If I had to name the god of my college years, I would name it Rigid.
A note before you begin reading. This chapter ping pongs between topics. I did it on purpose to give you an idea of the growing tension inside of me when I was in college. I’d advise you to take a mental break every time you hit a line on the page.
The start of college continued in much the same vein as high school: wearing stupid Jesus shirts, going to way too many church events, and half-assing my education. I was the best little Republican Fundamentalist Jerry Falwell could’ve ever hoped for. My Jesus wanted tax cuts for the rich, bombs dropped on anyone who fucked with America, and demanded moral purity via legislation.
The smoking hot woman with the big hair who drove me to church the night I got saved, Carrie, became my girlfriend. She had cut the gigantic hair later in high school and had replaced it with a stylish wedge. I made some drama our senior year of high school by way of a dating triangle between me, Carrie, and her best friend but Carrie found it in her heart to forgive me. We officially started making kissyface our first semester of college.
Carrie and I were a great couple. We both were groomed for leadership by our campus ministry, we both obediently stayed within the boxes we were given to play in, and our strengths were complimentary. Plus she had these absolutely gorgeous, green eyes. And a full, pouty lower lip. And dark, curly hair that framed her light-skinned face with an exclamation point. And a smile that lifted the spirits of anyone that saw it. And she let me kiss her. And she let me touch her boobies sometimes… that didn’t count against our True Love Waits pledge as far as I was concerned.
I broke up with her twice in college. The first time was something like 24 hours before I went running back to her. The second breakup lasted something like a week. I just kept being drawn back to her. She was that amazing.
Besides making kissyface with Carrie, I started playing bass in college. One day I walked into the Baptist Student Union of the University of Southwestern Louisiana and my friends Jeff Cole and Gary Brumley were in the middle of a jam session. I grabbed a bass sitting on the ground and asked them to show me what to play. Within a couple of weeks we were playing for our weekly campus ministry services along with a long haired ginger drummer named Brian Smith. A dormant musical inclination within me had been awoken. I got a bass for my birthday, a Fender JP-90 I named Black Maggie. I replaced her factory pickups with some active EMGs and, oh, did she fucking sing. Her deep voice rattled the windows of the BSU as I worshiped Republican Jesus. I skipped so many classes as I learned how to play. Zeal was the fuel in the engine of my life.
My first summer of college I worked as an Intern with the Youth Group for the church I got saved in. My life path was clear: I was going to lead youth in discovering the wonders of Jesus and the bible. However, the realities of leading youth to Jesus didn’t match up with what I imagined they would be. That summer I found myself frustrated by any of the youth who didn’t take their faith seriously. Didn’t they know that their classmates were going to hell?! I was one of the lucky ones who were saved because a Christian student chose to live for God’s glory! How could they just dick around in the back of the room and not listen to what we were talking about?!
By the end of July I was ready for school to start again so I could get back to playing bass, skipping classes I didn’t like, and surrounding myself with people who took their faith seriously. I was starting to wonder if this whole youth ministry thing might be a mistake. I loved the kids. I loved teaching them about the bible. I HATED the silly games and songs. If it all went together, then maybe something else was what I should invest my life in.
At the end of that summer, I was looking at a wall of photos from various events. There were photos from church camp in Georgia, Wednesday night services, as well as any & every other get together the Youth Group had. As I looked at a photo of a pool party, I was curious about who the man was in the middle of the photo. In a moment of complete shock and body dysphoria, I realized I was looking at myself. My hand had slipped off of the mental and emotional lid I always kept pressed down on a piece of my heart. I was absolutely disgusted with my body hair, my swim trunks, my haircut, and everything else I saw in that picture. I quickly slammed the lid back down on whatever it was inside of me that was screaming at the top of its lungs but the damage had been done.
I prayed about that on a regular basis… the unnameable sin in my life. The sin that wouldn’t go away no matter how hard I prayed. As I walked away from those pictures I felt a deep fear. Something was really fucking wrong.
But there was no way I was going to look at it.
I would just bide my time until Jesus healed it.
As an Evangelical college kid, it felt like there were three or four choices of what do with your summers: Go to school, work a “real” job, work for a Christian summer camp, or do Summer Missions within the Baptist Student Ministries of Louisiana.
Having already done the “Youth Group Thing,” I decided to apply for a summer missions position with the Baptist Student Ministries of Louisiana. There was a Ranch in Oklahoma that helped at-risk boys. I applied for that position since I had grown up with sheep and the job also involved young dudes who needed to be loved. During my interviews, I was casually asked if I would be open to other positions. I told them I would be open to anything that God wanted me to do.
I got a phone call a few weeks later congratulating me. I had been chosen to serve… in Hong Kong and China. My jaw hung open as I took this information in. I applied for Oklahoma -and that was what I wanted- but I was going halfway around the world instead. I was going to see one of the places that my dad had been to during his international sales career.
The perk of being a member of the Honors Program was that I to register for classes a full day before everyone else, the con was that I had to attend Honors Seminar once a week. It was a class that was supposed to help the advanced minds of Louisiana delve into matters deeper than jello shots, MTV, and this new-fangled thing called The Internet. Most of us sat in Honors Seminar and casually observed the conversation, with the occasional outburst of laughter from the group at a good barb or comment. However, there was one week that brought all of us into engagement.
The homecoming queen of USL was a drag queen (looking back, maybe she was a transwoman) who went by the moniker of Ms. Vermilion. The proctor of Honors Seminar, Dr. Pat, decided that bringing him/her into the seminar was a perfect way to move us into an enlightened conversation. For the first half of the seminar, I sat quietly but I was fucking petrified. Could people see that I felt some kind of kinship with this person? Could they tell that I was a Christian who hated & feared her, too? Finally, motivated by a crushing guilt I felt at not declaring my religion’s beliefs, I spoke up. I quoted the book of Deuteronomy’s forbidding of crossdressing and tried to steer the conversation towards God’s love but the intellectuals in the group pounced on me. A few other Christians spoke up to defend my position.
By the end of the seminar I felt like absolute shit. The other Christians in the group patted me on the back for “speaking the truth” but all I could think about was how condemned I felt by my own words. I was just as guilty as Ms. Vermilion but I hid where she stood tall. I lived in private where she lived in public. My life was ruled by fear and hers by courage.
As I looked out the window, all I saw was water. I knew that the runway of Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong was manmade and jutted out into water but that knowledge didn’t make the landing any less shocking. Our wheels touched down on land I couldn’t see and it wasn’t until we had rolled to a stop that I loosened my clenched fists. The airport was just as foreign as the land I was about to enter.
Hong Kong is a place full to the brim. Buildings desperately reach into the sky to make space for all of the people. Even signs go vertical to fit into the space they are allotted. Throaty g/k sounds fill the Cantonese language and mingle with “oa” sounds that float on rising and falling tones. Diesel exhaust, dried fish and thick, humid air fill your nose.
When our team first arrived in Hong Kong, I immediately jumped past the “Honeymoon Phase” of culture shock and landed in the part that was repulsed by the differences.
All of that changed when we went to Southern China. The policy of Reform & Opening was just beginning to leave the tightly controlled Special Economic Zones of China and expand everywhere. Looking back, I’m grateful that I got to experience China before McDonalds, Calvin Klein, and Toyota sunk their claws into her.
The Cantonese sounds of Hong Kong were replaces with Mandarin’s hissing “ts” and “ss” sounds followed by “ou” and “ah” vowels that danced on easier-to-remember tones. I saw squat, grey concrete buildings from the Communist Era. I saw countless numbers in the navy pajamas we Westerners imagine when we think of Asia. I watched a farmer haul buckets full of human shit on her shoulders as she made her way back to her farm to use it as fertilizer. One of our hotel rooms was so low in quality that one of the girls in our group started crying when she realized we had to sleep in it.
We saw so many different ethnic minorities on that trip. I drank a powerful rice spirit out of a bowl with the Miao people. I ate Hot Pot with the Hmong. In culturally appropriate behavior, I held hands with a young, male member of the Communist Party… and ruined the experience for him when I gave him a bible. We got lost when we got on the wrong train and were miraculously found again a few hours later.
I can’t cover all of Southern China in a blog post. I’m just trying to help you get a glimpse into our jet-legged, multi-province trip.
Returning to Hong Kong after seeing the impoverished, rural parts of China gave all of us a perspective we desperately needed. We realized we were in a First World city and were grateful for things like Starbucks, 7-Eleven, western toilets, and English announcements on the subway.
I left Hong Kong a much different person that I was when I had arrived. The world had grown so much smaller. God’s face had changed, too. Before this trip, I was advised to pray to a “God with the face of the people you’ll be serving, instead of a face that looks like yours.” I immediately started to imagine God’s face as Asian when I prayed and, as the woman suggested would happen, I found myself more tolerant of the cultural differences. I was more patient with the people that reflected the face of God.
When I landed back in America, the future was clear: I would be a missionary. The Youth Group phase was over.
One year later I was handing out gospel tracts during Mardi Gras in the French Quarter. We were there to assist a church planter who was starting a new church in New Orleans. I was petrified but this was the work of a missionary, so I knew I needed to do it if I wanted to live overseas. Plus there was a huge guilt trip built into the DNA of Southern Baptist culture over proclaiming your faith. Republican Jesus wanted you to tell people about him. I took a casual approach and handed out a handful of tracts as I tried to begin conversations with people. It didn’t work and I felt like a total failure the entire time I was there.
I remember the drunken revelry and the sights I can’t unsee. So much kissing between random strangers happened. So much vomit was seen and smelled. So many men were peeing on walls. Unfortunately, only one pair of boobies were seen… and I learned through that one pair that boobs aren’t that sexy when they’re a public spectacle.
I also remember two guys in drag. One of them was so convincing he kept getting catcalled. As he walked past us, he turned and yelled in a deep voice, “I’m a man!” The guy standing next to me started laughing and kept telling the story over and over to people in our group. “I’m a man!” became a kind of random line he would throw out and people would laugh. I did my usual thing that I did in these situations- I chuckled and died inside. I thought it was better to be hurt and belong than to be an outcast if I told everyone what I was dealing with.
I was starting to crumble from the inside out. I was holding two opposing ideas about myself at the same time and I wouldn’t let go of one and couldn’t let go of the other. A rigid god, demanding and inflexible, was pulling me apart.
Read the next part of the story: A God named Tolerant