I was nineteen and was trying to be a Christian again, not because I’d fallen in love with Jesus but because I’d fallen in love with a boy who wanted to marry a good Christian girl. (There’s more to that story, but for now it’s enough to know that it has a happy ending: we broke up. Thank God.)
I’d been thinking I’d be a Unitarian Universalist, because I loved church and was constitutionally religious, but couldn’t quite think my way out of agnosticism. Unitarian Universalism wasn’t quite Jesusy enough for the then-boyfriend, and truth be told, it wasn’t quite Jesusy enough for me. When I worshipped in the funky, cerebral UU church in town, I missed Jesus. I missed the stories he told, and I missed the stories people told about him. I missed the bread, and I missed the cup.
There were several campus ministry organizations listed in the Religious Life brochure at the state school I attended. I crossed off the big brand name evangelical group first. I didn’t have the heart (or the stomach) to align myself with a group that borrowed its name from one of the most violent periods in Christian history. Then I crossed the medium-sized brand name evangelical group, and the small regional evangelical group. (There might be a theme here.)
The group that caught my attention was the scrappy, locally-funded ecumenical organization. Several “mainline” churches in town chipped in to support the project, and the United Methodist church across from church provided meeting space. Unlike the evangelical groups, I knew no one who participated in United Christian Ministries. At first that seemed strange, but I soon learned why: on a campus of more than twenty thousand students, there were rarely more than a dozen at any given UCM gathering.
Nobody wanted to be Episcopalian or Methodist fifteen years ago; this was before the emerging church redeemed candles and liturgy by calling them “vintage”. Those old traditions were, in the eyes of most college students, stuffy and conservative. But they were also the only churches in town who invited women to preach from their pulpits – and the only denominations that would even consider a conversation about the inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians in the Body of Christ. It was confusing. The churches that were “progressive” enough to tear out the organ and install a praise band were also the ones that were often concealing a streak of fundamentalism.
A few weeks into my first semester I accepted an invitation to attend a UCM-sponsored Bible Study that met in the student center. As I made my way down the hallway, I read the signs posted by each door, identifying which student organization was meeting where. I heard – and smelled – one of the big Christian organizations before I saw its placard. A band was playing Christian rock as college kids stood around eating pepperoni pizza. For all my suspicions… it looked like they were having an awfully good time. I kept walking until I reached the right room, but paused before I stepped through the doorwell. There was precisely one person there, the middle-aged campus minister who had encouraged me to come. He greeted me warmly. “The other person who was going to come had to cancel,” he explained apologetically.
I couldn’t help but feel like I’d come to the wrong room as I forced a smile and fished my Bible out of my knapsack. We opened our Bibles to the gospel of Mark and started reading. It was my first real exposure to a progressive Christian interpretation of the Bible. It was – and I don’t say this lightly – life changing.
All the pepperoni pizza and praise choruses in the world couldn’t have given me what that low-budget Bible study did.
I’m not going to be a jerk and say that Jesus wasn’t in the room down the hall. I’m sure he was. But I wouldn’t have been able to find him there. I needed to gather in his name with two or three, not forty or fifty. I’m also not going to rewrite history and tell you that this was the night that I tearfully asked Jesus to come into my heart (again). I didn’t.
What I did do was this: I sat in a room with a pastor of deep integrity who took the scriptures seriously enough not to take them literally. I admitted to being full of doubt and distrust without the person to whom I was speaking turning into the Salvation Police. I realized that Christianity didn’t have to be about accepting a bunch of propositions about God, but that it could be a journey.
That night wasn’t the first first step of that journey – I was, after all, baptized on Palm Sunday when I was not yet a year old – but it was a first step nonetheless. I’ve taken other big steps in the years since. I stepped into seminary, and into my first pastoral call in a mainline Christian church, and into friendships with evangelicals that slowly dismantled my leeriness about evangelicalism.
And somehow it seems like all those steps were possible because I walked past the room with the pizza.