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.