Content warning: mentions of domestic abuse, drug abuse, suicide
Today, I had an unexpected spiritual experience. I was hanging out in my studio apartment with my closest girl friend. It was rolling around to 11 o’clock p.m. when my bestie declared she was hungry, and I had been food-deprived all day too. She knows I am picky, so she tried to keep it simple by going to Pita Kabob Grill, a local favorite in Ann Arbor that I had never tried before. She hates walking places, but I insisted on walking there by myself because it was merely two blocks away. So I laced up my sneakers, grabbed my fanny pack and left. Little did I know I would be coming back with so much more than just a chicken shawarma wrap with no pickles.
The food wasn’t ready when I arrived and the cold wasn’t too unbearable, so I decided to wait outside. There were some small tables and chairs half-wedged into the snow out front where I sat. As I waited, a group of people approached — all very attractive, might I add — and one after the other, in succession, they complimented my shoes. At the time, I was wearing a white pair of Nike Air Force 1s that my aforementioned Bestie had painted with vibrant colors, fun shapes and some lovely butterflies. I have always deeply admired her inherent artistry, and it was an honor to wear work made by someone I love so profoundly for other people to see and appreciate.
One of the last people to approach was told by his friend “tell her that her shoes are cool!” — and so he did. For the purpose of this article, let’s call him Dylan. He asked me if I’d made them. Now, you must understand. This particular person was quite attractive. He was tall, with long shaggy brown hair, a nice jawline, pretty smile — the whole nine yards. While my respect for my Bestie is endless… I had to be strategic. I assumed this was going to be a brief interaction, so, of course, I had to make an impression. I told him yes, of course I made them! Then he asked me how I went about designing the shoes so I improvised some malarkey, which is an irrelevant part of this story so I should stop exposing myself now.
I asked the group if they went to the University of Michigan and, to my surprise, they did not. In fact, they were in a band. More importantly, a gospel band. Ann Arbor was one stop on their tour across the country where they performed songs for various schools and events. Upon first hearing this, I was inclined to put up a wall upon learning this.
I grew up in a religious household: my dad was Christian and his ex-wife was committed to going to church every Sunday. I remember when I first started thinking outside of my holy upbringing. I began having conversations at school with my friend, Constantine, who was an atheist and always used very sound logic. He showed me there wasn’t only one way to look at the world.
However, I cannot say that I am still an atheist now. Nor was I before I had encountered Constantine. In the conventional sense, I am a pantheist: “a person who follows the religious doctrine … that God is all around us, throughout the whole universe.” Pantheism implies a lack of separation between people, things and God, and rather sees everything as being interconnected. More rarely, it refers to a belief in all gods from all religions or a tolerance for those beliefs. In my terms, I am a witch.
I did not tell Dylan this, of course, because I did not want to deter him from being open to talking with me. After all, this man was a part of a Christian singing group. Traditionally, people of his faith do not have good relations with the entities I revere. Looking back on it, I wish I had told him — I really do. There was no telling where that conversation may have led us. You would be surprised what you might learn about a person when you don’t make assumptions based on preconceived notions of their identity. I have found the most joy in my encounters with strangers when I do not assume the “worst” of them. At this moment, however, the potential benefit of fruitful discourse did not seem to outweigh the potential cost of his judgment. I held my tongue. But the vibrations I was receiving from the band weren’t the same as those I normally get from people with strong (orthodox) religious beliefs. Upon first glance, I couldn’t even tell they were dedicated Christians. They looked like a regular group of college students having fun on a Tuesday night. Everyone had such welcoming energy and was so kind to me right off the bat. So I kept the conversation going.
One thing led to another and for some reason, I mentioned to him that I had been sober for two months at that point. Mind you, his entourage of at least 10 people was standing around us as we all waited for our food. Dylan finally sat down next to me and asked, “What is your story?”
You can imagine the shock I felt. I had just met this man and suddenly he was asking me deeply investigative personal questions. Naturally, I tried to give him the short version: old father recovering from alcoholism diagnosed with cancer, ex-stepmom who exposed me to drugs at an early age, narcissistic, abusive mother … and now I’m here. Within just five minutes of meeting this person, I found myself opening up my whole heart to him. It felt so natural, as if we had known each other for years. We had a real, meaningful human connection: he was genuinely interested in my life, and I in his. Of course, I asked him about his story. He went on to tell me about how his brother struggled with addiction and sold drugs to young people but eventually turned his life around. He told me about how he developed anxiety at a young age and battled with depression from watching his brother suffer. He even explained that he nearly killed himself once by taking 250 pills, but before he could succeed, his brother found him. I sat there, listening, in awe of how he already felt safe sharing this information with me. It takes years for people to tell you these details about their lives and yet, we had already managed to cover so much ground within minutes.
I’d like to, once again, point out that from the beginning it was very clear how committed to Jesus he was — and yet, the way he framed and shared his beliefs did not deter my interest in engaging. If anything, I was even more intrigued because of the differences in our life paths, which so strongly contrasted the similarities in our outlooks; despite my aforementioned reservations about talking to religious people, this was different.
In the past, the Christian people I’ve encountered have tried to use my words against me by exploiting my insecurities or acting as though I needed some kind of saving. This wasn’t that. He wasn’t asking me about myself as a tactic to spin his gospel in a way that catered to my emotional needs. I could tell that he was genuinely curious about my life in the most altruistic way possible. He wanted to learn from me and the experiences that shaped me into who I am today just as much as I wanted to learn from him.
He began talking to me about actually living in the present — asking himself “Why am I breathing this air right now? Why are the cars moving around me? Why am I here? What is my purpose?” I was captivated by his words. It is rare that I meet people from such a different walk of life that share such similar sentiments to mine. The path that landed him upon these questions — his religion — does not necessarily have to be one I subscribe to for them to resonate with me. His words made me feel incredibly at peace with myself. He talked about how grateful he was that Jesus died for his sins and how beautiful that was. To be fully transparent, my body tends to reject the statement “Jesus did xyz…,” yet somehow my heart was telling me to be open. The way he spoke made it hard for me to feel dismissive of him. The passion behind his words and his yearning for the curiosities of life reminded me so much of myself. It made me feel whole, in a weird sort of way. The entire interaction was so uplifting.
Then I got a text from my Bestie. The food was ready and it was time to go, so his bandmates hopped into a van that seemingly came out of nowhere. As he prepared to leave, he took a moment to stop and ask me if he could recite a prayer for me. I waved to his friends leaving and told him that I was okay — but he insisted, telling me they would wait. Then the van pulled right off to give us some privacy. He knelt on the ground before me and said, “I know we don’t know each other, but I am so proud of you. I am so proud of how far you have come. I am so proud of where you’re going. I know it’s only been two months, but it’s gonna be another two months and another and one day you’re going to look back and know that you did it and you’re going to be so proud. Lord, please give her the strength to believe in herself and know that she can do anything she puts her mind to. She is so brave and I know she has it in her to stay on this journey. Thank you Jesus for bringing us together so that we could share this moment. I am so blessed to have shared this with her.”
I sat there in disbelief. Not only was a person I hardly knew reciting a prayer for me… I was letting him. I could feel my body recoiling every time he uttered the words “Jesus Christ” and yet I remained still. I felt paralyzed. These were words I desperately needed to hear, but I refused to let myself accept them. I didn’t feel as though I deserved all this praise for something I should have started practicing ages ago: sobriety. I wanted to cry, but I took a deep breath and kept listening. I couldn’t believe that this person who barely knew me had so much faith in my success. I don’t even have this level of faith in myself. Through his faith, I was able to feel hopeful for my future. It didn’t matter that we believed in different beings in the sky because, in that moment, we shared our humanity.
If a friend of mine had told me this story out of context, I would have thought it strange. But it was an experience I had really appreciated. What may read as a person overstepping his boundaries by investing himself so deeply into someone he just met, to me, was a rare demonstration of compassion. We lack so much value in pure human-to-human connection these days that our meeting filled me with so much joy. It was truly a breath of fresh air.
I asked him for a hug (and his number) and by that point the van had pulled back up with five heads poking out of the sliding door. His friends waved goodbye at me. And I took our shawarma wraps home.
MiC Columnist Kailana Flora Dejoie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.