The wooden figurine of Christ nailed to the cross hangs right behind my dad’s pulpit and always gives me the creeps. Maybe because it’s a constant reminder of my sin and worthlessness apart from Christ, which on other days would give me hope, but not today. Today, the cross mocks me. Maybe it’s the condemnation that I can’t escape from or the four honey-covered waffles I had for breakfast this morning, or a sickly combination of both, but whatever it is, it’s making me feel queasy. My stomach is in knots and I can feel my breaths getting gradually shorter and quicker. I feel like everyone in the congregation is staring at me, even though I know their eyes are on Dad as he bellows out a passage from the first chapter of Romans, specifically verses twenty-three through twenty-five. I know this chapter well, because I read it when I first started questioning my sexuality.
“…Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools…wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves: who changed the truth of God for a lie…”
I know what’s coming next. I wish he’d just stop at verse twenty-five, but I know he won’t. He never does. I squeeze my legs together, like when I was young and tried to prevent myself from going potty in my clothes, in an effort to mentally prepare myself for that verse, the verse that does nothing but alienate and ostracize me from everyone in this old, rundown Baptist church.
Dad continues, “…for this cause, God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature.” I hate the King James Version of the Bible. Nobody talks like that anymore, so why use it? Even though I looked up the verse months ago, for my own peace of mind and to give me something to do, I ask to borrow Sarah’s Bible to look up the verse. I like hers because she has a version that is ten times easier to understand than the archaic one Dad uses.
When she gives me her Bible, though, her hand brushes against mine and I swear every part of my body starts tingling. She smirks. She did that on purpose. Does she like me? Does she know that I might be crushing on her? I smile to myself and a few seconds later, fear takes over. What if someone from church finds out? What if Dad finds out? Oh, I would be so dead if he knew! No, I can’t have a crush on her. What would God think? I occupy myself with looking up the verse, which I find quickly. I start to tune everything out, until I feel my best friend’s hand around my right shoulder. I blush and my body tingles again.
I kinda want him to kiss me. Wait, what? Focus on the sermon, Becca. Dad says something about laying all our burdens and dark desires at the feet of Jesus, but James’ smooth hand on my recently tanned skin distracts me from the rest of his words.
Pushing a loose strand of my hazelnut colored hair behind my ear, he whispers, “Are you okay? You look nervous, Becca.”
“Yea, I’m fine. Just thinking about…someone,” I say, doing everything in my power not to glance over at Sarah. “You don’t know her,” I quickly add. This is technically true. James and Sarah have met, since we’re all in the same youth group, but they have never talked to each other. Not by choice, though; it just hasn’t happened.
“Well, okay. I mean, as long as you’re okay—”
“I’m fine. Promise.”
For a moment, I don’t realize that he’s gotten even closer to me because I’m so lost in my thoughts. He’s closer to me, which is a surprising feat since his leg was touching my knee prior to this. Now, he’s practically in my lap. Only millimeters away from me now, the scent of my strawberry shampoo must have wafted into his nostrils because I can feel and hear him inhaling deeply, breathing it in as if it were oxygen. He doesn’t know that I know he likes me. I know he likes me because we’ve been friends since third grade and every year since—it never fails—he’s asked me to be his valentine. He often makes excuses to hang out with me, in front of his football friends, which is sweet, but can be annoying sometimes. I secretly like him too, but I can never let him know. At least, not until I figure out whatever this is between Sarah and me, or if it’s even a thing at all. For now, I think it’s best if we just stay friends.
I turn my attention back toward the pulpit, but I can still see James in my peripheral vision. He’s staring at me instead of my Dad, who’s scowling at him while continuing to preach. Well, this is awkward. I’m quickly growing uncomfortable and squirm in a desperate attempt to put some distance between us. Unfortunately, I’m not as graceful as I’d like to be, as the sweat from my body sticks to my dress, which sticks to the pew, making it creak and difficult for me to move. This is so embarrassing! I wish I could get away from James, and this church, and just be alone with the world and my thoughts.
I’m tempted to think that Sarah and I have some sort of connection because as soon as I finished my thought, she grabs my hand, pulls me up from the pew, and we make our way to the restroom, which is all the way in the foyer. This means that we have to walk there from the front of the church. I’d rather take my chances with the sticky, sweaty pew. It could just be my guilty conscience, but when we pass James, I think I see a heartbroken “lost puppy” look on his face. His eyes seem to say, “I see you’ve made your choice. Why don’t you love me?” but he gives my free hand a quick squeeze while mouthing, “Be back soon.” I smile back, silently admonishing myself for being paranoid. I’m so confused! A part of me wants to refuse to feel guilty—almost—because I know who I want to be with (at least, I think I do) and I’m not going to let anyone get in the way of that, not even my best friend, even if I do like him. I admire James because he’s a stronger Christian than most kids in our youth group, even though we’re both 16. He takes his relationship with God seriously. He’s more committed to God than some of the adults. Homosexuality is wrong, even if it’s never acted on, according to James. If he ever finds out who my crush is, our friendship is so over.
As Sarah and I walk towards the middle of the church, my heels click on the hardwood floor. I wish I could disappear. The sunlight pierces through the stained-glass window, with the image of Jesus’ crucifixion, and slams itself right in my face. Had Sarah not been holding my hand, I would’ve fallen right there. My eyes travel up the length of the wall to where the glass is and I suppress a sigh. Okay, God, I get it! I’m a terrible sinner for having a crush on a girl and I’m gonna burn in Hell if I don’t accept Your offer of love and grace. I’m kinda stuck here, though. Can’t You see that? I don’t wanna have these feelings. Please take them from me!
We make our way to the foyer without interrupting the service, though a Mother of the church in her late 60s shook her head at me in what appeared to be shame, or maybe disgust, by my shorter-than-knee-length dark spring green dress. Being a pastor’s kid is tough. Her eyes lowered as I walked past her. I almost felt judgment and condemnation shooting out of her eyes like lasers targeted at my soul.
“You wanna stay in the restroom for the rest of service or walk home?” Sarah asks when we reach the foyer.
I pause, trying to choose between my options. The clock above the sanctuary entrance reads 11:30A.M. We have a while before the benediction. My decision is a no-brainer. “We can walk to my house, chill for a bit, and get back here before service ends.”
Sarah leads the way. She’s got her iPod headphones in her ears and is walking to the beat of whatever song she’s listening to. Thank you, music, for distracting her. Now I can think. As we walk the half mile to my house, I engage in a civil war with my thoughts. They jump from God, to Sarah and James, and back again.
Sarah Johnson and I have known each other for only about four months, but during that time, we’ve gotten close, even though she’s two years older than me. We first met at youth group and became fast friends. We often sleep over at each other’s houses and hang out on the weekends. The thing I love about her is that she’s friendly, outspoken, and bold, which is the exact opposite of me. I’m shy, reserved, and a tad bit anti-social, but she doesn’t mind. We connected on our love of music and literature. I introduced her to Harry Potter and she got me hooked on Twilight. She has a great body with an athletic build and a beautiful accent; her family is from the Philippines. I keep my feelings for her a secret, out of fear that others, especially God and Dad, would hate me.
I slow my steps when a gust of wind feathers down out of nowhere. It’s warm and makes the evergreen and palm trees dance with glee. The wind whisks my hazelnut hair in every direction, giving me the appearance of someone recently electrocuted with 40 watts of pure electricity. I smile, enjoying the moment, and land on the grass, beside the sidewalk, with a thud. Sarah turns around and joins me in the grass after dislodging her headphones.
“We’re not gonna go all the way to your house, are we?” she asks, also enjoying the sun’s warmth.
“No, not if you don’t want to.”
“I don’t. I like it right here,” she says in a voice that makes my skin crawl with goose bumps.
She faces me and runs her finger over my jawline. I stop breathing for what seems like an eternity, but is only a few seconds in reality. Even though I feel that my feelings for Sarah are somewhat natural, especially since my mom died when I was ten, I struggle with my relationship with God because of it. I know how God feels about living a pure life and abstaining from homosexual relationships. Dad made sure to engrain that in my head when I was 13. It’s crystal clear where my stance should be, for in the black-and-white pages of my Bible stands stark commands of purity standards, which every Christian is expected to keep no matter what, but my dark desires cloud my better judgment.
“Becca, I like you. And I think you like me too…”
All the black scenes of my teenage years could not prepare me for this moment. All around me are choices and I’m stuck in the biggest one of my life. “Breathe, Becca, breathe,” I silently coach myself as Sarah starts to close the distance between us. I take a chance and glance up into those oval, almond eyes of hers. I brush a strand of loose hair behind her ear, stuck in the middle of “sinner or saint” status. Please help me, God. “I could kiss you,” I think to myself and I want to—do I?—but right before I make my move, God answers my silent prayer by giving me strength in the form of conviction. I pull away from her and she looks almost disappointed. Her eyes are misty and I want to comfort her, hold her maybe, but I don’t. I swallow back the saliva gathering in my mouth, the saliva that could be on her lips right now, and maybe her neck, if I was daring enough, but I’m not, so I sit up instead. Bile forms in my throat at the thought of what almost happened. I swallow, forcing it to the back of my throat and down, down, down into the cavern of my stomach. It burns but I feel nothing but relief.
I pick up her iPod with one hand, and offer her my other to help her stand. According to her iPod, it’s noon. “Come on, let’s get back,” I say with an authoritative voice that I don’t recognize as mine, even though it is.
She doesn’t say anything. She snatches her iPod out of my hand and starts walking back to the church. In the silence, I contemplate our lives. She would have no problem being with me; her dad made sure of that when she was eight. Raped her and then left her with her mom, so of course girls are safer. In the time it takes us to walk back, I make a decision that will change everything between us: I’m recommitting my life to Christ. When we get back inside the church foyer, I turn to Sarah, with the intention of apologizing, but her eyes are still misty from holding in her tears and she refuses to look at me.
She holds her hand up to stop me from talking any further. “Don’t bother apologizing,” she says angrily in between sniffles. “I don’t want to see or talk to you ever again!” She storms in the bathroom without another word to me. I feel my stomach become an anvil in that moment. I want to go after her, but I’ve already done enough damage.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper to her back. “This is hard for me, too.”
Back in the church, I can hear the choir finishing “We Fall Down” by Donnie McClurkin. Perfect timing, God. I say a silent prayer for Sarah before entering into the sanctuary. Dad is making the altar call now, inviting those who are willing to come and receive salvation or prayer if needed. Even though I can feel the eyes of everyone in the congregation on me, I no longer care. I reach the front of the altar and fall on my knees before both my earthly Dad and Heavenly Father, feeling nothing but peace. As Dad prays over me, I raise my eyes to view the wooden figurine of Christ. Unlike before, when I felt condemnation, I now feel His grace and love wash over me. For now, I’m safe.