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I was eight years old when I experienced my first Pentecostal revival. It was a hot summer night and there were hundreds of people all packed under one giant tent. They were clapping and singing. Incomprehensible words began to pour out peoples’ mouths over the piano’s music, the tambourine, and the drums. They were speaking in tongues. I remember the exuberance on their faces-- the raw emotions and the way their bodies swayed and rocked to the music. Women were crying, waving their arms around, shouting to God.

The sermons were what led the crowd. They were rowdy, boisterous displays, full of fire and brimstone. The pastors' faces would be red and pouring sweat as they'd stomped their feet up and down the aisles of people. They would wave their leather bound Bibles and shout their sermons in sharp, punctuated sentences with audible gulps of breath spaced out between them. The excitement was palpable with people shouting "Halleluyah's!" and "Bless 'em Lord's!" as the preachers grew more and more frantic. There was an almost mob-like frenzy to the congregation as the preachers rained down words of judgment, punctuated by promises of damnation, retribution, warning people to prepare! prepare! for the return of Christ.

Following the sermon, the prayer services stretched on for what seemed forever. Deacons would anoint their fingers with oil and reach out to touch believer’s foreheads. There would be shouting and waving, people would fall over and roll on the floor; some would dance, others moan. People would babble with their hands raised, leaping and shaking.

Throughout my life, I have kept my experiences in the Pentecostal church close to me. Whenever people found out I grew up Pentecostal, their usual remarks would be "what's that?" or "did you handle snakes?"

Very few people outside of the fundamentalist Pentecostal faith seemed to understand its beliefs…. the facts from the fiction, so when I was younger, I didn't know where to begin to explain to them what church had actually been like for me.

Growing up, I felt like the whole world was poised on the brink of war. I was taught to hate and fear the ideas of others: Catholics, Muslims, Evolutionists, Abortionists, liberals, and gays..... Taught that they were the perpetrators of depravity-- peoples that were ushering in the apocalypse.

Strictly ordered to do Good, I feared my mind and body and dreaded God's punishment. Strictly warned about outsiders, I looked at them as an alien breed of people I couldn't relate to. However, as I grew up, I noticed that the beliefs in the Pentecostal church weren’t lining up with my own experiences—In my life, I found that a person’s moral compass seemed more contingent on their personal choices rather than on blind obedience to a religious system. In the world today there are 30,000 different sects for Christianity alone. If the Pentecostal faith was the only truth belief system than where were all these other groups getting their ideas from? Eventually, I made a gamble, and decided that I would judge for myself what God was, morality meant, and what my purpose in life ought to be.

And with that decision, I left the church… for good.

For a brief period in my life I felt cast out, like a refugee in a strange land. For a while, I couldn’t stop my mind from working in extremes. I felt lost, no longer being able to place things so definitively into boxes: this thing is Good, this thing is Bad.

Maybe I missed the unity and the surety that came along with following a specific system of faith. However, looking back on those times, I feel that I grew the most. It was in that terrifying struggle I reclaimed something I never knew I had: my self, as an individual. And I’ve never been happier.

© NPR Intern Edition, Fall 2008