In Sheep’s Clothing

By Janice Westerling

The Yokotas’ farmhouse was as modest as ours, but its living room had the exotic scent of ginger and oranges. In the corner, next to their black-and-white TV, a wooden Buddha sat atop a shrine together with three bowls of water and a pile of stones. Mrs. Yokota didn’t offer us green tea or cookies. This was no social call. Earlier in the week, my mother had taken the unusual step of telephoning her to request a favor.

Our hostess unfolded the brittle parchment paper from a box the size of a suitcase and lifted out an ivory kimono, patterned with branches of cherry blossoms and lined in fiery red. I gasped at its shimmery silk. That morning I’d chosen footwear that I hoped had an oriental flair: with each step, my rubber flip-flops slapped the soles of my feet.

As the highlight of our Baptist Church missions’ festival this year, the middle school girls were to dress in the native costumes of countries where our emissaries preached the gospel. A sixth grader in the Girls’ Missionary Guild, I had chosen to portray Japan. I wanted to wear a beautiful kimono like the ones in National Geographic.

“Hi, how’r you?” I greeted Mrs. Yokota’s daughter, JoAnne, who had come in from another room. Her skinny legs swam in her summer shorts, and the cuffs of her white bobby socks puddled over her Mary Janes.

“Fine,” she answered, looking at the floor.

JoAnne and I had attended school together since kindergarten but had never exchanged more than a sentence. She was one of two Japanese-American girls in my class—they always ate lunch together. She was Buddhist, so different from the rest of us, and as overlooked as a shadow.

“This kimono was my mother’s,” Mrs. Yokota sighed to no one in particular. Mom chattered about the sweltering May weather as JoAnne’s mother slipped the robe over my shoulders. I shivered as goose pimples rose on my freckled arms. The silk felt like cool water against my skin.

“Hold up your elbows,” Mrs. Yokota told me. As I lifted my blond ponytail high off my back, she wrapped a red obi around my waist. I imagined how tiny JoAnne’s grandmother must have been, since, on me, the kimono barely skimmed the floor. Gazing at my reflection in the mirror, I swiveled to admire the drum bow in back. I suppressed a smug smile. Beverly, our class know-it-all who was representing the Philippines, would be wearing a white blouse with a silly striped beach towel knotted at her waist.

“Perfect,” my mother said. “You look like a Japanese doll.”

Excited, I turned toward JoAnne and pressed my palms together like a magazine geisha so she could admire my oriental transformation. She leaned against the wall farthest away from me as if she were trying to shrink into it. Behind her glasses, her eyes glistened with tears.

“Don’t you think it’s pretty?” I asked.

She shook her head shyly no.

“JoAnne,” her mother said softly. Turning to us, “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s the heat,” Mom declared. “It could rattle anyone. We’re just not ourselves.”

But I felt unnerved by JoAnne’s response. Her tears and rudeness confused me.

That evening, a feeble breeze rippled the leaves of our muscat vines and sagged through the front room where I sat with my parents. Dad’s face was brown and weathered from working in the fields, but his forehead, covered all day by a straw hat, was pale as a pearl. He thumbed the pages of his dog-eared Bible until he found the Gospel of John, which provided the theme for this year’s missions’ festival.

“I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” Dad read aloud. I had always believed that the Lord was my shepherd, but now I was old enough to reason things out, and this verse troubled me.

“Daddy,” I began, swallowing hard, “if Jesus is the only way into heaven, what about people who’ve never heard about him, like the natives in Africa?”

“That’s why we support our missionaries.”

“But if someone doesn’t even know about Jesus, how can God send them to hell?”

My father took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He cleared his throat and took a deep breath, but he looked stumped. I began feeling queasy.

“And what about Buddhists or . . .”

“Pal,” he interrupted, “sometimes you just got to have faith.”

I was eleven, and my father was still my hero. I dropped my line of questioning. His discomfort made me rush to reassure him.

“You’re right, Daddy,” I said. “Faith.”

That evening before drifting off to sleep, I couldn’t help thinking about JoAnne and the Buddhist shrine in her home with its water and pebbles. Surely it proved her family was as devout about their religion as mine was about ours. My heart suddenly knocked against my chest as my doubts hit close to home. Was JoAnne going to hell because she wasn’t a Christian?

I couldn’t believe a loving God would condemn innocent people, even if the Bible said so. I prayed hard to be given faith like Dad’s.

But the next morning my qualms about Jesus soured my stomach. Pushing my uneaten oatmeal aside, I hurried to school without breakfast.

On Thursday, I dressed in my official Girls Missionary Guild uniform, a white blouse with a sky-blue cotton skirt and matching badge sash that Mom had sewn on her ancient Singer. The Guild met in the basement of the Baptist church on the same afternoon as the Girl Scouts, whose motto, “Do a good deed daily,” was too secular for my parents. The Scouts welcomed Methodist girls, whose daddies drank beer, and even Catholics, who ate fish sticks on Friday and prayed to the Virgin Mary.

I arrived early for our meeting. A musty odor like damp soil and nesting mice seeped through the cement walls. I shuddered, but not from the smell. After several restless nights, I had decided I would try to confide my doubts to Martha, our assistant Guild leader and a woman I barely knew. Childless and soft-spoken with a sallow, horsey face, Martha had joined our church after marrying the middle-aged bachelor who owned the grape farm next door to ours. I hoped she might talk to me like a friend instead of a parent.

When I found her, Martha was setting paper plates along one side of a cafeteria table. Wiping my sweaty palms on my uniform, I approached her.

“Can I talk to you?” I asked.

“Sure, have a seat.”

“No, I mean alone. Over there,” I said.

A canvas curtain strung across a wire partitioned off a makeshift Sunday-school classroom. As I held the cloth curtain back, she ducked into the room and lowered herself onto a folding chair near a flannel-board easel. “What do you want to talk about?”

“Ummm,” I stuttered and then cleared my throat. I had decided to approach Martha sideways to see if she’d warn me about my lapse of faith.

“I’m not sure I should be in the missions’ pageant. Sometimes I think I’m not a good Christian like the other girls. I feel . . . different.”

“I think I know what you mean. I was very awkward growing up, all elbows and knees—not exactly a homecoming queen.” Martha honked into her hankie and paused. At the transom window near the ceiling, the flashing blades of a lawnmower twirled by, followed by the work boots of the gardener. The sweet haystack smell of freshly cut grass drifted in through the open glass.

“I was thirty and still living with my mother. I’d pretty much given up hope that I’d ever get married. Then I met Roy!” Martha laughed. Her narrow face lit up, and she looked almost pretty. “Is that what you meant?”

“Kinda.” Emboldened by her plainspoken answer, I edged closer to my confession. “Do you ever have doubts about God?”

The loveliness disappeared from her face. “Well,” she said, “sometimes I wonder why He hasn’t given me any children.” She curled her birdlike shoulders around her torso like motherly wings. Through her sheer muslin blouse, I could see the lacy scallops of her satin slip.

“I know God has his secret purpose and always does right, but lying awake in the dark I get a little weepy when I think of Roy and me living alone in our big ol’ farmhouse. I should have faith that God’s will is perfect, but sometimes, when I’m feeling weak, I just beg Jesus for a baby.”

She looked at me and sat up straighter when she saw the expression on my face. “Oh, gosh, now I’ve gone and said too much.”

But she had misread me. My mouth gaped, not from shock, but because she was the first adult who had spoken to me as an equal.

“You know, Janice, sometimes I say foolish things. Then I remind myself that I have a choice. I can mope around the house feeling sad and sorry for myself, or buy groceries and make dinner for Roy . . . or I can work with girls like you.”

For the first time, I felt like I wasn’t alone with all my troubling questions. I still worried about JoAnne. I decided to confess the doubts spoiling in my heart. “Lately I’ve been thinking that the Bible might not be . . .”

Just then the canvas curtain puffed out a cottony breath as Elsie, our matronly Guild leader, swept it aside. Martha’s opposite in every way, Elsie was so fat that her head looked like a cherry atop an ice cream sundae.

“There you two are! All the girls are waiting at the table. No time to waste!” She clapped her hands together and the fleshy saddlebags under her arms wobbled. “Today we’re assigning speaking parts for the pageant.”

“We’ll talk again later,” Martha promised as she rose from her seat, and we followed Elsie to the table. I flopped onto a vacant chair and took a big bite from my baloney sandwich. Buoyed by my chat with Martha, I was absolutely ravenous.

On Sunday, the day of the missionary pageant, the unseasonable May heat peaked. By noon, the sun knuckled off the sidewalk like a blow. Mom and I wrestled my costume box down the staircase to the church basement, where the girls were dressing. The space was swampy and airless. I glanced at the picture on the wall of Jesus wearing a white robe and knocking on a wooden door. With his light brown hair and pale eyes, he resembled my family.

A muddle of adolescent girls stood in various stages of undress, their mothers plucking at costumes and fussing with hairdos. The room smelled like Aqua Net, talcum powder, and ripe sneakers. Mrs. Singh, who had married a Hindu man but later repented, draped a gossamer saffron sari around Linda, a seventh grader. Sandy, who was representing Ethiopia, wore a white caftan with a green brocade bib.

After a storm of adolescent tears and a flurry of phone calls, Elsie had given bigheaded Beverly permission to abandon her Philippines outfit. Instead, she could wear an embroidered apron and lace-edged head scarf, the native costume of Sweden, even though the Swedes weren’t heathens. Our church had been founded by Swedish immigrants, she explained to us girls, and Beverly’s father was chairman of the board of deacons.

I lifted my arms and my mother wound the red obi around my waist. After dress rehearsal, I planned to ask Martha if she believed Buddhists were really all going to go to hell.

“Girls!” Elsie’s voice cut through the feminine clucking. “Line up in the order you will enter the stage. We will have dress rehearsal here in the basement. Before the service starts, I’ll serve refreshments to keep up your strength. Mothers, thank you for your help—you may retire to the sanctuary now.”

Under my heavy silk robe, I began to sweat, and my rubber flip-flops sent up a faint smell of chlorine from the high school swimming pool. Since arriving, I’d kept one eye on the door.

“Where’s Martha?” I asked Elsie. Just thinking about my imminent confession made me feel lighter.

“Oh, Martha can’t make it tonight. She’s resting at home on doctor’s orders.” Elsie saw the expression on my face. “Don’t worry,” she said, leaning so close I felt her warm breath on my neck. “It’s nothing serious.”

“Beverly!” Elsie bellowed, turning her attention back to her charges. “Move into position. You’re supposed to be standing at the back, not in front.”

After dress rehearsal, I waited backstage. Through a wrought-iron peephole in the door, I saw a woman with a big bosom and skinny husband fanning her face with her program. The evening sun blazed through the stained glass windows in a kaleidoscope of sapphires, emeralds, and rubies.

Finally, Elsie began calling out our countries: Ethiopia, the Belgian Congo, India, Japan. Sweden. One by one, the costumed girls paraded onto the stage.

Standing below the platform, Elsie nodded, and Sandy recited the first line of the Girls Missionary Guild Allegiance: “I have a responsibility,” she began, “to tell a lost world about Jesus.”

The next girl continued, “To cast selfish desires out of my heart.”

My attention drifted. Whew. It really is hot under this kimono.

“To keep my mind centered on our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” Linda’s alto voice boomed. Dressed in her yellow sari, she had inked a red dot in the middle of her forehead above her blond eyebrows. Feeling lightheaded, I suppressed a giggle. I hope it’s not permanent ink . . . Really, she doesn’t look Indian at all. How do I look? I wondered.

I glanced down at my ivory robe, its lovely scarlet lining aflame against my freckled arms. At the Yokotas’ I’d looked beautiful, but now I felt awkward. Something wasn’t right. Our pageant of nations suddenly seemed absurd to me. Our church sent missionaries into foreign countries but never invited Japanese, Indian, or other dark-skinned families from our own town into its sanctuary. Every single angel in our Christmas pageant was blond.

My costume felt sticky against my neck and back, and the obi squeezed the breath from my chest. I remembered how JoAnne had cowered against the wall of her living room, and all of a sudden I understood her tears and rudeness. I’d blithely assumed it was appropriate for me to wear her grandmother’s precious kimono. I hadn’t considered her feelings when I’d asked her to admire how beautiful I looked.

An eerie silence shook me from my reverie. Elsie was waving her hands at me, the wattles of her neck quivering as she struggled to get my attention. I’d missed my cue.

“To help our missionary Baptist churches carry the gospel to every corner of the world,” I blurted out.

I filed off the platform behind the other girls and sat in a pew near the front. A missionary slideshow with photos of naked children with distended bellies and flies crawling around their runny nostrils began to play on the dim stage. From his seat in the choir, Dad caught my eye and winked. I smiled back, but something inside me had changed.

The following week my mother returned the borrowed kimono to Mrs. Yokota. Too ashamed to face JoAnne, I made the excuse of a headache and did not accompany her.

Martha continued to be a Guild advisor but never conceived the baby she longed for. I never again drew her aside for a heart-to-heart talk. I had prayed for faith like Dad’s, but my prayer had gone unanswered. I chose to conceal my religious doubts, especially from my parents, and to continue to enjoy the many benefits of my father’s approval. I knew I was an imposter, yet I would keep it secret from my family and our Baptist congregation for a long time.

I led a double life.

Every Thursday morning on my way to the school bus stop, I pulled off my Girls Missionary Guild sash and stuffed it into the bottom of my bag. I rolled the waistband of my sky-blue skirt into a lumpy girdle around my middle until its hem rose two inches above my knees. Before our afternoon meeting in the church basement, I’d readjust it and slip my sash back over my blouse. My Missionary Guild uniform did not make me a faithful Christian any more than the silk kimono had made me Japanese.


Janice Westerling is a San Francisco Bay Area writer who grew up in the Central Valley of California and studied with the late poet Philip Levine at Fresno State College. Her essays draw on the pocket-size farms and drugstore soda fountains of her childhood. Her work has been published in the Christian Science Monitor, Santa Clara Review, Reed Magazine, and The Coachella Review; and excerpted in the book Writing from the Senses (Shambhala, 2014).

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