On Being Evangelized

I can usually spot them when they come in. The “superchristians”. The excessively patronizing men make the order while the women stand quietly in their long skirts behind them. The group of middle aged women who come in for their bible study, order each of their drinks individually, and never ever tip.

Or the conservatively fashionable woman who takes forever to make up her mind what she wants, and then when she decides on an herbal tea for it’s health benefits, she plucks up her courage and shakily makes her evangelistic comment about how amazing it is that god has made tea.

One time I spotted a middle aged couple sitting rigidly next to each other across from their long-haired  adult daughter who looked miserable and plucked at her ill-fitting sweater while her father spoke seriously and her mother sat in silent endorsement. The hair on my neck went up, and I wanted to shout from the counter, “You have value! Whatever they are telling you, it’s not true!”

Sometimes encountering “superchristians” where I work can be sort of triggering for me, other times I shrug it off and move on. But usually I can spot it, after all I used to be one.

I didn’t catch it when the group of college-aged girls came in. They laughed loudly and chatted for several hours at their table. As we were getting ready to close I walked past them to the entryway and began to sweep the rugs and roll them up for the night, their table suddenly got very quiet and as I glanced over and saw them holding hands with heads bowed, I realized they were praying. I swept as quietly as I could, trying not to disturb them. When they finished they climbed out of the booth and began putting on their coats and gloves.

A tall brunette turned towards me and said “We were just praying, and I was wondering if there was anything you would like us to pray for?” Immediately my heart rate spiked. I responded with “No thanks, I think I’m OK” and continued sweeping. “No really!” she gushed, “we would love to pray for you.”  I smiled a little, thinking how much bravery it took her to ask a stranger if they would like prayer, remembering all the times I felt ashamed for how shy I was.  I toyed with the idea of asking if they could pray for marriage equality for LGBTQ people in the upcoming election, just to gauge how conservative they were. Maybe I should ask them to pray for relationships that had been strained by my coming out earlier in the year and see what they would do. I decided to err on the side of respect and said “It’s ok, I’ve prayed for a lot of things in my life, I just don’t really believe in god anymore.”

The girls face was simultaneously sad and shocked. “Oh really? Then what do you believe?” My heart was still beating fast, what had made me the target of evangelism? Was it the fact that I happened to be nearby? Did I look like I needed saving? Was it my short hair cut? Or maybe the guys pants I was wearing? (Which incidentally are super comfortable and the first pants I don’t strip off the second I get home to switch to sweat pants.) What did I say? I thought about the more secular beliefs that people usually claim. Did I believe in science? Not really, I don’t know enough about science to call it something I believe in. Did I believe in myself? Meh, still trying to feel more confident in my preferences and choices, I don’t really believe in myself the way one believes in a god. What about nature? Nature is nice, but is kind of a lot like the idea of god, unpredictable and sometimes cruel.

This time I went with my agnostic side and answered “I don’t really know what I believe anymore”, and she was content to pityingly say “That’s so sad, I will pray for you” and head out the door.

 

It’s interesting to have once believed very strongly, and no longer consider myself a Christian. This girl, and most of the people I encounter have no idea how huge a part of my life my faith once was. “If you just read the bible” they say, “then you would know how much Jesus loves you.” They don’t know the years of bible reading and the large sections of the bible I have committed to memory, or how I still find myself unconsciously singing hymns even today. They have no understanding of my story, the modesty, courtship, anti-birth control beliefs, and “godly marriage” advice I used to hand out and live by.

I’ve had people try to evangelize me more than once now, something that never happened in my skirt-wearing days. Most of them seem to think that I didn’t really understand the beliefs, or I was a cultural Christian or a Christian of convenience, I surely couldn’t have been a “real Christian”. They don’t know that when I saw all those “Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman” signs around election time that I immediately had Judy Rogers 10 commandments songs on repeat in my head:

“You shall not commit adultery, God created it to be, 1 man shall marry 1 wife, and love together for the rest of their lives. When a man even looks at a woman, and desires her secretly, he is guilty in his heart of adultery. So dear husbands listen to our plea, guard your eyes and guard your purity, God loves clean hands, he loves a pure heart, so love your own wife till death do you part. One man one wife….”

For heaven’s sake, even when I watch children’s cartoons with my kids the old teachings are still there. Super Why exclaims “When we have a question, we look… in a book!” And I find myself remembering how the bible was supposed to be the only book that ever had any answers for any questions. Dora the Explorer asks loudly, “Who do we ask for help when we don’t know which way to go? That’s right! The Map!” And my instant reaction is “No, you ask Jesus you little heathen!”

No, I don’t feel sad that I no longer believe. I feel relief. I feel peace. I don’t have a belief in a super powerful being, but I do believe in the powers of respect, acceptance, and love. I don’t have the being to talk with when I feel alone, but I also don’t have the never ending anxiety of wondering if I and the ones I love are living up to that being’s expectations. Even though I no longer believe Christianity has all the answers, it will always be a part of me. I can’t pretend that those years of my life didn’t happen, or that I don’t have the memories or the instincts from those years. I truly did believe, and now I don’t. It used to make sense, and now it doesn’t. I’m not sad, just honest.

But, I can’t explain that in an average encounter, it’s a looooonnnnngggg story.

I find it interesting though, when I spot people who still are where I used to be. If I can accept that they believe in god, and not accuse them of lying or pretending, what makes it so hard for them to accept it when I say I used to believe, and no longer do?

 

  • Calah

    That sounds aggravating. I mean being evangelized. I always got exasperated/amused when I used to work in restaurants and nice old ladies would leave tracts on the table. Even being a Christian I just want to run far, far away when someone is that…invasive? Is that the right word for it. I guess it feels like it to me.

    • Melissa

      It can feel somewhat invasive to have someone who knows absolutely nothing about you push something that I consider very private.

  • http://stmonicasbridge.wordpress.com Kristen

    As a Catholic living in the “Bible Belt” I can relate. Not only do the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons go door to door here, the Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists do too. I’m sure my insistence that I “know God” and “believe” after I tell them I’m Catholic (why hide it, right?) is taken seriously when my boys run past in the background chasing and screaming half naked and my autistic daughter is screeching.

    I was told by a woman who was intently watching my daughter line-up figurines in the shopping cart that she would be “cured” if I just believed correctly. Yup.

    I have to say, you really showed a lot of charity in your response to the girl. I once witnessed a man nearly bite someone’s head off for offering to pray for his situation (his mother was in poor health) by saying, “So you think talking to your imaginary friend will help?” Yikes. Witnessing the exchange, it was an offer out of pure charity and was not intended to offend. I think your behavior is a model that both believers and unbelievers can embrace as acceptable.

    • Melissa

      Ah yes, because how can a Catholic possibly know God? It’s the whole “real christian” thing again. And thats awful about the woman saying that about your daughter! I’ve encountered that mindset before!

    • shadowspring

      Thank you, Kristen, for pointing out that civility is a human trait, not a religious or non-religious value. It is beautiful that you choose to see the good will behind people’s actual words.

      I usually just keep quiet about what I believe, or let other people assume that I mean the same things they mean when we use words like faith, love, prayer and God. Why not? It’s much easier than expecting them to understand where I’m coming from. Like Melissa, I’ve been there, done that, learned a thing or two and moved on.

      But I remember how I could not have comprehended a “true Christian” moving beyond that belief except perhaps because of the sin of (fill in the blank: bitterness? disappointment? Don’t you love how labelling these things as sin means that something is wrong with bitterly disappointed people instead of a god/system that doesn’t make good on the promises they give?). Maybe that’s why I also applaud her gentleness with them.

  • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com Ubi Dubium

    It’s good to have your “elevator speech” ready for questions like this. I think I would use the “Then what do you believe?” question as an opportunity to make a statement about positive Humanism. Something like “I believe we can work together to make this world better for all of us” Or there’s a quote from The DaVinci Code (one of the few things I really liked about the book), “I believe in people. And that, sometimes, they can be kind.” Or whatever works for you.

    Your answer does not need to include anything about what you think about supernatural beings, even though that’s what they probably were asking about.

    • Melissa

      I guess I didn’t think of the possiblility of needing to have something like that. Since christians are always supposed to be ready to share the gospel, I suppose we have to be ready to deflect any random questions on faith. :/

      • sarahbee

        It’s also worth remembering that you do not owe anyone an answer to such a personal question. If you want to be honest, you could tell the stranger that you don’t feel you know her well enough to share such personal information with her. Where I grew up, demanding that someone you don’t know well tell you her personal beliefs would be considered VERY rude. Since moving to the Southern U.S. I have come to realize that Evangelists are not taught this, but still, might does not make right.

        • Jag

          This is almost always the way I respond to evangelists, unless they catchht me in a contrary mood. During the last election, I was getting door-knocked a lot (MN had a state constitution marriage amendment proposal on the ticket this year) and after the first few time, I started keeping a copy of the bible, and a book called “God’s Lunatics” on the table by the front door…

  • Niels

    I always want to shout “stop praying and do something!”
    I could right a book worth of comments every time I read one of your posts but it’s your blog and I would be preaching to the choir, no pun intended.
    I’m a straight, atheist, stay at home dad and have lived a lot of my life in Europe and now I’m “stuck” in VA with wonderful 3 & 5 year old boys for a while. I used to silently laugh off folks that approached me as in this post but it has become a little unnerving lately (there are so many of them here). Your blog helps me keep my belief that there is good in all of us and it comes from within not from above.
    So thanks for keeping my hopes up and sharing your life with all of us.

    • Melissa

      Thank you! :) I can see how it would be far worse living in the bible belt areas. :/

    • http://penn.typepad.com Leah

      Yes, indeed, to “stop praying and do something!” Nothing drives me more crazy than poor people stuck in crappy lives who think they can pray their way out of everything — “God will provide.” Yes, sure, God will provide, but it would be nice if you’d help God out, eh? Maybe God would love to provide through the instrument of your two hands.

  • Rebecca

    I know exactly what you mean. The most peculiar feeling ever to encounter frumpily-dressed women in long dresses and have them glance at me and dismiss me as “worldly” because of my red lip stick and short skirt. They have no idea that I used to be them. I always have to fight the urge to scream at them to get out, that that is not life at all. And I got so many tracts when I was waiting tables fresh out of college – again surreal that I used to believe in the crap that is contained in them. Probably the server they gave the tract to is still being lifted up in prayer while she is tossing her head and scornfully saying, been there, done that!

    • Melissa

      SO surreal. The men glare dissaprovingly and the women look almost frightened sometimes. I must look like their worst nightmare, and they haven’t even talked to me! It’s the hardest when I see women who are practically cowering next to the man they are with, I just want to give them a hug. I don’t think any of them would believe I used to be one of them.

  • http://nagamakironin.blogspot.com/ Michael Mock

    Had a really odd conversation back when I was a teenager, with a couple of people around my own age. I was in the mall, and they stopped me to ask if I’d been “born again.”

    Being Episcopalian (at the time), I said cautiously: “I’m a Christian, yes.”

    “Yeah, but have you been born again?”

    Which left me just staring at them, puzzled. “I’m a Christian, yes.”

    “But you have to be born again,” one of them insisted.

    By that point I was trying to decide if he was mad, or just stupid. “No you don’t,” I told him. “I was born a Christian, raised a Christian, and I’m still a Christian. That only works if you weren’t a Christian to begin with.” And I walked away.

    I’ve come to understand the difference in views somewhat better over the years, but I’m still puzzled by that peculiar insistence that everyone – everyone – has to have the same story.

    • Melissa

      Haha! Yes, I remember having conversations like that, and the amount of time I spent trying to pinpoint/make up a moment where I had been reborn, even though I couldn’t remember ever being an unbeliever at the time. Like you said, everyone has to be the same somehow, it’s not really an option to be different.

  • http://www.fussybudget.wordpress.com Ribbons Undone

    Oh. My. God. I am so there with you! I have spent hours and hours pouring over different versions of Bibles and Concordances. Histories and discussions and what-have-you. All in an attempt to understand God better because I ultimately felt (and this was because of the teaching I received) that I would never be good enough. Parts of Christianity still make sense for me. Parts don’t. I still pray. I still read my Bible, however, I now regard the Bible not as necessarily a flawless document, but more as a historical account and a compendium of stories which can be used to teach moral values and which can lead to spirituality. Of all the different kinds of people I’ve met in my life, the ones who are not uber-religious seem to be the happiest with themselves and to be the most at peace. That’s all I ever wanted for myself and now what I’d like to see for my daughter.

    • Melissa

      And somehow all that time studying or living by christian beliefs is invalidated when one doesn’t believe it the way they do, go figure.

  • Drea

    I love your posts, but I can only imagine the frustration of dealing with that all of the time. I was raised Lutheran/Jewish and my husband is staunch Pagan, so religion has always been interesting. What used to drive me insane about the Lutheran church was the impression of loving everyone, but being hypocritical about the “sins” of others. Isn’t hypocrisy a sin in itself? Shouldn’t everyone be focused on their own salvation, and not that of their neighbor? I think a much more effective way to evangelize one’s religion would be to demonstrate compassion and kindness, but I think I’m in the minority on that one in terms of organized religion.

  • http://www.howtocover.blogspot.com Maya

    As a Jewish teenager who was into talking about religion, I was a pretty frequent target for evangelizers, and oh, did I hate it. Now that I’m an observant Jew (and a rabbi, married to a rabbinical student), who usually wears long skirts and covers my head, they try a lot less often. I wonder whether it’s because I look so much more like their own norms, or because I’m so clearly going to be a hard target.

  • kagekiri

    I think it’s all the dissonance they feel. “This person says they shared my beliefs, and now they don’t, so either I’m wrong about this fundamental portion of my beliefs, or they’re deceived/evil/wicked/wrong/possessed/etc or are lying about their beliefs and always have been.”

    I know when I told my family I was atheist a year ago or so, they wavered between saying I was lying and saying I was never Christian, despite all evidence they had to the contrary.

    It’s just easier on self-esteem to assume others are fundamentally wrong to keep everything black and white, and the Bible verses on the matter hardly help (sheep and goats, no one knowing if they’re saved and in fact believing incorrectly that they’re saved, false prophets, atheists are evil and actually know god but want to sin, etc).

  • http://republic-of-gilead.blogspot.com Ahab

    Being proselytized to is always awkward, but it sounds like you handled the situation gracefully and honestly. The mischief-maker in me would have LOVED to see their reaction had you asked them to pray for LGBTQ marriage equality, though!

  • Carol the Long Winded

    I find saying “I’m a Unitarian Universalist. It is a non-creedal religion. We have 7 priniciples we agree on.” stuns people into silence. I did have someone tell me I wasn’t a good Christian today ( because I wouldnt give him money that I didn’t have) and I said “I’m not a Christian. Good luck!”

  • Marek

    If someone ever tells you that you need to read the bible, you could always quote something particularly long and obscure and say, “oh, yes, I’ve read it.” Or maybe that would send the wrong message.

  • http://wayofcats.com WereBear

    I was once gardening on a gorgeous May morning. A Sunday. I hadn’t realized this would make me a target for an evangelizing couple (older woman, older teen woman.) They approached and the older woman asked if I ever thought about God.

    I responded that I thought about God all the time, look at all the wonders of this very morning. Here I am nurturing life; surely a sign that God loves us and wants us to be happy. The teen was smiling and nodding and I was really rolling on what I call my Responsible Hedonism message when the older woman panicked and literally dragged the young one away.

    I wonder if it had an impact. On either of them. Because such tiny bits of Different Think is how I get where I am today.

  • Lawrence

    “Then what do you believe in?” I fell for that one once when I was newly deconverted. It’s a losing play. The theist believes you must have an alternate creed, and will attempt to make you formulate a statement of that creed. He then proceeds to set up his pieces on the other side of the chessboard. Did you not notice the board before now? You don’t seem to have many pieces. Have you practiced this game much? Here’s a better play: there is no board. What do I believe in? It doesn’t work like that. I find the claims of theism unconvincing. I find the proposal for the theistic god cannot surmount the problem of evil. I find your book to be bad evidence, even when I am charitable enough to admit it as evidence. I fail to reject the null hypothesis.
    The best, most thoughtful, most thorough deconversion documentary I have seen can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSy1-Q_BEtQ&playnext=1&list=PLA0C3C1D163BE880A&feature=results_main

  • Rita

    Thanks for sharing! People and their beliefs are so complicated. I wish everyone would just give each other more respect and compassion. Sounds like you handled an awkward situation really well!

  • Persephone

    Melissa, I’m afraid you’ll find that working with the public causes many of those customers to believe they have the right to question and comment on everything–not just your religion–about you. There’s a bit of the master/slave attitude there.

    You will have to develop canned responses to these types of inquiries. If someone asks you if you want them to pray for you, a nice variation can be, “That’s kind of you, but I’m doing well.” Then excuse yourself, and physically move away, preferably off the floor. If you can’t step away and they continue to push you, try, “I’m sorry, but I try to not discuss certain topics at work,” or, “I’m sorry, I’m at work and I can’t discuss this.” And stick to it. Keep smiling, but don’t let them engage you.

    Most of us have a tendency to not want to hurt others or to explain ourselves, but that’s exactly what you have to avoid. One of the best pieces of advice I ever read in Miss Manners was how to respond to an unwanted invitation, “I’m sorry, I’m afraid it’s impossible.” If the inviter pushes, you keep saying, “It’s just impossible. I’m sorry, it’s impossible,” excuse yourself and exit. No explanation. No getting trapped in an uncomfortable conversation.

    When the various religious representatives come to my door (I live in an area with a high immigrant population, so the churches are very active), I just say, “No, thank you. Have a good day,” and close the door. They came to my door uninvited and there is no need for me to be more than civilly polite. It cuts way down on repeat visits.

  • http://followingontoknow.blogspot.com Just Me

    I still have to snicker when I recall a Buddhist monk who tried to evangelize my fundamentalist Mom. Hehehehe. That was one of the most amusing memories of my childhood. I often wonder what triggered it. Probably something she had painted on our stockade fence, which was her personal evangelistic wall. It was a busy neighborhood and all sorts of people walked by, but that’s the only time we ever saw an obviously non-Christian religious person.
    Believe it or not, it’s the power of prayer that keeps me believing there could be something to this whole religion thing. I am a spiritualist, whether I like it or not; and there is power in a group of people all wanting – and verbalizing – the same thing, whether they recognize it or not. I finally gave up on worrying whether that power comes from inside or outside of us. I believe a large part of it comes from us. But I also believe in a Creator who put that power in us, and I feel I owe that Being respect.

  • http://wideopenground.com Lana

    I like your blog. I still believe in the existence of God, but I can still relate to what you say about how you can’t just pretend as if the past did not happen. My homeschooled/patriarchal past is like that for me. It was so many years of my life, and even though I’ve rejected so much of it, it doesn’t die out. Sorry about the street evangelizers. They always make me mad too.

  • http://penn.typepad.com Leah

    You were quite kind to that young lady. I have a hard time not getting frustrated with folks. The worst was at my old gym, when people would shanghai me when I was on the elliptical. *Even with headphones on,* I’d get people who would come up and try to convert me. The worst is when I’d say “I’m already Christian, thanks,” or “My dad is a minister,” and they’d try to pry into my beliefs and background to make sure I was the right kind of Christian.

    I’m not 100% sure exactly what I believe, but what I do know is that faith is intensely personal, and I would never ask anyone directly about their faith. And, frankly, people who try to ask about mine or convert me get an automatic write-off, both for them and their church. That’s not a place I want to be.

  • Christine

    Well now that I know this sort of person exists I can be ready with a request that they pray for an end to ostentatious displays of performative piety.

  • Caravelle

    Dora the Explorer asks loudly, “Who do we ask for help when we don’t know which way to go? That’s right! The Map!” And my instant reaction is “No, you ask Jesus you little heathen!”

    HAHAHAHA I love this :D
    I’m going to say that every time someone mentions asking someone for something. (except not because nobody around me would get it. I should get me a blog-reading buddy)

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

    @Kristen- the man who snapped at the person who offered to pray for him and his sick mother was well within his rights to do so. That gets old fast. It’s immensely condescending. He was probably stressed and upset, and having someone offer to do nothing and expect to be thanked for it is … um, well, not helpful doesn’t even begin to describe it. If you want to help, offer to help. If you want to offer sympathy (“I’m so sorry”, “that sucks”, etc), offer sympathy. But don’t, whatever you do, offer to talk to an imaginary friend and expect any sort of gratitude or anything other than a “and that makes things better how?” attitude.

    Something doesn’t have to be intended to offend in order to be offensive. While this man wasn’t nice about how he rebuffed the prayerful person, he was under no obligation to be so, and maybe the prayerful person will think twice in the future about “helping” in such a useless manner.

  • Azura

    I’m a wiccan/satanist mix, so I have a really hard time with being evangelized. I’m clearly not Christian with my gothic clothes and pentagram, so I get it fairly often. It’s obnoxious and annoying when people completely invalidate my well reasoned ideas and reduce me to some evil disney-witch. I’ve had people yell at me for 15 minutes at work, I’ve had a man pester me on the subway asking “What are you?” repeatedly, I’ve had tracts pushed into my hands, and all of it just annoys me. It’s similar to the feeling of being hounded by men for my femaleness actually.

    On top of that I get normal people who aren’t evangelizing at all but are just curious and don’t know what paganism is. How do I explain what a pentagram is or what I believe without taking an hour? I really need to work out a canned response already, because I get asked often enough. I’m wary of telling people to use Google because of all the misinformation out there too. I feel like I’m a representative of my religion because it’s so small and I’m likely the only exposure some people are aware of, so I really agonize over these things and try not to snap no matter how pissed off I get.

  • Kalvin

    Melissa, regarding the college age woman who asked to pray for you – I think it would be totally appropriate for you to ask her to pray for either marriage equality or for your strained relationships. These are issues that are important to you, and she is the one asking to pray for you.

    You never know what might happen. You might have a short conversation with her that will cause her to think about these issues. You might also be surprised to find out that maybe she is already more accepting of gay people than you thought.

  • AtiyaTheSeeker

    Other than door-to-door evangelists that my parents shooed off, I’m glad to say I hadn’t run into people trying to convert me… yet. I feel you handled your situation quite well, your rough past considered. I feel for you — when I think about it, I can’t but feel ashamed at being a fundamentalist, even coming from a lax-faithed family who was unofficially atheistic for a few years after my grandma died.

    I won’t say how I feel about Christianity, lest I make unneeded waves from viewers, but I am glad your ways bring you peace today. I know for a fact turning to Wicca brought it to me, as well as helped erase the evils of modern Christian doctrine from my being. To answer your finishing question, my only explanation is that the power of indoctrination is some of the strongest brainwashing I’ve yet seen. Overall, thank you for sharing this story, and best of luck in any future encounters like the one described.


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