My life as a born-again Christian

(In which our hero gravely hurts someone who loves him deeply, takes advantage of others’ kindnesses, betrays his heart, and only realizes years later that none of that was OK.)

I used to be a born again Christian. It didn’t take. I converted under duress: Laura, the first woman who was ever really interested in me, was one of those born-again hippie types that were prevalent in the 1970s. She was beautiful: long, wavy hair, sparkling eyes the color of cinnamon. She wrote me letters with long, drippy calligraphy, sketches of snowy Vermont hillsides and moons a half-day new. We dated for a couple months and then realized the religious difference was going to get in the way. Neither of us wanted to hurt the other, and so we agreed it was best to end things.

I got a mile away from her room and felt desolate. “Fine,” I said. “If this is what it takes, then come into my heart, Jesus.” I said it as a dare. I suddenly felt lighter. I went back and told Laura what had happened: she and her prayer partner had been praying fervently that I would see the light on my walk home.

And then my mind came back. My problem was I actually read the Bible. The thing that was the breaking point for me, as I recall, was the delineation of the roles of a Christian husband and wife. The inequity repelled me viscerally.

I saved myself: I fell away from Christianity, came to a tearful agreement with Laura, and decided what to do next. Laura left school and moved home to Schenectady. Self-centered, insensitive person that I am, I didn’t realize until a few years later that she’d done so because of me. As for me, California suggested itself. I took forty bucks from my mother’s hoard of cash and headed for the interstate, wearing a canvas knapsack with one change of clothes, a tent and thin cloth sleeping bag, and nothing else to my name.

I got to Medina, Ohio the first night. I walked into the police station, said I was heading to California looking for work, and asked if there was any place in town I might spend the night without bothering anyone. The police chief of Medina, Ohio was a very nice young woman who called the local homeless charity — which was apparently sitting around waiting for someone to be homeless — and they put me up in a motel. The police chief kept asking whether I wanted pie.

I was, back then, 5’9” and weighed 120 pounds soaking wet. I probably looked like I needed pie.

The next morning I was on the Interstate again, thumb out. Someone offered me a ride a little ways: he was turning off just ahead to head to southern Ohio, to visit a hippie herb farm in the Appalachians. I decided that sounded fun and tagged along. A mistake, kind of. First rule of cross-country hitchhiking: don’t forget where you want to go. I didn’t get to California for another five years.

I was terrified. Alone and on my own, a runaway, unused to doing anything for myself other than sulking, and heading who knew where. The Christianity seeped back into me.

The herb farmers were very nice, Ron and Ann, and a baby, Dylan, who would be 29 now. (Fuck, I’m old.) They offered to let me camp on their land, and then when it got down to about 20 degrees Ann insisted I sleep on their couch.

I lay there and realized that as the infectious tendrils of Christianity had once again metastasized though my heart, the obstacle to my engagement to Laura had gone away. I decided to head for Schenectady.

The next day I walked five miles down Ron and Ann’s driveway to the road, then another two to town. I bought a couple packs of cigarettes and some matches and hitched south. I crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky at Portsmouth, walking across on a long silver bridge. A few rides in succession took me to Ashland, into West Virginia at Huntington, and to Charleston. I stood at the interchange of Interstates 64 and 77 in Charleston, thumb out, and after half an hour a bearded guy in a pickup offered me a ride north on 77.

“Don’t you get scared doing that?” he asked. “Sometimes,” I said, “but I just pray for strength.” And he started digging frantically in the cardboard box he had next to him on the bench seat. I thought to myself “He’s either gonna pull out a gun or a Bible.” It was a Bible. He pressed it on me, told me he’d wanted to give it away. He dropped me off in Ripley. I stood there hitching for an hour. A school bus full of kids drove by a block away. One of the kids yelled out the window. “Hi, hippie!” I waved.

In Caldwell, Ohio that night — yes, I know it sounds aimless: the meandering route made sense to me at the time — I again walked into the local police station to ask where I could stay. The chief was not a friendly, pie-offering young woman, but rather a lanky guy with a cop mustache and a Stetson hat who asked me to wait in the lobby for a moment. The door to the back failed to shut all the way, and I overheard the discussion he was having. I heard the words “runaway,” “marijuana,” and “run a computer check.” I was a runaway, and I knew my mother would have filed a missing persons report on me within hours of my leaving.

I opened up the Bible, started reading.

The chief came out and sat down across the room from me. He asked me a few questions. I would look up from my book at him, answer the question brightly and politely, and then look back down to the book again. After a few iterations of this he got impatient. “What’s that you’re reading, son?” His voice was noticeably sharper, annoyed at my rude behavior in continuing to read a book while a duly sworn officer of the law was asking me questions.

I handed him the Bible. He looked at it for a second. He handed it back.  He got up, went to the back for a moment, came back with a slip of paper, folded. “Give this to the woman who runs the hotel across the street,” he said.

I walked out of the police station, went around the corner and read the note. It said “Ruth; please find this young man a bed for the night. He is OK.” Signed the Chief of Police, Caldwell Ohio.

I ate at a diner in the center of town, which center of town was about two blocks long in either direction. The waitress, who was about 19, opined that I was crazy to hitchhike. I slept in a flophouse room with eight empty beds crammed into it, a hissing steam radiator in the corner, bathtub down the hall and television in the common area.

I got stuck the next day in Pennsylvania. I was dropped off at a rural interchange between Interstates 70 and 79. It was a high-speed interchange. No one was stopping for me. I decided, after an hour, to walk to the next exit along country roads I saw in the distance.

One of them took me several miles to a dead end at the edge of a field. I tried to be upset. I failed. I went into the woods, sat on a log and read Ecclesiastes.

That night in Youngwood I decided to try the YMCA before the cops. They wanted seventy bucks for a room. The cops suggested a park near downtown. “Just sleep in the picnic area,” the cop said on the phone. “If you see a black and white coming up to you during the night, don’t worry. I’ll just ask the night officers to keep an eye on you.”

I slept atop a picnic table, shivering.

The next morning a cop pulled up, asked me how I’d slept, waited while I rolled up the sleeping bag and gave me a ride to the edge of town. At the edge of town was a restaurant. “I’ll buy you breakfast,” said the cop. After we ate he handed me ten bucks. He wouldn’t budge until I took it. The bus station was two miles away, in downtown Greensburg. I walked there through a downpour.

The bus from Greensburg stopped at the downtown Pittsburgh Greyhound station. I went to the counter, asked how much a ticket to Schenectady was. It was five dollars more than I had. I bought a ticket to Buffalo. By the time the bus crossed the line into New York that Christianity had oozed out of me again, and it never came back.

A year later, melancholy, I found Laura’s phone number in Schenectady and dialed it. Her father answered. “She’s not here, who’s this?” I said it was Chris, and wondered if she’d call me back. “I’m sure she will, Chris!” “Let me give you my number.” “Well, goodness, I think she’d have your number, Chris! She’d sure as heck have her fiancé‘s phone number, wouldn’t she?”

Laura had gone back home and gotten engaged to a guy named Chris.

21 thoughts on “My life as a born-again Christian

  1. John

    Golly….. (how to make spaces of time and place with text)….almost got arrested [taken in] in Flagstaff, Venice,CA, on the great highway, Castroville before the suburbanization, Schenectady as being north of Manhattan. Poor Laura. and miles to go….

  2. spyder

    You sure must be the wayward, prodigal, parable-telling son.  Well having just spent the better part of this evening with a group of evangelical and fundamentalist chrisitan types discussing the environment, i need to go take a shower and hope that dreamtime brings more earth-based and deeper planetary metaphysical connections for me.

  3. Carl Buell (OGeorge)

    I HAVE been to Schenectady. I was born, raised and died there.  It’s very easy to die in Schenectady.  First ALCO and then G.E. followed by two newspapers and the entire downtown shopping area.  And now me (at least metaphorically).  In 1965, I hitchhiked through Ohio escaping Christianity.  The local law was a lot less forgiving of my long hair at the time.  I was actually driven to the town limits of one small “…berg” and told not to come back.  I’m glad to see they grew a little more tolerant in the 1970s.

  4. Jane

    Because your Laura and I have shared in this aspect of a love I appreciate hearing that we live on with those we lost. Brings to light just how powerless we are -who knew!

  5. shane

    Hey man i read your story and i feel for you. You say you tried Jesus and it didn’t work? Can I ask you, are you a good person. The Bible says none are Good so if you answered Yes then that’s your problem, that’s why Jesus didn’t work for you, deep down you still didn’t understand your need for him, you were trying him out with the wrong motives. Do you know that God is Holy and Good, and because he is Good he must give justice. He must punish all sin, that means muderers, liars, adulterers, fornicator, thiefs. Thats all of us man. They bible says “all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God” and “the wages for sin is death.” It say it is apointed a man once to die and then comes the judgement. Those found dead in their sins will be brought to justice, and that is eternity cut off from God from which all good things come…Hell. Nothing you can do can changes the bad things you’ve done so what hope do you have.  I’ll tell you. God loved you so much that he put a ransom in your place.  Imagin you are in a court room guilty of many crime and the judge ask you what you have to say for yourself. you say “judge i’m really sorry but i’ve changed my life and done good deeds.”  The judge says that’s great.. but you’re still guilty. Your fine is $10 million dollars. You say Judge i can’t pay it. Then life in prison the judge says. They come to take you away and just as they place the cuffs on you a man you don’t know burst into the court and approached the bench.  Judge, he says, i have sold everything and have and empty my bank acounts, here is the money to pay Chris’s Fine, He i love him and have given everything to set him free.

    If that happened how would you feel towards that person.  Well that is exactly what Jesus Christ did for you. you were dead in your sins with no way out and the Bible say that while we are still sinners Christ died for us onthe cross.  Salvation is a free gift from God.  All you have to do is recieve it. But you can’t half heartedly try it out, and you can’t reach with the motives of getting a girl, you have to do it with a genuine fear for God. He hates sin and you have affended him with you sin. But he still loves you enough to die for you. You must repent (turn from your sin) and put your faith in Christ (trust that what he did on the cross was for you, and was enough to save you).  And don’t judge the outcome by your feelings, your feeling betray you man. Seek God and you will find him, but not if your not willing to humble yourself and admit He is God and you are not. I can testify that the Christian life is not easy, but Christ never said it would be. Jesus Christ said”I am The Way, The Truth and The Life and no one come to the Father except by me.”

    All i know of among sinners and am the worst, and if Christ can forgive me and change my life then he can for anyone and the bible says it is his desire that none should perish but that all would come to know the truth. he can do but you need to let him.

  6. chorazin

    I dont want this to be an attack on anyone’s religion… but I’m sharing my lovely experience with christianity.
    I was spoon fed christ since I was a wee babe. I’ll point out here that I had no problem with it, had many friends and support in shitty times etc. etc. Christianity has it’s values and many of them are good.
    Then my daddy married what to I can only label as a “Fanatically Christian Woman”. She was nice to everyone and smiled pretty etc, but she also looked down on anyone younger, darker, or less religious than her. Not kidding, got to listen to her rants in the form of ‘we should help those less fortunate than ourselves’.
    In the meantime I was growing up, and realizing I didn’t really like a religion where women are second class and I wasn’t allowed to have any interesting friends. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with homosexuality (not that any were of *those people* allowed in podunk, AZ), why I wasn’t allowed to hang out with non-church friends, guys (in church only), or church friends with single mothers. Most of this was Dad’s wife’s choice, him going along with nearly everything she said, despite the head of household thing.
    I got older, closer to emancipation, at this point I was being sent to every church function appropriate for my age. And I was only given a ride there, not back. Dad’s wife would make pious snide comments at me ‘you’re 16, C. we only have so long to raise you before your out in the world’. If I ate with the family, Dad’s wife would constantly leave the table, making noises of exasperation, and presumably to go pray for patience or whatever.
    Then I graduated highschool, was promptly dragged to WA by sane relatives, given a place to stay, and helped with things that should have been done years ago.
    Dad’s wife dragged dad off to south america to indoctrinate the heathens. Her wording, not mine, at least “heathens”.
    Now this dosn’t apply to all christians. But most dont accept homosexuals. Or women in postions of power. Which is why I’m staying the hell away from them.
    Good luck to those deciding.
    Chris, the story was great.
    Shane: Dont. Preach.

  7. Colin

    Wonderful, evocative story, Chris.  Long ago, I tried to get involved in the Christian church to share with my wife, who attends fairly regularly.  I even went so far as to attend adult confirmation classes (well, signed up for them and missed most of them looking after our kids).  At the confirmation ceremony, I was placed beside an exquisitely beautiful young woman in a diaphanous, white dress. The thoughts that passed through my mind in the House of the Lord, before my wife, mother-in-law and children convinced me that, if there was any truth at all to what I had been taught, I was in for one bumpy ride in the afterlife.  My wife, bless her, knew exactly what was going on and has lost few opportunities to tease me about it.  Two weeks later, I was asked to become an elder. I declined.  Now I’ve found a different kind of spirituality, which she loves, saying she cares less what I believe in, so long as I believe in something.  She’s wise. I’m lucky.

  8. Karl the Grouchy Medievalist

    Nice story Chris. I’ll share a little bit of mine. I was raised Fundy. My particular brand of Xianity put a lot of emphasis on sincerity: we had to love Jesus with true love, you know, altruistically. But I knew that the only reason I reassured Jesus of my love was fear of Hell. There’s no way to love something that has that much power over you, especially when that something is utterly imperceptible.

    The upshot was terror and self-doubt until I turned 16 and finally got hold of the atheism that I knew was mine all along.

  9. Stephen

    Smug, self-righteous fundy Christians on one side, smug, self-righteous atheist/spiritualists on the other. 

    If no one is willing to ascribe any sense of validity to the experiences and beliefs of other people, no wonder this country is so fucked up.

    Liberal fundies are just as irritating as conservative fundies.  Last time I make the mistake of reading a post on this blog.

  10. Karl the Grouchy Medievalist

    If no one is willing to ascribe any sense of validity to the experiences and beliefs of other people, no wonder this country is so fucked up.

    Huh? When was the magical moment when people stopped ascribing validity &c? Unless you can identify some moment when that happened, what you’re saying makes no sense. Even if what you were saying made sense, you’d have to work a hell of lot harder on your causal chains and evidence.

    At any rate, if you want to call my disrespect for a faith that I gave my best shot at for the first 16 years of life somehow ill-informed, go right ahead and sulk.

  11. spyder

    No, but as a spiritual-atheist i can only be counted on for snarky and snide comments regarding my disrespect and intolerance of liberal fundamentalists.  Can someone please tell me how i can get the necessary tax relief for my new church of devout atheism??? I do so want to be sure of my righteousness and smuggery, which oddly rhymes with buggery.

  12. Kathy McCarty

    Okay, I realize that SOME of you are SANE; now for the rest of you. It is my BELIEF that Chris Clarke was sharing a story about his actual LIFE, and his feelings both at that time and now, not trying to convince anyone of anything, or insult anyone’s beliefs. Does it FEEL like an insult to you all Fundie’s Beliefs that the Bible and Jesus thing didn’t work for him? Well it shouldn’t. He’s just telling what HAPPENED to HIM. You should get off your high horse and quit being so goddam touchy.
    I myself grew up in a long-vanished (apparently) America where it was left up to each individual WHAT to believe, and everyone else was expected to behave in a reaonably civil fashion to one another. I believe this cultural paradise was violated by fundamentalists deciding it was their JOB to convert everyone to their nineteenth century Protestant beliefs. That is just as WRONG as any OTHER religion (Islam !!  Wicca !!  OOOOOOOO SCARY !!! Let’s not forget HARE KRISHNA !!! MORMONS!) trying to convert everyone else. If anyone is actually interested in shopping for a new religion, they will seek you out. YOu don’t have to hassle everyone you meet. Sheesh.
    Stephen: Aw, go soak your head.

  13. Stephen

    Mr. Clarke probably thinks that one of the “ironies” of my comment was that I was being intolerant of the views expressed in this comment thread.  Of course, every bigot claims this defense:  “you’re being intolerant of my intolerance!  How intolerant of you!”

    I’m not a fundamentalist Christian.  In fact, I have no real investment in any religion.  Amanda at Pandagon had an interesting referral to this post, and I followed it.

    But I am getting pretty sick of how many of my supposed “colleagues” and “allies” on the Left are just as bigoted, intolerant and insufferable with their treatment of those people who do have faith.  Just as not every Muslim is a terrorist, not every Christian is an asshole.  In fact, there are large parts of the Democratic coalition that consist of very religious people, people for whom their faith is the main reason they have embraced progressive politics. 

    So maybe you grew up in a house with nutjob “christians,” or maybe you said a magic formula one night because you thought it would allow you to continue dating your girlfriend, or maybe you just can’t intellectually reconcile all of the aspects of a particular religion, or all of them.  I don’t care.  But the condescending dismissals of religion that pop up all over so-called “progressive” blogs are tiresome, and this attitude is not going to help us to develop a decent coalition, or win votes.

    I’m not talking about appeasing the religious nutjobs.  They can’t be appeased anyway.  But the Democratic party is supposed to have a pretty big tent.  Maybe we should have that mean something more than when the GOP describes itself as having a “big tent.”

    And yeah, yeah, tax breaks for churches and Christians all through government.  Right now our country is in pretty dire circumstances, and trying to air out your grievances all the time isn’t really going to help.  Since most self-professed athiests/agnostics are white, middle-class and have a good education, I don’t think that the church down the road getting a tax break has really hurt any of the computer-owning, freetime having, broadband subscribers commenting on this thread.

  14. Chris Clarke

    Stephen:

    1) You are wrong. The ironies I referred to: a) you lecturing me about my intolerance for people having reached their own conclusions about religion in response to a story in which I relate coming to my own conclusions about religion and b) you declaring that not being a fundamentalist, whether right or left, is the One True Way.

    2) Your reading comprehension sucks. There was nothing in this post that criticizes all religion, and you will look in vain on this blog for such a post. You will, in fact, look in vain for any post here that says what my religious beliefs are. I recognize that many of my favorite readers here are quite religious, in tendencies ranging from Episcopalianism to animism to the Zen Buddhism that one of my co-bloggers is now practicing on a summer retreat. Why would I deliberately offend people whose company I value over an issue that is unimportant to me? This post contained a sly dig at a certain variant of fundamentalist Christianity, and you might be able to find a snipe at Roman Catholicism in my archives if you dig hard. (My sense, however, is that if you found that snipe you wouldn’t understand it.) To conflate that dig with a general condemnation of religion is really fucking stupid. And having been a member of both faiths, I have earned those gentle digs.

    3) Weren’t you not coming back? Why is it the most tendentious and annoying nuisance commenters are always the ones who come back after saying they’re leaving forever?

  15. Stephen

    Actually, Clarke, I never said I wouldn’t come back.  I said I wouldn’t read another blog post here, and I haven’t.  I stand by my word, and I am quite able to comprehend what not only I have written, but what others have as well.

    To be honest, I just personally can’t stand you.  You are a pretentious prick, the comments that you sprinkle around various places like some sort of incontinent, ultra-territorial puppy are nothing but smarmy self-congratulatory intellectual masturbation that prop you up at the expense of others, like the aformentioned blog post.

    Anyway, I’m bored today, saw a link to your place and actually followed it.  I decided to get you riled up because I’m an asshole.  At least I have the good graces to admit it.  Since I’ve accomplished what I came to do, I actually won’t come back, not even to see if you delete this or reply or ignore it.  I don’t care.  But you can feel free to make a note of my IP and see if it pops up anymore.  But even I don’t think that you’re willing to waste your time to that degree.

    Well, so long, fuckhead.  People like you are helping to keep Democrats the minority party, but I guess there’s just no changing fundies.

  16. Chris Clarke

    OK, just because I’m procrastinating on my run, I took the thirty seconds necessary to find the above troll’s IP number. He’s posting from Overland Park, Kansas.

    Someone from Overland Park, Kansas is telling ME I’m why the Democrats are a minority party.

    (And I’m not even a Democrat! Heh.)