Exodus: Decisions

Part One. “Exodus” is a series of vignettes, posted till completion, describing my experiences growing up and out of an evangelical church. All names have been changed to account for privacy.

“Do you want to be baptized?”

I was seventeen and desperate — to please and be loved, among other things — when I heard those words. Desperation is funny in the way that it convinces you that you don’t have a choice. So when my friend Megan, a card-carrying member of the Going-to-Heaven-Club, asked me if I wanted to join the walk on that narrow road…I knew that I would say yes, regardless of how I felt.

The prospect of baptism had sat like lead in my heels since I’d first been told of it as a child. The weight of it caused me to drag myself spiritually for years, avoiding the topic while many of my church friends took the holy plunge at ages as early as fourteen. The only way to get to heaven is through baptism, said my Sunday school teacher. Some churches teach that you can pray Jesus into your heart, but we know that not to be true, said my pastor. People who aren’t baptized disciples go to hell, said my church. I felt broken every time I heard these “truths” and felt everything but the relief I was told comes with knowing that eternal life could be mine. Why didn’t I want that? Who wouldn’t want that?

Anxiety is funny in the way that it convinces you that you couldn’t possibly know what you want.

I envied Megan, and the way she truly loved the church we’d grown up in. I looked up to her—my first memories of friendship were of her and the other girls my age, and I desired their affection and acceptance more than most things. Megan was one of those intelligent, kind, funny people that everybody genuinely liked, including me. And even though I knew from years of conversation that her attitude and demeanor were not effortless on her behalf, I still wondered what I could do to be like her. Her response would be to say that she just wanted to be “like God,” a common, but meaningful, phrase in evangelical churches. So I considered that, perhaps baptism—a ceremony that our church believed not to be a symbolic, but literal, washing away of all sins in exchange for committing your life to God—was the way to acceptance and approval. A life less dominated by desperation, or enslaved to anxiety.

Of course, I was also into the whole peace-in-heaven-instead-of-being-tortured-in-horrific-ways-for-all-of-eternity thing.

I was careful to take my time before answering, though. It was the summer before my senior year of high school when Megan asked me this question. I was attending an arts school that had already saved me in a lot of ways, and studying theater had helped me explore experiences outside of my heavily Christian upbringing. I loved the challenge of taking my “self,” and denying it in order to fully embody a character. My entire major revolved around finding the humanity in people, discovering the good among the ugly, learning that humans are never always good or always bad. Theater is, in a sense, the expressed study of people. And my studies were leading me to become more open minded, more skeptical of the hyper-religious life I was leading.

While this growing skepticism had increased the space between the question and the answer, it had done nothing to change the answer itself. I was intensely afraid of rejecting 14 years of effort and immersion: attending church every Sunday since I was 3-years-old, midweek studies on Wednesdays, youth-services on Fridays, a week of summer camp, spiritual retreats, praying before every meal, praying before bed, praying, praying, praying. I was living my life according to the idea that baptism, and the believed connection it gave my soul to the creator of the universe, was the reason I was alive, the reason behind all of my actions.

And who the fuck is going to reject what feels like a reason to live, when they haven’t yet found what else there is to live for?

Megan stood in front of me looking expectant and hopeful, as expectations and hope are the fuel Christians run on. “Yeah. Yeah, I do wanna get baptized,” I told her. She squealed and hugged me tight. I hugged her back, her enthusiasm and loving nature contagious in the moment.

I can do this, I thought to myself.

I can be this person that loves God, loves her neighbors, loves religion.

My parents will be happy.

My sisters will look up to me.

I won’t be a disappointment.

And I’ll go to heaven.

This is the right decision.

This is what I want.

It’s not lying to say I want this.

This is my decision.

Dear God, if you’re listening…

I’m not lying.

I’m not.

preface: about taking trips

If you asked me, I’d tell you that I’m not good at making plans. This is a lie. I would also tell you I don’t enjoy making plans. This is sometimes a lie, sometimes the truth.

I didn’t talk much about my first trip to Europe this year, when I visited London and Amsterdam, mostly because I was mentally really fucking over it. I’d planned the entire thing. I went with two other people, but I was the only one who put in effort to figure out the plane tickets, and the airbnb (which I’d never used before and now use almost exclusively during my travels); I was unofficially in charge of figuring out how to get to airports and train stations, I found/booked the hostel we stayed in in Amsterdam…you get the idea. All of this on top of planning fun things I wanted to do and see.

And I did have fun! I got the chance to explore the cities both by myself and with the one of my companions who was/is still a good friend of mine (the other companion was someone I have a weird history with and frankly it was a mistake bringing them along). It was my first time leaving the country! Amsterdam was the first city I’d been in where the main language wasn’t English (which was exciting to me), and I loved that place more than I’ve loved the many cities I’ve been to. But my god…

It was fucking exhausting. I resented that trip by the end of it. I hated that I’d planned the entire thing. I hated that I’d brought someone I didn’t want to hang out with (and once we returned, never hung out with again in true “you’ll either hate them or be closer after a trip together” fashion). In the weeks following, I would think about that trip and get frustrated because I felt like I’d spent the entire time being bossy and annoyed, neither of which are core aspects of my personality but show out when I’m anxious. But I didn’t want to seem ungrateful for what was a huge privilege to get to do. So I just didn’t talk about it.

All of this to explain that despite what I might say, I’m actually great at planning, but depending on the circumstances, I don’t always get a kick out of it. ((However, if you ever wanna pay me to put together an affordable and lovely trip (or an expensive and bougie one) to someplace for you though, just let me know. Will perform labor in exchange for currency.))

So when I decided I was going to go a second time, I knew it had to be either alone (like my trip to San Diego this spring that was truly an amazing time) or with someone who’s personality complimented my own.

Planning this trip to London was so much better than the last time. My companion, Allie, bought her own ticket and didn’t need me to walk her through it. In fact, we only met up once to decide on where we’d stay. We each have day trips we’re going on solo in the middle of the week to focus on our separate interests. Like, it’s been the least stressful experience. It’s even been fun figuring things out because I’ve barely felt, and still haven’t really felt, anxious. She, like me, doesn’t always feel the need to talk because there’s so much to see and make mental notes of to write about in the future.

The personality of your companion makes a world of difference when it comes to how much you’ll enjoy yourself on a trip!! Don’t go someplace with someone you argue with a lot, or who’s anxiety adds to your own. If you wanna be extra safe, take a short trip somewhere with someone first before you travel to another country. Magnify the way they act on that trip by ten and then decide if you can do 1-2 weeks with them elsewhere. Learn after my mistakes, kiddos, it’s what I’m here for.

So that’s how this trip has come to be.  More on “why london” and what I’ve been up to while I’m here, later!