When I was nineteen years old, I joined a fraternity. There was a period of proving myself by walking in the footsteps of those who had gone before, known officially to the college as “pledging” and to everyone else as “hazing.” But it really wasn’t that bad. I was never physically hurt or forced to drink copious amounts of alcohol. In fact, this pledge period left such little impression on me that I’ve forgotten almost all of the experience. Except for this memory:
The story involves my “big brother” who was assigned, in large part, to give me the answers necessary for passing my pledge period. I was driving my him somewhere in order to do something. There is nothing about the exact nature of our errand that stands out in my mind. Yet, as vivid as yesterday’s big news, I recall him asking, “What do you believe?”
What a strange question, I thought and must have looked puzzled as well, because he quickly added, “You know, what do you believe . . . about God?”
“Um, I, you know . . . I’m a Christian.” My voice rose ever so slightly at the end as if I was responding to a question with a question.
He nodded and was a silent for a moment. Then I distinctly remember pulling up to a stop sign. I turned to look at him in the passenger seat, thinking I would say something funny, perhaps something crass, in order to steer the conversation back towards the topics of inconsequence that I was accustomed to hiding behind. But before I could speak, he looked me directly: “How does being a Christian make a difference in your life?”
On that day, I was silent. I could only hold his gaze for a moment, before wordlessly averting my eyes as if to check for oncoming traffic, looking back and forth and back again. Then, I remember driving off, my face hot and flushed from some kind of embarrassment that I couldn’t quite name. What do I believe? About Christianity? Why was he asking me about that?
At the time, I was nineteen and was experimenting. That’s why I was joining a fraternity in the first place. Moving away from home meant dropping activities that had constituted major parts of my identity, like baseball and church. I was searching for something that I could easily plug into this gaping void of loneliness and anxiety. Though I was not sure about much of anything, I was betting on the notion that whatever would make the “new me” would be exotic and wild, something completely foreign to my childhood. Anything but the faith of my childhood.
My big brother and I drove on in silence to wherever we are going, leaving me to wonder on my journey down to this day just what exactly motivated him to ask that question. I haven’t spoken to him in a dozen years or so, but I have turned his words over and over again in my mind like a rock tumbler polishes stones until they are worn smooth. And, yet, the jagged edges remain.