Trickster in Twelve Churches

Written by Dia VanGunten
Art by Dia VanGunten


Church, Steeple. Two hands — a church, a steeple — opened up to waving fingers. A nursery rhyme: Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors, see all the people. All the people. 


A tiny box….Canjilon, New Mexico. In my memory, it’s mixed up with the post office, another tiny box. I have decorated it with a steeple and stained glass; a toy or a Christmas decoration that lights up from the inside. “Town” was one curving mountain road with a teeny post office and a tiny church.  I pointed from a moving car. What’s thaaaat? My parents said the church was called “crutch” and it wasn’t for us. Like Taco Bell, both with bells; one was gonna be greasy and not real Mexican food, the other was gonna teach me about hell. Dad had already detailed the whole Santa scam, yet he hoped to hide the devil. He didn’t know I’d been to vist the round log cabin where Paula made hot chocolate and read to me from the bible. When I tell Mom about the licking flames, she cries. If they were gonna feed me shit, Taco Bell would be better.


Inside the whale, it was round and blue like the dome of a Greek church. Well, it feels like I learned about Jonah while inside a whale, but the bible study classroom was in Toledo, Ohio. Later, as a teenager, I will move next door to this church, and a sound will float from a second story window —  the story of Jonah will thread me through to the past and sew my teenage self into that old spot where I was the child in a whale’s acidic stomach.  


A church bus…Toledo Ohio. Every Wednesday night the bus took me to Prims and every Sunday morning, I ran to the door in my ball socks and patent leather shoes. 

Dad always called from the couch — Where ya goin? Ya off to crutch?”


Tropical Palm Leaves Church…Marco island, Florida. The pastor and his wife were visiting my grandparents. We all attended a “sister church” for Easter. This sister was prettier: real palm leaves in the aisles, glam ceiling fans and open screen windows with hummingbird feeders. A woven basket traveled around the room, accordion fans were passed out as party favors. The folded paper was imprinted with bleating lambs and Christ’s thorned head. (The martyr nodded on every fan as parishioners sang hymns and sweated through their Easter outfits.)

The tropical church reminded me of the fancy Miami hotel where my parents wouldn’t let me walk across the street to the mall to buy zebra suspenders from Spencer’s gifts. They were afraid I’d get kidnapped but also they laughed because who would kidnap me? Kingpins would turn around to bring me straight back. For this reason, my motormouth was a comfort to them.

After Easter service, we went to brunch and the pastor’s wife told me it wasn’t fair for heathen parents to have six kids, especially because they were going to hell. This was a concern ever since the round log cabin. This is why I tried so hard to get in good with God. Maybe I could beg him not to burn Mom and Dad. The pastor’s wife asked if perhaps my parents might be willing to sell a couple kids since they had so many. Not me. My siblings. The little ones. 


Room 237, Overlook Hotel. By the time I was a teenager, I had been taking myself to church since age 7. I was in plays and Christmas pageants. (I could cry on demand so I always played the bad kid who is miraculously reformed by a poorly performed musical number.) I was in the Persimmons, Prims and Daisies. I volunteered at the nursery. I took my siblings to church too, until the day my sisters were separated into different bible classes. It frightened them. Hearing each other cry, they cried harder. The youth minister, who’d used me for all those stage tears, said, “I know you like bringing them here, Dia, but they can’t come back.” 

Ya don’t gotta tell us twice! Run run run! Redrum redrum redrum. 


Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde. Pages were always my safe place so my new church is a book. The gods are Fox, Coyote and Monkey. Eshu wears his half and half suit. Hermes has winged feet. In ancient Greece, Hermetic temples were located at the crossroads. Weary travelers were welcome to drink the wine and eat the bread. Hermes was the only god who shared his offerings. This makes Hermes my kinda god. 


Mailbox churches…Greece. I spotted the first miniature church as we headed for the Mani. It was in front of a house, like a country-road mailbox. I demanded to go back, but traffic was busy coming out of Athens. It didn’t matter because the mailbox-churches are everywhere. They range in sizes — birdhouse to dollhouse. One was like a phone booth, big enough for a single person to take short shelter. The tiny roadside churches have doors that open; inside, votive candles, bread, wine, olive oil. I know Hermes when I see him. 

Surely, this must be a Hermetic remnant from the crossroads. Hermes still has living temples! I ask Yiannis about this. He says nahhh. Greece is Team Christ —  the country is 98% Greek Orthodox. The dollhouse churches have more to do with the dead. I nod. Yea, yea. Hermes. I go on a pedantic tangent. Hermes ferries the dead and shares with travelers. Like all trickster gods, Hermes looks out for mortals. Yiannis goes whoa. He didn’t know about the ancient roadside altars, about mortals eating off a God’s plate. Now Yiannis thinks I’m onto something. 

“Maybe it is so that we forget the old gods but they have not forgotten us.”


International Church of Cannabis…Denver, Colorado. There are ashtrays in the pews. Parishioners puff puff pass. Technicolor murals on the soaring ceiling make it an insanely beautiful church. And I’m not just saying that because I was high. 


The Ancient Mariner…Cape Cod, Massachisetts. I booked a flight to Boston but I was racing through the Raleigh airport when dream . I couldn’t  breathe. My aunt answered and I asked if it was too late; she reassured me: No, no, you’re okay. Hearing my relief, she had to backtrack. It was not too late to phone, but yes, I’d missed Grandpa. 

A festive blizzard sparkled the world. Grandpa Tom was gone so I slept on his twin mattress. Tom’s bed was preppy like him — crisp linens and nautical stripes. He was handsome, still, and robust. It was sudden. Disappointment is hard on an autistic and death is the dirtistiest trick. I try to never think of this time; a blizzard of cringe & ouch. iPhone bombs me with those snowy photos. I see that blanket of white and I’m back in his vacated bed. 

For the funeral, they chose a church with literary flair, like something out of Moby Dick. The Captain pops in for a quick prayer. This is the last voyage, He can feel that white whale in his bones. My mother was so touched by the rough, mariner aesthetic that she announced her intention to “Find a church.” Not for God but for ritualistic comfort. Architecture. Amulet. The pain of a wooden pew when your body is so desperately numb. 

On the snowy drive home, at a 4 way intersection, a fox crossed in front of us. Red coat flecked with snow. Tail high and swaying. Sliding eyes. My church. My deity. Damn. I desperately needed someone to love me that week. Trickster gods love us outcasts best. 


Santa Nina…Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Mom found her church outside a town where old west outlaws like Billy the Kid used to convene. Mom’s church is perfect for her. Nobody is there, ever. Just the dead. Lace curtains blow in a tiny chapel on a mountain. It’s not as small as a dollhouse, but it’s built to 2/3 scale, so visitors feel somewhat unsettled, like Wonderland’s Alice. In an empty sunlit room, I feel like I have shrunk to enter one of the dollhouse churches, only I’m slightly bigger than I should be. 

Mom doesn’t go inside. She hikes into the mountain. She climbs past the three tiny graves marked with crosses and painted stones. Dogs. We hope. She passes the adobe ruins that sink into the sage. She goes up so high that her dog once sniffed a still hot turd left by a wildcat. 


The trompe l’oeil facade…straddling New Mexico and Colorado, like a trickster. There is a pretend church on the road between Las Vegas, New Mexico and Trinidad, Colorado. It’s like a child’s drawing — an outline of a church, but rising up from the land like a cardboard cut-out.  Was it a church that lost the other three walls, leaving only the front? Was it constructed for a movie set? Was it erected for a nature goddess? 

Through a high window, you can see “inside” and it’s just a cloud floating by.