That’s Her in the Spotlight, Losing Her Religion

August 28, 2019 | 1 book mentioned 5 min read

This Is My Body, Cameron Dezen Hammon‘s debut memoir, opens with the author on stage at The Refuge, an evangelical megachurch in a suburb of Houston where she works as worship leader, a role for which she must “look young, but not too young…pretty, but not too pretty.” In front of the stage, a white casket holding an 18-year-old girl sits open, obscured by the colored lights and the fog pouring from a machine backstage. “We’re both objects in this space,” Hammon writes, “the eighteen-year-old girl and me, two different kinds of painted dolls.”

Just before she begins to sing, Hammon’s phone vibrates in her dress pocket as she receives texts from a man she met an arts conference, “a man I might love, who is not the father of my eight-year-old daughter. Not my husband of twelve years.” Meanwhile, beside her on stage, Hammon’s husband, a member of the worship band, strums his guitar and waits for her to begin. “Much of the time these days, I don’t believe what I’m singing,” she writes, “What I believe doesn’t really matter though. I’m here to provide a service, to do a job I’m good at.” The scene culminates in Hammon’s increasing discomfort with both her personal faith and its performance: “I pull my eyebrows together and close my eyes as I sing, an expression of meaningful reflection, an expression I practice often,” she writes. “I close my eyes. I know how to do this. I impersonate someone who believes.”

The opening chapter holds in growing tension the threads we will follow as This Is My Body unfurls with a narrative propulsion that is sustained throughout. As each chapter jumps in place and time—from Houston in 2015 to New York in 2001 to Budapest in 2008—readers are oriented not by chronology or location but by Hammon’s developing sense of her own faith and of herself, as she moves from her “half-Jewish childhood” to a spiritually omnivorous young adulthood; from evangelical megachurches to missionary work abroad; from Bible study groups that promise to “[make] an unhappy marriage work” to group therapy sessions for sex and love addiction.

Wandering through this contemporary wilderness, Hammon displays a knack for memorable scenes and wry observations: in her mid-20s, after contracting HPV from a New York DJ she met “while doing lines of cocaine at a bar on Avenue A,” Hammon converts to Christianity and is baptized by two women in cut-offs and tank tops during a thunderstorm in the glow of Coney Island. “I’m underwater for just one second, maybe two,” she writes, “the briefest instant. Then they pull me to the surface, and I find my feet underneath me again…I’m a Christian now. I am made new…I have a religion now, and a new kind of family. Born again of water and of Spirit, washed by the Spirit and made clean. Clean, finally. It took less than five minutes.”

Her new Christianity requires she leave her old life—”my liberal politics, my shelf of new age books and tarot cards, guiltless sex”—behind. She abandons her years of seeking, giving up Seder, Hanukkah, and Jewish mourning rituals for Bible study and volunteer shifts at a soup kitchen; she swaps her self-help books for a copy of the New Testament. She quits reading her horoscope and throws out her crystals. “I began to walk the paces of what I believed was a religious life, a good life. I supplanted the rhythms of my childhood with the rhythms of the evangelical church. Maybe the person I should have been sitting Shiva for was me.”

In Budapest, where Hammon has travelled with her husband and two-year-old daughter to evangelize through street performances, she feels an increasing discomfort with the prescribed roles and the “subtle and not-so-subtle misogyny of religious men” she finds in the evangelical community. This misogyny—in churches that allow women to “speak” but not “preach”—should not come as a surprise to readers, but the particularities of Hammon’s experience bring the effect of these slights, big and small, to life. Her frustration at being expected to cook and clean for her fellow missionaries sits alongside the condescension of pastors who touch her inappropriately, pay her less than her male counterparts, and advise her on her wardrobe by quoting from the Bible: “Do not cause another to stumble.”

Hammon also struggles with evangelism itself. In one particularly striking scene, while performing music and sharing testimony in a public park, Hammon takes shelter from a storm with a group of Polish travelers who’ve been playing Hacky Sack in the park and listening to her and her husband perform all day. One of the young men succinctly appraises American evangelism, saying, “when you guys, Americans, come here to Europe and get on the microphone to talk about your religion—it sucks, man.”

Running parallel to her spiritual seeking, Hammon explores motherhood, her relationship with her husband, her infidelity, and her growing sense of her own feminism. Hammon’s strikingly contemporary reflections about her treatment in conservative churches—where she was once groped by an older pastor, was offered a lower salary than her male counterparts, and was fired and replaced with a male singer—make her story a particularly salient one for this particular moment, in the wake of the #MeToo Movement, when the white evangelical church has openly aligned itself with a president and a political party that systematically denigrates, criminalizes, and imprisons the “least of these.”

Though This Is My Body is described as a spiritual memoir, the heart of Hammon’s searching often centers around faith’s container—whether it comes in the form of a synagogue, a church, or a group therapy session. As a preacher’s kid, I empathized with Hammon’s sense of being chronically out of place; too God-haunted for secular circles and too skeptical for any church she tries to make her home. But sometimes I wondered whether Hammon might be searching for a perfect fit in inherently—and often deeply—flawed spaces. In the book’s early pages, Hammon recalls a moment a few months before her baptism, when she asks Sabrina, the woman who would soon immerse her in the choppy waters of the Atlantic, “How could God be so good if his people were so awful?” “God is not the church,” Sabrina responds. “The church is made of people and people fail.”

As the child of a father who was Jewish and a mother who was not, Hammon writes that she was never considered “really Jewish.” She recalls swooning over the ornaments of a faith that was not quite fully hers: “the lilting, minor-key prayers…the syrupy-sweet smell of the Manischewitz wine and the delicately embroidered linens that covered golden loaves of challah.” She remembers a rabbi pulling her away from her friends as they prepared to carry the Torah into the service. “He’d figured out that I was not a real Jew,” she writes. That early experience of exclusion sticks with her: “I was hooked, not on Judaism but on religion in general—on something so magical and important that I was forbidden from participating in it.”

It is this longing for participation, for membership that animates Hammon’s search for a faith community that will affirm her call to ministry—not despite her gender, her talents, and her flaws, but because of them.

“Being good, doing good, following the rules, any rules—this is probably the thing I’ve been most consistently addicted to in my life, truth be told,” Hammon writes. But it is only in sex and love addiction meetings—and in the burgeoning friendships with the women she meets there—that Hammon is able to be honest about her desires and her transgressions without being rejected, shamed, or silenced. In the end, Hammon finds her search for faith sustained not by checking boxes or following rules but by keeping her eyes open to God, however God appears: “Fractured bits of experience, memory, beauty that open into something larger.”

is a writer and illustrator from Memphis, Tennessee. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Granta, Guernica, Ecotone Magazine, The Rumpus, Image Journal, and elsewhere.

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