(Indianapolis, IN: Epiphany Publishing, 2019)
“I was taught that it was Eve who ended paradise with her hunger,” Lyz Lenz writes in “Cottonwood Creek”—one of the essays in Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church. “But lately, I have begun to wonder if it wasn’t all over from the very moment it was created.”
It’s a spirit of questioning that runs through every story in this collection, the proverbial thread that ties together twenty-one courageous exits from fundamentalist Christian sub-cultures. Co-edited by Chrissy Stroop and Lauren O’Neal, the essays in Empty the Pews are conversational — frank and gutting in their narrative makeup, but as alive as a person you’ve casually met at a dinner party. There are no punches pulled, no meanings danced around in this collection of harrowing and hopeful testimonies that, in lieu of an answer, offer the pure honesty of experience.
Speaking from experience, I found the use of “testimony,” to be the boldest element of Empty the Pews — a basic evangelical conversion tactic that the authors of this collection turn on its head. At the beginning of my seven years in the evangelical church, I was taught the concept as a means of converting non-believers around me. By sharing the story of how I had converted as a college student, of how I realized that the only thing that could logically save my mother from her pill addiction was Jesus, I was offering myself up as a living example of why this belief system made sense, and why others should join me inside of it.
But in Empty the Pews, the power of story is taken to another conclusion — one that is incomplete and exposed, like a wound stitched into a screaming scar. “How many times had I run the scissors’ blades across my neck, staring into a face I no longer recognized,” Garrard Conley asks in his essay “Land of Plenty” about surviving “ex-gay” therapy. “Terrified by the fact that if I did not change my sexuality on some fundamental molecular level, I would lose my family and friends and the town I grew up in?”
These are stories in which questions beget questions, where the comfort of group thinking is challenged by the curiosity it seeks to suppress. Growing up in a church that did not condone same-sex relationships, Mel Wells shows us a conflict of nature versus nurture — her journey to identify her own self-depiction in “Burden of Proof”:
Now I am thirty-five, married to my wife, and I still catch myself referring to Mormons as ‘we’ instead of ‘they.’ But what am I now? ‘Ex-Mormon’ is a description looking backward; as a lesbian I am not ‘ex-straight.’ What is the word for these divergent selves?
Here, testimony takes on a different kind of power, not of sway or convincing — eliminating the call to action that I and many of the authors in this collection were taught was its main purpose. Instead of a prayer to accept Jesus into our hearts, we are left with a window, an image of the effects that binary thinking has on the hearts of children. “Soon, my father said that my sister and I could no longer wear pants, because the V shape made men focus on women’s crotches,” Deirdre Sugiuchi tells us in “Fundamentalist,” recollecting her father’s sudden conversion to the teachings of the Institute in Basic Life Principles. “Though, at age six, I was not exactly a woman.”
And we watch those children grow into adults, into complex beings who, ultimately, make different choices than their parents. “For me, it is not such a clean break,” Sara Nović says in “A Softer Answer,” where she recounts leaving fundamentalist Presbyterianism soon after her husband came out as gay. “I say I have sloughed off religion like a diseased limb, like it is no longer of use to me, but that’s not entirely true. Without it I am unsteady, vulnerable in a way I couldn’t be when I was not of this world.”
Fundamentalism co-opts stories for its own means, but in Empty the Pews, twenty-one writers take their stories back — and the reunion, while raw and searing in their various accounts, reminds us why stories exist. To warn us, to teach us, to widen our grasp on the real and imaginary. To help us understand both ourselves and each other, transforming our experiences into fathomable perspectives that can change the course of minds, and systems, and lives.
For the writers and editors of Empty the Pews, it’s the potential miracle they’ve managed to create by binding their voices together in one book.
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Gloria Beth Amodeo‘s fiction, reviews and interviews have appeared in H.O.W. Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, The Literary Review, Bort Quarterly and elsewhere. She is a graduate of The New School’s MFA Creative Writing Program and lives in Brooklyn.