I Thought I Was an Evangelical till Trump’s America
The Caribbean is making me real. New blog post:
I was 16, growing up in the height of the nineties near Los Angeles, and someone presented the evangelical “gospel” to me, “Admit that I was not always right, believe that Jesus had a better way, and commit to living my life in a beautiful and pure way”. My teenage mind found the message intoxicatingly counter-cultural and I followed with reckless abandonment. I went to Christian camp, enrolled in Christian college, and found a new life across the country in the heart of Billy Graham’s hometown. My life became wholly devoted to two primary aims-- loving God and loving others. I messed up daily and was caught in my “sins” by a community that I thought loved me. I married at 21 and went to Church every Sunday. Our life was not simple or easy and our prayers felt rarely answered, but we loved so deeply that place and community in the mountains of Montreat, North Carolina.
Christians from around the world had come there for over a hundred years to find themselves and the God of the universe. I could walk the sidewalks and neighbors would invite me in. I could stop by a screen porch on a Sunday afternoon. I could hike a peak and hear the voice of God like Moses. I was intricately a part of that world and network. Overtime, I realized that the gospel I knew at sixteen wasn’t as simple as it had been presented, and that there were over 3,000 Christian sects that felt differently. Infant versus adult baptism, women wearing pants or preaching, communion wine, liturgy, hymns and contemporary music, buildings, youth groups, and eldership had all been dividing lines for Christians throughout history.
I stood proudly on the fact that, as an evangelical, I transcended all dividing lines and sects, and I loved God and others purely. It was the evangelical way, to consider ourselves right and holy, when everyone else in the world wasn’t. We divided people into two binary groups: believers and non-believers and we considered their allegiance paramount. We chose “believing” mechanics, dentists, doctors, coffee shops, and grocery stores over those that were not, simply because we only wanted to support businesses with high morals. In the believer category, I never questioned my own actions because I was already “saved”. It did not matter what I said or did, because God had already forgiven me.
Then, came January 2016. I was teaching and lecturing at Montreat College as an Instructor of Environmental Science and Outdoor Education. As a Christian College, we integrated faith and learning daily and our students and faculty represented hundreds of Christian denominations. I was comfortable as one of them, and spent little time questioning. President Maurer, the college President of two years, asked us to sign a faith statement document which proved our allegiance to Biblical truths. As I reviewed, the document, I remember having extreme waves of doubt. What was biblical truth? How do I know I am right? What if I am actually wrong? Over the month, I and twenty others questioned the wording and semantics and had multiple think sessions. At one session at Pisgah Brewery, I asked President Maurer, “And what if I don’t believe everything? Then what?” His answer was straight forward, “Well, Mel for years the Church has been guarded against heresy and this would be another case. If you are a believer you step into biblical truth”.
I understood clearly. Biblical truth meant gay people were not to be married. Women no matter their circumstance were to have babies. The rules of Apostle Paul in the New Testament were to be followed with blind faith. Unfortunately, I knew the Bible and had fabulous Bible professors at Montreat College for both undergrad and graduate school. I was “Montreat College’s darling” who had turned her sinner life to sainthood and was now a colleague alongside my former professors. The Bible was not that clear, and it never had been (hence, the reason for 3,000 denominations in America alone). The same Apostle Paul who had told gay people to stop their wicked ways, also told women to wear full burkas, like nuns, and men to wear head covering in the temple. He had told me to never teach men and to look to my husband for all decisions. I, standing in front of a lecture hall of 60% male students at a Christian College, wore a tank top, pencil skirt, and had not asked my husband if I could teach that day on climate change. Additionally, I was enrolled in a second master’s program at Harvard University’s sustainability program, and daily I questioned Christianity’s role in America’s obsession with wealth and materialism.
I was a heretic, according to biblical truth, and I stood there in a Christian College lecture hall, fully revealed in all my heretical glory. I no longer had sweet devotional sayings to make my students feel good. Instead, I had deep gut honesty. I loved my gay friends and I longed to go to their weddings. I sometimes wished that abortion was legal, because I had worked with hundreds of sexually abused foster kids that were never adopted by the Church. I had watched a colleague make fun of hispanics, women, and environmental concerns with no reprimand. I watched my former pastor addicted to opioids and alcohol go on missions trips to purchase more pills. I watched the elders of my Church mock women, environmentalists, hispanics, and gay people openly on Facebook with hundreds of likes streaming in. I heard an administrator state that he would not accept my Harvard University credits because he did not know that Harvard had a credible hybrid program. I listened to my girlfriends proclaim that Trump was the only answer, because Hillary was the anti-Christ. I cried as my closest friends ridiculed me and my adopted daughter in the Women’s March, because Franklin Graham had led Trump to Christ and endorsed him.
As a heretic, I stood. I was no longer one of them. It happened in a blink of a cold dark January. I handed in my notice. Refused to talk to the media because I was under contract still with Montreat College. I contacted my gay friends (that I had judged in the past) and apologized. I spoke to my college students and told them I was a doubter, that I was unsure, and that I loved them. My former principal hired me to teach middle school again, as an act of kindness and grace. I walked through our little downtown unsure of who was “believers and unbelievers”. My perfect binary world was ruined. My heresy had caught up to me, and I stood alone swinging punches. The college bragged in the media that only one full-time faculty left because of their decisions and that God was showing up with monetary miracles.
The anger and outrage that followed was something like Christ turning over tables when he saw religious men buying prostitutes in the temple. My only shelter became this small little Church on main street called Black Mountain Presbyterian. It’s members had been freedom riders, circuit pastors in coal towns, educators in the Apartheid, the first women at numerous colleges throughout the South, and pastors who faced bomb threats and walkouts when they invited “blacks” to Church. I loved these Saints deeply and they loved me (heresy and all). One called to say, “I remember when, there was an argument at _____ college about me wearing pants to the office”. Another called to say, “When I finished my degree no one would hire me, because they said being a banker was a man’s job”. They reminded me that the Church had always been counter-cultural and that Trump’s evangelicalism was not the Church at all.
The year of anger and tumult left in me selling my house, going to Cambridge for summer school at Harvard, and packing 22 years of my life in a container to move to the Caribbean away from Trump’s presidency. Trump had stated that “He had spoken to the President of Virgin Islands following the hurricanes” and that’s when I realized he didn’t know he was their leader. It sounded like a perfect paradise for a former evangelical who had been ousted, and I have spent the last nine months hibernating. I thought I was an evangelical until Trump’s America.
Melissa R. Wilson, M.S. is an active conservationist and environmentalist who happily lives in paradise (the U.S. Virgin Islands) working to create STEM career pathways and networks for Caribbean students. She graduates from Harvard University in May 2019.