Why I Left the Church After 9/11

photo by Jesse Mills

I was living in England when Princess Diana died. Just two hours south of London, in the seaside town of Brighton. Friends of mine who were going to the funeral procession asked if I would make the trip up. I said no. I felt that to be a voyeur for a funeral of a woman killed by paparazzi was a bit too on the nose. In Brighton, collective grief looked like hordes of people bringing flowers to the Brighton Pavillion, a large Taj Mahal shaped palace in the center of town. I remember seeing punk kids with mohawks crying as they read the paper. At night, there were candlelit vigils. The community comforted one another. They held hands, some sang and some prayed. There was criticism from some Americans abroad that the Queen had not responded empathetically enough and I remember a newscaster in England remarking, “We’re not like the Americans who let their emotions hang out.” That stayed with me.

Four years and two weeks later, I would be waking up in my downtown Long Beach artist loft on an unassuming day. A day that would usher in a new wave of collective grief for Americans. I turned on the morning news and an evening anchor was on the air announcing the first plane had hit. I was speechless. I was 23 years old. At the time, I was working a horrible job as an HR assistant for LA County Office of Education. My day consisted of digitizing all their records. Hours and hours of digitizing records. I would make time pass by memorizing the eccentric names I came across… “Ecstasy Queen…” “Sparkle Jones…”

After the first plane hit, it wasn’t clear that this was more than an accident. So, I went to work. However, an hour into work, this changed. Another plane. More press conferences. All planes grounded. A sense of terror. An acknowledgement of terror.

The woman who led our department, a Germanic tall woman with no sense of humor who referred to me as “that girl,” told us we could not leave early. She had no interest in the drama unfolding, there was work to do. A stunning failure of leadership. Panic-filled eyes scanned our large, dim office to meet with other panic-filled eyes. The whole room was scared, except Diane. Diane had work to do. By noon, it was clear that nobody was doing much work and we were released.

I drove back to my sparse, 380 sq.ft loft and sat in silence. I had no idea what to do. I didn’t want to be with my parents (who lived 30 minutes away) because they would make things worse with their fear mongering and fundamentalism. I didn’t know who to call. I was a 23-year-old musician living in a building full of artists and addicts (or both) and adulting was not in my wheelhouse. However, one could argue that adulting in the face of terrorism is not in the wheelhouse of most Americans.

photo by felix koutchinski

That night, I decided I would do something I didn’t normally do at that time, I would go to church. Now, this wasn’t a completely foreign concept. I was raised in the evangelical church. I went to (and dropped out of) two Christian universities. From the time I was born, my ultra-religious Brazilian mother had us memorizing Bible verses each morning, going to church three times a week and reading Our Daily Bread devotionals. As I had gotten older however, I grew tired of fundamentalism. It felt more and more like it was following the legalistic gospel of Paul versus the radically-inclusive and kind gospel of Jesus. WWJD? I felt like most people had no clue, they just wanted to make sure you didn’t dance.

The rumor mill was strong the night of 9/11. Proposed targets were everywhere. It was impossible to know what was true or false. Rumors in Long Beach were that the port of Long Beach / LA (the largest ports in the US) were a target. Long Beach had its own World Trade Center. I lived within miles of each. Would there be bombs near us? Who knows, I’ll go to church.

I decided to drive down the 405 to an Orange County megachurch that was one of the most famous in Southern California at that time. They were somewhat viewed as the “cool church.” I wouldn’t have to worry about speaking in tongues (it always freaked me out) or extreme legalism. I would get a West Coast surfer-version of Jesus this evening that would bring comfort in a time of chaos.

In the modern evangelical Christian church, pastors are sometimes referred to as “a shepherd.” An allusion to the many Bible stories about God as the shepherd and Christ followers as the sheep. The shepherd is generally a comforting figure. If even one sheep strayed from the herd, we were taught, the shepherd cared so deeply and would go after that sheep.

That evening, I was looking for a shepherd.

photo by matt botsford

I walked into the church and sat somewhere near the middle. I remember finding the wood-framed vaulted ceiling comforting like a cabin. The pastor, not the regular pastor who was a jovial grandfather-like figure, walked up to the stage. This pastor was younger. I forget his name or who he was. All I remember was he said,

“This is God’s judgment on America.”

Then I felt my temperature rise. Time froze. I was gobsmacked, angry and couldn’t see straight. I blacked out. I remember nothing else he said. I remember no songs that were sung. I remember not one face in the room.

“This is God’s judgment on America.”

It echoed in my head.

Thankfully, I had developed enough critical thinking skills along with my theology education to realize,

“No. You. Are. Wrong.”

I said it in my head but not out loud. I walked out of that church and did not go to church again for seven years. After a lifetime devoted to the church, I was done. I was not done with God or Jesus, but I was done with his/their people.

Years later, when I was working as a music journalist, I interviewed Australian rock icon Nick Cave. When I asked him about his faith and his views on Christianity he said, “I believe in God. However, Christianity seems like it’s been gatecrashed by thugs and bigots.”* That sentiment summed up how I felt the night of 9/11.

After I left that church, I drove down the 405 freeway to my other church…which was actually a suburban house / recording studio in Huntington Beach called the Green Room.

I’ve always said that music is my religion. The impact of it on my life, as a lifelong musician, is as powerful as spirituality and faith have been. In my nuclear family, I always felt like an alien. I think most artists relate to that sentiment if they’re not born into a family of artists. In the same way that 12-step groups are effective because of how one addict relates to another, there is a similar bond when one musician links with another.

The Green Room was a recording studio owned by a musician named Gene Eugene (Andrusco) who had passed the year before and his best friend Anna Cardenas. They were an unlikely pair of friends. He was a part of the Christian rock scene as a musician / engineer and she was an atheist punk rocker. He would bring bands from the Christian-adjacent rock scene to record and she would invite friends in LA punk bands like Betty Blowtorch or Butt Trumpet.

When you entered the Green Room, it was like time stopped. There was no sense of night and day once inside. The first thing you’d walk into was a tiki-themed sitting area / bar covered in bamboo wall covering and adorned with hula-dancing tiki lamps with red lights. You could smoke cigarettes inside. You could have a drink and chill while friends were recording on the other side of the wall in the studio. For a certain subset of Orange County musicians, it was our Cheers.

I was always somewhat of the baby of the Green Room. There weren’t many girls around aside from Anna. The guys were supportive of my nascent musical efforts and I recorded my first EP there. It was one of the first places I felt like I belonged after many years of feeling like an alien.

The night of 9/11, after leaving church deflated and still scared, I showed up unannounced at the Green Room. Anna and I chain smoked from the humble card table in the kitchen. Folks filtered in and out to have a drink. “Can you believe it?” in hushed tones. “Incredible. So fucking awful.” I don’t know how long I stayed. I just knew I felt better. Nobody got drunk, nothing salacious happened. It was just humans sitting with each other seeking comfort.

I went home that night to my ramshackle loft on 7th street and stared out the giant 1930s windows in the night sky. The night sky I loved to look at so much was no longer safe. Planes were no longer safe. America was no longer safe. It was a different world… and for me, it was a world without church.

photo by guiseppe famiani

Years later, I would learn that I wasn’t the only Christian who felt this way that night. But for a long time, I felt once again like an alien. Learning how to put aside cynicism and enter a church took nearly a decade.

Thankfully, there are good people holding the church accountable these days. As the post-evangelical movement has sprung up, there are many people of faith calling into question the judgmental nature of modern American Christianity. People who care about social justice, inclusivity and their fellow man.

Growing up, I would hear people in church wonder why so & so joined a gang or changed religions or turned to sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. In their whispered gossip-via-prayer request routine, they would lament another sheep that had “gone astray.” The reality to me however, was that the church lost its compass. On a night when the whole world was falling apart to so many… one shepherd decided to chase away an entire flock of sheep. (Perhaps not so coincidentally, that church is no longer the Orange County powerhouse it used to be.)

When I watch 9/11 documentaries today and feel those helpless feelings again, I remember being a kid on the other side of the country in so much fear. A kid who just wanted to be comforted. The images in my head are staring out the window alone or sitting with Anna. The internal decision to make music my church for the foreseeable future. A kid who believed in God, in music and not much else.

One year later, Anna would sell the Green Room and move to Northern California.

Ed.Note — I have had a number of Christians reach out to me in well meaning, but misguided pity since I wrote this. That lovingly judgmental “Oh, you’ve fallen away” sort of tone. To be clear, I still consider myself a Christian — in fact, I still go to church. However, I no longer identify with the holier-than-thou, judgmental performativism of the American evangelical church that has seemingly aligned itself more with the legalism of Paul rather than the grace and tolerance of Jesus.

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*The Nick Cave quote mentioned is paraphrased as the publication I interviewed him for MeanStreet Magazine is no longer in print.

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