Not Safe, But Good
By Elrena Evans
My daughter's first year of Vacation Bible School, she decided halfway through the week that she didn't want to be a Christian.
I learned about her decision from a teen volunteer, who came to find me, ensconced in the nursing mother's room at the church with my three-month-old.
"Um, your little girl is in the atrium renouncing her faith," the volunteer relayed. "She says she doesn't want to believe in God anymore? I thought I should, like, come and get you?"
Up until that point, the week had been fun, if taxing. I'd spent my time as a VBS volunteer clad in something resembling biblical garb, teaching vaguely Hebraic folk dances to groups of children around a makeshift well. We were learning about the life and times of Paul. Through songs and stories, skits and crafts—and, of course, food—we were transported, every day for a week from 9AM to noon, back to life in Bible times.
I was twirling around the well with my small charges and singing "Hallelujah!" when a Roman soldier (a teen in plastic armor) came stomping by, seized a nearby shopkeeper (another teen in a bedsheet), and accused her of being a follower of Jesus. The Jesus-follower had her shop shut down, and was summarily hauled off in (paper) chains. On his way out, the Roman soldier pressed "stop" on our CD player and ordered the dancers to cease their celebrating.
I hadn't known this part of the skit was coming; my attendance at VBS planning meetings had been a bit spotty since the birth of my son. In the sudden silence, I looked around at the assembled children and thought, this is pretty intense.
Too intense, as it turned out, for my daughter. After I was summoned from the nursing mother's room I found her standing in the church atrium, feet apart, hands clenched into fists, chin thrust defiantly upward in a pint-sized version of a power pose. "I don't want to be a Christian anymore!" she cried. "I don't want to believe in God. It's too dangerous."
Over the next few days, I reassured her over and over again that what she had seen at VBS was just a skit—no one was actually arrested, no one got hurt. "But it did happen," she would counter. "In real life. It really happened in Bible times." I pointed out that "Bible times" were a long time ago, in a country far away from ours. We looked at historical timelines. We found Israel on a globe. We talked about living in a country with, ostensibly, religious freedom.
I wanted to offer her a vision of faith that was comfortable and secure. I wanted her to feel safe. She wasn't buying it. And so, abruptly, I changed my tack midstream.
I wanted to offer her a vision of faith that was comfortable and secure. I wanted her to feel safe. She wasn't buying it.
"You know, the skit you saw at VBS was just pretend," I told her the next time it came up. "But the truth is, you're right. Things like that did happen in real life. And sometimes, they still do. Sometimes being a Christian is hard—or even dangerous."
I paused. "I wish that wasn't true, but it is."
Instantly, I had her attention. She wanted to know more.
"Following Jesus isn't always easy," I told her. "Sometimes Jesus asks us to do hard things." We talked about places where Bibles are forbidden, but we also talked about hard things that Jesus might ask us to do in our own lives. Stand up for someone who is being bullied. Advocate for someone who is different from us, maybe advocate for someone we don't even like. Change the way we live and consume in pursuit of a more equitable life for all of God's creation. Bit by bit, I felt like I was dismantling the soft, fuzzy, Precious Moments faith I had constructed for her up until that point and offering her something harder, sharper…but perhaps more real.
And it was this faith, the hard faith, my daughter wanted to claim. Several days into our ongoing conversation, she made an announcement: "I've decided I do want to follow Jesus," she told me. "I want to be a Christian. Even if it's hard." A few months later she asked me to sign her up for First Communion class. She wanted to be a part of the Body of Christ.
My daughter is a teenager now. As she's grown, I've watched her continue to claim that faith in ways that make sense to her. When she was six, she held lemonade stands to raise money for clean water, carting piggy banks of sticky coins to the donation box at church. When she was eight, for her birthday party, she instructed friends not to bring presents for her—instead, they brought presents for a nonprofit Christmas drive. When she was ten, she left an impassioned note alongside the Halloween candy on our porch, asking people to please give a donation to children in need as they helped themselves to treats (surprisingly to me, some people did). This year, she organized an event for her youth group to collect donations for immigrant children held in detention centers.
At my daughter's confirmation, I listened as she stood and gave her testimony, relaying in her own words what it means to her to follow Jesus. I heard her talk about belief that is deeply rooted in action, living out a faith not just of words but deeds…even when it is hard, or unpopular, or scary. When she was small, I wanted to give her a Jesus that was gentle and kind; more so, I wanted to give her a Jesus that was safe. But as C.S. Lewis said of Aslan, "Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good." I watch my daughter and I wonder: what might I have kept her from becoming, had I been unwilling to offer her anything other than an easy path?
For several years after her VBS "deconversion," my daughter cited that week as the week she first understood her faith. Now, she says, her memories of the event are mostly fragments, bits of what she remembers and larger scraps of hearing the story told and retold by her parents. But she continues to claim that faith. And I continue to learn alongside her, too.
Elrena Evans is Editor and Content Strategist for Evangelicals for Social Action. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Penn State, and has also worked for Christianity Today and American Bible Society. She is the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night, and co-author of the essay collection Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. She enjoys spending time with her family, dancing, and making spreadsheets.