By Devin Hiett
“If I swerved and crashed into that tree right now, would you go to Heaven?”
Her fervent brown eyes stared intently into mine, probing for signs of life and morality.
I wondered what my odds of survival might be if I pulled a Lady Bird and flung myself out of the moving car. Since we were traveling at about 50 mph down the interstate I figured they were slim, though I still had more faith in my ability to tuck and roll out of the car than I did in the very concept of God. Which is what had gotten me into this mess to begin with.
It was the first week of freshman year, and I was already beginning to understand the implications of coming out as an atheist in a place like Norman, Oklahoma. During our first sorority chapter meeting each new member was given a piece of paper that read: How religious would you say you are on a scale of 1-10?
I glanced nervously at the women on either side of me, peeking at their answers as if we were taking an economics exam.
What perfect number could I write down that would lead them to believe I was not a godless whore incapable of compassion and morality while also letting them know I had no interest in being invited to Wednesday night Bible study?
I decided on five. The middle had to be the safest bet, right?
I didn’t realize my mistake until a week later when a senior named Alicia texted me out of the blue, inviting me to grab coffee under the guise that the last four years of college had gilded her with invaluable wisdom she would grace me with. As a lowly freshman from San Antonio who moved to Norman without knowing a soul, I was thrilled — thrilled that a senior wanted to talk to me, to get to know me, to tell me which restaurants to go to and which to avoid.
But as it turns out, Alicia had ulterior motives.
Apparently “five” had landed me on my sorority’s conversion radar. After all, I was only halfway to Heaven and it was now Alicia’s job to help me cross the bridge to eternal glory.
The bridge in this case isn’t simply a metaphor, but rather an actual drawing Alicia sketched for me as soon as we sat down for coffee. She explained that I was on one end of the bridge―the end plagued by sin and doubt―but she would help me across as I embarked on the journey to Jesus.
As Alicia finished her excruciatingly detailed drawing, I could feel tears stinging the corners of my eyes. I shifted wordlessly, avoiding eye contact with this stranger who’d been sent to convert me, silently cursing myself for crying at the worst possible times.
Alicia interpreted my emotion as a sign of wild success. Each tear was obviously a sign of my repentance. Together they formed a flowing river that would help lead me to the other side of the bridge.
But my tears were not repentance. They were quite the opposite.
I was crushed. Crushed that she didn’t have any interest in being my friend. Crushed that unwelcome memories were flooding back.
I remembered being told I asked too many questions at church. Being scolded week after week at confirmation classes once I was discovered reading John Green books I’d sneakily tucked behind the Bible while my pious peers obediently studied scripture. Being 10 years old and getting kicked out of church camp for “threatening to stab my counselor.”
To be clear, I didn’t actually threaten to stab my counselor.
It was more of a hypothetical.
The counselor in question proposed the idea that all sin is equal in the eyes of God. Each camper was then expected to respond to this obscene claim.
I said that if all sins were equal, then it would mean the act of lying to my counselor―by telling her she was pretty, for example―would be no worse than stabbing her to death since murder and lying are both sins, and all sin is apparently equal.
Her claim, not mine.
But alas, what I viewed as a valid philosophical quandary was not appreciated by the devout owners of this rural Methodist camp. By sunrise my bags were packed and my exasperated mother arrived to pick me up. I feigned remorse, but really I was relieved to trade church camp for a weekend at home tucked in bed with the latest Harry Potter book.
The church I was raised in is considered to be a forward-thinking, progressive Methodist congregation. And while some of the younger, hipper pastors were willing to entertain my myriad questions and doubts, I could always feel the underlying resentment from those who prided themselves as true believers. For each of my questions was perceived as a challenge to the delicate tapestry they’d built their lives around.
Why was I, a child, a nobody, under the impression that the convictions and truths they held so dear were simply not convincing enough? Not sensible enough? Not good enough?
But despite all my doubts and tribulations with the church, I really tried to believe. For years I genuinely gave it everything I had. I even co-founded an “I am Second” group, an evangelical nonprofit that tries to inspire students to put Jesus first, at my high school and led weekly prayer lunches and biblical discussions.
When doubt knocked, I tried to think of Tinker Bell. I thought that if I just forced myself to believe, perhaps I could will God into existence. You know, “fake it ‘till you make it.”
But trying to force myself into Christianity felt a lot like being in the closet my entire life, because on some level I always knew―deep down―that I was faking it.
I would watch my friends at church become genuinely moved by the sermons, whereas all I could think about during service was that our church was next door to a Chick-fil-A that was closed every Sunday. I would watch the other children in confirmation classes highlight their favorite passages, devouring every word of scripture with the same fever I used to devour an eight-piece chicken nugget meal with waffle fries.
So when Alicia asked me on that warm summer day in 2015, “If I swerved and crashed into that tree right now, would you go to Heaven?” I found, to my surprise, that I was out of tears to cry. I was out of fake answers to give.
I felt like a butterfly finally escaping its cocoon after spending years trapped where I knew I didn’t belong. I was Peter Pan admitting that as hard as I clapped, I just couldn’t save Tinker Bell after all. I was the scrawny 13-year-old who wanted to tell her group leader that―God damnit―I like reading John Green more than the Bible, and maybe that’s ok. Maybe I don’t need the Bible to be a part of my life to be happy, and maybe I don’t care if that makes you happy.
For the first time, I was honest — honest with Alicia, but most importantly honest with myself.
“No,” I replied.
“If you crashed into that tree right now, I would most certainly not go to Heaven because I’ve never actually believed in it, and to be honest, I’ve never actually believed in God either.”
Alicia never invited me to get coffee again.
I guess some prayers get answered after all.