Before there was a building, church took place in the high school band room. People sat on pastel cement chairs, looking down at the band director’s podium. The floor was speckled, and I would look toward the floor while Pastor took the names of all the people who had cancer, people in the hospital, people who were severely old and ready to die. I watched the floor while Pastor prayed for each of them, praised the Lord, said we were all so sorry for all the sins we committed. It wasn’t right to look at Pastor while he was praying, so I would match the colors in the speckles to the colors of the chairs. Sometimes I would think about my cat, Dorito, who was home right now, carrying marbles in his mouth and dropping them down the stairs one at a time.
Children’s church was what happened after the prayer, when parents released little kids like me. Pastor would come to the side of the band room, right next to the door. He would kneel to our level and give a miniature sermon. The adults were watching, so it was important to be quiet, to nod in the right places, to understand every word.
“Do you know why Jesus died?” Pastor said. He said it in his children’s church voice, which was different than the one he used for adults.
I knew the answer, because Pastor told us about it every week. Jesus came to earth to die for everyone’s sins. Dying meant that Jesus bled a lot, that they nailed him to a T-shaped piece of wood called a cross. Someone poked His head with thorns and pounded nails into His wrists, so blood spurted all over the place. That’s why the adults drank grape juice at communion. Grape juice was just like blood, which was God’s favorite, because it meant the adults were praising Him, and God wanted to be praised all the time.
Pastor didn’t want anyone to answer yet, so I had to pretend that I didn’t already know about the blood and the wrists.
“Jesus died for our sins,” Pastor said, “just as sure as we’re in this room or the birds outside are flying south for the winter.”
I knew about birds flying south.
“And do you know what a sin is?”
It seemed that I had known about sins since forever. I knew about different kinds of sins I had committed, like telling Mrs. Stickles that her car door was locked when it wasn’t or singing Johnny Cash when I was supposed to use my inside voice.
Nobody answered Pastor, so he said it again: “Does anybody know what a sin is?”
This time kids pushed their hands into the air. The boys always went first. They wiggled their hands as high as Pastor’s chin.
“One time,” one boy said, “I pinched my sister’s nose really hard.”
Pastor nodded. That was a sin.
“I told a fib,” another kid said.
Pastor nodded again.
“A sin is when you do something bad,” the girl with the longest hair said – the one who always gave the answers, who was quieter than anyone else during the prayer.
“That’s right. And do you know what? We’re born sinners,” Pastor said. “That means that you have always been a sinner.”
I tried to nod, because this was supposed to be the important part. I even knew a Bible verse about it: “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
“God can’t love sinners,” Pastor said. “That’s why he sent someone very special. Does anyone know who that is?”
Half the kids raised their hands. I raised mine too, but I didn’t want Pastor to call on me.
“Jesus!” they said. They used their outside voices.
“That’s right!” Pastor said. “Jesus came. And He decided to take the punishment for all of our sins. That’s why He died. He died for you.”
Pastor pointed at Aaron.
“And he died for you.”
He pointed at David.
“And you and you and you and you and you.”
I was the last person he pointed at. Pastor’s finger was big and wide—wider than Dad’s finger, with a fingernail that had bumpy stripes on it. He was smiling, and so were all the other kids. His finger made me feel like I was in trouble.
Mom told me later that the year I was four, she would catch me praying in every room of the house, asking Jesus to forgive me of my sins and let God love me. I remember praying in the family room, in the kitchen, under the tree outside. When I was really worried, I would go to the basement, into the darkroom that Dad kept for developing veterinary X-rays. I would close the door and turn on the red light. I would look at the ghost-white bones of the animals and pray over and over again.
“Please forgive me. Please forgive me. Please forgive me.”
But I already knew about sins, and I knew it was too late for me.
About the Author
Kathryn Pope earned her MFA in creative writing from Antioch University in December 2003. She is the director of the Bridge Program at Antioch University and teaches creative writing at Santa Monica College and Antioch University. She lives in Los Angeles.