PERSONAL ESSAY

"The Eyes of Tammy Faye" helped me reconsider my painful Evangelical childhood

"This is what it was like at the church I went to every Sunday of my childhood," I tell my son

By Stacey Danevicz

Published February 19, 2022 7:30PM (EST)

Jessica Chastain as "Tammy Faye Bakker" in the film "The Eyes Of Tammy Faye" (Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios)
Jessica Chastain as "Tammy Faye Bakker" in the film "The Eyes Of Tammy Faye" (Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios)

Spiritual warfare. Faith healing. Speaking in tongues. Called by God. Prayer warrior. These are not just terms and scenes depicted by Best Actress nominee Jessica Chastain in her portrayal of Tammy Faye Bakker in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye." They were an everyday part of my life as a child growing up in small town Iowa.

During one of the opening scenes of the movie, as a young Tammy Faye approaches the altar of her parents' Evangelical church, I watched a look of horror spread across my son's 12-year-old face.

"What is she doing?" he asked as Faye begins speaking in tongues and is subsequently "slain in the spirit" and collapses onto her back on the wooden church floor.

It's difficult to keep the sneer out of my voice.

"Ugh," I said. "This is what it was like at the church I went to every Sunday of my childhood."

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My son looks at me with a mixture of unease and incredulity on his face, and I barely stop myself from telling him that this is the reason I can't stand organized religion. This is why we don't go to church.

I suck in my cheeks and snap my lips closed to keep the angry dialogue in my head. The mom in me doesn't want to impose my own bitterness about religion on my children, to sour them on faith or spirituality. My bitten cheeks stop the words from pouring out, but the act does little to stop my elevated heart rate or the trajectory of my thoughts, which have gone inward and turned to the past.

* * *

Baby J's family had been church members almost since its inception, so the entire congregation rallied around them when the child was born in ill health. Even my 13-year-old narrow-minded angst melted when, despite his many challenges, Baby J smiled his gummy grin and peered at me through his impossibly thick infant glasses. When it was my turn to work in the church nursery, I loved the smell of his baby-powdered body snuggled into my arms. On many occasions Dad held him, and my heart soared to see my father smile and to hear him speak in a loving tone — one that had become a painfully distant memory in my own life.

It was the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker era — the "Name it and Claim it" years of Evangelical faith. Christians didn't have to suffer for their faith. Our treasures didn't have to only be stored in heaven; we could have them here on earth, too. We only needed to pray, to tell God our heart's desires and then believe it would happen. So, when Baby Joshua had to wear glasses with impossibly thick lenses as an infant and be seen regularly by doctors, it was no surprise when the self-proclaimed prayer warriors, my mother included, began the laying-on of hands and intercessory prayer sessions to claim healing for him.

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Whether Pastor was inspired by Christian music star Carmen's rap/song about Lazarus — the Biblical story of Jesus raising a man from the dead — or by other happenings in the world, he preached about Lazarus in a Sunday service shortly before Baby J's little body stopped fighting. We were a church of believers. This miracle wasn't relegated to the past, to Biblical times — Jesus was still raising people from the dead.

If you were one of the faithful, you had to believe this.

So, it was on the day of Baby J's funeral, swept up by sorrow, and the sight of tears openly streaming down my dad's face as he publicly raised his hands to God in prayer, my heart opened wide to emotions I normally worked hard to close off. I allowed myself to believe faith in a miraculous God was the answer. I furrowed my brow and repeated my own silent prayer over and over at the beginning of the service.

"If you're really there and listening, God, please bring him back," I prayed. "Please bring him back to his mom and dad."

What began as a normal funeral service rapidly resembled the summer tent revivals we attended on the outskirts of town. The piano and guitar music swelled, and I was swept up in an enveloping presence; the Holy Spirit joined and moved among us. A full-out worship service ensued. People strode the perimeter of the pews, raising hands and speaking in tongues, and then silence fell until someone across the way interpreted the prophecy. Again and again, we heard from the Lord this way. People raised their hands and swayed and danced in the Holy Spirit. Intercessors laid hands on the tiny casket and lifted fervent, prayerful voices toward the ceiling. I pictured the prayers bursting through the peaked roof of the church and rocketing into heaven, landing at the feet of Jesus. He would pick up the prayers, the broken body of the toddler, and make him whole again. Like Lazarus, the child would "come forth" not only alive, but also healed from the infirmities he'd bore since his birth.

With my eyes and stomach clenched like fists, I prayed. My shoulders ached from their hunched position. My head throbbed. My consciousness soared above and outside my body as the music and the frenetic, Evangelical energy crescendoed around and inside me.

This was going to work. Jesus would perform a miracle in our little church, and I would bear witness to it.

But as the minutes, then an hour, then more time ticked by, the music mellowed and so did the atmosphere. An empty, awkward quiet settled in the church, and a hollow, cold sensation crept in and took up a corner of my soul. Part of me understood it wasn't quite fair to ask God to prove his existence with such a fantastic feat, but another part of me said it was totally fair.

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It became clear God's miracle wasn't happening in the church, and while we murmured to one another and made our way outside, the questions I wasn't supposed to think, would never be allowed to ask, careened through my mind. Why give us all these stories of magic in the Bible? Why promise they were attainable if we just had enough faith? I'd believed the baby would be healed long before he died. I'd prayed so hard my stomach and jaw had hurt from the earnestness of my meditation.

If faith was all it took, why was Baby J dead in the first place?

Pastor finally encouraged the prayerful believers to move on to the next part of the day, and Mom was nearly distraught when we entered our station wagon to process to the graveside burial service. She alternately sobbed and rallied herself.

"Maybe God wants it to be a true miracle and He's waiting to do it at the graveside," she said.

I feared where this was leading. Mom was a woman of great faith; she had enough to take up the yolk of my wishy-washiness and Dad's opposition. Every breath she breathed was about struggling against her fleshly desires, her sinful human nature. In these times of tragedy, afraid to take it out on God, Mom turned her anger inward. She blamed herself for not being faithful enough. She searched her soul for her own failings that had kept her from God's perfect will. If this little baby didn't come back to us, she would bear the burden on her conscience. And it wouldn't be totally fair to her, because I'd given up halfway through the service at church. 

At the gravesite another mini service filled with impassioned pleas for God to show Himself to the world through the miraculous resurrection of this lost life. My neck strained and ached from the effort to press my chin to my chest while the prayers and laying of hands on the casket went on for an interminable amount of time. I couldn't bear to lift my gaze and possibly catch another glimpse of Mom's blotchy, tear-stained face with her swollen, now make-up free eyes. Only the collar of her dress held evidence of the hour she'd spent "putting on her face" that morning. My face stung at the thought of her naked face twisted in anguish, while her mouth moved around a tongue that flapped out the Holy Spirit's special language.

The version of Dad with which I was most familiar had returned. The tension was barely contained in his body, but we kids were hyper-aware of every gesture he made. It was a rare occasion that Mom defied his wishes, but she stoically ignored his cues for her to "wrap this up." He finally walked us kids to the station wagon when Mom, her body rigid in prayer and face drained of color, refused to leave the prayer vigil.

"This is just ridiculous," Dad said, his eyes glaring behind the driver's side window of the car. "Your mother is making an ass of herself."

We all sat in the wood paneled wagon in hushed silence, watching the hunched, prayerful bodies at a distance across the cemetery. Occasionally an insistent, "Ah-shondadal-i!" from an intercessor speaking in tongues rode toward us on a breeze.

That numbness and sour taste was back, and it had moved itself throughout my body. Other sensations had joined it. My face and stomach burned as we sat in the car. I watched the caretakers with their shovels standing awkwardly on the outskirts of the prayer circle. They'd made small motions at first, quietly putting away flowers and other pieces of funeral accouterments, but now their actions became larger, more intrusive. Still, the intercessory bubble surrounding the faithful remained unpunctured.

"They look like a bunch of idiots, that's what they look like," Dad said. "God's not raising people from the dead."

A zapping sensation snapped at my heart, and my face flushed hotter. I wanted to defend Mom's actions in the face of the cruel words sure to be hurled at her by Dad. On the other hand, shame and embarrassment gripped me. My eyes darted around the cemetery, and then around the busy street beyond it. I hoped none of my friends from school drove by and witnessed this weird display of our religion. It was bad enough I had to explain we couldn't celebrate Halloween because it's Satan's holiday — I was sure none of my Catholic school friends ever attended funerals that led to this sort of prayer circle.

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When the caretakers finally made use of their shovels and moved in on the faith healers, Dad met his limit.

"All right. That's enough of this crap."

He jerked the shifter into gear and crunched along the gravel path until he was close enough to get Mom's attention. I could tell by her crumpled, gray face and even puffier eyes that Mom was spent and heartbroken.

God had really screwed up on this one. Mom was going to have a difficult time climbing her way back up the mountain to reach the peak of faith she had to have just catapulted from today. My heart sagged into my stomach when I saw the silent tears slide down her ashen cheek.

He'd never done it, so I had no reason to expect it, but there was a tiny light of hope somewhere in the dark truth. Maybe this would be the time he reached out and held her hand or tried to comfort her in some way. Maybe just this once He'd validate, or at least accept that her emotions, her grief were what led her to this latest public debacle. Maybe just once He'd attempt to understand and react with kindness. Dad as usual, though, was not feeling so generous.

"I hope you know how ridiculous you all looked," he said. "Those guys have been standing there trying to do their job forever, while you all attempt to prove God is alive and going to perform some ludicrous miracle because it's what you want to happen."

In my mind I reached my hand through the gap in the between her seat and the passenger door to comfort her. No physical touch transpired, but I willed her to feel the presence of my love extending to her.

Mom slumped over in the passenger seat, the side of her head resting on the passenger window.  She sobbed silently because she knew, like the rest of us knew, crying out loud around him only made it worse.

"Just please don't, JR," she murmured.

But she had gone beyond testing his patience. She'd ignored Dad's usual signals, hadn't been the dutiful, subservient Christian wife, had refused to acknowledge the eggshells upon which she usually walked for him. And now the child had not risen from the dead like Lazarus, just as Dad had predicted. I longed to leave my body, to become lost in a book. Instead, I was forced to remain in the emotionally suffocating vehicle and listen to his tirade against her — against anyone weak and stupid enough to believe God would deign to give in to such demands.

"People kick the bucket every day," he said. "There's no sense in getting all worked about it."

* * *

These memories play silently in my mind both during and at the end of our viewing of the film. At some point in the middle of the movie, though, my desire to spew judgmental comments at the TV lessened.

Because in our living room in Grand Rapids, Michigan, my husband, our three sons, and our rescue dog, Lola, surround me. There is so much love here. Yes, I'm a mom and it's my job to raise good children, to do my best to keep them from harm. Right now, that feels like protecting them from the brand of faith I was raised in a few decades ago.

And as the end credits roll on "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," the sharp edges of my judgment have softened. Like my mom, Tammy Faye Messner, who died in 2007, was a woman of faith who spent her life genuinely seeking God and trying to do His work.

It's not the life or belief system I want my own children exposed to, but in sneering at my past and at current believers, I'm covering up the pain of it. My desire is to raise children who can think for themselves, who feel free to question, to seek answers and their own truth.

And the truth I've come to realize is that Tammy and Jim, my mom and dad, those church members who prayed over the body of a dead baby and wished him back to life — were and are just human beings, wounded souls seeking answers: solace. Who am I to judge?


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Stacey Danevicz

Stacey Danevicz lives in Michigan with her husband, three boys, and their rescue dog Lola. She’s working on a memoir called “The Can Man's Daughter."

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Christianity Essay Evangelicals Jessica Chastain Movies Religion Tammy Faye Bakker The Eyes Of Tammy Faye