by Katie Gaddini
“O Tree—O Gun—O Girl, run—
O Miraculous Many Gone—
O Lord—O Lord—O Lord—
Is this love the trouble you promised?”
—Tracy K. Smith, Wade in the Water
November. It’s Saturday night and I’m at Maddie’s new house in southeast London. We’re tearing through our second bottle of Malbec, sprawled out on the couch, our legs tangled around each other like seaweed. Blues music plays on shuffle in the background.
Maddie leans her head back on the armrest and closes her eyes to let the music seep into her. She’s mumbling something about her Bible study group, which is meeting tomorrow before church. Every week the women take turns telling their prodigal tales of darkness and wandering, of being lost and then found– by God, but more so, by each other. Tomorrow is Maddie’s turn. Like most evangelical Christian conversion narratives, these women’s stories (or testimonies, as they’re called) have been thrilling and dramatic. Miraculous even. Drugs and sex feature heavily, as do illnesses and close shaves with death; the spectacular serving to demarcate who they were before they found religion in contrast to who they are now. Underlying every story is the dull ache for something more, often taking the form of a hole, a “God-shaped hole”, as they say, one that has now been satisfyingly filled.
Maddie is my friend, but she’s also my research subject. I’m trying to understand, after spending most my life as a right-wing evangelical woman and then leaving the faith, why other women stay. I ask Maddie if I can record her and she consents. Placing my phone on the coffee table next to us, I press record and slide it the length of the glass toward her end.
Maddie’s words trickle out like thick molasses, slowed down by wine and drowsiness. “I don’t have anything dramatic to tell. I don’t have an interesting life story like they do.”
What about your crazy ex-boyfriend, I say, the one who might be secretly gay? And there’s the eating disorder you battled during university.
Keeping her head reclined she laughs and thanks me for the reminders. “I also realized: who cares. I don’t need a crazy dramatic testimony.”
It’s quiet now and Maddie and I retreat to the corners of our own minds, gathering our thoughts like little stones before reuniting to show each other what we’ve found.
After a while I ask: Do you have any opinions on the role of the Christian community? I tell her that it keeps coming up in my interviews with British evangelical women. They mention “the community” as if speaking of a long-term lover: with admiration but also with heady lust. I’m trying to understand what this means to them, to squeeze analytic import from an emotionally-saturated concept.
“It’s a really interesting topic,” she muses. “I’m thinking of doing a photography project on the weird and wonderful ways people find community. It really is one of the most beautiful things about the church.”
Maddie takes a sip of wine, and when I listen to the recording now, years later, I can hear the wine slide down back of her throat, the sound of it layered over Etta James’s lulling voice, my murmurs, a car slowly passing by outside– a sensorial landscape teeming with softness.
She continues. “I sometimes think: if I were to leave the church, how would I find this community? Of course, there are ways to find community outside the church, but I think the community is one of the most positive things to come out of organised religion. It’s so entrenched, it’s in place, and it works.”
I copy Maddie’s posture and lean my head back. I close my eyes. With the wine softening my defences, I let myself remember what it was like to belong to the evangelical community, allowing the sweetness of belonging to lap like frothy surf around the edges of my body.
Maddie’s voice takes on an urgent quality, sped up by the emotionality of her words: “I mean, you can have community at work, but you don’t go deep with them. At church, it’s like a family. You don’t hold back with these people, you bare all, you don’t have to put on a front. We are all putting on a front every day, but when you’re with your Christian friends you can be your ugly self and they don’t even care. To be known and connected, to be part of something and loved unconditionally – it’s so relieving.”
Eyes still closed, I respond: The emotional depths you are able to reach with these people … it is a singular experience.
“Yes, exactly. For me, to sum up the Christian community in one sentence I’d say: it’s to be known.” Maddie pauses. “Even if it’s just to be known truthfully by a handful of people, I don’t think there’s anything sweeter.”
I agree, but I don’t say so. Instead, I rock back and forth in the memory of the community, floating on my back in a wide, wide ocean where I am held. I let myself be carried out, not even caring if I am delivered safely back to shore.
We’re both quiet now and then Maddie sighs a contented sigh. I yawn. I reach over to switch the recorder off.
Three years later, on an ordinary Sunday afternoon, while cleaning the house, I will find this recording by accident, buried deep in my computer archives, the file simply named “Maddie.” I’ll press play not knowing what I’m about to listen to, and when Maddie’s inebriated voice floats through my speakers, it will upend me. So much so that I will turn off the television, close the living room door, and sit down to listen. After the recording finishes, I’ll play it again, and again, and again. On the third or fourth listen I will bring my hand to my cheek and find, to my surprise, that it’s wet with tears.
In my mid-twenties, I kicked open the door of evangelical Christianity and walked out, towards a life that promised more freedom. It was a slow extraction. I lost my religion gradually, piece by piece, as disillusionment unspooled a tightly wound coilof belief, until I was gone.
Once outside I surveyed my new surroundings and I asked: Who am I now? Untethered from the circumscribed ways of being a woman, I could stretch out and expand in directions never before accessible. I could have an opinion! I could have, not just a job, but a career. I could choose to not get married. (And to not have children.) I could choose.
I grew up a pastor’s daughter in conservative American evangelicalism. Up until that point, evangelicalism was all I had ever known: my family was populated with evangelical pastors; I attended evangelical schools all the way through university; and all my friends were evangelical.
Leaving also brought deep pain. On my way out of the broken-down door, a splinter had lodged in the palm of my hand and the time had come to remove it. I eased it out slowly, so as to not rupture the skin, the shard of wood burrowed under layers and layers of regenerated epidermis. And though I was relieved once it was out, I also winced at the pain wrought by its absence: an open wound marking the point of exit.
The theologian Sallie McFague writes: “Conversion will be a process, usually a painful and life-long process, fraught with doubt, with ambiguity, with great discomfort, with risk; and certainly, it will demand courage to a high degree.” Having researched evangelicals and their conversions in depth, I know this description to be true. But I would like to add, Dr. McFague, that these are also the hallmarks of de-conversion. It too, is a process; a disorienting, agonizing, and maddening one. It too demands courage.
Speaking to a fellow de-convert recently, she remarked: It’s a strange feeling, like I was holding something and suddenly it’s gone so quickly. She looked down at her lap after she said this, drawing attention to her empty hands, which were tucked neatly inside each other, cradling nothing. For a long time after, I pondered her choice of words: holding her faith, like a parcel or a gift. Was it heavy, and if so, did it fatigue the muscles? Or was it fragile, porcelain-like? Also: how is it gone? Did it carelessly slip from her hands? Was it taken by force?
February. London is blanketed in a white winter frost, a pathetic substitute for snow. Vicky, another evangelical woman I’ve met, has invited me to join her Bible study group. This is research gold and my supervisor is pleased. But I’m terrified. I’m getting too close, and I know it.
I arrive at Vicky’s house early, wanting to make a good impression, and carrying two cartons of orange juice, as promised. Vicky greets me at the door and welcomes me in. The house is large and inviting: the floors are covered with soft beige carpet, and an eclectic mix of antique furniture and IKEA purchases fill the rooms. The sizzle of bacon drifts out from the kitchen, along with the bready smell of pancakes and slowly percolating coffee. Another research participant, Barbara, is resting her weight on the kitchen door jamb. She turns her head my direction and shouts a hearty hello.
There are two others: Jacqui, who greets me from inside the kitchen as she flips pancakes over a steaming griddle and Fiona, standing nearby, chopping fruit, and pausing momentarily to wave in my direction. The bacon starts to burn, the aroma instantly overriding all others, and Vicky rushes to the frying pan to rescue the blackened strips of meat.
When the food is ready, Vicky steers us toward the dining room. I sit down at the table, an old wooden table, with nicks and dents around the edges, and fold my hands, bowing my head to pray as I’ve done for many years, the gesture so deeply encoded in my body that I don’t even realise I am doing it. Vicky prays for us, her voice dropping to a solemn cadence as she addresses her God.
After we pray, we eat. Vicky spears three pancakes with her fork and lifts them from the serving platter, dropping them onto her plate. She asks what everyone got up to at the weekend.
Fiona tells about her trip to New York with a group of friends from Holy Trinity Brompton, or “HTB”, as the women call it, an influential charismatic evangelical church in the heart of South Kensington that they attend.
Vicky’s turn: “Well I had quite the night out on Friday!” It’s clear now that the question was asked so that she could answer it herself. She raises a seared strip of bacon to her mouth, not even bothering to look at it before shunting it into her mouth.
All eyes turn toward her, our curiosity visibly raised.
She recounts her Friday night, spent at a new club in South Kensington with a group of guys from HTB – Ralph, Stewart … and what’s that really hot one called?
“Rob?” Jacqui suggests.
“Yes, Rob! But not Rob Gilcrest, Rob Fox.” Vicky grins. “Appropriate last name. Can’t believe I forgot it.”
Lost in the dizzying swirl of names I remain quiet.
“Anyway,” Vicky continues, still grinning, “By the end of the night, Sophie and I had had about three gin and tonics each and were quite tipsy. Next thing I know, I’m snogging Ralph outside the club, while we wait for our taxis to arrive. I didn’t get home until 4am. So, I’m feeling pretty rough!”
I think over my weekend: all I’ve done is a bit of cleaning, a long run alone on Saturday, dinner out with a friend. My days have been dull and solitary compared to these evangelical women’s’.
Next, we transition to the study portion of our Bible study, moving into the living room to signal a change in tone and subject matter. I sit next to Barbara on the couch, our bodies sinking into the cushions. Once again Vicky leads the conversation, reminding the group that the session topic for this month is “dark night of the soul.” She has sent around a passage by St. John of the Cross a few weeks before and now solicits our thoughts on it. Barbara is the first to respond. She sits up and pulls a pillow onto her lap, wrapping her arms around it as if it might provide comfort for what she’s about to say.
Four years ago, she tells us, she struggled with a crippling depression that left her unable to function. She couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t work, barely made it to church.
“You know, at some point I said ‘I still believe that you exist, God, but I don’t believe you love me. So, fuck you, I’m going to do what I want.’”
The word “fuck”, invoked so closely after “God”, renders us silent. We sit and wait for the rest of the story, which doesn’t immediately come.
What did you do? We ask timidly.
“I bought a ticket to Southeast Asia to travel solo, and the Lord healed me while I was out there. Don’t you know this story?”
We shake our heads.
“Well, I went to Cambodia and stayed with a friend who was a missionary there. And one morning, I was in my friend’s room while she was leading a prayer session out in the hall. And I was hysterical – I was weeping and I could not control myself, even though I was trying to be quiet, because I didn’t want to interrupt the prayers.” Barbara pauses, so the severity of her words have time to land on us and achieve their desired impact.
“Then a woman, one of the teachers on the base, came through and she said: ‘I just feel like I’m supposed to be here with you, so I’m going to pray for you.’ So, we spoke, and we prayed, and something just lifted, and I– I just felt differently.” I see tears pooling in her wide-set brown eyes; she’s still clutching the pillow.
The others take turns sharing their personal stories of darkness and light, and then it’s time for another round of prayer. This time we pray for one another, tailoring our solicitations to the needs of the person next to us. After, it’s back to casual chatter: Fiona complains about her new colleague and Barbara commiserates because she too has a difficult one. Vicky despairs the misery of dating apps and tells us a story about a date gone awry. Jacqui laughs, and offers advice. I hang back and watch these evangelical women as they transition from light-hearted banter to spiritual and emotional depths, only to resurface, collectively, in unison, like a flight of swallows, their manoeuvres faultless.
Barbara turns to me and asks about a mutual friend. The mention of someone outside this enclosed little world startles me and I realise that I have fallen into a deep sleep, lulled by the warmth of the women around me.
Barbara continues talking, but I don’t hear her now because I’ve been roused from my slumber, jolted back to life, back to myself.
I pull my legs out from under me and my feet plant into the plush carpeting; I’m restless and I need to get out of here.
Vicky walks me to the door and thanks me for coming, placing her spindly, child-like hand on the knife edge of my scapula. The gesture is so thoroughly sincere, it makes me want to run back and curl up on her couch. “The caress,” writes Emmanuel Levinas, “is made up of this increase of hunger, of ever richer promises, opening new perspectives onto the ungraspable. It feeds on countless hungers.” Hungers that, until that moment, I did not know I had.
Tumbling onto the street, I glance at my watch: our gathering has taken up half the day and I feel drained.
As I ride the Tube in silence, the image of these women’s smiling faces crashes in on me, and I can see how entrenched they are in their close-knit community. Barbara’s words run riot through my head: “When I think about it, the community is the thing — particularly with my depression when I was at my lowest—that saved my life. I genuinely believe that. I believe that this community saved my life.”
I feel myself so far away from them; the distance between them and me, then and now, is finally revealed to me, brought into the light of day. It impales me. I can still taste the sweetness of belonging, though now the flavour has turned rancid and I want to spit it out of my mouth.
Abruptly, I get off at the next station and decide to change course: I cancel my evening plans and power down my phone. What I need now is a yoga class, one of those fast-paced, hot ones; I need to exorcise this bad feeling out of my body through sweat and breath. But it doesn’t work. I dart into a nearby café to think, fingers digging into my sweaty scalp as I gaze down at the white foam of my cappuccino, chest rising and falling quickly now. I’m running out of options.
Out onto the street again, I flag down a taxi and it carries me to my friend’s house. An irreverent, atheist friend; who met me after I left Christianity, who only knows one version of me. The screech of a buzzer and I’m in. I walk straight to his bedroom, dropping my bag and coat on the floor on my way there, and collapse on the bed. He comes over to me and cautiously begins to stroke my back, a warm hand tenderly painting circles on a stilled body.
Tell me who I am, I whisper.
I don’t want to lose myself—this version of me, and I can feel it slipping away, the quicksand of the past swallowing me up. I’ve spent all day outside myself, play acting the person I used to be, the person I might have been had I never left evangelicalism. This is a self I do not want to remember; her vulnerability saddens me at the same time as it enrages me. But it’s not a pure resistance: I oppose this Christian self and simultaneously, I also long for it. I find myself neither there nor here, and the liminality is unbearable.
Resting against my friend’s fleshy duvet, I close my eyes as he recites my biography over me, like an incantation, like a prayer.
(What is this community, that has the power to save a life? That stirred in me a yearning to return, long after I’d left? That intoxicates and seduces at the same time as it smothers.)
Interpersonal relationships have become “liquified” in modern times, according to sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. And the weakening of stable connections leads to the fragmentation of individual identities, which are otherwise developed within secure relationships. Instead of leaving us unencumbered, this shift produces profound anxiety and a longing for fixity – even more so in urban settings. The isolation involved with city dwelling leads urban geographers to conclude that living in a city is associated with unhappiness. Moreover, the bigger the city the unhappier the residents, leaving us with a lack of trust and limited social support.
In this age of uncertainty, whether it be political, economic, or relational uncertainty, we seek refuge inside categories; it is the place where we come to be known, where we know ourselves, where the fluid self finds a reliable response to its cry “Who am I?” Religion is one institution which counters the disorder of late modernity by proffering stable, religious identities to liquified subjects.Within evangelicalism, you are a Christian before you are anything else; it’s a strongly-felt and a hotly-pursued identity. Evangelicalism is also a very demanding religion. Even apart from all the behavioural modifications – no sex, no drunkenness, no swearing – it demands that believers immerse themselves fully. Once women enter evangelicalism, they submit themselves to a profound shift in terms of habits, routines, and ways of being. Their newfound faith directs their movements around the city, it dictates what job they take, and which friendships they nurture. Indeed, women’s journey into the faith mirrors my journey out of it: both involve violent fracture with what came before, leading me to conclude that rupture is necessitated on either side of the doorway of Christianity.
In return for this immersion, an evangelical identity gives its inhabitants the fixity they crave and the connection with others that they seek; it ameliorates their loneliness. But as I delved further into the world of single evangelical women, I learned that it wasn’t just any community that women wanted, it was the vulnerability and the intimacy fostered within this community that they longed for. A community that came with a price.
June. A decisive majority of British citizens have just voted to leave the European Union. To be Anglican is now to be a Brexiteer. Trump has been elected the primary candidate for the Republican party, bolstered by the support of white evangelical Christians.
Another Bible study gathering, this time at my house. The women arrive in shambles: one, two, three, four. They are distraught by the referendum and angered that one of their church leaders openly supported the Leave campaign. What’s more: HTB is hosting a Trump-supporting American pastor at the annual church retreat. It’s all too much, they say. We must do something! We must fight back!
Jacqui declares, emphatically, that you cannot be a Christian and support Trump. Or Brexit, for that matter. Her reading of scripture and interpretation of faith leads her to believe in pro- immigration policies. And her church has betrayed her by inviting the American pastor. So: she will boycott the retreat, and start a “post-truth” Bible study, an underground shelter for other misfits like her to find solidarity.
Vicky is furious. She decides to spearhead a petition to get the American pastor removed from the retreat. She will gather signatures and support and present it to the vicar. Trump’s treatment of women offends her—as both a woman and a Christian.
Barbara has spent the past few days crying over Brexit. She cancelled all social gatherings that involved evangelical Brexiteers because she can’t face them. Not yet anyway. Her God loves the foreigner and the outsider, welcomes the refugee with open arms. To embellish her point, she cites Matthew 22: 39: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
But when July comes, the retreat goes forward, with the American pastor as a keynote speaker. The women’s efforts have failed. So, what now? I ask them. They have all decided to stick with the community.
“Because no one is perfect.”
“I think the vicar realized it was a mistake, and it won’t happen again.”
“It was too late to uninvite him.”
“I just don’t ask people their views on Brexit anymore … It’s better that way.”
(What will it take for these women to leave?)
December, three years later. That week before Christmas: cold but still convivial. Maddie suggests dinner so we squeeze a date into our bulging diaries. As I arrive at the restaurant, I spot her from afar, rounding the corner in her tidy, purposeful trot.
We hug. It’s been nearly a year since I’ve seen her, but her smell is just as it always was: feminine, floral, delicate. Even so, something is different, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. She’s inaccessible to me now, I cannot reach her, and it’s not the distance that unsettles me in this moment of coming back together, it’s the familiarity.
As soon as we sit down, the waiter comes to take our order, relieving us of inane chatter.
I ask if she’s still going to church and she shakes her head no. I wonder if what I see creep across her face is sorrow or resignation. Perhaps both. The line between the two is so fine. She takes a drink of water, her long, elegant fingers seizing the glass with such force I fear it may shatter.
So, what made you finally leave?
She draws in a deep breath and narrows her eyes. “I guess, I just felt like a fraud going there, and I couldn’t stand that feeling any longer. It was like my body was still sitting in the pew, but mentally I’d already left.”
The waiter returns. He places steaming dishes of basmati rice and dhal in front of us. We stare at the food, not bothering to touch it, as if it’s been put there for display.
She tells me that she started to feel worse after services than before them. And then one day she reached it: the breaking point where she knew she had to leave.
Do you still consider yourself a Christian?
She smiles compassionately, as if to temper the news she’s about to deliver, as if she’s worried that it will break my heart.
“I don’t think so,” she responds at last. Her words weighed down with bitterness, with remorse.
Do you realise, I want to say to her, how much time you lost and can never get back? Just how much control you gave over to the church, and for how long? All those promises you made to do better, to be better; your efforts to be a meek and malleable woman; to dampen down your own desires and ambitions; to be wholesome and pure; to perform subservience so repeatedly that it became like second nature and then it ceased being a performance and it became performative. It became you.
And think of all the sex you gave up! Think of the wasted time worrying about whether God was okay with anal sex and oral sex as long as it wasn’t sex sex. Whether you could still see your gay friend from university, or if you should keep your distance. The micro ways you altered your entire life to conform to the evangelical model, only to sit here, in an empty Indian restaurant at the start of winter and renounce it all.
Did you think it would end like this?
Yes, yes, I know: evangelicalism also gave you so much. A sense of belonging, a rootedness, a warmth, a community. One that you have lost now that you’ve left. And you know (don’t you?) that you’ll never find a suitable replacement. But it’s too late to go back, because the lights have come on at the party and its horror that fills you as you look around and see: the destroyed living room, the floor sticky with booze, the stale crisps in brightly-coloured plastic bowls, and the rest of the partygoers still entranced, their eyelids stubbornly shut, heads titled upwards, bodies swaying to the music.
I want to know: In the end, was it worth it?
An uncomfortable silence metastasizes between me and Maddie. Then, we begin to spoon dhal into our mouths, and, bodies warmed from the inside, we speak again, carefully choosing a topic that promises us surer footing.
May. The sweet fragrance of jasmine floods the sidewalks and even though it’s eight when I step off the bus, a soft glow lingers in the sky, lighting up the city. As usual I’m late. I scold myself as I turn left, then right down wide, heavily-populated streets. Pause at the red light, take a chance and sprint across three lanes of traffic, dodge a speeding motorcycle, stop, breath, re-arrange my shirt, smear some red across my lips, and charge up the stairs, quickly but smoothly, pushing past the glsss doors. Second floor, east wing, Maddie said. Find the east wing. Find Maddie.
But instead of Maddie, I find her photographs. Six large images on glossy paper, unframed and stretched out on bare white walls. Colours of summer, of a Greek island, of fecundity and conviviality and heat.
There are pictures of farmers feeding their goats, an old man sipping coffee, and various images of still objects: a slice of fruit tart on a white tablecloth, paper-thin flower petals discarded on the dusty ground. It’s the one in the centre of the wall facing me that captures my attention: A woman entering the sea. She’s the size of my thumb, the picture taken from so far away. I imagine Maddie squatting on a cliff that bright morning, arriving early to beat the midday sun, yet still she had to wipe beads of sweat from her forehead before steading the camera lens and pressing down to release the shutter: click, click, click.
We only see the woman’s back. A white straw hat is pulled down low on her head, it’s baby-blue ribbon flapping wildly in the wind. Wrinkles line her back and arms, arms that are spread wide to steady her as she wades further into the water, water so clear you can see hefty rectangular rocks resting on the seabed, even from this distance.
Concentric circles ripple out from her body: they are perfect, undisturbed, smooth circles that start at her waist and continue outwards, growing in diameter, in magnitude, endlessly and effortlessly. Stopping only when they meet the edge of the shot.
Katie Gaddini is a researcher at the University of Cambridge, where she completed her doctorate in sociology in 2018. She is currently writing a book based on research with single evangelical women, titled The Cost of Staying, to be published in 2020. A native Californian, she now resides in London.