As a nena, I was exposed to different religions. Mom was a Jehovah’s Witness for some time before she met Millie. I can’t say I remember this era in my life since I was so chiquita (I met Millie when I was two). Of course Mom was excommunicated when it was revealed (however that happened) that she was with a woman. Esas cosas were not permitted. See, they believe(d) that God created Adam and Eve to procreate and “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”
As a member of my school’s chorus in fifth grade, we sang at Santa Barbara Catholic Church on Central Avenue. When we walked in the day of rehearsal, I stood in front and stared openmouthed at its sheer size, the intense white and yellow of the façade. I remember being confused by how beautiful the church was in contrast to the rubble that surrounded us. The rubble that was my neighborhood, Bushwick in the 80s. And the inside, wow, the inside. The high dome apse behind the wood pulpit, with carvings of peacocks, squirrels and other animals. The stained glass windows. The images of biblical scenes in bright colors on the domed ceiling and walls. The saints in their niches, surrounded by candles, on the far sides of the pews. The ornate columns. It’s always amazed me what we humans have created, built in worship of God.
Con Millie, we visited the storefront Pentecostal churches that dotted the neighborhood. The one that her brother Sergio was the pastor of for some time. With its stark white walls, splintered pews and one cross (sans the suffering, bleeding Jesus) behind the podium. The one we traveled to in the blue church van, the church’s name scrawled on the side in house paint.
I loved going there because I got to sit close to Millie. Watch her, so wrapped up in the sermon, eyes watery, she’d hug me tight. Sometimes she would tremble. I wondered why. Now I know. She was scared.
I also hated going there. The women with their long hair (always in tight braids down their backs, coarse buns or simple pony tails). Long skirts (always mid-shin) and loose blouses. Modest. Always modest. And the men with their dress shirts and slacks. Bibles in the crook of their arms. An air of superiority. I never got that. Never understood why the women cast their eyes and heads down and shushed us when the men approached. Even my Millie was quiet in that church. She wasn’t loud and profane, like she was everywhere else. She didn’t stand with the men like she did when we went to Long Island or Hancock Street or Highland Park where she played dominoes and stood with the men, drinking Budweiser in the little latitas, talking about their carros and the mujeres that swished by. But Millie still dressed like them, the men in the iglesia, in her polyester slacks and crisp off-white guayabera. She didn’t stand with the women either. She stood off to the side. By herself. I went over, grabbed her hand and looked up at her. The rusted elevated train trestle framed her face. She’d look down and smile. But this wasn’t her trademark chipped tooth smile. It wasn’t wide and joyful. It was small and sad. She didn’t belong there though she tried. She always tried.
I hated the place because it scared me to see people taken by the holy spirit. Well, that’s what they called it: “montados con el espiritu.” It always began while they were singing or praying. You could feel the tension building in your chest. A wave that stopped up my throat so I could barely breathe. Couldn’t swallow. It was like I had paste in my mouth. Crazy glue. That’s when I knew it was coming. When the pitch of the voices grew guttural. A collective moan. Until one of them became a shriek. A hyena’s cackle. A horse’s whine. Millie squeezed my hand tight and kept singing and praying. A women screamed, thrashing her body in the aisle between the pews. Sweating. Crying. The white of her rolled back eyes made me turn my face. Dig it into Millie’s belly rolls. Then the woman would fall into a heap on the floor and the congregation would scream praise, “Gloria a Dios!”
Mom put my sister and me in Jehovah’s Witness bible studies classes when we were in middle school. At first, I was ever the serious student. I did all the assignments, read the scriptures, answered the questions, reflected on the lessons. God became my everything. So much so that my sixth grade writing teacher took me aside and told me, her face searching for the right words that wouldn’t offend or confuse me, “It’s beautiful that you have such a great love for God, but, Vanessa, you have to write about something else.”
My sister resisted. She wouldn’t do the assignments, sulked during the weekly studies, so that the sister of the congregation, Caroline was her name, eventually told mom that she wasn’t ready to “accept God into her soul.” I kept at it. Kept reading the bible. This was something I was better at than my sister. The only thing. She was prettier (or so I was always told, “con ese pelo rubio y ojos claros”) and smarter (“tu hermana no tiene que estudiar”). This was the one thing I had over her. Maybe this would make mom love me. (Millie hated that we were in bible classes but she didn’t make me feel bad about it. It was mom she railed on, “esa religion es del diablo.”)
It was all good until I started to question. I hadn’t admitted to anyone (nor to myself) that my moms were in a lesbian relationship, but I was aware that my family was different. When we started talking about love and relationships, I asked, “What does the Bible say about love between women?” Caroline raised her eyebrows. “The bible says we should all love one another.” I pushed. “But what does the Bible say about women that love each other, you know, like a man and woman love each other.” “Well…” Caroline wasn’t looking at me then. She was looking around our small living room. At the pictures on the walls. Pictures of my family. Pictures of me and Millie and my sister and my brother and my mom. Pictures that stared back, demanding to know. “The Bible says that’s wrong. It’s a sin.” For homework she had me read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. That’s when I started to rebel.
See, the one who loved me, who showed me tenderness, who held me up, who whispered in my ear “you’re gonna be somebody,” was Millie. She was the one who proclaimed herself a butch. She wore men’s dress pants and jeans. Men’s polo shirts and guayaberas. Men’s shoes. She wore her hair short, in a push back style for all the years that I knew and loved her. And according to what Caroline told me and had me read, the bible said she was living in sin and was going to be banished. That God did not approve of her lifestyle. That it was blasphemous and against the word of God.
I couldn’t and wouldn’t accept that. Millie taught me love. Showed me what it was to be loved fiercely, protected, supported. How could God consider her sinful? Why would God bring her into my life to care for me, save me, if she was devilish in her ways?
I started questioning everything Caroline said. If she tried to teach me another portion of the Bible, I went back to Sodom and Gomorrah. Demanded that she explain, that she show me proof. When she showed me the specific scriptures that railed against homosexuality, I shook my head and said, “I don’t believe it. Love is love.” “Well, Vanessa, the Bible says…” “The word of God says…” Then one day, frustrated and hurt, I said, “Well, who wrote the Bible and who says God told them to write it?” Caroline looked at me, her eyes sad, resigned. Without another word, she packed her things and left. She never came back. Mom beat me that night. She didn’t say why but I knew.
Since then I’ve had a visceral reaction to institutionalized religion. Want me to stop listening to you? Spew scripture at me. I will shut you down quick. And it’s not that I’m atheist. Far from. I just don’t accept the notion that homosexuality is a sin, wrong. Again, the woman who showed me love was a lesbian woman. She’d grab the brim of her Kangol and say, “Yo soy butch.” A smirk on her face, it was like she was dancing salsa but just with her shoulders. She died terrified of going to hell, and there was nothing I could do to undo the years of Pentecostal dogma she’d been ingrained with as a girl in the hills of Lares. (I tell the story in my essay, Millie’s Girl, soon to be published in a forthcoming anthology.)
I don’t believe Millie’s in hell, if there is one. If there’s a heaven, Millie’s there. This much I know for sure.