.
So I’m 13, sitting in a chair with my eyes closed, with pretty much every other kid my age that I know in the world, including, notably, another 13-year-old we’ll call “Mike,” on whom I had my first, and very intense crush, touching my shoulders and arms.
Tim and Alice began to pray aloud.
“Heavenly father, we lift Lindsay up to you tonight and ask that you fill her with the Holy Spirit tonight, Lord, we ask you to speak through her Lord, through your Holy Spirit, Holy Spirit please join us now, please fill this room and this young woman’s heart with your words…”
Finally, Alice brought things to a head: “Lindsay, the Holy Spirit is giving you a syllable, your first syllable, you’re hearing it Lindsay, the Holy Spirit is sending it to you, Lindsay, share with us the first syllable of your special language with the Holy Ghost.”
“Oh shoooooot,” I thought. I was on the spot. The pressure was immense. I tried to reach that place of ecstasy that I’d achieved before in worship services, where I felt so connected to the Holy Spirit, but I was getting nothing. There was nobody on the other end of the line. “What’s a syllable again?” I remember thinking, panicked. Alice and Tim continued to pray aloud, their voices rising, Alice still asking me for that damned first syllable.
Finally, I remembered what a syllable was. “Ummmm, zee?” I said, and a wave of encouragement swept between Alice and Tim (the other kids were probably just happy that things were moving along). The Spirit still wasn’t speaking to me, but once I got going making up syllables, I was on a roll: “Vah!” I said, and was rewarded with a wave of murmurs. This went on until Alice and Tim told me I was done and I was left with:
“Zee Vah Rue Cin Tee Lah.”
That would be my special secret language with the Holy Spirit (and, I think, the genesis of my especially pronounced dread of being put on the spot). We repeated the rite with each kid, something I have no memory of except for the part where I got to put my hand on Mike’s shoulder. I remember feeling exhausted at the end of the night, even though the whole thing probably took a little over an hour. And I was confused and ashamed that I was the only one who hadn’t truly channeled the Holy Spirit. When my mother picked me up that night, and I told her about it, I left out the part where I made up my language. I thought she’d known all this was going to happen, but apparently she didn’t, and she was upset about not having been consulted. When I got home, I ran to my room, and my mom got on the phone.
The next Sunday Tim and Alice announced that they were no longer going to run the youth group, effective immediately. They said that God had called them to start a camp for kids instead. It was strange, because we all knew the truth: many of our parents had complained that they baptized their kids in the Holy Ghost without at least sending home a permission slip. We were old enough to know when adults that we trusted and looked up to were straight-up lying to us, and I remember that moment even more clearly than I do the event that triggered it. (To this day, I don’t know if the way it was done with us was “the right way” to do it.)
Even though I knew it wasn’t real, I added my special language to my prayers every night, thinking it couldn’t hurt, and maybe it would be interpreted by God as, like, a sign that I was at least trying. Alone each night, before putting the Original London Cast Recording of Miss Saigon (my only CD) on “Repeat All” to listen to as I slept, I prayed for my little brothers, for my mom and dad, for my grandparents, and for Mike’s elusive attention. “Zee Vah Rue Cin Tee Lah. Zee Vah Rue Cin Tee Lah, Lord.”
I never did speak in tongues out loud at church or anywhere else. My words were fake, after all. I was a fraud. The Holy Spirit had filled everyone except me. Even telling this story at parties for years, to other drunk people, in the wee morning hours, I wouldn’t give up my syllables. It was too embarrassing.
I left the church, and Christianity, when I was 16. As it happens, that church as it was only lasted a few months more: the man who had run it left town, for reasons the children were not told. (Anecdotally, this seems to almost always be the fate of the one-off, non-denominational church run by one man. Draw your own conclusions.)
When I was 19, I went to visit one of the girls from the congregation who had been there that night. We had kind of lost touch over the years, and I was meeting her new baby. We talked about old times in whatever way two 19-year-olds who grew up in a cult together could, and eventually that night came up. “You know,” she said conspiratorially in her cute Southern accent, grinning and whispering so her parents couldn’t hear, “I just fuckin’ made mine up!” I was genuinely shocked. “I made mine up, too!” I said, awash with weird relief for a professed atheist. We laughed a little, and then sat there in silence.
Lindsay Robertson is an editor and writer in Brooklyn.
FAKES is The Awl’s year-end holiday series for 2017. You can read the whole collection here.