I grew up straddling my family’s religion and the secular world. Then I had to choose.


“To go out!” my usually kind, soft-spoken dad asked as he opened the sliding door of our Volkswagen Eurovan. I got down to earth and watched my family leave, leaving me crying on the side of I-10.

My father had just handed out sheet music for the Christian folk hymn “Down to the River to Pray” (he made his own four-part harmony arrangements on his MIDI keyboard in our basement), and I had refused to sing the second soprano.

You see, my parents dreamed of becoming a famous Christian family singing group. I, at the anxious age of 17, threatened to ruin that dream.

For generations, our family belonged to a conservative Christian church where obedience to authority is paramount. If you saw women from my church walking down the street with their long skirts and veils, you would whisper, “Look, Mennonites! But we are not Mennonites. We are… Mennonlites? For example, if Mennonites are Honey Nut Cheerios, we are Golden Honey O’s – slightly different ingredients and no brand status.

My three younger siblings and I went to public school in Phoenix and navigating between these two very different worlds was not the easiest.

In second grade music class, I had to write my favorite song. We didn’t listen to secular music at home, so I left with the only song I could think of: “how tall you are.” It’s actually a real banger when it comes to anthems.

I mostly kept myself to myself as evidenced by my favorite recreational activity, pogo-sticking. But when I heard the talent show was going to be held later that year, I knew this might be my chance to do something so cool, so unforgettable, I’d be popular forever.

My mother had different plans.

At dinner, she announced that we were going to sing a mother-daughter duet.

“It’s so embarrassing!” I said.

“That’s the only thing I ever asked you to do!” said my mother, plunging her fork into her meager cooking. It was a lie, but I think she believed it.

It’s true that they had sacrificed a lot — my parents, who worked hard, gave us singing and piano lessons, ensuring that we had every chance of succeeding. My mother, a neonatal nurse practitioner who quit her job to raise us, spent her days shuttling us from activity to activity. Yet I knew singing with her in front of the whole school would be social suicide.

You might be wondering why my school let adults star in the talent show in the first place. My mother was the president of the PTA. She was basically the elementary school Tony Soprano.

The author in his second-grade school photo.

Courtesy of Richelle Meiss

For our performance, she brought a bench from home for us to sit on (“Production Value,” she said). We wore matching puff-sleeved dresses, white hats and white gloves. It wasn’t exactly 90s style, but you know where the style was? In “The Lawrence Welk Show”.

My mother was obsessed with Lawrence Welk. She used to watch it every Saturday night while her sister put curlers on her to go to church the next day. My family even stayed in a Lawrence Welk Hotel Once. Did you know there is a Lawrence Welk Hotel? It’s in San Diego!

We performed”Love makes a friend Be a friend like you” by Christian singer Sandi Patty.

“Why are you still trying to be there when I really, really need you there – to care. You are always ready to share! we sang against each other against the handmade backdrop of the school’s Hollywood sign.

My mother did the exact same act with my sister two years later, who pulled off a much more serious performance. It’s true what they say: everyone is replaceable.

Sixth grade arrived and I was still struggling to fit in. It was hard enough pretending to be attracted to one of the Backstreet Boys (I chose Kevin to be different), but then my parents announced that our family of six would sing together during the talent show in matching american flag outfits. I begged them to change their minds, or at least their wardrobes, to no avail.

The popular girls lip-synced to Aqua’s “Barbie World,” and my longtime crush Joey Vitagliano did a hip-hop dance to “Ghetto Supastar.” We performed a song by the southern gospel group The Gaithers titled “We have this momentwhich was ironic because I wanted to be at any time other than that.

“Cool song with your family,” Joey Vitagliano said afterwards. His friends burst out laughing.

Once my brother turned 7 and could hold the tenor line, the Christian family singing group started to really take shape. We sang at the Easter sunrise service and at my cousin Jenny’s rehearsal dinner in Illinois. We sang “Auld Lang Syne” on the New Year’s Eve program and sang to neighbors who stood awkwardly outside their door on Christmas.

“That’s the only thing I ever asked you to do,” sighed my mother when I protested.

The discord between the person I wanted to present at school and the person I was at home grew as the time for me to join the Church approached. As evangelicals, we are not baptized in infancy but in adulthood. Once I took that sacred bath, however, I would no longer be allowed to wear jewelry or shorts, date anyone, or go to the ball. So I held on.

The author as a teenager (left) with his siblings.
The author as a teenager (left) with his siblings.

Courtesy of Richelle Meiss

As long as I didn’t die before prom, I could get baptized after, which means I could go to prom. and go to heaven. It seemed worth the risk.

If I happened to be murdered, I figured I could quickly give my life to Jesus just before I took my last breath, narrowly avoiding a one-way ticket to hell. This caused me to become hypervigilant to all life threatening events. Coincidentally, that’s also when I developed a twitch in my right eye.

That spring, my family took that unfortunate road trip to California. It would have been the perfect time to work on our harmonies. But that day, for the first time, I angrily refused to do what they wanted.

Looking back, getting kicked out of the van was an apt metaphor: either you’re one of us and do as you’re told, or you’re left all alone in the middle of the desert…to die. It sounds dramatic, but that’s what religion can feel – life or death. It’s painful.

But pain is part of growing up. Sooner or later, we all get kicked out of the van. This is how we find our own way. Children cannot remain children forever.

My father finally turned around and silently picked me up from the side of the highway. But we all knew what that meant: the band was breaking up. Our Christian family singing group would never tour churches across the country. We would not become the next Sandi Patty or The Gaithers. We would never be on “Lawrence Welk”.

After the prom, my parents invited the elder of the Church so that I could begin the process of getting baptized. I hid in my room instead. Part of me wanted to cram in a few more experiences before giving it all up. These experiences have opened my mind to new people, new belief systems, and even love.

While I was home for Christmas, my senior year of college, my mom supported me in the kitchen corner. “Are you a atheistshe asked, in the same tense way I imagine some parents ask if their child is gay.

“I don’t know,” I said, tears streaming down my face.

“The only thing I ever wanted for you was to join the Church,” she said before retiring to her bedroom.

Disappointing my mother was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Just like leaving behind the only place I’ve ever truly belonged. I spent the next few years trying to convince my parents that even though I wasn’t a Christian, I was still a good person (a task of Sisyphus).

The author (second from left) with his family on a recent trip to the Rockies.
The author (second from left) with his family on a recent trip to the Rockies.

Courtesy of Richelle Meiss

My brothers and sisters scattered all over the country. Only one of us officially joined the Church, but she left years later for a surprisingly longer time. zealous mark of Christianity. I don’t put a label on what I believe, but I avoid organized groups that tell me what to wear, who to be friends with, or that they have all the answers. In Los Angeles, that excludes quite a few communities, including SoulCycle.

My parents ultimately chose to love and support their children despite them turning out to be different than they had originally hoped. They resorted to duets together in church.

“The one thing I always wanted was for you to be happy,” my mother says now. Maybe she’s not disappointed in me after all.

And me? I am grateful for the time I spent singing with my family.

Richelle Meiss is a writer, actor and comedian in Los Angeles. His latest project was the creation of “Bachelor the Musical Parody”, which will have its world premiere at The Apollo in Chicago in 2022. Meiss is currently working on a memoir and a live storytelling performance. You can find out more about her at richellemeiss.com.

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