It all started at my last class before spring break, when I’d found myself engaged in conversation with my sort-of friend, Grace.* I’d asked her what she was doing over our upcoming break, and she answered that she’d be joining a mission trip to Memphis.
“Mission,” I’d repeated stupidly. “Is that where you go and convert people to Christianity?”
She had looked stricken for a minute, then laughed.
“Oh, no,” she’d assured me. “We’re not converting anyone. It’s just a community service trip through my ministry.”
At the word “ministry,” my ears perked up. It was what I’d narrowly avoided with the first set of roommates I’d spoken to, and it intrigued me still, perhaps because it so nearly could have been my fate.
I kept asking Grace questions about her church, and perhaps struck by my lack of knowledge of anything about religion, she invited me to go to the ministry with her the following Wednesday during its weekly service for students. I agreed, and the week after spring break, Grace picked me up in the lobby of the Iowa Memorial Union, where I’d been nervously pacing for an hour. The only church I’d ever been to was my friend’s Baptist church on New Year’s Eve, where the breaks from prayer were punctuated by lively dancing and singing. I’d loved that church. I had a feeling that this one might be a bit different.
The service was held in what looked at first glance to be a ballroom. On a stage, four students—one ecstatically fist-pumping on the drums; another strumming a guitar and singing; one gripping onto a microphone and belting into it; and one playing long, passionate, drawn-out strokes on a violin—all performed with their eyes closed. When we (Grace, Grace’s roommate, and I) entered the room, the students were in the midst of singing a song about how Christ had risen from the dead. It was actually quite catchy. Grace led me to a seat next to her, and we remained standing for the duration of the song. The lyrics flashed on a screen that was on the stage, and although the tune was easy enough to follow along with, I would have felt like a fraud if I’d started singing, so I stayed quiet.
One of the four students, the guy with the guitar, stopped singing for a moment to invite us to reach our arms up, as though waiting for Jesus to sweep us into heaven. Grace assured me that I didn’t have to sing along or do any of the motions, so I rocked back and forth awkwardly while she sang and reached her arms up.
After the singing came a testimonial video that was part of a series called “At the Table with JESUS.” After an opening montage of people preparing a large feast and sitting down, presumably with Jesus, a young, greasy-haired man appeared onscreen. He began his story by telling us about the first time that he had smoked marijuana with his older brother. Soon, he confided, he felt the need to get high all the time, progressing from marijuana to harder drugs, such as LSD. It was only after he and his friend got high before beginning a Bible study that the young man, deep in a crisis of faith during which he feared he’d failed both God and himself, realized that only Jesus could fill the gaps he’d been attempting to fill by altering his state of mind with drugs. When the video ended, everyone clapped thunderously.
Next, a student took the stage to deliver a sermon that was a passage from the Gospel of John. He named the passage, and beside me, Grace reached into her bag and produced a Bible with a woven cover.
“I brought you one,” she said.
I thanked her and opened it uselessly, flipping through as though I knew what I was looking for. She laughed gently and flipped to John in seconds, pointing me to the passage.
The student, a senior who’d be getting married in June following his graduation, preached about the fullness that can only be achieved by abiding in Jesus. Doing well in school, having human relationships, eating burritos…it was all trying uselessly to fill gaps, he said, that could be filled only by beginning and maintaining a relationship with Jesus. That meant, he explained, that one had to stop leaping left and right, looking for pleasure; instead, one should stay right where one is, because Jesus lives inside of us already.
After the service, Grace introduced me to a strikingly handsome, startlingly young preacher fresh from the spring break trip to Memphis. After making awkward small talk, during which I’m sure it became clear that I was a heathen, he asked me about why I was in Iowa.
“What do you think of Iowa?” he asked. “What are the best and the worst parts about it?”
“The best part is how friendly everyone is,” I answered immediately. It’s become my stock answer, and it’s much less alarming than answering, “It’s flat and calm.”
“And the worst?”
“It’s not very diverse,” I answered.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, growing animated. “I just came from Memphis, which is 60 percent black. I just love black culture.”
He grinned and bobbed a few times.
I forced a smile, my eyes watering. Please don’t do this, I willed him. You’re just making it worse.
As Grace and I packed up our bags in preparation to head home, I thanked her for bringing me her extra Bible and handed it back to her.
“Is the Bible your favorite book?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Well, I wouldn’t even call it my favorite, because to me it’s not just a book. It’s like eating breakfast.”
She paused for a minute.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” she said. “Would you want to maybe get coffee and read the Bible together?”
Obviously, I agreed immediately.