Fostering Hope, Chapter 4: Middle School Me Meets Christianity

Intro & Chapter 1: Cambodian Boy in Maine
Chapter 2: My First Foster Family
Chapter 3: The Boy and the Baseball Card

Do I think there is something wrong with religion? Not entirely. It has its purposes for those who need it and seek it. It is at its best when it echoes the deepest instincts of humankind; that deep sense of the reality of the human condition and the compassion and collective action needed to mitigate its more crude and cruel features. But its value ends when it departs from the near-universal principles of loving your neighbor as yourself and treating others with dignity and respect.

Middle School, Naples, ME, 2003.

The Berry’s lived in Naples, a small town of just under 4,000 in the Sebago Lake Region along Rt. 302. Depending on where you are in the region, it is called different names. And I suppose it also depends on which direction you are going. For those living in Bridgton, about fifteen minutes north from Naples, 302 is referred to as Portland Rd. If you are in the Windham area, about fifteen to twenty minutes south along the east side of Sebago Lake, it is referred to as Roosevelt Trl. If you are in Portland, it is sometimes referred to as Bridgton Rd. I haven’t delved into it, but I am sure there is some historical context or story about why they are referred to by those different names.

Most vacationers often make their way to the Lakes Region (of which there are many in Maine) using i-95 and veering off through Westbrook and up River Rd. through to Windham and on up 302. Some will take the same exit but veer off toward Gorham and on and up along Rt. 114, which travels along the western side of Sebago Lake and eventually hooks into Rt. 302 on the Naples Causeway. Yet others might want to take a pit stop in the City of Portland by merging onto i-295 and exiting onto Forest Ave, which turns into Rt. 302, etc.

We probably took Rt. 114 from Gorham when we moved out of Sheila’s and to the Berry’s. But if you took Rt. 302, you’ll notice that once you cross over the Crooked River for the first time, you’ll think there is nothing unique about the town – being first met by a line of gas stations, some businesses, etc. But you’ll start to change your mind as it turns from the average strip mall-like stores and you reach the crest of a hill that looks down slightly over the town.

To the right you’ll see Long Lake, which stretches roughly 11 miles from Naples all the way to the towns of Bridgton and Harrison. Brandy Pond lies off  to the left, along with a popular pub called Bray’s Tavern. Off to the right, you’ll see the town’s mini-grocery and liquor store, Tony’s Foodland, a Norway’s Savings Bank, Rite Aid.

After you pass through the intersection of Rts.  302 and 35, you’ll notice the prominent American flag, which you probably actually noticed when first reaching the top of the hill, as you drive over the bridge separating Long Lake from Brandy Pond. The Causeway had a huge renovation project after I graduated high school which changed the look and feel of it. So what I’m describing to you is Naples 2017.

Prior to the renovation, the bridge used to be an iconic drawbridge that twisted sideways, not up and down, in order to allow boats to pass through. The biggest spectacle was when the Songo River Queen, a 1983-built replica of the old-fashioned Mississippi River Paddle Wheelers, would squeeze through what was then considered “the smallest river” in the world (a point made in opposition to the installation of the new bridge when the plan was being proposed).

Come back to later: Recall that I was brought to Naples shortly after the Riverton Dump incident and rode on the River Queen all those years ago circa 1998.

The Causeway is beautiful. Especially after the big renovation, when weather-resistant hardwood sidewalks, trees, flowerbeds, grassy medians, etc., were installed. It was the hub of activity for the town – built largely to entertain the throngs of vacationers and tourists during the summer and closing up for the winter. The iconic Rick’s Café building with its white-painted walls and red roof and tower grabs most of your attention. It is no accident that the Songo River Queen is the same color, I am sure of it. The “Café” also houses a group of smaller businesses that are mostly food oriented. Behind it there’s a mini-golf course and an arcade. And further behind the arcade and down along Rt. 114 is the Naples Country Club and golf course.

Continue along Route 302 toward Bridgton and you’ll happen upon a Marina, some restaurants and ice cream shops, gift shops, the library, town beach, town hall and fire house. Overall, I think it is a picturesque and quintessential New England lake town. I’d say that the only other New England towns that rival it are Meredith, New Hampshire, which our family passed through on our way to a Christian campground at White River Junction in Vermont, and Rangeley, Maine, where we had a timeshare for a few years.

But to get to our home, we often took Lakehouse Rd., which wound through some hills and valleys and streams and would often incite a “oh, they must be on Lakehouse Rd” comment whenever a call was dropped. There was one snakey, S-shaped curve that I dubbed Deadman’s Curve due to the fact that roughly 14 people had died there. I would often see little crosses marking another death. Once you passed Deadman’s Curve, you’ll descend into a small valley and pass Trickey Pond and Sebago Cove. From there, you’ll climb up and up, down a little, and up a large hill until you reach the top and turn right onto King Hill Rd., which is surrounded by a small tract of open land.

Our house, when we first moved in, was a double wide ranch with beige siding and a green-shingled roof. The driveway was marked by a rough-hewn cross that my dad had sawed and marked with a white-painted “108” on it. The driveway was unpaved. The house itself sat atop a hill of sorts that, in the back, overlooked the rest of the 5-acre, largely wooded parcel of land.

We rarely ventured down into those woods, largely due to the thick brush and thorn bushes that lined the slope. We were also discouraged by the stories of the angry man who lived with his family on the piece of property behind us. We would often hear him yelling at his kids to behave or come back inside or things of that like. At some point, we owned two female pigs which we built a pen for using old palettes. Feeding the pigs was the only instance we ventured farther than usual into those woods.

Shortly after we moved in, my dad drew up plans to double the size of the house by adding a breezeway and a two-car garage with the master bedroom and living room on the second floor. The “Edition”, as we referred to it, was a years long ordeal that is still being worked on to this day. It was started in the years leading up to the Great Recession of 2008, with the laying down of the concrete foundation.

I helped with the installing of the radiant heating. The rolls and rolls of orange tubing were unrolled and crisscrossed the first portion of the concrete foundation that was poured. We reconnected with the Rixs at this time and Mark even came to help us install the radiant heating tubes. Over the years we watched as the rest of the foundation was poured and slowly but surely my dad began to bring in the 2x4s and frames and plywood. The walls started to go up and eventually we had a contractor with a crane come and raise the walls for the second floor and the rafters for the roof. My dad did most of the labor and my brother and I helped out in small ways. As the years progressed, I became less interested in hammers and nails and screwdrivers, and mentally unable to grasp the details that went into constructing and building things. I drifted more towards books, drawing, and music.

This of course was an expensive ordeal. Initially, my parents went through the arduous process of obtaining a second mortgage to finance the materials for the project. At this time, my dad worked as the handy man where we went to both church and school, which I will discuss later. In addition to that, he worked for The Gutter People, a company owned by family friends of ours. Down the road he got a third job doing maintenance and upkeep for another of our family friends who owned commercial real estate in Naples, Standish, and Gorham. But fortunately, my parents also received adoption subsidies for the four of us from the State to help with the financial aspects of raising four kids.

My mom stayed home and drove us around to schools, practices, appointments, and whatnot. She did some periodic cleaning gigs and worked at our private Christian school’s kindergarten house to supplement our income. But most of her time was spent driving us around I am sure. I personally expressed interest in learning how to play the piano around the time I entered 8th Grade. I also played soccer at the school. My sisters loved horses and received riding lessons. My little brother was still too little to take on any extracurricular activities. The difficult thing was that these activities were usually at places that were far apart. My piano practice was in Windham going toward Gray, my sisters’ activities were usually in Bridgton, etc. If you look at a map, that’s a lot of territory to cover within a day or a week. On top of that, we liked to volunteer at the animal shelter in Fryeburg, Maine, so that trip was always long.

We were also heavily involved in the Church. Our family went to church every Sunday, I started going to youth group Sunday nights, and we went to Family night on Wednesday nights. The church was a Pentecostal church under the larger, umbrella organization known as the Assemblies of God. And, yes, the church believed in the “power of the Holy Spirit” and speaking in tongues, etc.

I remember our family sat in the second row nearly every Sunday. Barely anyone sat in the front. Sitting in the front is awkward. You felt exposed and there was nothing to put your hands on. But we were sitting there one of the first few times we attended shortly after we moved in. The pastor spoke of how the World was suffering because of this thing called Sin, which came about as a result of Adam and Eve partaking of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Ever since then, Sin has been passed down from generation to generation. In short, Sin was what created a “God-sized hole” in your heart that only God could fill. All the troubles of the world were the result of the human nature and the corruption of Sin and our rebellion against God. All of Nature was created in a certain order and humanity, with all of its faults and failures, acts in contrary to what God intended.

So imagine what a twelve year old kid might be thinking when he is sitting there, having just moved in with a new family and having the experiences that I’ve had. All the complications and complexities of life, all the pain and suffering, and all the awful things that happen to people is neatly packaged and bottled up into one grand narrative of why everything is so messed up. For a messed up, beat up, heart-broken twelve year old kid looking for answers, it was an answer to all of life’s uneasy questions.

The problem in the nutshell was that we are all sinners. Each and every one of us. Now, I did not questions exactly how I was to blame for something that supposedly occurred some 10,000-odd years ago (according to Creationists), because all my pain and suffering had just been smashed together, bundled, and neatly packaged for me. I didn’t have to face the hard questions. I didn’t have to necessarily process the pain and traumas. I didn’t have to dive into all the complexities of human nature and psychology. But not only was everything explained by this framing of the human problem, but an answer and solution was also offered!

All we had to do was realize that God had pity on Mankind and sent his one and only son, Jesus Christ, who was also God in the flesh, to Earth to sacrifice himself for the atonement of our sins. From this realization, we then must confess our sins and accept Christ into our hearts. During the first few sermons, the opportunity to do so was offered toward the end during what was, on the church agenda, referred to as the “Altar Call”. The pastor would sum up his sermon and refer to the doctrine that I laid out above and then ask if anyone wanted to give their lives to Jesus and turn their life around. If they did, they were asked to raise their hands and to repeat the prayer, which went along the lines of: “Dear God, I am sorry for all that I’ve done and all the sins I have committed. I realize now and believe with all my heart that you sent your one and only son, Jesus Christ, to die on the Cross for my sins and that, if I accept him into my heart, you will forgive me.”

For many people, this invokes an emotional reaction. The first time I raised my hand, I remember peeking around to see if anyone was doing it and would notice a hand or two. I uttered the little prayer and heard a few sobs and was waiting for my moment, but it never came. No emotion, no nothing. This frustrated me. I felt like something was wrong. Maybe I wasn’t sorry enough or maybe I had to list every sin in my head that I could think of. I couldn’t figure it out, so the next Sunday, I raised my hand again. Still nothing.

Eventually I asked the pastor why I didn’t have the same reaction and the answer was that it was different for different people. That, as long as you believe that Jesus came and died for your sins and accepted him into your heart and turn your life around, you’re good. While this somewhat tampered down my worries, I also began to stumble onto the theories about the Rapture and End Times and how Jesus will come back one day to take his followers home. I became obsessed with this at that age. I started to read the Left Behind series books, which made things even worse. I began to panic inside. What if I’m not truly saved? What if I didn’t say it right? Will I miss the Rapture and be left behind when all the bad things will happen in  the End Times? What if I died right now, would be in Hell?

Little middle school old me drowned in those fears then. And, really, there wasn’t much else to read other than the Bible and Christian literature. Although I did sneak in some Redwall books by Brian Jacques and such. Harry Potter was banned in our household because it was about witchcraft, which would invite unwanted spirits into the house. Pokemon was also banned. But we were allowed to read the Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings.

That aside, I reached a point where I began to have night terrors. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and feel like I was being choked or that I couldn’t breath. My first room was l-shaped, so I’d often wake up and feel a presence off in the corner or see a shape. I’d wake up sometimes and feel like something was leaning on my blanket. Many, many times I’d wake up and get a strong sense of fear and that something was in the room, so I would jump up and try to  turn the light on. The only problem was that the light wouldn’t turn on. I would flip up and down and up and down and no light. I’d then run out into the laundry/bathroom area just outside and try to do the same thing… still nothing. Things like that happened so often during that time.

I wasn’t able to explain it to myself until years and years later in college when I picked up the book The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics-How we construct beliefs and reinforce them as truths by Michael Shermer. It was from this book that I learned of the evolution of the Human brain and how and why we think the way we do. One particular chapter spoke of how persons under high-levels of stress are more likely to report or tell of instances of hearing God’s voice or seeing things that aren’t really there.

Digging into research like that helped to lift a huge burden off my shoulders, it would seem. Because without this knowledge, I was left without an explanation as to why I experienced these terrors. The people I did tell of this would often say that I was under attack by Satan or that I was being tested, like Job. Or that perhaps there was something in my life that was creating a tension between me and God. Whenever this was said, I panicked a little. Because it was around this time that I also was wrestling and struggling with my sexuality in a way that I had never done before. In some ways, it was typical of other boys going through puberty and sexual hormones coming to life – but with a twist.

Although homosexuality was never a frequent topic – almost a hush, hush issue – it did make its way into sermons and discussions at the family dinner table or church events. Whether it was a family friend who “went through a phase” and had recently come back to Jesus, or whether it were whispers of an older church member who young boys like me were warned to stay away from – the stigmas were all there. I do remember that the church we attended would have traveling evangelists and ministry leaders visit and give guest sermons.

One such minister and his wife and children happened to be sitting in front of us and had introduced themselves. I noticed the minister had an effeminate voice, which wasn’t really that odd until he started to give his sermon about how he was saved from homosexuality. For him, it all started when he was collecting baseball cards and, in his words, he was “tempted”. I immediately started squirming on the inside and my stomach felt like it sank. If you recall, when I lived in the group home, I had the same experience where I had glanced at a baseball card and I kissed the guy.

The minister continued with his sermon and raised the same arguments that I had briefly heard before when our Christian high school teachers would uncomfortably glaze over the topic (often lumped with in-class sermons on Planned Parenthood and abortion conspiracies). The Roman Empire, with all of its glory and accomplishments, collapsed because of a moral and societal decay spurred on by its embrace of homosexuality. The argument therefore was that if America embraced homosexuality, the America as we know it would crumble and God would punish us with hurricanes and floods and famine and fire and brimstone.

Homosexuality was also seen as a symptom of men losing their roles in society, with the Feminist movement playing a large role, if it wasn’t successful in getting women to abort their fetus’, was engaged in the effeminizing of men  by downplaying the role of men in the household; encouraging women to abandon their traditional roles in society; have kids out of wedlock; rely on food stamps and welfare; and pump out gay kids who didn’t have proper male role models and father figures in their lives. There were also the slippery slope arguments that accepting homosexuality would lead to acceptance of pedophilia and polygamy and other “sins”. More subtle arguments such as gays being unhappy and having higher rates of suicide, getting HIV-AIDS, or even prostate cancer, as proof that same-sex relationships were against “Nature” and “Nature’s God” and therefore expanded the God-sized holes in our hearts.

Middle school me didn’t know how to counter these arguments. Middle school me was not taught the version of Roman history where Rome had overextended itself. Its system of administration and governance, as superb as it was, was unable to bear the crushing weight of a vast empire also dealing with income inequality, in the form of massive land grabs by the patrician class, food shortages and famines, maintenance of the world’s largest military force, and frequent and devastating incursions by ravaging, foreign forces.

Middle school me didn’t know how to counter the other arguments based on traditional values and mores. I was insulated and confined to certain textbooks, teachings, books, movies, tv, etc., and had no access or ability or courage to access resources that would inform me otherwise. Everything that was true was everything in the Bible or based on a Christian worldview. Everything else stemmed from flawed human reasoning and the corrupt influences of the “World’s Philosophy” and the utter lack of “Godly Wisdom”.

For instance, Harry Potter books were banned from the household because they interested children in darker things and taught them spells. Of course, as I found out later, the “spells” were merely Latin words. An expansive education would have enlightened us to this fact but ignorance made us all fools to our flawed way of thinking. Religious rhetoric overtook reason and clarity, clouding the judgment of our collective hive mind and poisoning our longing for a higher purpose; in many cases driven by our collective misgivings of the temporal world and the imperfect condition of humanity.

Do I think there is something wrong with religion? Not entirely. It has its purposes for those who need it and seek it. It is at its best when it echoes the deepest instincts of humankind; that deep sense of the reality of the human condition and the compassion and collective action needed to mitigate its more crude and cruel features. But its value ends when it departs from the near-universal principles of loving your neighbor as yourself and treating others with dignity and respect. Once religion transcends private practice and enters into the public domain, and becomes institutionalized; that is where its evils can be realized as an instrument of power and control. When it becomes less about an individual and their God or gods or higher power, and becomes a mission or crusade to wield public institutions and to then enter the private realms of others; then it transforms into something less sincere and soulful and becomes more sanctimonious and sinister.

So when someone would mention that the night terrors and anxiety could be the result of a “thorn in my side,” as alluded to by Paul with regard to some unknown affliction, or some sin that I was struggling with, I immediately thought of my attraction to other boys my age. No one told me then that those night terrors and anxiety was actually the result of my being gay in a world that shunned and looked down upon it, no matter how many times they would say “We don’t hate! We love the sinner, but hate the sin!”

But what drew me to Church was the sense of togetherness and belonging, so long as you accepted Jesus into your heart and believed what was accepted by that specific denomination as doctrine. Within those four walls, the sense of common purpose was real. We all yearned for the God that we created with our doctrine, rituals, sayings, and services.

But one question that nagged me throughout my time in the Church was why Christians were referred to as the “Body of Christ”, yet there were numerous denominations. For instance, I got the general feeling, going to a Pentecostal church, that being Catholic wasn’t enough. Or that being Baptist or Methodist or Unitarian or Mormon wasn’t enough. For instance, when our family discussed the differences between us and Catholics at the dinner table, it often boiled down to Catholics not necessarily believing in being “born again”. Instead, Catholics sought the forgiveness of their sins, not by uttering a prayer to Christ, but by confessing to a Priest and uttering “Hail Mary” – which, according to our version of Christianity, was taboo.  Only if a Catholic person understood that being “born again” meant praying to God and accepting Jesus into your heart, and doing so sincerely, were they truly “born again”. And I’m pretty sure that our collective view of Baptists was that they were just plain boring.

So it bothered me throughout my time in the Church that, despite believing in the same God, people were still content in belonging, yet being different than, say, the Catholic or the Baptist. While religion brought us together, in many ways it split us apart. Which church you attended and denomination you belonged to had so much weight and so much power that you could see someone’s eyes glisten with either recognition or fall with a subtle dismissiveness. Sure, they talked a big game about belonging to the Body of Christ, but it seemed to me that the variety of practices and doctrinal beliefs served as real and clear rifts that cut that body into tiny, fragmented pieces.

Middle school me didn’t know any better and by the time 8th grade rolled around, I had all but thrown myself into being the best darn Christian I could become. My attraction to other men became “my cross to bear” and my battle against those feelings was partially what spurred me to voraciously pursue God. That, and some sense of gratitude to my adoptive parents. My passion was noticed and commended and I began to express my faith specifically through music, which led to my being more and more involved in our youth group.

Thinking on it now, I was in pursuit of who I was in this world. Trying to discover and navigate feelings and emotions that seemed to pile on with puberty and age. I threw myself wholeheartedly into religion, not realizing that I had given up, for some time, a part of who I am: Who I love and could love.

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