It was a Saturday morning like any other. I had come into work early for the monthly store meeting. I was sitting at a table with four other girls dressed in long khaki skirts and blue button down shirts. The others shuffled in, nodding politely in our direction. Among this crowd we were the black sheep. One of the girls at my table was obviously pregnant and it had been the talk of the store for weeks. Not that she would admit it, of course. Not even to us. That would be grounds for termination. We can’t have an unwed pregnant woman serving coffee to the customers! It was understood by all. But no one had the guts to ask her, so here she was. About seven months along, I’d say. This is the kind of thing that happens at a Christian bookstore.
The store manager came out of her office and addressed the crowd gathered in the cafe. Each department head had prepared a speech letting the rest of us know what was going on so we could better assist our customers. The book manager had been there the longest and always dominated the meeting. Then we heard from music, gifts, customer service, coffee, bibles, and church supplies. Music offered the most useful information. We were the place where popular touring Christian bands came to sign autographs after the show. A fucking nightmare. But it was helpful to know what was new when the youth group kids showed up asking questions.
When the presentations were over the manager would always give a sermon of sorts. It wasn’t a surprise. We were working for a Christian bookstore because we were Christians. Why else would we be here? As usual most of her words were directed at my table. We were the ones with a sense of humor- something god apparently hates. We were often caught laughing, talking, or simply making eye contact on the job. Not that we didn’t perform our jobs well; I was responsible for the gift displays, and I received nothing but praise for my fabric draping and eye for arrangement. I guess that’s why they kept me around.
I was good friends with another girl named Brianne. Mary in customer service was always spying on us and tattling. Later the store manager would come around and politely shame us with reminders that “Jesus is watching us.” If I had a talking doll of my manager, these are the words it would speak on an endless loop.
Today was no different. She didn’t even pretend it was directed at the group as a whole. She would say the words in a general way, but she only looked at us. She had a way of staring too long at one person, holding the gaze far past the end of her sentence. She didn’t like me. People who have trouble reading sarcasm never like me.
After the ceremonial stare-down, she turned to the topic of Beanie Babies. It was 1997 and the store had finally decided to start selling the popular stuffed toys. It would be a witnessing tool, of course. No one doubted it. On Beanie release days we would open up the store an hour early just for these customers to grab their Babies and go. Apparently stepping through the front doors of our blessed establishment was enough to turn hearts to Jesus. And then we prayed about it.
During the prayer I caught Brianne’s eye. Mistake. After that it was impossible to listen to the words, “Lord, we pray you will use these Beanie Babies as a way for us to reach the hearts of an ungodly public, that they may find an inviting place to come back to. Give us the courage to be a light that might lead them to know you, Lord.” Our manager had a thick southern accent which stuck out in Illinois. And she whispered a lot, in that way Christians sometimes do when they pray out loud.
We really were trying not to laugh. It did not go unnoticed, which is one of the reasons we were always getting singled out. It didn’t help that Mary was raising her hand to heaven the whole time muttering, “praise you, Jesus.” She loved making us look bad. Inevitably this would lead to yet another lecture on how the store is our stage and Jesus is our audience.
This was what a typical day was like.
I suppose I was a mystery to my manager. I had stumbled into her office one March afternoon with a nasty cold, desperate to get out of the telemarketing job I had started four days earlier. Outside of those two things I was the ideal candidate for a part-time retail position in a Christian bookstore. I was twenty-one years old, married, and had met my husband as a missionary who infiltrated public schools for Jesus. I brought excellent references from Fannie May and Hallmark. Why wouldn’t she hire me?
I would think about these things the following year when the district manager called me in to discuss my reasons for quitting. I realize now that it was just one last opportunity to scold me. Perhaps he and my manager had prayed about the meeting before I got there, asking for god’s guidance. No. Of course they did that. But I wasn’t a troublemaker. In every other circle, I was the good one. I never called in, I went above and beyond with my work, I was good with customers. And I did love Jesus. I was an employer’s dream.
Eventually I would leave over an invasion of privacy, but it was bigger than that. My manager had opened up a sealed envelope addressed to someone else from my desk because “god told her to.” The fact that this envelope contained the first clue to a Memorial Day scavenger hunt for my coworker should be irrelevant. I would also like to strike from the record any clues which may or may not have involved Beanie Baby prayers or “the place stalker Jesus hides the most while staring at us.” This game was created by dedicated employees on our own time while waiting around for Mary to finish vacuuming.
And, it was totally worth it.
But it was the final straw of being singled out. This time by god himself! The writer in me penned a passionate note about something I cannot remember, but it was enough to peak the interest of our district manager. He wanted a sit down. For the life of me I do not know why I obliged. There the three of us sat, and every question was somehow related to my personal walk with Christ. I imagine these little counseling sessions would have become the new normal had I decided to stay. These people were taking it upon themselves to keep me on the straight and narrow. And I didn’t even work there anymore.
I’m not sure anyone has ever been so condescending to me. I was told that I needed to look to Jesus for forgiveness over leaving my place of employment. The district manager actually used the words “you need to get down on your knees” over and over again, and didn’t feel weird about it. Or maybe he got some secret pleasure out of it. I’ll never know.
At this point in my life I was still a faithful Christian. I went to church every Sunday and tithed. I prayed several times a day and sought god’s will for my life. And it was clear to me, even then, that I was dealing with assholes. But when you work for a religious employer, nobody is bound by god’s law. You are bound by one manager’s interpretation of god in their own life. And then you hand them religious power they aren’t prepared to handle. My supervisors were not only speaking as my employer, but as the fucking voice of god. And, being in a position of authority meant that god spoke directly to them. Not me. I wasn’t allowed to question that. This is further evidence that the separation of church and state is beneficial even for Christians among their own kind.
Over the years I have also held the position of district manager in more than one company. I look back and cannot believe the absurdity of that day. I can assure you that if this situation happened on my watch there would definitely be a meeting, too. It would be to dismiss the store manager who explained herself by saying the words, “god told me to do it.” Truthfully, the HR department would probably put her on a medical leave. But you get the point. I think about her every time I see a bin of Beanie Babies at a garage sale or flea market. You know, I doubt a single one of them managed to reach the hearts of an ungodly public. And it makes me smile.