On the drive from Upper Bucks County to State College, Pennsylvania, Zack and I listened to a “This American Life” episode entitled “Pray,” which originally aired in 1997, years before evangelical pastor Ted Haggard’s gay sex scandal. The longest act of the show, clocking in at 41 minutes, focused on TAL contributor Alix Spiegel’s time in Colorado Springs and her exploration into the “prayerwalks” of an incredibly Jesus-centered community. While she’s in Colorado, Spiegel can’t sleep, and later finds out that one of the pastors she’s been interviewing has prayed she won’t sleep until she finds a place for Christ in her life. Extreme, no?
I think the only times I’ve been routinely approached by religious folk have been in State College. In a town where there are nearly a dozen places of worship (only one of them a synagogue), it was always the Mormons who were out to get me, though I will admit, the kind folks at the Chabad house were always trying to suck me in to their Friday night Shabbat dinners, too. Whether it was before my shift at Viet-Thai on North Atherton or walking home from class past the Allen Street gates, I always had a hard time saying no to the cute, clean-cut blond boys handing out pamphlets or the modestly dressed girls in peacoats who wanted to tell me about the Book of Mormon. The weekend after the Sandusky bullshit began, I sat down on a bench outside of Schlow Library to check my Twitter feed or something when I was immediately targeted by a nice looking girl, again, in a peacoat. She offered me a postcard and I took it. “Thanks,” I said, “but I really like being Jewish.” She nodded and smiled, still hoping to save me with a 3 X 5 prayer.
About a week and a half ago, I took the R5, excuse me, the “Paoli-Thorndale Line” from Market East to my home in the western suburbs. The train was pretty empty for 6 p.m. on a Saturday (I guess most people are coming in to the city around then, not leaving it) but two younger girls, completely unrelated to each other, chose to sit behind me. One voice started talking loudly.
“…it’s just that my boyfriend broke up with me, not that I really care, because he was always drunk. I’m sorry if, like, this is too much information, but last night was so awful. I woke up at like 4 a.m. when he started heaving and escaped his vomit, by, like five seconds before it came out of his mouth. His sheets were totally nasty and I had to sleep on the floor. I’m just so upset because I don’t really get along with my parents, and I always depend on my boyfriends. But they always break up with me, you know?”
This pattern of conversation went on for a few more stops. At this point I started live tweeting the event (does this make me a bad person? Don’t answer that).
“…and I know you don’t care, because we don’t even know each other, so why should you, and I feel like I’m rambling but it feels so good to talk to someone.”
“That’s okay. I don’t mind listening. My life has really changed since I decided to only date Christian boys. I’ve been reading this book called ‘The Satisfied Heart,’ and I think you should too. Those boys can’t satisfy your emotional needs like God can.”
“I just have a hard time believing in God when I was raped at 12 and given this shitty life. If there was a real God, he wouldn’t let that happen.”
“God is good,” the quiet girl said, unsure of how to respond to that. “He loves you. It’s the devil who is trying to corrupt us.”
“If I could find a way to see that God is really there, maybe I could believe?” the loud girl said/questioned.
“The first step is you opening your heart. You can test God. You can ask for him to reveal himself to you, if you want.”
“Okay,” the loud girl said slowly, as if she was started to get it. “I think I can do that.”
“It’s such a blessing that we’re having this conversation,” the quiet girl responded excitedly. “Gods redemption is real, I’m telling you.”
The loud girl continued to talk about her perfect, unfairly pretty older sister, her parents who don’t understand her, and her record of older ex-boyfriends. She talked about how tired but “hyper” she was, and the medicine she forgot to take this morning. She cried a little bit. The back-and-forth slowed between them.
As the ticket collector called out my stop, I stood up and looked behind me. The voices I had been hearing matched faces that looked about sixteen years old. The one by the window had mousy brown hair, no makeup and simple wire frames. The other donned braces, acne, smeared eyeliner and damaged hair that appeared as if it had been tie-dyed four different shades of auburn. She smiled sheepishly at me, knowing that I had been listening to their entire conversation. “Hi,” she said. “Hi,” I replied, confident in my demeanor. I am a 24-year-old who remembers high school perhaps too well. “It gets better, okay?”
She nodded and said thanks. I stepped off the train and waited at the platform for my father to pick me up.