I stood in front of the dusty blackboard shoulders back, arms at my sides, stiff like a soldier.
I stared out at my six and seven year old classmates and took a deep breath.
It was my turn to do morning talk (show and tell in Canada).
I don’t know what drove me that particular day to make the announcement I did. I do know that I didn’t like being different. I wanted to be like the other children. I wanted to sing in the school concert. I wanted to learn to dance and I wanted to go to my best friend’s house to play.
I was not allowed to do any of those things.
I grew up in a small village in New Zealand, where my family belonged to a fundamentalist Christian group called the Exclusive Brethren. The Brethren believe in complete separation from the rest of the world. They use cult-like tactics to ensure the rules are followed.
“Good morning Mr. Brown. Good morning boys and girls,” I said. “When I grow up I’m going to spit on God.”
No one spoke or murmured or even giggled.
Mr. Brown said, “Thank you Ginette, you may sit down now. “
And I was overcome by fear — absolute terror, believing that at any moment God would strike me down dead, the devil would get me and I would burn in hell for ever and ever and ever.
Over the next few years I often challenged God trying to find out just how powerful he really was. There were times too when He challenged me.
Frequently He would try to scare me into thinking He was going to take my family to heaven and leave me behind.
“It will happen in the twinkling of an eye,” the preachers would say. “Those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ will be swept up into the clouds to meet Him in the air.”
I wasn’t sure when or how He would arrive.
On the nights the southerly wind howled, and the panes in my bedroom window rattled, and I could hear the big Macrocarpa trees squawking as they were pushed around like tiny saplings, on those nights I lay terrified that the Lord would return and I would be left behind.
But, when the house was quiet, I was equally afraid.
The nights when I couldn’t hear my father snore, or my mother going to the bathroom, or one of my brothers calling out in a dream, then on those nights, I was convinced the rapture had happened. The Lord had returned and taken my family to be with him in the clouds.
Sometimes I challenged God to try to prove whether or not He was real.
One night, when my baby brother who had whooping cough was having a particularly difficult time, and my mother was pacing the floor with him I said to God, “If Graeme is alive in the morning then I win. If he dies, you win.”
I imagined God as a big black bat covering the ceiling of my bedroom. In the morning, when I could see the ceiling was white, there was no sign of a bat and my brother was still alive, I thought, “Ha ha, I won.”
I frequently broke the Exclusive Brethren rules – rules I believed were made by God. Rules to keep us holy and undefiled and separate from the world. Rules that included no radios, no movies, no dancing, no team sports, no books and no worldly friends outside of the school grounds.
Once I played Alice in Alice in Wonderland in a school play that was held in the local community hall during school hours so I thought no one would find out. They did.
Once I went to Faye’s house for lunch. I was surprised to find her mother made soup just like my mother did. Their kitchen looked just like our kitchen except for one thing – there was a radio. I tried not to look at that.
Once I went to a tap dancing class with Anne. I borrowed her old tap shoes and danced with all the other little girls.
And I read books — lots of forbidden books under the covers at night.
When I got to high school, disobedience took on a whole new level. High school was 14 kilometres away. The distance from home gave me courage to chase what I wanted more than anything – to be like everyone else.
Before the first year was half way through, I had become friends with the ‘bad girls’ in the class. The girls who wanted to have fun more than they wanted to study.
I thought, “What point is there in studying when I won’t be allowed to go to university or college or even get a decent job. I’m doomed to be a mother’s helper like other Brethren girls. “
“I’m never going to be allowed to do what I want,” I would say dramatically to myself as I lay in bed at night. “I’ve sinned so many times already I know I’m not going to heaven, so I don’t care if I get in trouble.”
Those lectures to myself didn’t stop me from being terrified of the consequences, but even so, I would take the risk and break the rules whenever I could.
With my new school friends, I sneaked to dances, the movies and sporting events to sigh over the Boys High School rugby team.
I would skip school and go to Liz’s house and dress up in her worldly clothes — her poodle skirts, bobby socks and loafers.
And then when I was 15 I discovered kindred spirits within the Exclusive Brethren. I found the kids who, like me, were struggling with the restrictions of Brethren life.
I started to live for the special three-day meetings, held on long weekends in different places around the country.
My heart would pound as I day dreamed about who might be there and what we might do. I would agonize over what I was going to wear and how far I could stray from the typical dowdiness of accepted Brethren style.
The Auckland Brethren meetings were my favourite. They were held in a large public hall with an upstairs balcony. This made the essential task of scouting for parents easier.
Each meeting, one of us would stay on point duty noting where all the parents were sitting and other things of interest that could be used in later discussions. The rest of us, confident our bases were covered, went to the beach to drink and make out.
Mint-breathed, with our clothes adjusted and our hair smoothed, we would arrive back just in time to mingle as people began to disperse.
“I didn’t see you in the meeting this afternoon,” my mother or father would say.
“Oh. I saw you. You were sitting in the middle row next to Mrs. Hughes.”
I began to get into more and more trouble as my appearance got further away from the accepted Brethren look, and my absences from the meetings became a regular occurrence.
It wasn’t long before church brothers began to visit me. Sometimes there were two of them, sometimes three.
Sometimes they came bringing a message of love.
“Ginette, the fellowship loves you. God is speaking to you in love. Confess your sins and be saved into the arms of Jesus.”
Sometimes they came in anger, determined to scare me into confession, with each man throwing accusations and threats.
“You’re an abomination unto the Lord.”
“You’re a leper in the eyes of the assembly.”
“Repent or you will be put out of fellowship and thrown into darkness where Satan reigns.”
My father tried to protect me from the visits, without success. I was terrified but did not bend.
Within a few weeks I was officially excommunicated. I wasn’t at the meeting where this was done but I heard I was called a Jezebel, the bad girl of the Bible, the wickedest of women. I was 17.
But now I was free to do what I wanted. To dress and wear my hair the way I wanted, to go to movies, to the theatre, to concerts, and to think the way I wanted and not the way the Exclusive Brethren demanded I thought.
My freedom came with a price.
I was ostracized, cast out. My parents, who were forced to follow the rules of separation from evil in public, supported me as much as possible in private.
All the others – my grandparents, aunts and uncles and the rest of my extended family and my long- time childhood friends – shut me out of their lives, crossed the street rather than say hello, and slammed the door on my face if I dared to visit.
I lost my roots and my culture and my bond with my ancestors. Or, as the Maori people would say, my turangawaewae.
I moved to Auckland but continued to visit my parents although it was against Brethren rules. Three years after I left my father was forced to make a difficult choice – the church or me.
He chose ME and in no uncertain terms told THEM what he thought of their rules that tore families apart.
Today, more than fifty years later, I’m on friendlier terms with God. Long ago I stopped blaming Him and put the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the Exclusive Brethren.
Occasionally though, I still wake up in a sweat wondering, “What if the Brethren were right?”