The thing is, I could never really make myself believe that all my friends were going to hell.
I was 19 years old, the child of pastors. I had gone to church the Sunday before I left Singapore for Oxford and after the service let myself be prayed over. God, go with your child, the guest preacher said, fingers splayed and palm over my head, not touching it. Draw her closer to you, and work your will in her life. Bring her to those who need her most, and use her to spread your good news. Amen.
I got to England and immediately fell in with a bunch of atheists, most of whom turned out to be queer. When we first arrived, my parents bought me a cheap guitar so I’d have something to play. I sat with it on evenings in my dorm room after I’d seen my friends off to the club and sang hymns. Be thou my vision—that saved a wretch like me—let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wand’ring heart to thee.
I tell this story like this: in fragments, smiling sheepishly. I tell it like this because it embarrasses me. It is my saddest, cringiest secret: the many months I spent desperately trying to convert my friends to Christianity, thinking that was what God had sent me for. It’s not just that I was wrong, it’s that I was a cliché: the naïve Christian ingénue, that dupe every person who’s ever left the evangelical church laughs at like I can’t believe that used to be me. But I can believe it. I was that person—a real person.
Apart from God and her friends, that real person loved the Mountain Goats. They were a new discovery, like gay friends and a bacon and brie panini. I listened to them everywhere. Their songs sounded like they had been written just for me. And maybe they were. After all, this band had made a whole album about the Bible.
My favorite song on that album, 2009’s The Life of the World to Come, was and still is “Romans 10:9,” a song about a guy who’s really not having a good time. He can’t sleep, his New Year’s resolutions haven’t been working out and he’s having existential crises in the shower. He searches for a way out of his shitty, shitty life, but “everything ends up in cul-de-sac.” Even when he suspects that there may be a cure for the thing that ails him, he isn’t in a place yet to accept it—he “won’t take the medication, but it’s good to have around.” And yet, despite all this, the song brims with not hope but something deeper and more basic than hope: a final, total assurance that, no matter how bad things get for the speaker, the worst thing will not come to him; that, cure or no cure, future or no future, the speaker will not be totally destroyed because “a kind and loving God won’t let my small ship run aground.”
The chorus goes like this: “If you will believe in your heart/ And confess with your lips/ Surely you will be saved, one day.” A lesser song, one that took as its core the failed efforts and frustrated hopes outlined in the verses, might have turned this line into something ironic and cruel–one final bit of faith that will surely come to nothing. But this is not that song, and when the chorus comes, John Darnielle sings it with total sincerity and a straightforward sweetness that is, to me, a little thing of wonder. There is no cynicism here, despite the speaker’s desperate life; there is only surety, and true belief. He will be saved, one day.
I never believed my friends were going to hell, and when I first heard “Romans 10:9” I took it as a sign. Sure, they weren’t taking the medication, but having it around couldn’t hurt. Their salvation was inevitable. I could relax.
Evangelism and colonialism have the same logic: people aren’t people until they become like you. If you’d told me that back then I would’ve denied it, but something in me already knew it to be true. My subject was English, a language that came to my people when the British arrived with a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other. In a class on medieval literature, I read a verse romance in which a mixed-race child emerged monstrous from the womb, a featureless “rond of flesch” that, upon its christening, transformed into a perfect baby boy. His “Saracen” father experienced a similar transformation: after his baptism, his Black skin was bleached white.
Even then, I understood what it meant to believe that your mission in life was to take people and turn them into something else. I understood what it did to the way you saw them, those other people: as projects, as pets. I know this because I remember that I was vigilant, watching my own thoughts for any condescension, for any sign I thought that way about people I claimed to love. The very idea scared me; I really was trying to be a good friend. And I was, I think. I laughed when they laughed because I found their jokes funny, and I cried when they cried because that meant something to me. I respected their minds and I thought they were kind. I loved to listen to them talk. I wasn’t friends with my friends so they could be a mission field; I wanted God for them because I loved them, really loved them, and I wanted for them the best—and God was the best, that was all. God was something they really needed.
In my mind, in the few moments I thought about this, I had escaped the curse. I didn’t realize that maybe it worked both ways—that I could see my friends as people because I forgot I was a person. I was a paragon, a witness, a holy messenger: someone whose faith was rock-solid because it had to be to be passed on, someone who would never waver and could never falter and didn’t need anything at all.
I lost my religion for pretty predictable reasons. Evangelical Christianity, with all its colonizing urges, demands certain things, things I could not find it in me to provide: I was not white, and I came out, so the rest was only gravity. The thing I want to talk about isn’t why I left, it’s what it felt like to leave. What it felt like was anger, burning deep in my gut and then higher and higher. What it felt like was love, for my friends first and then for myself, for the stranger I was becoming. What it felt like was fear, slow and creeping, because I was severing myself from everything I had known and believed and made myself do; and then suddenly I was unmoored, a tiny boat on the unfathomable ocean, no anchor and no compass, trying to row. And in the midst of this, the sting of irony, sharp and sweet because, after all that, after everything—I still believed in God.
It is not impossible to build back a faith, to find new things to believe, new places to worship, new songs to sing. Plenty of people have done it, now and in every other age. I am doing it too, I suppose, though I am taking my time. It isn’t impossible, but it is not easy.
There are a lot of things I could be doing that I have yet to do. I’ve stopped looking for churches, though I know I do want one again at some point. I joined a group chat for progressive Christians in my area, but I don’t actually read the messages. I haven’t come out to my mother. Frankly, I am tired, and sometimes all the things I want seem very far away. I am afraid of what this means for me, for my ability to get to the place I know is waiting for me, if I can no longer get myself to walk.
When I first heard “Romans 10:9” I imagined I could hear my friends singing, all those people in need of salvation. But I should’ve known better: they would never have sung those words in earnest, not like Darnielle sings them, with that bald-faced belief. That voice, that faith, had always been mine. And I hadn’t known it then, but I had needed God, too: I had needed truth, revelation, transformation. I’d needed God to change my life, and I hadn’t been ready, but it had come to me anyway. And now I am here.
I am here and I need God again, and some days I am afraid that I no longer know how to reach for Him. I try to fix myself, but everything ends up in cul-de-sac. I think, I can’t live like this, but then I do, I do. I listen to “Romans 10:9” and I hear my own faith speak, the faith I’ve had since the beginning, when it promised me salvation. The same faith that I have now: the evidence of things not seen. Some future I can’t fathom, but I move toward it anyway. Some change I cannot act on, but which will maybe act on me.
I listen to that song and I think again I hear a promise, and we’re justified by faith, so I know it to be true. If you believe in your heart, if you confess with your lips. You cannot see it, but one day, God will come to you.
Kimberley Chiu is a Singaporean writer and librarian. She writes music about God, plants, and feelings of insecurity, which can be found at soundcloud.com/chiukayann. She cohosts Queer Christianity, a podcast of hot God takes, with her atheist girlfriend Clara. She has a fondness for cats and has logged over a hundred hours on Fall Guys.