Pretty quickly after I began my studies at UMBC, I got involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. By pretty quickly, I mean I was rescued from the charismatic fellowship two weeks into the semester, and, by rescued, I mean I don't know how long I could have been a part of a group where my inability to cry on cue would have been distractingly conspicuous.
In my teenage years, I got it in my head that real Christians read at least a chapter of the Bible each day and take some personal time for prayer. That had never been a habit for me, and I'd felt guilty as a result, just not guilty enough to actually have strong personal spiritual practice. When I got to UMBC, I decided that I would get a fresh start, I would make it part of my college student routine to read the Bible before bed. I figured I would start by reading the book of Daniel, because it's basically about a Christian student at a non-Christian university. I think I made it seven chapters into Daniel before I gave out. I didn't intentionally quit, it's just that the only thing that resembled a routine for me in college was watching Futurama.
The idea that God exists was very important to me, but I couldn't make myself care about personal spiritual practice. I was raised Presbyterian, so I was taught very emphatically that salvation is by grace alone, that there is nothing I can do to merit salvation. I was also taught a lot of rules, which I found confusing, because I thought the grace was supposed to be enough. I was told that the rules weren't what saved you, but that they were a sign of God's work in your life. I worked very hard not to break any of the rules so as to prove God's work in my life, but I didn't know what else I was supposed to do. Personal spiritual practice didn't seem important to me, because I was good enough at keeping rules and believing in God without it.
I played a lot of StarCraft.
I majored in engineering because I like math, but I wanted to get a good job without going to grad school. I figured I would move to Australia after I graduated. I like Australia, I wrote a report on it when I was twelve. I had heard that engineers are in strong demand in Australia. I also heard that a lot of Australians aren't religious, so I could evangelize in my off-time.
It was important to me to be a part of InterVarsity, partly because I felt obligated to be involved in the sorts of things that it does, evangelism, Bible study, and so on. I think I was driven to be involved with IV to a big extent because I didn't know how to be friends with non-Christians. I got along well with my less devout classmates, but we'd never hang out on Friday night and order pizza.
February, that year, I went to a conference with IV; the theme was "The Whole Gospel". I didn't know what that meant, I just knew that it was an IV thing and I was involved with IV, so I went. I rode with my small group, crammed into a Subaru Outback, driving into the middle of the woods because that is where spiritual things happen.
The speaker at that conference was Jimmy McGee. He explained that in the 19th century, there was a fracturing in the church between people proclaiming a sort of evangelical gospel of "believe and be saved" and those who said that the church shouldn't worry so much about evangelism, and that feeding the hungry and healing the sick is more important. He said that both are important. Jimmy talked a lot about how, in the United States, white people did terrible things, not just to the slaves in the South, but to the native Americans and to the Chinese railroad workers and the Hawaiians. He talked about how Christians should look for peace, but what Americans often mean by peace is often a mere lack of conflict; Jimmy called for a more Judaic concept of peace, shalom, community wholeness.
The conference was supposed to last until Sunday at lunchtime, but we left late on Saturday night; snow was already falling, and we didn't want to be stuck in the middle of the woods.
The next morning, we all slogged through snow to the dining hall for brunch. I was surprised to see that we were to eat off of cardboard trays and paper plates and plastic forks. The dining hall was in crisis; they seemed short-staffed.
We IV folk hung out together all day, playing Monopoly and telling stories. That night, sitting in the lobby of Chesapeake Hall, we saw about a dozen dining services workers walk in the door, planning on sleeping on the lobby couches. At UMBC, a lot of the people who do janitorial or food services work are bussed in from the city, but the snow shut down the busses. A lot of workers didn't show up that Sunday, out of fear of getting snowed in on campus; those who did show up would be stuck until the plows came.
At the conference, Jimmy had said, "I am not at peace if my community is not at peace." and that phrase was echoing in my mind; I'm sure Jimmy's teaching had affected the others in the fellowship, too. One person gave a couple of tubes of toothpaste, another, some spare bars of soap, and so on. One guy offered his only blanket off his bed. (It turned out that there were spare bedrooms and bedding for the workers.)
The next day, for each meal, we would go to the dining hall an hour before it was supposed to close, eat, then help the workers clean up. We did simple things to help out, we arranged chairs and refilled ketchup bottles. I was taught how to mop properly by the head of dining services. We did this again the day after that.
We were written about in the school newspaper, and I resented that, I think most of us did; we didn't help out in order to get attention. The dining services company offered us some sort of a reward, like a pizza party or something; we declined, and requested that a gift be made to a homeless shelter or food pantry. We didn't help out in order to get free food.
I started picking up trash on the ground, whenever I saw it. I knew it was somebody's job, and each time I would pick up a piece of garbage, I would say under my breath to myself, "I am not at peace if my community is not at peace." I got to know the people who would pick trash off the ground, but I had trouble making friends with them; we never hung out on Friday night and ate pizza. I don't think I knew how to be friends with janitors.
I went through a phase in which I didn't want to call myself a Christian. I saw the church I grew up in as materialistic and uncaring, and I didn't want to be associated with an uncaring movement; heck, I didn't want Jesus to be associated with the church. I believed that a revolution was imminent. The idea of social injustice was new to me, so I thought it was new to the whole church.
One of my small group leaders led the 30 Hour Famine at the start of spring break. A lot of stories about hunger and poverty were told, but what stuck in my head were numbers:
3 billion people live on $2 a day
1 billion people live on $1 a day
29,000 kids die every day from hunger and preventable disease.
I started doing calculations on my purchases; I had just bought Pokémon Ruby for $35 or so; was that worth not feeding someone for a month? I had taken an economics course a couple of years before, in which I learned about scarcity and opportunity cost: the choice isn't simply give or don't give, it's give to people and give up stuff for myself. I felt greedy eating food much fancier than beans and rice, but not guilty enough to change my lifestyle.
I spent that summer in Philadelphia, working at a day camp for poor kids. One day, coming off the subway, going home, my friends and I were stopped by a homeless man named Seth; he grabbed me by the hand, he needed help. He didn't have legs. We couldn't make out what he was saying, on account of his lack of teeth. He was saying something about the Poconos. One of us had some oranges left over from lunch, so we gave those to him, we figured he could eat oranges. As we walked home from the subway station, I thought, "I just held the hand of Jesus."
When I got home from Philadelphia, I was irate at how my church was operating. There was little discussion of missions, not much of poverty; what talk there was, was of short-term mission trips. By this time, I had become distrustful of the ways in which Christians talk themselves out of doing the very hard but good things. I saw things like short-term missions programs as inoculation against doing real missions work. I quit and joined a Mennonite church.
Most of the time, when someone honks a car horn, they do so out of indignation, having gotten cut off or something. One time, I was driving, and the red car ahead of me was stuck right behind an ice cream truck going at fifteen miles per hour; this red car crossed double yellow lines to pass the ice cream truck. I honked. I wasn't inconvenienced, I honked because the red car broke the rules. I cared more about the rules than I did about the driver of the ice cream truck or the driver of the red car.
When I realized how deep suffering is in the world, I wondered what was wrong with the church, my culture, or me; I lost trust in all three. I was more upset that things were not as they should be than I was sympathetic towards the actual people who are suffering.
For me, over the course of about a year, living as a Christian went from not breaking rules to being concerned with people, and I'm glad for that change. I had many dishonest thoughts, then, thinking that I was the only true Christian around, that everyone else was a sell-out; I feel more like this was adolescence rather than spite.
There was something in all of this that was dangerous for me. Growing up, I had felt overwhelmed by the idea of God, and didn't know what a relationship between any human and God could mean. I didn't know exactly what to do with God. In learning about social justice, I got no answers, I just found one more way in which God was befuddling for me; either the world is basically a bad place, or the church is basically too frail or too corrupt to remedy injustice. Regardless, God set things up in the first place, so there had to be some meaning in dealing with injustice. I felt like I was nowhere near living up to the divine standards because I still had sneakers and there are a lot of people who don't. I felt like there was something big having to do with God that I was missing, but, evidently, so was everyone else around me.
For all of my immaturity, I went from being apathetic to devout. I was reading the Bible a lot, praying, sometimes for hours, I would go for walks and have God on my mind the whole time.