It was the summer of 2001. I’d been separated from my husband for half a year and I was lonely. My two local friends weren’t dependable. One suffered from depression and would disappear for weeks on end, refusing to answer her phone or the door. The other was constantly busy and running behind… yelling we’d have to get together soon as she hurried to take her kids somewhere. I desperately wanted to connect with someone but had no idea where or how. Common interests seemed a good starting point so I worked up my courage and wrote out a few signs looking for someone to help organize an atheist group.
Weeks went by with no real interest. I had one phone call but the person was looking for an established group with regular meetings and guest speakers. He asked me to call him back once I got everything sorted out. I hope he’s not still waiting. Over a month later I received another call from a hesitant sounding woman. She belonged to the local Unitarian Universalist church and thought I might be interested in attending, assuring me it wasn’t religious and several members of the congregation were atheists. If we were interested, she’d be willing to drive us there. I agreed to give the church a try.
We showed up on the best possible day. Potluck. Jeremy was thrilled to discover they had free lunch after the service while Emma enjoyed playing downstairs in RE (Religious Education). The lady hadn’t lied. The service was secular and the people were friendly. Even so, I probably wouldn’t have gone back if it wasn’t for the kids. They’d loved church and desperately wanted to keep going. It wasn’t nearly as enjoyable for me.
Every week the service would end and I’d drift, hoping and failing to connect with anyone. People would cluster in groups and chat while I hung around the fringes and tried to look involved; drifting from one end of the room to the other hoping to find somewhere to fit. Then the kids would come upstairs, happily showing off artwork and begging for cookies and then we’d go home.
We’d been attending the church for almost a year when the minister asked if she could come to my home. She claimed it was just a friendly visit, that she tried to meet for tea with every new member and was feeling bad that she’d left our meeting for so long. I ignored my warning bells and said that was fine. She arrived on a gorgeous spring afternoon while the kids were at school and chattered about nothing of substance. Finally it came time for her to leave. She paused with studied casualness then said she’d almost forgot to mention a concern that several members of the congregation had voiced. I knew immediately this was her whole reason for arriving, the friendly visit was nothing more than an excuse. She went on to say that Jeremy was using the wrong washroom and it was bothering people.
Jeremy was in kindergarten at the time and terrified of flushing the toilet (or even hearing it flush). Zie had never been in a public washroom on zir own but that didn’t matter to her. It also didn’t matter that zie was simply going into a stall with me then washing zir hands and leaving. It wasn’t as if zie was running around the washroom, swinging on the doors and tossing the toilet paper. Then she turned it toward me. Didn’t I trust the members of the congregation? It was a small church and everyone was nice. Surely I could be a bit less paranoid and let Jeremy grow up. I couldn’t drag zir into the washroom with me forever. I reluctantly agreed, telling her I didn’t want to hear any complaints about Jeremy’s refusal to flush. The next Sunday I convinced Jeremy to try the mens room on zir own. No one showed any sign of noticing anything different.
If it was just me, I’d have left the church then and never gone back. I didn’t like how she’d manipulated me and lied in order to tell me about the washroom. I looked suspiciously at everyone in the congregation for weeks afterwards. If she was telling the truth, it could have been any one of them who’d chose not to speak to me directly and gone to complain to her. And if she was lying, she’d pinned the blame on the congregation instead of owning up to her own unease. Either way the church wasn’t comfortable for me and didn’t feel comfortable again until she retired several years later.
And now she’s back, not as a minister, just as a member of the congregation. I find myself going through our calendar and avoiding the Sundays where she’s scheduled to speak. I don’t like her, which is something I wouldn’t say to anyone in our congregation; she’s held in high regards there. It’s been over a decade now and I’d let go of my grudge except for one thing. She was there on the Sunday I outed Jeremy. Our new minister made a point of coming to speak with me about Jeremy, talking about how she’d seen zir at the youth group and found zir to be both funny and insightful. She asked about pronouns and how zie identifies. Our former minister hasn’t said a word.