This small denomination of the great web of Christianity is not known of by many people. This is due mostly to the inherent qualities of the religion itself. The men must keep their hair short and keep their faces shaven. The women can not cut their hair, nor wear makeup or jewelry of any kind. They must only wear ankle-length skirts/dresses and cover their arms at least to the elbow at all times. Though they do not have to wear bonnets (one of the only differences between them and the Mennonites) they must always wear their hair in plaits or in a bun. Music consists only of bluegrass gospel and TV is completely prohibited. They live their life according to the Bible and they believe anyone not "saved" (those who are not Pentecostal Holiness) are going to Hell.
I can tell you of these things because I have seen them first-hand. In a small, rural town in central Virginia, my mother was raised as a member of this flock. There, in Stanardsville, my mother's family still lives and, on occasion, we come to visit from our own lovely state of Washington. While there I attended multiple church services lasting about 3-4 hours at a time. The pastor usually would take special interest in my siblings and myself. His veins would pop out of his bright red, flushed neck and forehead as he screamed about the preeminence of God. The others on the pews around me were crying, speaking in tongues, and raising their hands up for the Lord. Some were even dancing in the aisles and praying down on their knees.
My mother's cousin had three children with ages that ran parallel to those of mine and my two siblings. The boys were the oldest of the sets and the two girls came after in age. This was why we would stay with them when we came to visit. In truth, my cousins were sweethearts and we did get along well. My most recent visit was seven years ago now when I was 16. My younger sister and I came alone because my brother did not care to go and my mother could not get the time off from work. I did not anticipate that I would be held to the rules of the household as my cousins were.
However, after many hours of travel via both plane and highway, my sister and I were made to attend a church service the first night we were there. A visiting pastor from Nortonsville would preach and make an example of us throughout the night. I wavered between stifling laughter and fighting the sick feeling I had in my stomach at the humiliation I and my 13 year old sister were going through. All the while, all I could think of was that my family, my mother's cousin who was giving us shelter and taking responsibility for us, must have told the pastor of our presence that night before the sermon. They knew what was in store for us before we ever stepped foot in the tiny little church.
At this time I was not yet an atheist. I had serious doubts about Christianity at the least but, when asked if I believed in God, I would always answer with a yes. I think I was even dabbling in Paganism and Buddhism since the idea of one god ruling everything seemed highly unlikely in comparison to many gods ruling their own specific domains. But I digress. By the time the service got out it was past 8 o'clock. My night of anxiety was not yet over though. The pastor met us back at home for a late dinner in his honor. My sister and I got plenty of attention that night from all parties. Asking us about our beliefs and how we felt about what we heard that night.
I honestly don't remember what all I said that night. My poor sister was trying quite hard to hold her own but I didn't know what help I could give her in front of everyone there. Her beliefs at the time were not what I was concerned with as much as the type of intense scrutiny they were putting upon us and our lives back at home. In not so many words they made it clear that we were living our lives in sin and needed to turn to God if we wanted our souls to join theirs in heaven when we died. All we had for a response was stating that we believed in God and that we would think about what they had said.
After my mother's cousin had gone to sleep, many nights her daughters would sit up with us to laugh and joke about the day or tell stories from each of our homes. One night we decided to ask about their religion in more detail. We obviously felt we could relate more with them being so close in age. They answered quite earnestly all of our questions and had some of their own for us as well. They, however, took care to never make us feel badly for our own way of life, and instead told us that God would make himself known to us at some point and that it was up to us to hear him and heed his call. They just felt that this had already happened to them. Outright, I asked if they thought we were going to Hell. They hesitated before answering, looked at each other a moment, and replied, "yes, your souls will not be allowed into Heaven since you are not Saved." I asked how they felt about that since we are family and they know us to not be bad people. Their response was, "we just feel bad for you and pray for you every night."
This, I knew to be wrong on a much greater level than just their opinions toward us. I love them because they are my family and we have known each other since little girlhood. I thought it very ironic however, that I was the one who felt sorry for them. Shackled as they were to the life they were born into, with parents who determined their fates by following a belief system that held them to such a strict, inhibiting lifestyle that was based so much on judgement. I also knew not to voice this opinion to them of course. At that age even, I knew not to hurt them with my not-yet-well-formed criticisms of their religion and way of life.
It is a hard thing though, to take the criticisms and judgement from ones you love so dearly, and who were meant to be our guardians while away on our first trip without our parents. It was a betrayal of trust and was, to me, a form of evil. Yes, it is evil to put a thirteen year old girl, away from her home for the first time without her mom, into a situation where she would feel so low and dirty for being raised to be who she was. With no one to turn to for help or advice, and knowing we were in that situation, my cousin who was like an aunt to me, thought to turn us toward the light of her God and her ways. In her eyes, she thought she was saving us and that she had a golden opportunity with us free from our family's influence. Instead, we felt lost, confused, scared, and alone.
Two weeks we stayed in Virginia. Most of the time was a blast. We visited tons of family, ate amazing home-cooked food, and even took a road trip to Tennessee to visit Dollywood. I love my family. In hindsight, I can even thank them for what the bad parts of that trip taught me and made me contemplate oh-so-much further in the subsequent years. My experiences there were a strong wind that sped my sails forward on my path to eventual atheism. My cousins are good people that do unintended harm because of the religion that they follow. I have not been back to visit since my sixteenth summer. I wonder what they would think of me now, with my short-cropped, colored hair, my piercings and tattoos, and my blasphemous freedom of thought. Little would they know, or be able to see, that I am still who I always was. That I am good without God, and love more than they will ever be able to.