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A Haunting

It was during my 14th year of life that I decided to start doing more with my time than play video games. That I had wasted so much of my burgeoning adolescence on electronic entertainment is only slightly less disturbing than that which came to replace it: fervent religious fundamentalism. With high school came devotional readings, bible camps, youth group, and a strong conviction that I had a duty to warn Sterling High that we were all balancing on the precipice, in danger of eternal hellfire. I suspect that this preoccupation made me somewhat awkward throughout high school.

It was then that I transformed from a shy, mild-mannered, sometimes-clownish kid into a terrifying spiritual force, constantly harassing foul-mouthed students, refusing to read Catcher in the Rye, waging war against the teaching of evolution in biology class (a battle which I took all the way to the superintendent's office). I once persecuted my economics teacher for handing out an article that included the word "ass." I rode a particularly high horse. Besides that, my best friend (another fundamentalist) and I started an early morning Bible-study club in the band room called S.O.S. (Serving Our Savior), a weekly meeting in which we would berate fellow SHS Christians for not being serious enough about their relationship with God. My reputation preceded me.

I took great satisfaction in my apartness. Indeed, through church I was led to believe that it was a great virtue to be totally aloof of whatever circles "the world" ran in and instead set myself apart for God. Hence, I didn't believe in dating, drinking, secular music, or any other kind of pop culture or "worldly" entertainment, really. You know, an all-around fun guy.

Briefly, I considered skipping college and diving right into missionary training school in Oaxaca, Mexico, but a very dear woman menaced me into giving college a shot, so I went to The Master's College, a Christ-centered "liberal arts" college in Santa Clarita, California. For the first time in my life, I surrounded myself with a community of like-minded people and escaped the Satanic swamp that was the public education system.

Nonetheless, I soon felt disconnected from this new student population, which was pretty homogenous in their John MacArthur psuedo-fundamentalist brand of low-church evangelical Calvinism. I was going through some spiritual changes, and instead associated with a high-church, baby-baptizing, Eucharist-eating, decidedly non-fundamentalist Reformed congregation. Now to you non-church-goers, this might seem like the difference between Maille Dijon and Grey Poupon, but let me tell you, these crowds take their mustards pretty seriously. Every time my collar-sporting pastor gave me a ride back to campus, the eyes of just about everyone around popped out of their heads: "Sweet Jesus, what is a Catholic priest doing on our campus?!"

The upshot of all of this is that I was once again a separate species from my peers, and I made just about all of my friends extremely uncomfortable whenever we talked about theological things (i.e. every moment of every day). Oh, and I still didn't believe in dating. Go college.

Ahem, so after a year, I transferred to a Presbyterian college - very mainstream, very safe. They accepted all kinds of Christian (we even had a few Catholic students and one Eastern Orthodox guy) and taught things like literature and psychology, which TMC apparently regarded as demonic. Regardless of the change of environment, I was still not satisfied with where my journey had taken me. It was then that I lost my faith. For the remainder of my undergraduate program, I was a lonely non-believer surrounded by very earnest believers.

Imagine what terrific sense of purpose must have filled Frodo and his crew in Fellowship of the Ring. What grand sense of direction! What meaning! What moral certitude! Until my de-conversion, this was what life had been like. Throughout my mission trips, school chapels, and youth group meetings, I was made to feel like that hobbit. God had a supremely important mission for me, and I could do nothing better in life than to bend every desire and impulse to the purpose of fulfilling this mission. I had been pouring my studies into theology and missionary theory and Biblical Greek and apologetics. I had fashioned every friendship, every mentorship with the aim of sharpening my faith to a fine edge. And then the doubt began.

After so much certainty, doubt. Imagine, all of my past ambitions, my identity and anchor and source of emotional sustenance - I had to come to terms with the fact that I no longer bought any of it. All my friends felt I had rebuffed them. Those from my first college stopped talking to me. The people from my churches stopped talking to me. Certain professors eyed me with suspicion. Things became extremely uncomfortable around my sister and mother. That sense of direction vanished. The moral certitude gave way. The low ceiling of my little world shattered, and suddenly I was standing in a great expanse.

How could I have been so certain and yet so wrong? How is that possible, from a bright young student, the valedictorian? I had kept myself so narrowly aligned, lived so particularly, alienated so many other students, alienated myself -- for what? To eventually dismiss it all as a grave error in judgement.

I was accused of many things during that transitionary time - that I was running away from God, that the carnal flesh looks for ways to excuse wrongdoings, that I was merely in a phase, that I was really just deeply sad and confused - but I was never accused of being brave. Not one friend or family member congratulated me for taking a positive step. Only I did this. (Later, I found support, especially in a certain professor and a certain friend. You two know who you are.)

I'm writing all of this in order to better understand why, to this day, I carry with me the nagging suspicion that I make people uncomfortable, that something about me is so often off-putting. But now I'm beginning to understand. Since becoming a real person, I've had only three peer groups that have lasted longer than a few months: my fellow students and teachers at Sterling High School, my fellow students and professors at The Master's College, and my fellow students and professors at Sterling College. Other periods of my life have been too ephemeral (summer jobs) or too lonely (AmeriCorps, post-college jobs) to give me a sense of a loving community.

Now I have a family that is finally okay with who I am. Peace Corps is filled with wonderful people. Most of them are either non-religious themselves, or are entirely okay with those who are. I've never felt uncomfortable around a PCV for being an atheist. The irony is that, with the exception of my very few close-neighbors, this family is scattered over an entire country; I see them rarely. What's more, a great majority of my time is spent in a community that is more religiously fervent than I had ever been even as a little rabble-rouser. Every day, I am reminded that I do not belong here; I am decidedly not a product of Morocco.

And so the question I've been asking myself is, "How much longer will the ghost of awkwardness continues to haunt me?" I believe this experience is the beginning of the end of that chapter of my life. With each day in-site, I become more comfortable with who I am, and with each PCV meeting, I feel more and more like I belong with these very precious people, my fellow brave, tenacious, pig-headed volunteers. I love them dearly.
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