I talk a lot about how Asia and Asian missions changed me. But Europe changed me as much if not more so. This is because in Asia my friends were religious, even the local Buddhists are religious. But in Europe, I was living out of hostels and campgrounds, and almost without exception, everyone I met was non-religious or perhaps more accurately, silent about religion.
On my first night in Europe I went to bed at 9 a.m. from jet lag, and was long sound asleep when a student came in very drunk and shook me and tried to wake me up to join the “fun.” They ended up having a party in my room that night. Remember, I had gone from the conservative south to missionary Asia, so this behavior was shocking. Fortunately, this behavior was not a picture of my entire trip. I also lived out of a tent for two months, staying in 24 different locations in 11 countries during that time. I also stayed with a non-religious German family when the weather turned cold and experienced the much faster driving style of the Germans. I explored Barcelona with a Korean student and explored Austria with a China student. I met a Scottish couple in Northern Belgium who had camped in Southern Spain in 104 F degree heat; they apparently rubbed bad luck off on me because the next day I got food poisoning and threw up for several hours in 40 degree F weather while tent camping in my only pair of warm clothing. While washing dishes, I’d listen to conversations among students conversing about feminism and equality. At campgrounds I’d meet people biking for over a month. During all my traveling time, I met only couple who talked about their faith–American graduate students who were biking across Europe for 2 and a half months.
Yet these secular people I met were real. They’d say a cuss word and apologize. They would talk honest about their past and their ambitions. I felt free in Europe.
And when I met men who were jerks, such as the guy who came up to me on a cloudy October day on the beach in Barcelona and asked if he could take me to my place to make me “happy,” I knew every person in my dorm would have kicked his butt before he could have sneaked in our building. They wouldn’t try to convert him or call their father or do something too dramatic; they would just kick him out and go on with life.
What I am describing here is not European culture per se. I am describing the real world away from religion. A world where I could be real, and they could be real. Let me explain with three examples from my evangelical culture.
1) My homeschool, Christian Patriarchy sub-culture. In this world, I had to stay emotionally and sexually pure before marriage with little grace for giving my heart away at all. I had to stuff in the emotions and smile at church and be one big happy family. And if I had negative emotions, this was a sign of spiritual weakness, and I learned to bury them by quoting scripture, character traits, and using anger management tools. Admittedly, I failed at this.
2) Evangelical sub-culture. I saw this when I was working as a cataloger at a college library. We’d gossip about those who were kissing in the library because surely they were having sex outside marriage. We came down hard on those who were on welfare. We judged others eating habits up there with the word of God. I felt like a clam. I couldn’t mention anything without being judged up against God’s word. And I was working in a secular library. But the evangelical culture was still alive and well, and faking it was much safer.
3) The missionary sub-culture. I had foster kids with special issues who were totally not perfect. And you would think other missionaries would understand because they are there to outreach the culture. But some of them thought we could just teach the kids the world of God, spank them, and train them. We could tell the kids to stuff up their abuse and never mention it again, and the problems would go away. I lived it. That’s a lie. And I don’t think I ever felt more trapped from being real than I did with the missionary community; I had to keep my lips zipped, and only the neighbors, who could hear the words said and voices raised, and one close church friend, knew what really was happening.
But human nature tries to fake it and put on a smile, right? Perhaps so, but religion takes it to the extremes that I experienced in those three sub-cultures. Conservative evangelical culture will often even tell you to fake it. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” says the Religious Right in response to gays in the military. You have to strip yourself of who you are and live in guilt while trying to come to terms with a past you don’t think other people share.
And that’s why I loved European travel. Students and bikers said what they thought, and actually thought what they said. They didn’t look down on someone if they said a bad word, or had a bad day. Sure some people may have been immoral, but I’d say most people were traveling for the same reason I was – for a more enriching life. The stereotype I had against secular people had to die.
When I boarded the plane out of Europe for Qatar and later home, I couldn’t have told you why I dreaded going back into the evangelical sub-culture, but I did. It was three weeks later that it hit me. A missionary said if I skipped church on my birthday, it “would ruin my witness” and “disappoint the orphans.” I realized what had changed in me while in Europe.
I was done pretending.
Anyone else experienced these two different worlds?