06 May 2015

The second circle of hell

On September 11th, 2001, I was walking back from breakfast with Rob my roommate, back to the DARE House where we were living on the bottom floor. We were living with girls, something I neglected to tell my parents until the day we moved in. The Kellys, both of them, Kelly and Kelly, were already upstairs. It was fine, I assured my parents, we were downstairs, they were upstairs — we weren't sharing a bathroom anyway. I don't remember my parents responding one way or another, which must have meant they didn't say anything.

The eleventh was clear and electric blue, the same weather as New York. We stood there, in the living room, watching that plane come into the second tower, and you could feel the collective dropping out of the nation's stomach. It wasn't an accident, was it. We responded quickly, calling a prayer meeting immediately. The Christian group's paid staff member came and talked soothingly and clearly while we sat in a circle and prayed.

I had spent that summer painting houses, growing my hair out, and listening to that Jimmy Eat World album, 'Bleed American', the one that made them famous. They had to change the title after the attack, I remember, and then change it back when we started the second war. I was miserable that whole summer, feeling like a dog tied to a pole. I couldn't paint to save my life, but I didn't have anything else I could do, so I did my best to pretend I was okay. My high school courtship plans had failed and it was clear that I wouldn't be married the summer after I graduated college. Things weren't predestined in the way I had thought.

I got in me the idea that I needed to work with the poor, to be a kind of aid missionary to somewhere in South or Central America. It's hard to explain why — I'm not sure why. It was a thing that you could do as a young Evangelical in my circles. The process was one I was well-versed in: you were called somewhere, you raised money, and you went. I don't remember having anything by pure motives and everyone thinking this was a wonderful idea.

The process of going, of being called, took two years of preparation. I passed the initial screening in 2002 and during spring break 2003, I spent $500 to attend a one week training seminar in Phoenix. This would be the final confirmation of god's will in my life and begin the process of fundraising.  Several weeks before I went, I was sent a psychological evaluation form to fill out: a list of questions and personality auditor. I clipped through it: no, I didn't drink or smoke; no, I didn't have any anger issues; hadn't ever been arrested; hadn't ever been told I shouldn't go into ministry. 

And then: Have you have had any struggles with sexual impurity? It depended, I thought, on what you meant by struggles. Not any more than the next guy, not any more than anyone I knew, but yes, I suppose: we had code words for it in accountability, Q and R. Everyone struggles with Q and R.

I landed in Phoenix and my dad's friend picked me up at the airport, a retired co-worker who had a beautiful house on the edge of the mountains. I slept there one night and he took me to breakfast in the morning.

The meetings I was meant to have for the week were all in a Christian retreat centre: I arrived and suddenly met a group of people that all shared the same calling, couples and families and one other single guy like me. Just now, as I find all the pictures I took, I remember some of their names and where they ended up going. Phil and Christine, yes, they did work in Africa for many years. I got their prayer letter. The citrus trees were blooming and the night air was clear and pure. We ate spaghetti with our hands, sitting on mats, and that Thursday night, we were in the living room of one of the organiser's houses, and Bush started the second war in Iraq on the television.

The week began with the psychological evaluation, and I remember being brought to a room with a woman who I was told had a degree in counseling. She had all of my papers in front of her, and that one paper, with 10 nos, and one line you could see across the table, where I had been honest: the 'No, but' line. She looked at this first and praised me for my honesty and then asked the sorts of questions that you squirm thinking about now. How often do you masturbate. When do you look at pornography. Do you do it alone or with other people. You could feel the paint peel off the walls, No, no, of course not. And then there were graphs and charts, This test seems to indicate that you struggle with depression: do you feel depressed? Were you molested as a child? It went on and on, the room collapsing down on me as I remember it. I finally got out: she thanked me for my honesty again and looked me in the eye and shook my hand, a kind of grace despite the overwhelming embarrassment.

I forgot quickly about this woman, and the questions: the week only confirmed everything I already knew I wanted to do. I took meticulous notes about fundraising, and thought about whom I would call and what I would say. I needed to raise something like $80,000. It seemed like a lot, but they showed us how it broke down, how it wasn't that much at all if you had the community of believers behind you. I was well-liked, this will be easy for me. Everyone will be happy to support this.

But on Friday night, when we were all to get out assignments, one of the men from the organisation suggested that we take a walk, get away from the group and sit up on the hill. They had been impressed with me, he said: I was clearly a good kid who loved god, but there were concerns about this test, about using pornography to cope with depression. I didn't know what to say: I wanted to explain it again, No, I think she misunderstood. He told me, in confidence, that there was a single guy with the ministry who they were thinking of taking back off the field because of these same problems. I wondered how in the world he was downloading thirty seconds clips from Showgirls in the jungle: did the Internet even work out there? He suggested I get some counselling, take a year off and re-evaluate after I got some help. We walked back down to the group, to all the people asking about where I was going. I didn't know what to say.

My brother came to pick me up — he was living in State at the time and I had to tell him first, I can't go: I look at pornography and I masturbate sometimes. I'm sorry. He called my parents for me. I took a picture. Yes, he's fine, but there's a problem. He'll tell you when he gets home. The flight out of Sky Harbor, I recited the lines I would need to say when I landed. It would be hard, yes, but there was no way around it, no way to avoid it.

And then for a week, this worst sort of confession I had ever experienced, telling my parents then my sister then everyone at college who knew about the calling that I wasn't going, I couldn't go, that I had a problem. I told people at my church back home. I got so used to saying it outloud that the shame wore off at some point.

I was clear-eyed and diligent: I called around to churches to see if there was a counselor nearby, one that I could see for free, and I found a pastor across the railroad tracks, in a Baptist church. I went to see him one day after classes. He asked me why I was there: I was told I was depressed and that my depression was leading to sexual sin. I had also, once during a football practice, been touched by a coach when we were in a huddle: just right here, just for a second, but the woman in Phoenix seemed to think I'd been molested and all these things were connected. I'm here to sort that out.

The pastor looked concerned and asked me if I had ever been attracted to men. No? I said, not that I know of. And he said, Good, because young boys who have been molested sometimes think that they're gay, that they have sexual feelings towards other men. You don't feel that way, do you? No, I said, no, of course not.

He thanked me for coming, said I didn't have anything to worry about, but to come back and see him if I had any more problems. I walked back to campus, utterly confused, wondering what to do. There was some miscommunication in all this, the lines got crossed. I was willing to be sent, wasn't that enough. 

Within six months I was in Japan, a different calling with a different church and a partner to go with, someone to save me from those pixelated breasts and keep me accountable. It worked out, in its own way, but that's a different story altogether.

And I don't remember much else about September 11th. We were so far removed: life just went on. Something like two hundred people jumped from the Twin Towers while they burned. If you watch the videos on YouTube, if you can stomach it, you can see the moment when people give up and resign themselves to the end. The bodies tumble through the air, like they are dead before they hit the ground. I don't remember seeing any of that live, I don't remember any of that. They say it is hard to know who jumped and who was forced out by the fire and smoke: where is agency when the tower burns. We watched the second plane explode and knew, immediately, that it wasn't an accident.