Between the ages of six and fifteen, my sole mission was to convert non-believers to non-denominational Christians. As a family, we drove to the all-black Church of Christ, 45 minutes away, at least three times a week to stay for at least two hours. Aside from the powerful and loud singing, each service, there was a constant reminder by one of the two preachers that Jesus Christ was returning soon and that death was looming. Out of fear or maybe just belief, I made it my responsibility to convert others.
In school, I volunteered to work as an acolyte and to read Bible passages during Chapel. During our snack and lunch breaks, I oftentimes quietly read my Bible or tried to spark up conversations about religion with my peers. I even responded with scripture (King James’s Version only) whenever my tennis coaches commended me on my motivation and hard-work: “Thank you! I was really inspired by a verse in Ecclesiastes. It goes a little something like this, ‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.’”
I kid you not. I even had that verse written in sharpie on my green Prince tennis bag throughout middle school. Simply put, I was Urban Dictionary’s definition of a Bible Pusher. You know, the type of person that actually pushes people away from Christianity. I was incredibly judgmental. This past winter break, my mother mentioned, in a half-kidding way, that I used to be pretty scary marching around with my little green pocket Bible quoting scripture.
My religious fervor slowly began to dwindle by tenth grade. Some of the non-believers I had conversations with had questions that I could not answer myself. My minister’s answers to those questions, and some of my own, weren’t satisfactory either. People that I greatly admired successfully reasoned why they were agnostic or atheist. I didn’t want to condemn them. Additionally, I had grown weary of hypocrisy – I got angry with those Christians who cursed, gossiped, etc. It frustrated me that I had been putting in so much effort and others seemingly weren’t. Exhausted from grappling with these ideas, I slowly stopped going to church and dealing with religion as a whole.
I tried my best to focus on my schoolwork and tennis, and I closed myself off from religion. But my school’s chaplain continued to ask me to read passages and to acolyte – I didn’t have the heart to abandon him in his endeavors. I also didn’t have the energy to explain my complacency. I was tired of having the same conversations and continuing to feel unfulfilled afterwards. In short, I played the role until graduation. Because of this outward appearance, I received a lot of religious gifts for graduation, including Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. I was entranced until I read the back of the book, which explained that it was about a man’s spiritual journey. I was turned off, and it immediately collected dust on my bookcase.
Because one of my goals last summer was to do a lot of reading, I eventually exhausted most of the books on my bookshelf. For some reason or another, I picked up Blue Like Jazz and began reading. I started and finished it in one day. Miller openly expresses his own religious doubt and honestly criticizes organized religion – but not scathingly like Richard Dawkins. The book, for the most part, avoids scripture and religiously packed language, which I find overbearing and detractive. The book shows the act of following Jesus, and Jesus himself, in a completely different and, actually, appealing way. He also highlights his own disagreements with Christianity. It made me realize that I was not alone in thinking that there really is a problem with organized religion and hypocrisy. I thoroughly enjoyed Miller’s honesty. In short, I found an ally with Donald Miller. But, I didn’t start picking up my Bible again or having any desire to go back to church.
It wasn’t until this past winter that I went back to church for the first time in perhaps a year. It has always been a tradition in my family to attend church on New Years’ Day so I went out of respect and love for my family. But because of car difficulties, instead of our normal church, we attended a church nearby, which I’ll affectionately refer to as the “white-people-church”. I only refer to it this way because it was the starkest difference between this church and our old church, which had pews full of black people. Some differences are just too conspicuous to ignore.
The service at the white-people church lasted for exactly one hour. Everything was calculated. The singing felt stiff, there was no swaying back and forth, clapping, or smiling on the faces of those near me. The sermon wasn’t aided by a chorus of “Amens” or “Yes, sahs” and the preacher stayed behind the pulpit the entire time. I felt no stirring in my chest. It was then that I realized that I missed going to the black Church of Christ close to an hour away. I didn’t miss the doctrine. I missed the intimacy. The sense of belonging, collective struggles, and wholeness that I felt being black in a black church. It occurred to me that, maybe, there are a significant amount of people who go to church simply to feel connected. I realized that part of the reason why I worked so hard to become the “perfect Christian” was because I wanted to feel deserving of that connectedness. I now realize how harsh I had been to the hypocrites that I had met in the past. I hadn’t thought that maybe they were only looking for community and belonging too. I had no idea what their own lives were like and what drove them to behave the way they did. I should have taken that into account.
At Amherst, it’s very easy to condemn athletes for being insular, senators for being too political and scheming, artists for being condescending, and activists for being rude and judgmental. But we need to remember the wealth of different experiences that cause people to act the way that they do. We are all products of our societies and experiences and we are all searching for community and intimacy. Sometimes these facts get shoved under the rug. More often than not, people aren’t intentionally trying to hurt each other. Religious groups aren’t intentionally trying to isolate, harm, and persecute those with differing beliefs. In reality, people are only responding in the way that they have been conditioned. People definitely still need to be held accountable for their hurtful actions, but in order to have any meaningful progress, motives and conditioning need to be understood.