Sara Eckel | Longreads | June 2018 | 17 minutes (4,267 words)
Sometimes, while out with a friend I’ve known for 10 or 20 years, I’ll pivot on my barstool and ask, “Did I ever mention that I’m a born-again Christian?” The question rarely computes. My close friends know I grew up in an agnostic household, and they’re pretty sure the only Sunday morning activities I leave the house for are yoga and brunch. Some have even heard me casually describe myself as an atheist. Nevertheless, on a bookshelf in my parents’ house, there’s a Bible with an inscription in my loopy 10-year-old handwriting: “Today, I am a born-again Christian.” Below that, the words “Hallelujah!” in a woman’s elegant, slanted script.
The ceremony took place at that woman’s house — in my memory, her name is Mrs. Hannah — in the suburb of Cincinnati where my family lived during my grade school years. For my parents, southern Ohio was a six-year tour of duty — just a place where my dad got a job. For my younger brother, it’s barely a memory. But for me, it was where I first encountered the world and where I was repeatedly told I lacked something essential.
“You have a black hole in your soul,” a little boy told me on the way out of kindergarten one day. I walked home and promptly burst into tears in front of my mother.
A 21st-century reader might pause at the idea that I walked home alone from kindergarten, but in 1970s Ohio, there was nothing strange about a free-range 5-year-old. However, our neighbors were appalled that my family didn’t go to church. On the playground one day, I tried to explain it to a group of baffled classmates gathered around me in a semicircle, but it was like saying that we didn’t brush our teeth or eat dinner each night. The kids weren’t mean; they simply didn’t know how to reconcile a classmate who spent her Sunday mornings lounging in her pajamas and reading the funnies.
Once, while walking to school with my two best friends, both named Debbie, the girls had a jokey debate about what would happen after I died. I had obviously not cleared the prerequisite for heaven. On the other hand, I was their friend — eternal hellfire didn’t seem quite right, either. They imagined a fight between God and the devil, with me floating up and down through the ether.
“She’s too good for hell,” the devil would say.
“She’s too bad for heaven,” God would reply.
I think they were trying to work out how God could be so cruel as to reject their friend. On the other hand, they had to go to church. They had clocked in hundreds of Sunday mornings wearing rayon dresses in the too-warm air while I was kicked back on the couch eating cinnamon doughnuts. There should be some consequences.