Last week, I took my first vacation in a year. I rented a car and skid through a rain storm screaming from the madness of New York City to the cool of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with its rivers and its hush. I stayed at the empty home of a friend. Slept under her homemade quilts, sat on her back porch among the lilac trees, listened to the birds, and wrote.
A mutual friend of this friend of mine recently said to me, “If I had known you as an evangelical, I wouldn’t have even recognized you, would I have?”
“Sure you would have,” I answered her. “I was the same person. I just happened to be an evangelical as well.”
Her eyebrows furrowed. The same…and yet…an evangelical Christian? The streotypical antithesis of everything she now knew me to be about–justice, equity, equality?
Frankly, I spent a lot of years struggling with it too. The culture wars would imply that this is an impossibility, and we have all bought into it. Those who join, or leave, evangelicalism describe their experience as going from “wrong” to “right.” But I know better. Having been both, my gut tells me, they aren’t as different from one another as we think.
So one day in Virginia, inspired in part by a conversation with the friend whose house I was staying at, I tried to make sense of how I went from one faith to another and remained the same person. Here is what I came up with:
I’ve asked myself why many times. Was I lonely? Seeking love? A sense of belonging? Family? Community? A logic model by which I could organize my life? Perhaps it was that that my mom was sick. Or my dad depressed. Or my heart broken. One by one, I’ve considered all of these options. And then, one by one, I’ve dismissed them. Year, after year, after year.
Still, the only answer that rings true is that God called. And when God calls, you have no choice but to answer.
And so I stood.
Crying. Gulping in air. My head spinning. My heart on fire. I was thirteen years old, responding to an altar call that, in a moment, altered the course of my life. Because in that moment, I became an evangelical Christian.
Hearing the voice of God, I climbed into a giant hand called evangelicalism that I thought looked just like him. And the hand clamped down around me tight.
For many years, it was cozy in the hand. I had joined a veritable swarm of evangelical youth. We laughed together. We prayed together. And together, we made a decision that blows me away still today: We decided not give into Junior High bullshit.
We felt as though the world had handed us a contract. It read: You are in Junior High, so you will be cruel, and treat everyone like shit who will let you get away with it. And if you can’t treat anyone like shit, you will be miserable, because everyone else will treat you that way. We read the contract over, and said “Uhhh, yeah, we’re not going to sign that….”
Instead, we wrote our own agreement, one we knew Jesus would prefer. Our agreement said that we would be kind and loving and good to everyone. Our agreement said that every one mattered, because we were all one in the eyes of God. We reviewed it together, glasses on our noses and pens held high, and took turns signing it. Yes, we would create a different world, a better world than the one we had been born into. We didn’t always succeed, but we tried, and that is extraordinary to me today.
These years didn’t feel like a phase, like adolescent experimentation, an outlet for our extreme teenaged passions and emotions. They seemed like a beginning, the beginning. Being an evangelical Christian became my life’s purpose, my life’s path, the embodiment of my entire young identity. I hung out with everyone from cool school soccer stars who would never have talked to me had not belonged to the same faith, to bad boys who would later go to prison for stealing ladies’ underpants from their neighbors’ homes, to pimply skinned homeschoolers who had no idea how to interact with people their age. And God. I hung out with God. Who I loved more than anyone, because he first loved me. I was happy. And it may have stayed that way. Had I not grown up.
But when I did, I realized that the evangelical community upstairs did not believe in the same kind of radical equality that we kids, who met in the basement of the church, did. Our leaders, for instance, told us that men and women were “equal, but different.” But I came to learn that “different” didn’t mean the same thing to them as it meant to me. In my church, a woman couldn’t even be a “head usher”—a role which consisted of creating, and maintaining, the ushers’ schedule–because it would mean telling men what to do. In the words of my pastor, the spiritual purpose of a woman’s life was to be a “spiritual cheerleader for the football players.” Women were not the players. Women could never be the players.
I felt myself push up against the inside of the hand. I wanted to remain in it, to be acceptable, good, so I tried to make myself smaller. I squished parts of me down, but everyone saw them bulging out. There were lectures, an insistence that I check myself–cut the sass, stop raising my hand with the answer to every Bible study question, and behave like a good girl.
So I tried cutting parts of me away, appendages that made me appear troublesome in evangelicalism’s eyes—my strength, my sexuality. But I didn’t have the guts to really cut them off. I just hid them under my clothing, like a character in a B-movie hiding an arm inside her shirt and pretending the dangling sleeve means the arm is not there. Everyone knew what was going on. Lectures became warnings.
Finally, I decided to stretch out, make myself some room inside the hand. Maybe, I thought, the hand will loosen a little bit in response.
But instead, the hand tightened its grip. Pieces of me came oozing out between its fingers, and I started spending less and less time in the church.
The more I grew, the tighter the hand gripped me, until one day I came bulging out between its thumb and its pointer finger like a giant bubble. And with a plop, I dropped from the hand. Fell from grace. And landed flat on my face.
I remember how it felt. Lying there trembling on the floor. Scared and alone. I had lost my community, my friends, my family’s approval. I had lost my life purpose. But worst of all, I feared I had lost God. Who I missed so badly my body ached.
I wanted to call out to him. But I didn’t know if I was allowed to anymore, if it might be considered hypocritical even. I thought about what my church used to say about those who took communion without believing that Jesus was the literal Son of God: They eat and drink condemnation unto themselves. If someone with spiritual doubt could not eat bread and drink wine with a community of believers, how could I approach the Master of the Universe after having left his church?
I spent the next five years gathering my splattered body back up. There on the floor, with no one paying attention to me, I told those parts of me I had tried to make small that they could stop holding their breath. They poked their heads out, eyes wide, like newborns. I eased pieces of me out that I hadn’t even known were there and watched, amazed, as they unfolded themselves, unfurled, sometimes gorgeous and other times plain, but fascinating all the same. I chipped away at the rock of pain that had hardened around me. The way Michelangelo described cutting marble to reveal the form that lives within. And every so often, in these years, I felt him. God. And I came to know, to trust, that he was still there. Still with me. Even here.
It was almost funny. I had thought that God was in the hand. That’s where the church had told me he was—in this one specific religion with its one specific interpretation, and its crucially important rules and regulations and requirements for its people. But when I dropped out of the hand, I found…he was everywhere. In the hand, yes. But also…here. Everywhere. Vast and wide. Moving through our bodies. Giving us life. No hand can hold him. Those who try, they grasp at the air.
A loosely held hand lets the air flow through its fingers while still holding its people near one another, which is a beautiful thing. But the tighter the fist the hand holds, the less room there is for people to bring their whole selves. And, perhaps, the less room there is for God himself. In retrospect, I see the flaws in the fact that the structure of the evangelical space did not loosen to allow me to grow within it. Had it held me more loosely, I might have stayed, and worked to reform the church from within. Instead, I stand outside. Waving to those in the hand. And saying, “It is good in the hand. Yes, it is true. God is there. And he is also here. So let us work together to end the oppression that plagues our nation, our world, rather than fight one another over who has God and who doesn’t. For no one owns the air. And there much work to be done.