I became a Christian in high school. I met my friend, Laura, who invited me to a bible study at her house and I loved it, and I became a Christian. It wasn’t some big, transformative moment or decision for me. It felt pretty natural and easy, for the most part.
The thing was, outside of Laura and maybe another friend, my best friends at the time were not Christian. In fact, most were pretty confident in their atheism. And in terms of the things that high school girls usually fight about, we were unique in letting this thing, religion, get in the way of our friendships. We fought about it and were disrespectful toward each other about it. We stopped talking for weeks, months. It messed things up, and that still bothers me.
I think many of us would agree that high school kind of sucked. It’s a hard time because you’re trying very hard to figure out who you are, what you believe, what you want from life, what’s next, how to fit in, how to be independent… And as you work on these things, you then have to confront your friends with them. It’s like a two-step process: figure out who you want to be, and then actually be that person out in public among your peers, your friends. And the actual being is the hard part, especially when it is not who your friends want to be. I wanted to be a Christian, and my friends very much didn’t.
It felt to me like my friends didn’t like who I wanted to be, like they thought I was wrong, like they thought I would become someone terrible. And they had reasons– they had their own rocky pasts with religion, they were forced by family to attend church, they heard horror stories of missionaries coercing people into believing, they were themselves persecuted by Christians and told they were going to Hell for being sinners and unbelievers, they witnessed the church excluding homosexuals and berating young girls who were making tough decisions…
And what I learned in high school was that my religion, which was, for me, new and exciting and wonderful, could be hurtful and offensive. It scarred and excluded and judged my friends. And so I learned in high school to be sensitive to that. I learned to listen and not judge and not argue. But those lessons took a while to take hold– there were plenty of instances where I did not listen, did judge and did argue.
I remember having an IM conversation with one of my friends (because we would literally leave each other at school and go home and type to each other for hours at night on instant messenger). And this friend was– is– really smart. And she was figuring out who she was, which was someone who did not believe in God, but did believe in love in all forms. She had a girlfriend and a Catholic past, and she was asking me about those verses in the Bible about homosexuality.
I remember getting my Bible out and looking at those verses, which she knew and I didn’t. I remember racking my brain for any way I could reason them away– things I’d heard my new church friends or their parents or pastors say… the New Testament brings a new covenant, so we don’t have to take the Old Testament literally, maybe being gay is okay, but acting on that impulse is the sin… I wanted a reason to believe in my new religion and also be okay with who my friends were and not have them hate me for it. I wanted a reason to believe in God and Jesus, and still be a person who accepted and loved the people around me. And it was hard to find. My friend had more reasons and rationale.
Looking back, I know now that I was searching for those reasons, not just because I was a Christian with atheist friends, gay friends, friends who believed in women’s rights and peace and justice… I was searching for those reasons because it’s right to believe in them. It’s right to believe in Jesus and inclusion at the same time. It’s right to believe in Jesus and equality and respect and compassion and rational thinking at the same time. It’s right to believe in Jesus and love at the same time.
I think my friends were afraid of who I might become, because they knew Christians who were hurtful and offensive and exclusionary. So I became a Christian who is also afraid of those kinds of Christians. And I’m grateful that I grew up with these girls, who didn’t let me skate by. It was hard and I hate that we fought and hurt each other as much as we did then, but I am grateful that I am a Christian who doesn’t force my beliefs on others, who believes that homosexuality is not a sin, who believes in women’s rights and social justice, who believes following Jesus not only means including others, but loving them for who they are.
I still talk to some of those friends from high school, and others I don’t, but I think about them all a lot and I see how they shaped my beliefs. And I value that beyond words. In the end, we finished high school with our friendships intact and I know that no matter what our relationship is now, if they needed me, I’d be there, because they are still a big part of my life. Most of all, I hope that if we were to talk about these things again, they would see that I am a Christian, but that I’ve thought through my beliefs now and have reasons and rationale and respect to share with them. And not because I want to convert or convince them, but just because they made me into the kind of Christian who wants to know and share the truth, and recognizes that when it feels wrong to exclude or judge someone, that’s because it is wrong. And I hope they’d be proud of that.