The Missionary in the Kitchen

At nineteen, I was practically Christian. No sex, no drugs, a lot of desperate hopes that didn’t seem so different from prayers: to be normal, to be smart—above all, to be good. I owned multiple translations of the Bible.

In reality, I wasn’t religious; I was just afraid. I’d seen friends get drunk or fall in love, and their altered states made me all the more careful about maintaining the stasis of my own. I skipped parties. I did my homework. (The Bibles were assigned reading.) As soon as a boy I liked liked me back—never mind, no, I didn’t. “Goodness” was a vague idea in my head—no one had ever told me precisely what it meant—so I made up the rules and granted myself the satisfaction of never breaking them.

My devotion to routine worked. I always got the best grades, always got home safe. People no longer bothered having crushes on me. But a changeless life is a small one, and, even as my fears shrank my sense of self, or perhaps precisely because they did, I was more aware than ever of the vast dimensions of the rest of the world. I chose to do without the expansive bliss of getting high or making out, yet still longed for that heady rush of understanding: there’s something out there bigger than you.

This, of course, is where the most important part of religion—God himself—might have come in handy. The catch was that no one I knew believed in him. They were all secular, intellectual, proudly lapsed, supposedly élite. My great-grandfather had been a failed minister who taught swim classes at the Y.M.C.A. because he couldn’t find a church; within a few generations, it seemed few in the family even looked for one to join. Sometimes my parents played religious music on the living-room stereo—Bach, Handel—but only to appreciate the art. On the fancy college campus where I lived, we didn’t read the sacred texts, we analyzed them. I had bought my Bibles for a notoriously difficult class, taught by a distinguished and austere scholar. When exam season arrived, I headed to the library with dread. My best friend had recently started dating someone, so I went by myself, the heavy translations weighing down my backpack. Everyone else I knew was at something called a foam party, where they danced under piles of airy white suds.

The studying paid off, but then the satisfaction wore off. I was still afraid and I was still alone. Also, my back hurt. And so, although I didn’t believe in God, secretly I wanted to. Like a professor, he was always giving tests, and his actually mattered. I envied the stakes of these ancient reckonings. Nothing that happened to me had Biblical proportions. No floods, all foam. I’d never even been kissed.

People with vague longings like mine are often called seekers. They want to find things: purpose, meaning, truth. Finding, in my own brief life, had mostly looked like striving. Empowering, sure, but predictable, solitary. What I really wanted was to be found. That summer, in what seemed to me like a miracle, I sort of was. I’d just moved out of my stately, anonymous dorm and into a run-down house a few blocks away. There were seven or eight other occupants, and the rooms were filled with the belongings of many more, a sedimentary record of all the students who’d come before us. The result was a huge mess, but also a current of excitement: here was a place for excavation—for revelation.

And already I had the sense of things being unearthed, or at least dislodged. When the living room filled up with strangers, I surprised myself by sticking around, then by accepting a glass of whiskey. Even when I was sober, everything seemed new. A boy who lived on the first floor was a friend, but he’d been abroad for a semester; something about him had changed. A boy who lived on the second floor was an acquaintance, but he was more handsome than I remembered. My own room was in the attic, tiny and often stiflingly hot, and I started sleeping naked. It felt strange and unsettling at first, and then it felt like nothing at all.

The house was on the edge of campus, which made it seem like it was on the edge of what was often referred to as “the real world.” One afternoon, I returned home to find a man who had just crossed from our world into the next—that is, a recent graduate—sitting in the kitchen using the Wi-Fi. He’d lived upstairs until a few months earlier, and he still had the password. This wasn’t so strange: the house was too disorganized to be a co-op in practice, but it was communal in theory. Then he told me that he was a missionary. That was strange. He didn’t look the part: no tie, no pamphlets. He had a scruffy beard and cutoff jeans and, just weeks earlier, he’d been sitting in the same library as the rest of us, a massive Gothic building designed to look like a cathedral. But here he was, talking about Jesus. He’d started going to a local church out of curiosity, even though he was against most organized religion, which he said reinforced in-group and out-group distinctions. He’d initially been most impressed by Jesus in an abstract, political sense: he was an exemplary community organizer. But what God meant to him now was deeply, intimately personal. He talked to Jesus every day, and Jesus talked back.

“Talk” really was the right word: these conversations were profoundly casual, or casually profound. Sure, they talked about sin and salvation, but also about books, romance, the drama of sharing a kitchen with seven other people. No problem, according to the missionary, was too mundane to also be divine. Jesus was always there to listen. More than that, actually: he was always there to love.

None of us in the house would have invoked a lofty word like “love” to describe what was circulating among us that summer. “Feelings” was the imprecise term of choice; if you were especially bold, you might admit that you had them for someone, mere possession an event in its own right. One evening, in the little attic room, the boy from the first floor had done just that. To me! My first reaction was disbelief. My second was disappointment. I was pretty sure my own feelings were for the boy on the second floor.

This was a little awkward, a little painful—but normal college stuff. (Even normal middle-school stuff, I realized with embarrassment.) And yet these common acts of possession were transfigured by all the talk of God. The missionary kept coming around, and, in his totalizing faith, I saw what it might really mean to let my feelings take hold. To be possessed.

I should note that most of the occupants of the house ignored the missionary. He was nuts, he was annoying—wasn’t it time for him to get his own Wi-Fi? I was the one, sometimes accompanied by the first-floor boy or the second-floor boy, who sat in the cluttered kitchen and asked him questions. They were big, almost ridiculous questions. Nothing like the ones I carefully rehearsed before speaking aloud in seminar. What was Jesus like? What had he said lately? Sometimes I’d laugh at my own questions, and the missionary would gamely laugh, too, which reassured me; if he knew how crazy all this sounded, then he might in fact be totally sane.

Among other things, God had been talking about me. He’d told the missionary to hang around the house, to answer my questions, to be my friend. This shouldn’t really have come as a surprise: isn’t this every missionary’s script? And though I didn’t really believe these conversations had taken place, at least not the way the missionary described them, as if Jesus had called him up out of the blue, I liked hearing about them. How many college kids, effortlessly cool or studiously ironic or just painfully self-conscious, will define the mystery of intimacy so baldly: to say that they feel drawn, as if by some otherworldly force, to be around you; to admit that they have things they are burning to tell you, to make you understand?

Which all makes it sound like the true love story here is going to be between me and the missionary. But what was perhaps most alluring about him was the way he believed that all this—our talk, our feelings—was not about anything so small and pitiful as two college kids with crushes. While I was avoiding the boy on the first floor and hovering around the boy on the second floor, not saying much to either, my conversations with the missionary gave me a way to say things I wouldn’t—possibly couldn’t—have otherwise. They had all the specificity of gossiping with a friend (Jesus called him on the phone!) and all the grandiosity of lecturing from a professor (the missionary, too, knew how to close-read the Bible). One afternoon, he told me that, in some sense, God was chasing each of us, trying to bring us into his fold. At church, they went so far as to say that God was jealous for our love, jealous of all the other fleeting objects of our devotion. This was a surprising inversion. Weren’t we the seekers? (Not to mention the coveters.) The missionary shrugged. Couldn’t it be both? In all our conversations, I took care never to sound as zealous as he did, but even in my skepticism there was a thrill to talking in this register. To speak of doubt, after all, was also to speak of desire. If God wanted me, did I simply have to want him back?

On the longest day of the year, I invited myself to a solstice celebration with the second-floor boy. Even I couldn’t have convinced myself it was a date; there were as many people piled in the back of his Jeep as could fit. In a stranger’s back yard, we arranged ourselves in a circle of more strangers—middle-aged hippies, goth teens, barefoot kids—and sang odes to the Earth in various discordant keys. A bouquet of dried sage was lit on fire and passed around the circle. When it was my turn, I stood with my arms stretched out like wings while a woman I’d never met traced the outline of my body with a thin stream of smoke. I closed my eyes, willing myself to be transported. When I opened them, the woman was staring me straight in the face. Embarrassed, I looked away. The ride back was quieter than the ride there. The Jeep smelled like our bodies, like dirt and sweat and smoke.

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