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“What do you think would happen to you if you died tonight?”
It’s a question that would give most people pause. But when I heard it at the tender age of 11 during a gymnastics team sleepover, the question gave me a combination of nausea, sweaty palms, and a very heavy heart that seemed like it’d stopped beating. A visceral reaction, you might say.
I didn’t know, I told the group of high school girls glaring at me. They were my teammates on the YMCA gymnastics team, and I idolized them — for their stories about kissing boys under football field bleachers, for their ability to toss their hair into a bump-free ponytail, for the way they soared through the air while performing backflips and full twists that I only dreamed of doing.
“Well, you’d burn in the lake of eternal fire,” one of them said. She was so matter of fact, like she was telling me the sky is blue. The idea of being scorched in a lake of fire paralyzed me. And they could see it.
“But it doesn’t have to be like that,” another teammate continued. “Not if you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior tonight.”
Born to atheist, Chinese parents, the words Lord and Savior had never been spoken in my house. I'd known that Georgia rested firmly and squarely in the Bible Belt when my family and I moved from upstate New York to historic Savannah almost two decades ago. What I didn’t know was how eager Christians are to have outsiders like me join them.
But my teammates caught me up quickly that night. With arms draped around my shoulders, they led me into the adult women’s locker room, a space forbidden to us teens and pre-teens during normal YMCA operating hours. It would be a simple process, they told me, and that was so like God — forever gracious and making it so, so easy to benefit from His love.
We held hands and prayed together out loud: “Jesus Christ, I accept you into my heart as my Lord and Savior.” And then they dunked me in the whirlpool.
For all the grit and germs — I’m pretty sure that whirlpool had not been cleaned in years — my baptism was exhilarating. The nighttime dip made me feel like a new person, not unlike showers do for me today. I walked around with a tingle in my heart, like your very first crush; but according to my teammates, Jesus, unlike middle school boys, would never forsake me.
But I didn’t stop there. As a new Christian, I started going to a Baptist church down the street from my house. I bought a Bible, and then another one that came with annotated passages for teens.
I tried to convert my parents because one of the first things you learn as a new Christian is the importance of doing just that. You won’t spend the afterlife burning in the lake of eternal fire, but would you want your non-Christian parents to? I had to help them see the light. But after 40-some-odd years as atheists, my parents were having none of it. Instead, they had fun with me.
“Aren’t you supposed to pray first?” my dad would ask if I ever started eating without saying grace.
“I’m pretty sure the Bible says you should honor your parents,” my mother told me, on more than one occasion, when I acted like a brat. They kept this routine up for weeks, chuckling among themselves.
“I don’t want us to be separated in the afterlife,” I told my mom while we were in the pool one day. “You have to accept Jesus into your heart as your Lord and Savior.” I paused, holding my breath that she would come around this time.
“Nah. I’m okay,” she said, before pushing off against the wall into a backstroke down the pool.
Since I could get nowhere with my parents, I sought solace in my teammates and the new Christian friends I’d met at church. But I quickly realized that the spirit of grace and goodwill that had surrounded my baptism had vanished. My friends would get mad if I missed a Sunday service. The cliques at church, which were even more extreme than the ones in school, were suffocating, and I felt exhausted by all the sniping, sure they would turn on me as soon as I turned around.
At the gym, I learned one of the older teammates who’d led my conversion had lost her virginity. Not long after that, her father turned up at my house in the middle of the night wondering where she was; we later learned she’d run away with her boyfriend. Her situation seemed crazy — it reeked more of Jerry Springer than Jesus Christ. And it was enough to turn me off to the religion, just one short month after I’d converted.
Later on, I would dabble with Christianity on and off through high school, but mostly because in the South it was — and is — inescapable: prayers before football games, Young Life retreats, anti-abortion billboards on the sides of roads . . .
Until I went to college. At art school, Christianity and religion in general, seemed like a trend from the past, like bellbottoms or pay phones. It almost never came up in conversation, probably because my friends and I were too busy talking about Picasso, post-modernism, pastels — and how we were going to change the world with our art.
By the time I moved to New York City after graduation, Christianity had left my life completely. I didn’t believe in God, and in the liberal bastion that is New York, no one else seemed to either. At least not in the way that they’d consider baptizing someone in a YMCA whirlpool to save her. I realized how far removed I was from my former life when I went to work for a famous editor who had blasted the Iraq War — and George W. Bush — in the editor’s letters. It was such a contrast from the way Bush stickers adorned every car in my neighborhood during the 2000 election cycle in Savannah.
I thought I was done with Christianity for good, in part because I thought I was going to live in New York forever. But when I moved back to the South a couple years ago, this time to Atlanta, I found myself in familiar territory: Prayer verses as screensavers, multiple churches on the same street, anti-abortion stickers on cars.
Those things didn’t bother me — living in the South means Christianity is always in the backdrop of your life. It was when a colleague learned that I wasn’t a believer, half-jokingly told me that I was her 2015 project and asked if would I want to learn more that I experienced the worst kind of déjà vu. The prodding about my afterlife. Flashbacks to that whirlpool so many years ago. And my favorite: “Well, how did we all get here if not for God?” question. It was all enough to give a girl pause — and a panic attack.
Thankfully, I had been through it all before. This time, I took a deep breath, and with a grace that I hope anyone’s God would approve of, I replied, “Nah. I’m good.”