My parents had taught me that, as a Catholic, I was a member of the One True Church. But the Catholic school I attended in first, second, and third grades stopped teaching that kind of hard doctrine, instead adopting a soft, we're-okay-they're-okay approach to the Church and its place among the world's religions. Even to my third-grade mind, that wasn't okay. My father agreed and pulled my little brother Peter; my older siblings Serena, Margaret, James, and Leon; and me out of St. Phillip's School.
His search for a new school ended, for one year anyway, at a school called Imperial, where the administration, teachers, students, and parents firmly believed they belonged to the One...True...Church. But they weren't Catholic. They were members of the Worldwide Church of God, a sect (cult) that called itself Christian but adhered to a legalistic Old Testament code of conduct, even going so far as to abstain from eating pork. Founded in 1934 by the late Herbert W. Armstrong, whose followers believed him to be a living prophet in the line of Isaiah and Jeremiah, the Worldwide Church of God believed it was the only authentic Christian church. The rest of us were "so-called Christians" who were "deceived" and "instruments of Satan." But the word I remember my classmates using to describe me was "pagan."
I've never found out just what my dad was thinking putting us in that school. I remember he liked the fact that the school still employed the paddle, while other schools, public and private alike, had all abandoned corporal discipline. He also liked the fact that all six of us could be in the same K-12 school. Other than that it made no sense. We went from we're-okay-you're-okay Catholicism to we're okay, but you Catholics are instruments of Satan.
Imperial's fourth grade was too crowded so I had to join their fifth grade. That was difficult enough without being called pagan. Yet I was called it so often that "Pagan" became my nickname. But they didn't call me pagan right away. To their credit, they gave me a trial of my peers before they passed judgment on me.
It rained my first day at Imperial so we ate our lunch in the classroom. I remember a kid with an English accent leading a group of six or eight other kids over to where I ate my bologna sandwich. "Hello, I'm Nigel," he said. "What school did you go to last year?"
Nigel and his cohorts exchanged knowing glances.
"Are you Catholic then?"
More knowing glances. Out of the corners of my eyes I noticed that the rest of the class, seeing that Nigel was interrogating me, were starting to gather round.
"What are you eating there?"
"That's pork, right?"
"I guess so, why?"
Nigel suppressed a grin. "Just curious," he answered. "When's your birthday?"
"Get any presents?"
"Yeah!" I answered with enthusiasm. "I got a big cap gun that looks like a Revolutionary War musket!"
My classmates looked at each other and snickered. I figured fifth graders must be above cap guns and I felt embarrassed.
"What else?" Nigel said.
"A beach towel," I answered, growing suspicious. "Why?"
One of the girls started to answer, "Because we don't believe..."
"Shush," Nigel scolded her, then to me, "We just want to get to know you. How do you celebrate Easter?"
"Oh...uh...we have Easter baskets in the morning, then we go to Mass."
"Easter baskets with chocolate bunnies?" Nigel asked.
"Yeah, I guess," I answered, setting off another round of whispering and snickering.
Nigel was relentless. "What about Christmas? Did you have a tree?"
"Yes." Snickering turned to chuckling.
"Yes." Chuckling turned to belly laughing.
"What did you get?"
I was annoyed, and I wanted to kick Nigel's snickering butt back to England, if only he weren't so big. "Why are you asking me these questions," I asked instead.
"No reason, just trying to get to know..."
"We don't believe in celebrating holidays or birthdays, and we don't eat pork." said a kind-faced girl named Angela.
"Angie, don't tell him," Nigel pleaded, evidently wanting to continue his inquisition.
"You're being mean, Nigel," Angie responded. "Leave him alone!"
Nigel stood up, looked at me, and told me, "You're a pagan." Then he and his hooligans left me alone. For the rest of that bizarre school year, when he wasn't calling me Pagan, he was telling me to "Bugger off!"
Angela stayed with me the rest of that first lunch period, and she explained their beliefs more fully. Christmas trees and Easter bunnies were false idols. And the Bible said not to eat pork so they didn't. "And," Angela explained, "we don't give presents because...."
I can't remember the reason. I only remember thinking, "No presents! That can't be the One True Faith."