Conversion

I walked home after a day of glazing, weighing, and packaging holiday hams and other meats, with my usual sixer of over-priced import beer, drinking a bottle on the way. I drank two more, lit a cigarette and called my mom, who was overdue for our quarterly conversation, and told her I was an atheist.

I spent many childhood nights exploring the computer in my stepdad’s office, cramped with his tarnished trophies and dusty deer heads. One evening my mother joined me by the computer. The monitor’s scattered glow electrified the streams that raced due to her brother’s recent passing. “You must believe.” She cried, clutching her blue paperback bible—40 days she cried.

My stepdad, Craig didn’t go to church much. He typically skipped the holiday services too, but one Sunday he drug me along. His arm held the door as I passed the chalky brick mouth, down the throat past pamphlets of church retreats and prayer groups, then swimming amid clusters of long oak pews, dissolving in the copper-colored carpet, held back by a humble pulpit planted before an old bronzed Texan with the Lord’s Prayer trickling from his mouth.

After years of TGIF evenings, Saturday morning cartoons, and Sunday’s newspaper comics at my grandmother’s my parents finally split. After attempting to share an apartment with my mom, we did too. I moved north to live with my biological father John, who informed me that church attendance was mandatory during our first supper.

It wasn’t a specific pastor, the Bible, or divine consideration from the celestial that brought me to Christ. It happened as I was walking through a nearby park when I stopped and surveyed the waves of cold brittle grass as the day waned and the cold stuck its chest out under the concrete sky, and filled my 14-year-old brain with sparks.

John’s antediluvian views were always in conflict with those of public school. He didn’t understand biology, so he played fake science videos for my sister and I. My biology teacher addressed these kinds of issues simply to our class: if we had questions about science, ask. If it was about Adam and Eve, don’t.

Eve being fashioned out of a man’s rib makes it clear that women were an afterthought of the men who wrote the Bible, which should have started with her giving birth to Adam. It’s miraculous women believe at all considering Eve, mother of creation, is made to live a life birth pains and servicing her husband.

High school was hiding boners on the crest of a hormonal hell-wave, forced to wake before sun-up and made to suffer with others just as awkward, smelly, and confused about the point of learning Algebra. Christianity was my escape. What else could I do? Rebel against a religious nut I’d only meet twice? Buy a ticket back to Texas on my $10 allowance?

I left the Midwest after high school graduation and attended a five-month program called Discipleship Training School (DTS) in Las Vegas. The unaccredited program is part of a bigger machine, the University of the Nations, a callback to the days when a person could travel far for very little. Since the initial volt to the head in the 60s, its stressed belts, and loose bolts have turned out a base of operations known as Youth With A Mission in about 140 countries.

“Y-WAM,” Scott called it, as he endlessly romanticized his experiences to our Wednesday Bible study group. I met Scott at a side-church I was seeing as I grew distant toward my first. Its congregation had people around my age, one of whom was a young woman with a white opal face and spiked toxic-black hair. My engorged passion never amounted to more than long showers. But the gravity between our flirting eyes coaxed me toward youth ministries and drumming with the church worship band of which Scott played bass—until the worship leader saw me smoking in the parking lot next to my red rickety impression of a car.

Scott moved to Vegas to be a part of Y-WAM’s full-time staff after he returned from riding camels between the pyramids of Egypt. I showed up soon after with $900 cash and an old orange suitcase of clothes. I raised another $3000 over the following three months required for food, housing, the trip abroad, and the people who taught Bible class every week.

They weren’t professional teachers. There was no accredited degree required, only prior completion of a DTS and a lesson that could fill a week. You could teach any bullshit you wanted and if it was exceptionally well-received you could visit almost every country in the world at little to no cost.

I spent two months strengthening churches throughout Myanmar’s remote villages to Thailand’s swelling city sprawls, ready to burst like the Buddha’s bubblegum. I returned to America and reported on the proselytizing, poverty, and mass-market prostitution to the churches that kept my bank account in the black. I returned to the Nevada desert a month later to work on staff as a full-time missionary.

The issues we dealt with in Vegas or anywhere else had a link to poverty. Homeless camps covered Vegas in pockmarks that shown through the city’s incandescent foundation. The camps provided the fuel for an emerging trend: Bum-fights. While the mayor was busy tearing out the benches drifters used as bed frames, other scuzzier men were shuffling them into lots and bribing them with food and money to fight. We helped various organizations push back with lukewarm flavorless meals, melting salads, and clothing nobody else would wear.

Scott, myself, and other sprouts carried out the most tedious labor. The old stalks usually couldn’t stick around. Fund-raising, meetings, e-mails, prayer and other things that involved indirect sunlight and reclining chairs inevitably pulled them away.

Believers from all over the world would come to attend our two major schools, the one that brought Scott and I and another that mainly drew privileged teens from local churches to our organization for an overpriced week of prayer-walks in casinos (it’s was more like a tour), quiet biblical contemplation, and any other Christ-centric thing we could concoct called Mission Adventures.

Trending staff members usurped Scott’s long-held after-school program, and he eventually grew tired of thankless undertakings and flew back to middle-America. I did the same a few months later for similar reasons. John explained my forfeiture of human rights before I could unpack my luggage. I moved in with Scott three days later. He was sharing a dilapidated two-story igloo with blossoming alcoholics who’d party until 4 AM and let their teen girlfriends puke in our pots and pans.

We relocated the summer after to an elementary school near downtown that had been converted to spacious apartments. It had high windows and ginkgo trees in a line by the curb, and a pub a short walk down the street. Those things were all quite grand considering where we’d been but equally lackluster, stuck in the shadow of my long-distance partner, Jamie. She was living in Sweet Onion, Washington, and we talked on the phone every day (I hate talking on the phone).

I was laid off just as soon as the sofa seat formed to my ass. Macy’s bought our store and couldn’t afford to keep me on staff. My massive $200 weekly check bottle-necked to $70 after I found a job doing the same thing, in a much smaller space, on the other side of the mall. But it wasn’t enough to pay for rent, Taco Bell, cigarettes, and carcinogenic butt plugs, so two months later Jamie bought me a plane ticket to Washington. We kissed two weeks after I stepped off the plane, we married two months after that.

There was only one mall, its weathered halls serving only as a reminder to the locals that a rich man, living far away, can devastate the local economy by using his failing business as a tax write-off. My mother quickly offered us a room in Texas after I explained that the small town wasn’t exactly swelling with economic activity. Two weeks later we moved to Tyler, Texas.

Jamie and I both got jobs at each end of the JC Penney in the Tyler’s mall. Jamie sold shoes, and I stocked Housewares. Our stay was a brief nine months. Our presence was requested from Tierney Freeman, my long-time Y-WAM friend, now deceased, to help pioneer a new base in Portland, OR—I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

It didn’t take a year of fanatical demon hunting, go-nowhere arguments at board meetings, constant clots in the fiscal arteries, and an overflowing tax-form fountain before our ambitious collective dissolved. After an unusually snowy and directionless winter, I called Scott and told him we should start a church.

He and his wife Lindzy drove their possessions across the country to live with us. Our ideas tumbled around like puzzle pieces across the floor as summer burned on, but we’d only finish the edges. We couldn’t establish a home for ourselves, much less a house for God, so they moved to Chicago to finish college.

I gave up God on a Greyhound bus headed for my Washington in-laws. No sparks, chills or enlightening perspective, nothing but the sharp grind of Earth against space.

“Don’t tell your father.” My mom told me in the way one attempts (and fails) to conceal utter disappointment that they ever took the effort to shove you out of their vagina. In the hierarchy of things important to Craig, God is throned high above beef, the Bush family, Texas, farming, family, hunting, and Elk’s Lodge friends. This was the first time I regretted telling the truth.

A spindle-cell sarcoma inflated over my mom’s ankle a few months later. Twice did Death hold its scythe to her throat while she endured two years of specialized chemo, radiation, chronic pain, and muscle-melters. She’d call, crying, terrified she’d either burn in Hell or that I wouldn’t be around if God was feeling merciful. And it was difficult for me to find fluffy words because I’m fine with my ultimate passing into the timeless tectonic churn, my atoms negotiating whether it’s better to converge as crowds of Dandelions, or a pixel of a politician’s dick-pic.

I spent two weeks in Texas with my parents and my sister, who’d moved in to help out with food, dishes, sweeping, cooking, dusting, dog feeding, and the drudgery of driving to Wal-Mart every other day. I’d just quit smoking. I hated my job. Eczema was crawling out from underneath my wedding band and taking over the palm of my hand. Jamie and I spent two weeks in Texas playing cards and crying. The chemo made my mother’s hair turn thick and gray. I lived on cheap beer and high protein suppers. Before we flew back to Portland my mom’s pastor dipped her in a jumbo-sized bathtub of sanctified tap-water. Her hopes were renewed, her cancer eventually removed, with the surrounding low leg.

Craig was waddling under a cluster of semis when he had his first heart attack. After his second, a few hours later, he drove his truck home and went to the hospital. The doctor was both horrified and amazed at the soft grease-can attached to his pacemaker. A team tore his chest open the next morning and ran a pipe snake down his main valve, but the clog was too much and the plumbing was almost 60 years old, so they attached four of his backup arteries to his slow-pumping heart and zipped him up.

My parents visited recently, inspired by the muse that is Death, but they couldn’t shake off a uniquely bold anxiety. Craig would always motion for my mother to lock the doors when she stayed in the car, even if myself and Jamie were with her. They stared off in bewilderment after I told them about my routine walks from work and around the neighborhood as if Portland were being chewed away in the rotting teeth of the most sinister, child cannibalizing, women-peddling criminals of all time, ever. It’s tempting to blame the paranoia it on the weed, Craig hadn’t smoked for at least ten years. Given Texas’s over-critical stance on the substance, legal pot is a good reason to pack up a car and drive to the Northwest.

People die every other day holding out for a miracle, many die not even knowing they were ever ill, but my parents got the gift of life and they believe God gave it. What kind of person would I be if took that from them? I still tell Craig I’m praying for him, and God bless. There just different words for I’m thinking of you, good luck.

“Do you remember that time I came into your room when you were a kid and started pulling all the clothes out of your drawers,” my mom asked me. I didn’t remember. I actually hadn’t thought about it since it happened. “You always wanted to hang out with your friend, next door. And it just bothered me so much that you didn’t want to be home, and I stormed into your room told you were moving in with them.” Classified reels of me crying as my angry mother piled my clothes on the floor began to spin. “I’m sorry,” she urged, “I’m sorry I did those things. I have to tell you: I don’t just love you because you’re my son—I like you as a person.”

In a society that puts atheists on the same shelf as rapists, being liked is more than enough for me. When I blossomed into a pimply sweaty Christian I wanted everyone to join in my escape, and when I converted I wanted everyone to share my freedom. I think it’s best now to mind my own path, pulling the weeds that grow around it already occupy enough time. Despite the difficulties we had living together and our different takes on life, Scott and I Skype occasionally, not quarterly, but enough to know we believe in much more than God.

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