If I feel mild embarrassment about my teenage conversion experience, I feel some major regret over the evangelicalism that dominated my college years. I would like to accept that this is one of many seasons and experiences that shape me, but when I feel the dull ache of the wounds I still carry, it’s hard not to wish that I had bypassed this phase. But again, I am the me of ten years ago as well as the me of today, and the people who were in my life then, some of whom are still in my life now, have left their mark, and in the case of many it was for the better.
Let me connect the dots on the timeline a bit. After becoming a Christian in high school, my faith in God rose to the top of my list of priorities and values. Coincidentally, and strangely, the majority of my close friends already identified as Christians, and a piece of me relished in this newfound sense of belonging I felt among them. I took the elements of spiritual practice very seriously, eager to prove my devotion to my new “heavenly father” through my commitment to prayer and being a good person. I remember attending Bible study during the lunch hour at school, where a teenage white dude monologued his interpretation of a daily passage of scripture, verse by verse. I remember feeling confused, thinking, “Isn’t Bible study, like, an interactive activity? Am I allowed to raise my hand? Am I allowed to speak at all? Or am I just supposed to swallow his interpretation as fact?”
Even early on, at the height of my religious fervor, I wasn’t much for theology or reading the Bible. I just had a really hard time sitting down and doing it. I think it’s because, both now and then, I’ve tried to live my life by a principle of “don’t tell me, show me.” Thus, in my mind, the way I lived my life would be a product of my faith and evidence of my spiritual identity, moreso than my ability to recite scripture on demand, and it was in that way that the seeds of altruism and social justice were planted in my heart. When I went away to college, I initially planned to study Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, with the goal of becoming a conservation biologist. I had done this random stint as a volunteer on a research project about leatherback sea turtles in the U.S. Virgin Islands… long story (cool story too, actually), but the point is, I felt that my contribution to the world, and God’s plan for redemption, was to help humans be better stewards of resources and ecosystems.
Based on that plan and motivation, I took an undergraduate seminar in conservation biology, but it just didn’t resonate with me. I changed my major to Human Biology, because it had the word human in it, and I wanted to help people, so it made sense, right?
While I was trying to find my academic path, I was also grasping for social connection, and I found it in an on-campus Christian fellowship. There were multiple at UC San Diego’s campus, each one with a different sort of personality, but most all with the aim of providing community among Christian college students, AND encouraging them to evangelize to other students. Somehow, I found myself involved with Campus Crusade for Christ (they’ve since realized that is a terrible name, and rebranded themselves as Cru, which is ambiguous and vague enough to also be terrible, in my opinion); this may sound like an extreme statement but… white supremacy and internalized racial inferiority is what brought me to CCC. It was the “cool” on-campus fellowship, predominantly white, full of hot surfer dudes who also happened to love Jesus. This is what I thought I wanted, who I thought I wanted to be affiliated with. If I could find belonging here, I’d have found the thing that had eluded me all my childhood and teenage years. There was something mildly incestual about the way members of on-campus fellowships paired off with one another, and yet I spent four years anxiously waiting for my turn, not realizing that I existed in this community primarily as a token for diversity, and was only offered belonging because I defied most students’ racist stereotypes about black people.
The thing is though, people are complicated. That’s not really the ONLY reason I was offered belonging. I was also offered a space in this community because I was kind and fun and interesting. I was a token, AND I believe I was genuinely loved and cared for by many people. The two are not mutually exclusive. We can love one another in very sloppy ways, that aren’t at all the type of love that the other person needs. I’m guilty of the same towards other people.
I have a lot of journals from these years of my life. In them, I am typically struggling with two primary issues: the question of ‘calling’, i.e. a predetermined life path that one tries to discover; and the question of partnership, which was inseparable from the question of whether something in me was fundamentally broken and therefore repulsive to other people. I know. Oh, the angst.
I remind myself of this incessant angst now, at moments when I miss faith purely for the comfort it brought. It did bring comfort, but it also brought a fair amount of insecurity and self-doubt, always wondering whether I was a good enough Christian, always wondering if my life was sufficiently uncomfortable to confirm that I was following the call of God. The Bible says one must give up their life in order to find it. At that time, my understanding of calling was characterized by extreme sacrifice, rather than being characterized by an affirmation of one’s talents and desires. If I could speak to my twenty-year-old self, I would tell her that calling does not have to be painful, nor should it be.
My uncertain journey toward my calling led me to vocational ministry, when, during my senior year of college, I applied for an internship at the church I had been attending in San Diego. The year I spent in that internship, and the subsequent three years I spent employed full-time were some of the most challenging, and formative, and painful, and complicated years of my life. I was also surrounded by a strong network of imperfect love and community. It was during those years that I discovered many of my gifts, that I clarified my passion for social change, that I joined Match.com, and that I finally realized I was Black. The last two happened back to back. It’s a good, sad story. Until next time.