Jane Ratcliffe | Longreads | October 2019 | 19 minutes (5,214 words)
I first became aware of Cameron Dezen Hammon during a group reading at Powell’s when she filled in for Alexander Chee at the last moment. Lithe and ridiculously hip, her voice as smooth as glass, as soon as she started speaking, I was mesmerized. Cameron read from the first chapter of her book This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession in which, as worship leader for an evangelical megachurch, she’s guiding the congregation through the flashy funeral of a young girl. Increasingly conflicted about her role as a woman within the church Cameron writes, “We’re both objects in this space, the eighteen-year-old girl and me, two different kinds of painted dolls. We are lit and arranged and positioned to scaffold the belief that women are to be seen in specific, prescribed ways.”
When I finally got my hands on the galleys several months later, I remained enthralled. Cameron’s prose is lean, whittled, spectacularly exact. Yet her world is achingly alive. At twenty-six, a half-Jewish New Yorker, Cameron is baptized into a charismatic evangelicalism in the frigid waters of Coney Island’s Atlantic Ocean during a lightning storm. Soon she’s speaking in tongues and giving testimony and feeling as if she’s, at last, found family. A gifted and ambitious singer, she falls in love with a fellow musician, Matt, and they settle in Texas where they have a child; together they become more and more immersed in various evangelical churches — even serving as missionaries for several months in Budapest — until Cameron and her magnificent voice move up the ranks to worship pastor.
Not surprisingly, Cameron discovers she’s being paid vastly less than her male counterparts while working vastly harder for recognition. After being sexually assaulted by an older pastor, Cameron begins to rethink her steadfast conviction that her feminist beliefs can take hold from inside the church and elicit meaningful change. Instead, it becomes clear the change lies with her and she leaves the church.
Now a happy Episcopalian, Cameron writes about how almost losing her faith helped her find herself. We chatted over Skype about how being shit at prayer can actually be healthy, the power of bigness, and female hunger.
Jane Ratcliffe: From an early age, you had “an ache and longing” for God. Could you describe what that felt like?
Cameron Dezen Hammon: It felt like there was a missing piece, not just in my spirit, but in my community. I was always drawn to the mystery, drawn to spirituality. I wish I had a better word for it. I was trying to hypnotize my friends when I was nine and was always talking about ghosts. I felt this thing within me that was different from other people and it sought community, it sought to be around like-minded people. It felt like this question mark, that was driving me toward an answer.
You later developed a deep-rooted belief in God, or what you called “God haunted.” How did this influence your mind, where do you register it in your body? You talk about being in communication with God — how do you know it’s God?
You don’t. When I was in the beginning of my nascent evangelicalism, it was the first time that there were answers for those questions of, who are we speaking to when we pray and what does the silence mean? And what does God’s voice sound like in our hearts. I got to a place of crisis in my life as a young adult, where I felt so unmoored and so vulnerable, that I needed to believe that there was a supernatural force that I could tap into, that would lobby for me, that was on my team.
I got an STD. When we’re young and healthy, our bodies are invisible in a way. We don’t think about them, because they’re just doing all the things they’re supposed to do. And that was my first experience with my body betraying me and an awareness of the vulnerability of my body.
And because of this pre-existing condition of being God haunted and feeling a connection to the spiritual, it was obvious, in retrospect, that I would be drawn into a worldview that didn’t laugh off the spiritual. I felt comfortable being with religious people who acknowledged that the spiritual was real and also had answers. And there was a pattern of pray without ceasing. There’s instruction for how to manage the anxieties and also health issues.
My first few churches were what I would call charismatic. They were Pentecostal-lite in that they believed in spiritual healing. They believed that one can petition God and be healed in their bodies, which to me, a young woman dealing with ill health for the first time, seemed very important and very exciting.
Once you became part of this community, did you feel physical changes?
Did I get healed?
Not even necessarily healed, but did you experience yourself differently?
Yes, in the sense that it’s all a perspective thing. Meaning, that I went to a doctor, and I had a physical illness, and the doctor told me to follow protocol and that didn’t work. And then I got saved, quote-unquote, I became a Christian. And then I went to another doctor and what they prescribed worked. So the change was, I saw God as my healer. I believed that this wasn’t a coincidence, that it was God answering my prayers and leading me to the doctor I needed, et cetera.
Also, I felt more confident and self-possessed in my body than I ever had before. A lot of that had to do with my musical abilities. My voice now had a spiritual explanation. I was using my body, using my voice, in a way that had much bigger, deeper meaning. And that gave me a sense of peace in myself, of belonging, that I was looking for. Whereas my teens and early twenties, I was very anxious and had a lot of physical insecurities. My religious life coincided with a bit of a golden era in how I saw myself in the world and how I felt in my body.
You have broken with the evangelical church now. Has any of that golden era confidence carried over?
What I didn’t understand was that that golden era was about me participating in the prescribed ways that were laid out for me as a quote-unquote Christian woman. And as long as I stayed in those lines, everything was golden. But if I questioned or if I pushed back, or if I insisted on seeing equality and egalitarianism, the idea that women and men are equal, then I was a problem, my body was a problem.
I began to see that also my voice was being used. I thought all of me was needed for this goal of bringing God’s kingdom to Earth. That’s the evangelical goal, right? That’s what we say broadly, in that community. But it was really that I was being used in slivers and slices, and I wasn’t unified in my being. I wasn’t able to bring my whole self to the table.
When I realized that, it all fell apart. I started to put myself piece by piece back together with writing. I started writing again in earnest in my late thirties and realized that the person I had left behind at twenty-seven was someone worth reclaiming. So I’m in a new golden era, where my voice and my body and my spirit, there’s no compromise going on here. I’m not tamping down parts of myself that are inconvenient.
A friend suggests that you “suffer from the delusion that God is uniquely disappointed with me, that I’ve been singled out for God’s wrath. A kind of religious hypochondria.” I found this fascinating and don’t think you’re alone.
I grew up in a family that struggled in various ways with addiction. I’ve been in twelve-step recovery for co-dependence on and off since I was fifteen. I think that the personality type of ‘I’m uniquely important to God and thus my failure to behave accordingly is a disappointment to God’ comes from that sense of responsibility from when you’re young and feel that too much is on your shoulders. I’ve got to keep everything peaceful in this house or everything’s going to go to shit. I developed an outsized sense of my own importance from a very young age. And it’s a prison.
It takes a long time to change the course of a big ship. We’re taught to be patient and obedient and to wait and wait … Even waiting is a religious calling. Waiting is a part of the Christian story.
Prayer played a huge role in your life and possibly still does. I’m always so curious about how people pray, like literally what are you doing? And what are your expectations of it?
Before, my Christian prayer life was very transactional. I believed that the right words in the right order enough times would result in what I’m asking for being given to me. I was also taught to read God in the world in a way that wouldn’t discourage me, if my prayers were not answered specifically and literally.
Religious people see the world in a way that’s very different from other people. It’s sort of like confirmation bias. For example, when I finally went to the doctor that was able to heal my STD, rather than seeing that as, ‘oh, you got a second opinion, and it worked out,’ as it often does in the world, I saw it as divine intervention like, ‘oh, look, this is God acting on my behalf,’ which is maybe true. It’s hard to know.
Today, I’m really shit at prayer. I feel like I’m always I’m failing at that. Yet, at the same time, my relationship to prayer is so much healthier than it ever has been. Anne Lamott has a book called Help, Thanks, Wow. That’s pretty much prayer. That’s all I need.
When someone is sick or grieving, and I say, “I will pray for you,” I mean it. I will pray for you. I will say to the mystery, to whatever is out there, ‘help my friend or help my family member.’ But I don’t see it as a one for one anymore. I don’t see it as like if I do my part, God does God’s part. I don’t think it works like that.
But I do believe in the power of prayer. I do believe in the power of the Spirit, and I have seen it change people and it’s changed me. So I’m kind of I’m shit at it, yet I’m still trying, even if I don’t have a black and white binary view of who I’m praying to. I’m still stumbling through this life as a spiritual person.
One of the reasons you stayed with the evangelical church as long as you did is that you were hoping to change some of the beliefs from the inside. You talk about how by quietly loving the gay community, you hoped you could overturn homophobic policies. But later, you felt that by being a worship minister within these churches, you were endorsing a worldview that harms people, and verges on exclusion. So if we can’t change the church from within, then how do we change it?
Great question. I think it starts with people telling their truths. My friend Lyz Lenz has a book out called God Land and in it she says, the stories of people who leave are as important as the stories of people who stay. When people are in staying mode — and I’ve heard this from so many women who are ministers in various capacities, like, ‘no, I’m going to stay and bring about change slowly.’ — it takes a long time to change the course of a big ship. We’re taught to be patient and obedient and to wait and wait.
Even waiting is a religious calling. Waiting is a part of the Christian story, it’s a part of the Jewish story. The Israelites waited in the desert, right? So, there’s all kinds of religious reasons to pipe down and just wait for shit to change. And while people are waiting, people are dying.
I remember at one point when I was still in this church and I was like, we’re moving towards inclusion of the LGBTQ community, I had a conversation with my brother. And he was like, are you high? There are gay teenagers in the congregation this minute who are thinking about suicide because your pastor won’t get up and say they’re equal in the eyes of God, because he just won’t make that move. People, their lives are at risk.
That was like someone calling to me at the bottom of a well. I was so in my head about this playing a long game and sticking it out and being faithful and that conversation with my brother really woke me up, it was the beginning of my deconstruction.
People are starting to listen to the stories of those who have come from these closed religious communities. That’s a huge change in our popular culture in the last five years. That’s really important, because when religious people dig into our binary positions and we can no longer hear each other that’s when we’re in trouble. When we honor people’s places they’ve come from, they’re going, and honor their process, there’s a chance for dialogue,
It’s so important, because we’re entering into election season, and evangelicals elected Donald Trump. Like it or not. So what they think and how they behave matters to America. It’s shaping our political reality. It’s just so important to amplify those voices of people who are leaving, who have left and even to listen to people who are still in it.
But, of course, one has to draw a line when there is harm being done, and there is a lot of harm being done. I’m not going to give air time to Christian nationalism, under any circumstances in my own life, but there are a lot of people, especially Millennials, who grew up in the church and are leaving and are trying to figure out, can I still be a Christian person and have my progressive worldview? And there are those of us who are like, ‘hey, actually, Christianity is a progressive worldview.’
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What does being a Christian mean to you?
To me, it means to feed the poor, care for the homeless, but to also be looking within myself and to identify the ways that I’m contributing to an oppressive system. I hesitate to say to be a Christian person is to look at the life of Jesus and try to live like that, because everybody has a version of Jesus.
To me, being a Christian means self-sacrifice, it means trying to live in a way that doesn’t put my comfort above another person’s wellbeing. And to a Christian hearing that, they would probably think I’m not a Christian at all. But that’s where I’m at today, trying to live those principles in a way that isn’t exclusionary, that doesn’t put my worldview ahead of someone else’s worldview or wellbeing.
Do you still consider yourself a Christian?
I’m an Episcopalian. The Episcopalian church in America is pretty much as progressive as it gets. I feel lucky that I’m not having to hide the belief system of my church when I talk to people who are not in the church. I can be proud of the affirmation of gay clergy and the affirmation and inclusion of the LGBT community, and I can be proud of the inclusion of women.
The Episcopalian church has its problems, too, but I believe it has room for my doubt and has room for my sort of agnostic Christianity. And so I claim Christianity almost in a stubborn way. I’m not going to give it up, because those who have more extreme views think I’m not good enough. Or my belief isn’t strong enough. No, I’m actually going to look at this differently and I’m going to say that I’m not leaving, I’m going to find a way for it to work.
I was lucky enough to have an incredible conversation with the essayist, Richard Rodriguez, who is a brilliant, gay, Catholic writer and was a PBS news hour correspondent for many years. He came to speak to our MFA program, and we were having this conversation about what is evangelicalism? What is capital E, little E?
This was before the election. So those of us who had left or were leaving evangelicalism, but we’re trying to retain our identity as Christians were struggling with this question, do you still consider yourself a Christian? And he said to me, ‘people all my life have said, why do you stay in the Catholic church? It doesn’t affirm who you are as a gay man.’ And he was like, ‘let them leave. I’m not going anywhere. This is my family.’ So I think often think of that talk. Of the willingness to stick around and fight for what is right. Not leave, but to find a place within Christianity that you can be who you are. But even still, you’re pushing back, even still, you’re pushing the envelope, even still, you’re raising difficult questions. And there is room for that.
You view your singing as a form of worship and believe that your voice is a gift “on a kind of loan from God.” Many artists and athletes and probably other professions express a similar sentiment. Can you describe this experience?
That was a big part of why I was so drawn into Christianity, because it gave me a way to see my voice, which had been such a fraught relationship, as something that was divinely appointed and ordained. And that if I put it in this category, it would do all the things I had ever dreamed it would do.
But today, I think of it differently. I feel now, rather than this idea that my voice is God ordained, that to have a voice — both singing and writing — is to have a responsibility. That that ability is not just for my benefit, but I have a responsibility to amplify the voices of people who are not amplified. To amplify the marginalized.
At Faithbrook, you sing at a Bible study group “packed with women who were also in unhappy marriages and trying to find a way to survive their unhappiness without dismantling their lives.” Roberta, the leader, counseled them to change their hearts toward their husbands; to submit to their marriages, lay aside their selfishness. Turn off your phone! Laugh at his jokes! Ask his opinion! Stop wearing old sweatpants to bed! You write: “Better versions of ourselves as partners, but not better versions of ourselves.” How did you align your feminist beliefs with your deep love of the church?
That’s the struggle that ultimately pushed me out. That made me understand that I wasn’t moving the needle from inside, and I wouldn’t move the needle from inside. I tried very hard to become somebody that I never would be. I was raised by a single mother, a feminist in New York and New Jersey, and underneath all of the angel figurines and Bible verses tacked up on the refrigerator, I was still this person.
I thought that if I walked the paces of this religious life as it was shown to me, that I would change, my desires would change, what I believed would change. I gave it a college try. I was in it a long time. And I got enough crumbs, enough affirmation, enough recognition that my voice as a thinking woman mattered, that it kept me around. There’s no way to reconcile feminism and what I would call complementarian Christianity. The idea that men and women are so different and that women are essentially assigned helper roles in society. There’s really no way to reconcile that.
And that’s what took me so long to learn. Because I was like, look at me, I’m a leader, I have opinions. I’m still a loud mouth. I’m still a New Yorker. And I’m in it, and I’m here and I’m doing all the things. I got figurines and doesn’t that mean that I also get a seat at the table? But I did not have a seat at the table. And even when I had a seat at the table, I didn’t have a seat at the table. It took me a long time to just see what was in front of my face, in that regard.
That situation with Roberta and that whole scene, that was really, really damaging. That was extreme, even for me, which is why I write about it, because I was like, how did I get here? And I’d go so far as to take her advice back to my husband and it was a disaster. I felt terribly about myself, that I couldn’t make it work. It was like, what’s wrong with me that I don’t fit into this world?
An often-cited percentage is 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump … I believe that the misogyny problem with any evangelical church is everyone’s problem for this reason. Because the way that evangelicals see women translates into the way they elect representatives, and we’re all dealing with that.
When you look back on that young Cameron, do you feel compassion for yourself?
I definitely feel compassion. I don’t think I could have written about it, if I didn’t have a good dose of compassion. Pure anger is a good motivator to put butt in chair and write. But it’s never a good editing partner. It’s never a good partner in the long haul.
Is any of the anger generated towards yourself or is it all generated towards —
It’s all at myself. I’m thoroughly angry with the system. I’m thoroughly angry with the patriarchy, essentially is what it is that we’re talking about, the church. But I walked into this, I chose this. I was a college educated, twenty-five-year-old New Yorker and I took a left turn and I decided that I was going to abide by my choices and see this thing through, and I got deeper and deeper. So it’s on me.
Do you regret those years at all?
I’m a real Gen Xer in that I will have no regrets. I definitely went through a real season of, what have I done? Maybe six years ago, where I knew that I had given my thirties to the church and was faced with, what am I going to do for the rest of my life? How am I going to make a living? How am I going to be a person in the world? But I know that if I had stayed the course and done what was expected of me, I would not have had this book to write.
“Christianity is built on the witness of a woman,” you write referencing Mary Magdalene being the first to see Jesus rise from the dead. I absolutely love this. It made me think about some recent scholarship that suggests Mary was a teacher in her own right. What role does Mary play in your personal belief system and within the evangelical church?
Mary Magdalene is not discussed in the evangelical church. As you probably know, Rome did a number on her story; the early church cast Mary Magdalene as essentially a whore. Which was a miscast. It’s not in the canonized scriptures. It was the way the culture decided to handle her, because she was a woman leader. She was a wealthy woman. She was Jesus’ possibly closest apostle. And that made her dangerous and makes her dangerous.
Mary mother of Jesus is not talked about in the evangelical church either. Two powerful women in the life of Jesus. Megan Waterson, a feminist theologian, has a new book out called Mary Magdalene Revealed. I haven’t read yet, but I’ve heard a lot of great things about it. But her thesis is that if we looked at Christianity and elevated the women who played key roles to their rightful position in the story, it would look totally different.
So when I say stubbornly that I am still a Christian, I say it with that in mind, with that belief the story is a feminist story that puts women in the most important positions of leadership, because that was Jesus’ story, that was the story in the scriptures. That’s how it was told. That’s how it happened, if we are to believe the accounts.
You write, “I believed that in order to keep the peace … I had to tamp myself down. Play dumb, just a little.” It was years before you understood that many of the issues you were facing in your marriage stemmed, in part, from this “watered down version of myself I was offering.” I think this is far too common amongst women, we feel obligated to keep ourselves small.
Yes, I feel like growing up as a woman is letting ourselves be big. And how does that happen within the church and how does that happen not within the church? How do we as women let ourselves be big?
So funny enough, I’m reading Hunger by Roxane Gay right now. And she talks about this very beautifully and very specifically as a big woman in the world who is absorbing all of our cultural messages of play small, stay small, stay out of the way. And I think that everything that is Western about the way women are meant to see themselves in the world, to be white and thin and small and pleasing and yet strong.
It’s the greatest trick that the patriarchy has ever played on the world, to keep women believing that they should be quiet and small and they’re not good enough. Because actually, we should be leading shit and we would be running everything, if not for these embedded beliefs about our smallness and our worthiness, based on the way we look or our skin color or what size we are.
I have a thirteen-year-old daughter. I feel like I’m watching the world come in. A year ago even, she had no awareness of her physical body in the world. She ran and jumped and played and as she has entered into adolescence, like it does for all women, those messages are coming in. It’s very scary as a mother to see that happening, and know that there’s nothing I can do, but to repeatedly bring it up and repeatedly say, you are so much more than what you look like.
When you’re in Budapest you “note a growing awareness of my body’s hunger” and “begin to worry my hunger cannot be satisfied by God.” Later, when you meet the man you think you might love, you write: “My want was enormous, like a sinkhole.” Then on Instagram this morning Glennon Doyle posted, “Of all the female sins, hunger is the least forgivable. Hunger for anything, for food, for sex, for power, education, even love.” This feels connected with what you’re talking about; that men don’t want women to hunger.
It threatens to displace them. I think that the fear of the unruly woman is that my hunger for food will translate to my hunger for power, which will translate to my hunger to run the United States. We know how that’s gone.
It’s about holding onto power. Because a hunger drives action. When someone is hungry for something, they cannot be inactive. Right? It makes us do things in the world and then ultimately that leads to unseating power.
Do you think the oppression of women within the evangelical church matters to our culture at large?
I think it matters so profoundly, because we have a president who was elected by evangelical Christians in America. An often-cited percentage is 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. So there is no denying that their worldview shapes the world.
I believe that the misogyny problem with any evangelical church is everyone’s problem for this reason. Because the way that evangelicals see women translates into the way they elect representatives, and we’re all dealing with that.
Obviously, what’s happening here is shaping the world. So it’s not just a few people in the South and Midwest going to a megachurch on a Sunday morning. This is a much more relevant population than I think anyone ever imagined.
And it isn’t just the men. And when you’re fired from The Refuge, you later learn it was a secret committee of women who were behind it, and that in turn makes you examine your own internalized misogyny. It’s interesting that you brought up Trump, because I was going to say look all the women who voted for him.
Because we’ve internalized misogyny. This is why it works. This is why it’s continued through millennia, because we think it’s our problem. It’s so embedded in the way that women see themselves, not just in religious communities, but in society at large, that we’re upholding the system that oppresses us, very often, unintentionally, I think. But sometimes intentionally, as you have with the women voted for Donald Trump.
I believe that women who are within those religious communities, or even just politically conservative communities, that elevate men and say that women have their place, I think they believe that if they participate in that system, and if they align with those beliefs and behaviors that they will be protected. And they will be kept safe, and their kids will be kept safe and their dreams will be realized.
Can the church play a role in changing this?
The church can get right with women and with the LGBTQ community. I am very hopeful about millennials. I think that they’re like, what, women aren’t equal to men? Are you kidding? Like the LGBTQ community? Yeah, come on, it’s all good. There are religious millennials who believe that. Many, many, many.
In a description of an upcoming spiritual memoir class you’re teaching you write, “As writers interested in spirituality, we understand ourselves to be taking part in a story that connects us not only to one another, but also to the divine as we understand it and to the awe-inspiring natural world in which we live.” How do you currently see your connection to these things?
I experience God in nature and I’m not alone in that. I don’t get to experience that nature very often, because I live in Houston, Texas and we’re a hot concrete jungle. It feels even more special to me when I’m able to just spend time in the natural world and see the inexplicable. It shows me that there is something bigger than me. I find my connection to the Divine there.
I think of spirituality as the unseen, broadly speaking. It’s in the natural world, it’s in the way we’re connected to one another, it’s the thing that we have no name for. The ineffable. Isn’t that what the soul is?
When I use the phrase God-haunted, which I did not originate, that’s what I mean. That I’m still so fascinated, drawn, excited to talk about the thing that has no language. All of our human religions and philosophies, we’re trying to assign a language to the ineffable. And that’s exciting to me, still.
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Jane Ratcliffe’s work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, The Sun, The Rumpus, Tin House, and Narratively, amongst others. She’s just finished a novel about the unpopular peace movement as well as the women’s movement in London during WWII.
Editor: Dana Snitzky