What I learned on the first day of college: 1. All United Methodists are going to hell. 2. God doesn’t call women into the ministry and if you think he does, then you’re going to hell.
It was not a good beginning. After suffering through high school and never feeling like I fit in, I decided to go to a Christian college. I thought surely I would fit in there! My father wanted me to go to Glassboro, which was just 30 minutes away from home, thinking I could commute and save money. I knew for sure I really needed to get away from home, and besides, he wasn’t giving me any money for college, so it wasn’t up to him.
My parents didn’t help me in the college-seeking process, aside from driving me to a visit. I was on my own. This was bad because I was ridiculously naive and sheltered. I didn’t have a clue about much of anything in the rest of the world. I thought Christians were relatively all the same and that if I went to a Christian college it would be like Pennington camp for four years. I’d be with my own tribe. We’d all be close, we’d all hug a lot, get along and float in the love of Jesus while studying biology.
Silly me. I checked a box on some form somewhere when seeking information on colleges, and the first Christian college to send me information was Messiah College in Central Pennsylvania. It was about 2 1/2 hours from home. Not too close, not too far. My parents took me to visit and it was a beautiful campus, set in the hills of PA, nestled among lots of trees and beautiful scenery. The tour guide told me that during mid-terms and finals, you could hear people calling out to each other, “I’ll be praying for you!” It sounded lovely.
It was associated with the Brethren In Christ denomination, one that I’d never heard of, but was associated with the Mennonites. Again, Christians were Christians. Growing up, several of my friends were Catholic and they didn’t seem too different from us Methodists. I knew some Presbyterians and Baptists in Woodbury. We did things together around Easter. So I was really excited to go to college and be popular, have lots of friends and someday marry a nice Christian guy. (I hadn’t dated too many of those so far)
On the first day of college, we unpacked my things in the dorm and I donned my silly blue and white freshmen beanie. My roommate, Marlene, and I had exchanged letters already. She sounded very sweet and perky. She described herself as a “non-denominational Pentecostal.” I had no idea what she meant by that, but it didn’t matter. We all gathered in our room, unpacked our things and made introductions. We went through all the initial first-day events, and it was all very exciting. I thought it was perfect. I loved the rural campus, the trees, the beautiful creek that flowed through campus, the covered bridge and the hills. I felt like everything was going to be just wonderful at last.
As we met other freshmen during that first day, we all had those preliminary questions: Where are you from? What’s your major? What church are you from? (specific to Christian colleges) What do you want to do with your life?
One of the many people I met that day was Jennifer. I asked her the recommended questions and then she turned them on me. During my last week of Pennington camp, I’d had a profound spiritual experience during the commitment service and I truly felt that God was calling me to pastoral ministry. Since I didn’t know what to major in, Dad pushed me toward psychology. I figured I’d grown up with all his lectures, I should ace the subject! So I answered all of Jennifer’s questions truthfully, as I did to everyone else.
She looked at me like I’d just said I was from the Church of Satan. Then she chuckled. It wasn’t a friendly chuckle. It was more like “I’m-trying-to-be-nice-but-really-I-think-you’re-damned.”
“God doesn’t call women into ministry,” Jen said very condescendingly. I looked at her questioningly. That was rude, I thought. How could she speak for God?
I laughed nervously. “What do you mean?”
Jen rolled her eyes as if dealing with a moron. “It says so on the Bible. God doesn’t allow women to teach or preach. Only men. And the United Methodist church is going to hell,” she added matter-of-factly. “Precisely because they ordain women! And…” she lowered her voice and leaned in, “and because they’re even thinking of ordaining homosexuals.” She leaned back and nodded seriously.
Oh my God. I smiled and walked away. Inside I wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake. No one ever told me there were things like that in the Bible! I guess I’d just read the good parts. Why wouldn’t God call women? I wondered. It didn’t make sense! And why does she think my church is going to hell?? No one had ever told me I was going to hell.
As Marlene and I spent time in our room over orientation weekend, we had a lot of time to talk. “When were you saved?” she asked. Truly I couldn’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love God. I went to church from the time I was in the womb.
“You have to be saved,” she said, “you can’t just inherit salvation from your parents, you have to make your own decision,” she informed me. I tried to explain that there was never that one moment. There were times I did make commitments to God, but not because I hadn’t been talking to God before that. She got impatient.
“My mother was a Methodist before she got saved.” She was serious. Again, I couldn’t believe someone could be so rude! I hadn’t met anyone in all of my 18 years that didn’t like Methodists! What’s not to like? As we spent more time together, I learned about her worship experience. She thought hymns were boring and that “regular” churches were dull. They just sat there, sat down, stood up. She, apparently, danced at her church. Jumped up and down, spoke in tongues (what was that?) and clapped. It fit her personality. She was very perky and energetic, hugging everyone she met and always smiling and saying “praise the Lord!” It was like landing in a foreign country where I didn’t know the language.
“Everyone here is more religious than me!” I whined into the phone to Sandie one night. I was not about to call my parents and tell them I’d made a mistake.
Sandie laughed. “Oh, Peggy Sue, no one is more religious than you!” She made me feel better, but she, too, had no idea what I was talking about. “What do you mean your roommate is charismatic? Doesn’t that just mean she’s got personality?”
That’s what I’d thought.
In those first few weeks, Marlene and I formed a little group of friends with Jon, Bruce, Neil (not his real name) and Jennifer (yeah, Jennifer apparently decided I was her assignment from God). We settled into our little clique to help navigate the first weeks of college. We sat together at meals and at chapel, sent notes through the mail to each other, and went to concerts on campus. Bruce and Neil were cousins, both Brethren in Christ (BIC). Bruce was a missionary’s son and grew up in Africa. Neil was a pastor’s son. Neil was … charismatic. In the regular sense of the word. He was fun, energetic, goofy and always made us laugh. He was also very effeminate. I really liked him, he was a breath of fresh air and made me feel a lot better about everything. Jon was a huge comfort, too. He was also very silly and goofy, making us laugh. He was a Baptist from another town in Pennsylvania. He didn’t seem so uptight about his faith as the others did. Sometimes he was almost sacrilegious, making the others cringe at times, but to me he was a relief to be around.
I got a campus job working in the bookstore for ten hours a week as the manager’s secretary. David (not his name) was the bookstore manager, a very tall, gangly good-looking guy with a beard. He was quiet and kind. I instantly felt like we’d get along well. The bookstore office was behind a wall of glass, just slightly elevated from the rest of the store, so I could see out on the store while I worked.
After a while, Jon left our group, saying that he didn’t want to get tied down in a small clique. He actually joined a much larger group of people that took up three tables in the dining hall. I missed him. He was… unorthodox. Different.
One night, we all went to the concert that was on campus. The group was called Farrell and Farrell, a man and a woman. They dressed in clothes that looked like space suits and their music was very loud. The only Christian contemporary music I’d known before that was Amy Grant, who was very low-key compared to what Marlene had in her record collection. I wasn’t crazy about the music, and as the the concert went on I grew more and more anxious. Something was off. Everybody was jumping up and down, screaming “yes, Jesus!” over and over, crying and reaching for the band as if to be rescued. Farrell and Farrell (a married couple, I’m assuming) started preaching intensely, but nothing like I heard at home. They were preaching about hell and damnation, the need to be saved by asking Jesus into your heart. I thought it was weird, considering they were at a Christian college– were there any non-Christians there?
The longer they preached, the louder they got, repeating phrases over and over like a chant, and soon all those around me started responding to them. I looked around and it seemed like everyone there was in a trance of some sort, nodding with their eyes closed, raising their open palms to the sky, repeating “yes, Jesus, praise Jesus, thank you Jesus, come quickly Lord Jesus…” over and over again. I couldn’t breathe. I started shaking. This was creepy. Who are these people? I didn’t belong here! What had I done? I started to cry, hard. I pushed my way out over the legs of the other people in the row as they chanted, swaying, crying, and the music got more intense, drumming, leading… I got to the end of the row and ran.
I ran out of the gymnasium, out the front door of the student center, down the path toward the covered bridge and stopped on the bridge, laying my head down on my arm and crying. I hiccuped and cried and hyperventilated. I was terrified. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t go home and admit failure. Certainly my father would enroll me at Glassboro and I’d be stuck at home under his thumb again. It would be a failure on my part, an “F” on my life report card. He’d be amused. Clearly I couldn’t make good decisions. Oh my God.
After a while, I heard footsteps. I quickly wiped my face and pretended to just be looking down at the water.
“Peggy Sue.” It was Neil. I was so relieved. He seemed like someone who wouldn’t judge me, someone I could talk to. I relaxed and began to cry again. He wrapped his arms around me and I told him what I was feeling. How I’d never seen anything like that and I was scared and how come I couldn’t fit in anywhere? I sobbed until I could hardly stand up and my nose was all plugged up and I was smeared with snot and tears.
Neil hugged me for a long time, until I could catch my breath and cried all my tears out. We both leaned on the side of the bridge. “I understand, Peggy Sue. I understand what it’s like not to fit in,” he said. And I knew. I’d wondered. It seemed obvious to me, but apparently not to anyone else. I knew what he was going to tell me, and I wasn’t worried. He was a great guy.
“I’m gay,” he said, and I pretended to be surprised. “My parents don’t know, and actually they’d freak out if they did. My brother is also gay.”
He went on to tell me that he struggled a lot with his feelings. There was a young man on campus that he was infatuated with, and yet there was no way he could tell him. As Neil stared out on the water, not looking at me, he told me that he “knew” he was an abomination to God, but he couldn’t change. In fact, since he couldn’t change, he had a plan to kill himself in a way that he would suffer the most. He had a plan, a day, a time and a method. He told me all this as if he were planning how to build a shed.
“But you can’t tell anyone, you have to promise me, Peggy Sue,” he said, turning to look at me. His face was different all of a sudden. He was angry, hard and threatening.
“Seriously. If you tell anyone, I will never speak to you again. No one can know.”
As sheltered as I was, and as the daughter of a Freudian counselor who believed that homosexuality was a mental illness, I was not bothered at all by his confession. I saw his struggle, his ache, his longing. I already knew him to be a loving, kind, fun and extremely talented person. To me it was clear that this was not something he chose to be. Why would you choose such a difficult life? To risk alienation from your family and friends– and church? I started to argue with him, to beg him not to kill himself. He wasn’t an abomination to God, God loved him. God created him. God didn’t want him to destroy himself.
Again, that look. That hard, set jaw. That barely restrained anger. “Get behind me Satan!” he whispered and walked away. I was stunned and shaken. I wasn’t sure I had any friends on campus that I could talk to honestly without running up against another reason why I was damned forever.
David. There was something about David. He was easy to be around, fun to talk to and was very kind to people. After work one day, I asked if we could talk. We sat in the office after store hours and I told him about Neil without mentioning any names. I told him I didn’t know what to do. I was scared. And while we were on the subject, I talked about how I didn’t feel like I belonged there. Everywhere I went it just seemed I was all wrong. I didn’t have a solid self-esteem anyway, and the people there just seemed to affirm it. I was just no good.
David was patient and listened intently. He didn’t seem to flinch or look shocked. He nodded a lot, and his eyes conveyed caring and concern. Finally, there was someone I could talk to. I relaxed and breathed better as I talked.
“I say just be a friend to him the best you can,” David said. “You can’t control what he does, but you can let him know that you care, and really, that’s all any of us can do.” I felt so much better. I was still frightened for Neil, but at last I felt like I had a real friend in David.
Neil acted like nothing intense had happened or been said. He pointed out the guy he had a crush on, but he was silly about it. Sometimes he was the most fun person to be around and I relaxed with him. Other times he’d grow solemn and say, “don’t love me, Peggy Sue. I’m only going to crush you.” Other times he turned whatever anger he felt on me. He teased me in a cruel way, accusing me of being in love with him. “How pathetic are you? Falling for a homo,” he sneered. I didn’t know what I felt. I was so lonely, so anxious and afraid most of the time. I wanted Neil to just relax and let me be his friend. He was good-looking and easy to be around, so maybe there was some romantic feelings, but of course I didn’t expect anything to come of it.
“I bet you think you can change me, huh? Maybe if you and I have sex, I’ll cross over, huh? Am I your little project, Peggy Sue?” His words were cutting and sharp, cruel. I was in way over my head. I truly didn’t want to change him. Everybody around me had a chapter and verse from the Bible to explain everything they believed, but I just knew that if Neil didn’t choose to be that way, then he wasn’t an abomination in God’s eyes. He was struggling with love.
Meanwhile, I had no clue how to be a college student. I didn’t know how to study. I’d always made B’s and C’s in high school with little effort, and I truly believed that I was stupid anyway. I didn’t believe I could make good grades. Our General Education class that semester was about the Roman Empire and the beginnings of civilization. It was deathly boring to me at the time, and I had no idea how to take good notes.
Meanwhile, as I sat in Gen Ed lectures, Neil would lean over and whisper in my ear, “You give me orgasms.” My face immediately got red and hot and I stared straight ahead. Neil knew I was very naive about a lot of things, but mostly sex. “Peggy Sue,” he’d say, pretending to have a question, and when I looked at him, he said, “Penis.” And then laugh. Somehow he’d realized that that was a word I had difficulty saying out loud.
I always looked forward to going to work. For those couple of hours I was ok. I could relax. David and I could talk about everything. He didn’t judge me for anything I said, and seemed to consider my thoughts on different subjects. We kidded around easily, and it was very pleasant. My friends sometimes hung around the office after class, chatting with David and me, and he didn’t seem to mind. I nervously assumed he knew that Neil was the person I’d told him about, but he didn’t show any indication of that.
One of my classes that semester was Spiritual Leadership, led by an older woman professor. I didn’t notice at first that the class was predominantly male until one day the professor announced that we were going to role play a church meeting. She picked who would play what role, and for some reason she picked me to be the pastor. We never got to do the role play because the rest of the class erupted in a passionate argument that women could not be pastors, “according to the Bible.” They read from their bibles, which they carried everywhere with them.
1 Timothy 2:12 – But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
Corinthians 14:34 – Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but [they are commanded] to be under obedience, as also saith the law.
Those righteous teenage boys shook their bibles in the air in anger. Clearly they knew their bibles much better than I knew mine. I checked off another failure on my ongoing list. I didn’t know about those passages. Hearing them, they didn’t make any sense to me in relation to the understanding I had of God. I couldn’t understand why God would say only men could preach. Why did I have such a passionate love of God if I was to be silent? Or if I could only talk to other women? They were confirming what my father believed about women: we were naturally inferior. We weren’t smart enough to be in leadership, and especially to tell men anything.
I left class that day depressed and disillusioned. I guessed I’d been wrong about God wanting me to be in ministry. Did that mean Pennington was not real? That my profound experiences of God’s love and grace there were somehow wrong? I didn’t have the guts or the ovaries to stand up to guys like those Bible-waving, women-hating boys. Forget it, I thought. Obviously I was stupid to think God wanted me to be a pastor. Maybe I’d be a psychologist.
I tried out for choirs and Christian vocal groups that traveled to churches and wasn’t able to get in any of them. That was another failure. I loved to sing, I loved to sing for God, and yet somehow here in this place I wasn’t even good enough for that. Neil got angrier and angrier at me as the semester wore on, for no reason I could fathom. He took it out on me in cruel words. He made me question my own sanity, my own faith, my purpose. Finally I broke down and told Marlene what was going on. She was supportive and caring toward me, but somehow Neil found out I told.
“I told you I’d never speak to you again if you told. Yet you did. Goodbye, Peggy Sue,” he said very dramatically, spinning on his heels and walking out of my life. He remained friends with Marlene which made things tense with Marlene. Finally I heard that he’d found a group of Pentecostals who took him to their pastor to be “exorcised of the demon of homosexuality.” All I could think of was the priest in The Amityville Horror and this made no sense to me. But after that, Neil was different. He was more upbeat, made more friends, and over the course of our college career, he became one of the most popular people in our class. He was Class President. He was involved in all the music ministries that I couldn’t get into. He kept his promise and never spoke to me again.
I went home for Christmas break and anticipated going back for January term for just one intensive class. People ask me why I went back. What choice did I have? If I admitted to my parents that I didn’t belong at Messiah, I’d be stuck at home. For some reason, I had it in my mind that if I went to Glassboro, a state school, I’d have to commute from home. Because that’s what Dad said. It never occurred to me that I could still live in a dorm there.
However, I was terrified of going to a university, thinking I’d get eaten alive in my naivete. No one advised me any differently. I was too ashamed to even admit to Ed or Sandie that I hated Messiah, that I’d made a mistake. Ed had strongly advised me to not to go in the first place, thinking I’d be too sheltered there. I’d argued with him and begged him to support my decision. I couldn’t tell him he was right. That I’d been wrong. That I had no idea what to do next. Obviously, I thought, I wasn’t very good at making decisions. My father was right.
I didn’t know what I was doing.