Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Lenten Project: Day Thirty

After the disappointment I experienced with the "youth" of one church, it took me a while to gather up the courage to try again. When I did, though, I went head first right into another bad situation with more loneliness as the result.

In 1999, I started going to youth meetings at another Independent, Fundamental Baptist church in Singapore. I devoted myself wholeheartedly to this youth group, believing it was heaven-sent just for me. I went to the watch night service on New Year's Eve, volunteered during vbs, sang in special youth services which I attended while not at my parents' church, and basically spent all my time with the kids at this church. My parents blessed my activities, and encouraged me to continue my participation, knowing the American missionary couple who ran the church were keeping an eye on me.

The youth at this church were mostly teens close to my age, but also ranging up to people in their late 20s. I got dragged along as they went door to door witnessing, inviting people to special services. We played a lot of table tennis and practiced playing musical instruments together.  I enjoyed the late night meals at hawker centers. This was a time that I embraced Singaporean culture and learned to love this country and its people. I invited my sisters to come see this amazing group of friends I'd found, and two of them started going regularly, too.

But slowly I started to notice that I wasn't truly fully accepted into the group. I was a tagalong, a wannabe really, who inserted myself into these events because I desperately wanted to belong. But when I skipped events, no one called or mentioned later that I'd been missed. I wasn't a vital part of the group, and sometimes it was obvious I wasn't wanted. This youth group had a serious case of the cliques, and I didn't belong.

It's possible the reason I never fit in totally was because I'm white and American. Or maybe I was just too opinionated and obnoxious. Perhaps my trying too hard was so obvious it was a turn off. I don't know. All I know is that no matter how hard I tried, I was never fully accepted, never fully a member of this youth group, even just with the other youth.

There were several other kids who didn't attend the church but were still members of the youth group, so I wasn't the only one. The pastor strongly urged the kids to all become members of his church, though. Those of us who came from other churches always felt like second class citizens. It wasn't enough to be Christians, or even attenders of a church.  We had to be members of his church to be fully approveable.

After almost a year of throwing myself into this new venture and only getting hurt over and over again (the girls my age I tried to befriend were cold, the boys standoffish, and the American missionary daughter went off to college, leaving me behind), I finally woke up and realised I have more value than settling for whatever meager friendships (really acquaintanceships) I could scrounge. I was so over being a group's unwanted addendum. I didn't have to paste on a smile and pretend I was happy to have no close friends, alone in a group. Of even bigger importance to my self respect, I didn't need to force myself to endure the pastor's wife's sharp criticisms. Gosh, was she critical! And rude. And really cruel, especially when she was criticising me in front of others, like the time she loudly proclaimed me a miserable failure when I played a chord wrong on the piano during practice one day. It took me a long time to understand that that kind of behaviour is not okay.

So I quit going. And no one called. No one tried to contact me to see what had happened. My sisters kept attending, but didn't bring back greetings or questions for me. On the home front end of things, I observed the changed dynamics of our family, with kids who were constantly leaving to go to youth and church activities across town. They had little time to devote to our family or even our own church anymore. It made me really sad to realise that I had caused that by convincing my sisters to go get involved with this other church with me. My sister Elizabeth especially was really sucked in and rarely had time for family anymore. She was always over there at the church, hanging out with the youth group.  I had been like that until I took that step back and stopped going. I felt really responsible for the breakup of our family's unified front. No longer were we working together in one ministry. We were spread out and sometimes even working against one another. 

After some time had passed, my sister Lizzy invited me to a special service at the other church. I went, and noticed how hardly anyone spoke to me in the youth group to which I had dedicated myself all that time. They had no time for a "deserter" like me. The mentality was if I wasn't all in, for them, I was against them. 

One of older guys had left for college a couple months prior, gone away to BJU to study for the ministry, and I received an email from him around this time. He accused me of having a divisive spirit, of actively and purposefully trying to harm the ministry by abandoning it.  Others would see my leaving as a statement that they should stop being Christians too.

Honestly, that was the gist of this guy's letter.  It hit me pretty hard.  And further convinced me that his church was a cult.  Because if not going to this one little church meant he believed I probably wasn't a Christian, there was something seriously wrong with his indoctrinisation.

So I renewed my efforts to save my sisters. My sister Mary was okay, never having fully committed herself, but Lizzy was wholly enamoured and overtaken by them.  One of her good friends from that group continually urged her to spend more and more of her time there, so I wrote him an email telling him he needed to encourage her to spend more time with her family.

I'm afraid I wasn't very nice to him in my letter.  I basically accused him of helping to steal away my sister, since I believed that the cult was of a higher priority in her life than anything else.

My parents, who still monitored all my email (I was a few months from turning 18 at the time), were not pleased at my interference.  I was put "on suspension" and denied all computer privileges indefinitely.

That's when I gave up.  My intention had been to repair the damage that I'd helped cause by dividing our family's loyalties, but I'd been severely reprimanded for it.  Instead of recognising that I'd finally decided to fight for our family, my parents punished me for my misguided attempt to fix it.  So I went headlong into rebellion.