It began on a bright and windless morning in fall. I was dressing for the school day ahead, readying for my commute from San Francisco to Oakland, when my phone buzzed with a notification from Instagram: “Jesus Christ is now following you!”
I’d spent the last couple of years running from Jesus, and had thought—as a sexually active twenty-four-year-old experiencing none of the guilt I was raised to experience—that I was free of Jesus. I’d left him behind: I hadn’t been to church in a few years; was pro-choice; swore; and I occasionally told dirty jokes. This may seem the usual state of being for an American woman in her early twenties: free, and lacking remorse.
But my freedom was recent, and I’d been taught growing up that, if I were at some point to stray from God, He would look for me—the shepherd going off in search of his lost sheep. Still, finding atheism had given me answers, and an Instagram notification wasn’t going to derail my new sense of the world. My boyfriend walked out of our bathroom.
“Guess what,” I said. “I just blocked Jesus Christ on Instagram.”
The next morning, I was with the little girl I then babysat three days per week. I’d just taken her for an extended walk, and was scrolling through an article on my phone as I rocked her stroller, wishing her to sleep. We were to the side of a quiet path in San Francisco, only the sounds of birds and squirrels scurrying amongst fallen leaves disrupting the peace.
“God bless you!” a woman said, apropos of nothing, as she jogged by.
I’d neither heard her approach nor was I ready for her exclamation, and was immediately angry that she might have woken the baby.
She hadn’t, but I was still angry. My upbringing had made me well-versed in the Christian practice of indiscriminately (or so they say) showering the world with kindness, and I knew the woman probably assumed she was casting a true blessing over my life. She probably believed that I needed her kindness and her God. I knew all this, and should have automatically offered her my whole-hearted empathetic absolution, but couldn’t.
I don’t run past people and randomly shout, “Evolution is real! ”
I often walked part of the way home from my nanny job in Noe Valley, up and down hilly Diamond Street all the way to the Castro Street Muni station. As I approached the intersection of 24th and Castro, the evening of the blessed-by-jogger day, I stopped to talk with a woman begging in front of Walgreens, and she told me her story. She was staying at a women’s shelter, she said, because she’d recently left her abusive partner. She was missing several teeth, and looking forward to the dental care that the shelter was facilitating. She told me she just needed a few things—toiletries, things to make her stay at the shelter more comfortable—and I told her I would buy them for her.
I was then an undergraduate student, and had been living independently since I was eighteen. I didn’t have much money, but I can’t say no to people who have it worse than I do. The lady was kind, and I tried to make her comfortable as we shopped, encouraging her to pick out the brands she wanted, and not just choose the cheapest toothpaste and body wash. She became more at ease, and soon was dropping many things into the basket.
I felt a warm panic rise over my chest and face—I hadn’t counted on her getting quite so comfortable spending the money I’d just spent nine hours earning.
“This is all I can afford,” I said, my hand hovering over the items in the cart. “I’m sorry.”
She looked at me incredulously, or maybe she was just uncomfortable once again, or maybe she was assessing my privilege.
“I could really use a hot meal,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t make much money myself.”
She followed me to the register and we waited awkwardly in line, not looking at each other too much, neither of us trying to force conversation any longer.
Once I’d paid, experiencing intense spender’s remorse all the while, but also guilt at having denied giving her more, we walked outside.
She swung her plastic Walgreens bag and seemed, again, anxious to talk. I wanted to flee. I had homework to do; so much homework. I had my two-hour bus commute the next morning, and would need to be up by 5 a.m. to be ready and have all my food packed for the day. Home pulled at me, but, aware that she didn’t have a home, I stayed to hear what she had to say.
She raised her palm to the sky, and her voice rang out: “Thank you, Jesus!”
Immediately, I felt indignation. Here was Jesus popping up, getting credit for the money I’d earned and spent. But I couldn’t say anything. Maybe she thought Jesus had brought me into her life that night. I wouldn’t take anything from her, her sustaining faith especially. Maybe Jesus was what she called the luck that had put me in my position in life—with a stable relationship, enough food, and consistent shelter. The same luck that had just begun to touch hers.
But I couldn’t see that then.
“Have a good night,” I said, and again began walking home.
If I’d still been a believer, I would have considered the three occurrences that day to be God calling me back to the faith, back to Him. As a baby atheist, I just considered the redirection of thanks to be misguided, the indiscriminate blessing of strangers to be useless, and the Jesus Christ Instagram account to be . . . I don’t know what.
Jesus was the excuse my parents and our religious community used to oppress me and the many women and girls of our congregation. I had wanted out, gotten out, and learned to disdain religious displays. Any hint of Christianity impinging on my private intellect angered me in those vulnerable years after my flight from faith.
But Jesus, to someone who has only encountered him as light and life, would mean love, luck, joy. I’ll continue to insist on separation in my own mind, of the intellectual from the metaphysical. But the longer I’m alive, the more reasons I see for people to use the ancient stories to flee from pain. Their journeys aren’t so opposite mine. What I fled and what I found I call by different names, and needed for my own very personal reasons. For the religious people in my life, many of their stories mirror that structure.
We’re all preaching something, by the way we live. Maybe, by examining intent over expressed labels, we can get to the heart, and see that most of us desire the same things—truth, peace, love, a place to lay our head and break our bread. The guilt I felt for not being able to solve her problems is something I’ve since set aside. My guilt doesn’t do her any good. I hope she’s moved on from the women’s shelter, that she’s found someone to love her and who she can love. That she got the dental work she’d been hoping for.
In a society built on individuality and self-reliance, we leave little room for people to have bad luck, and few people who’ve had enormously good luck acknowledge it as a big part of their success. The reason that Jesus will continue to frustrate me is that we have built a system that so clearly denies the people that Jesus is purported to have loved the most, and yet so many still cling to Him and use His name as reason to deny their fellow citizens their human rights. When will American Christians put two and two together and start acting like their Savior?
Instagram evangelism isn’t it, and calling out to people as you run past them isn’t either. The lady at Walgreens seemed to have true faith, and she probably needed it the most. When will Christians start honoring her by doing the good work, caring for people who are impoverished, who are without homes, who have survived abuse? If that was what Christianity looked like on the inside—that kind of effort not to make the world a better place, but to make life better for the people who are struggling—I might have found it much harder to leave the ranks.
It’s in the music: Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war . . . but the wars to be fought are against poverty, hunger, homelessness, racism. Not against immigrants and refugees, who Jesus would have welcomed, or sex workers and people who have committed crimes, who Jesus routinely hung out with. Get real, so we can work together to support the people your God—and you, as His followers—are supposed to love. Christianity and conservatism are so often linked in America. This is problematic since conservatives’ last priority seems to be protecting America’s most vulnerable. (See the recent attempts to dismantle health care, the pardoning of Sheriff Arpaio, the stripping of environmental regulations; who do you think these measures are taken to protect or enrich?)
To get back to a place of true Christian values, stop worshiping the rich. Remember what Jesus said about that? “ It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Republicans, I see you.