By Allison Backous
This fall, I began teaching English at a Christian college. Many of my students, wise and compassionate beyond their years, are going into some form of church ministry, and their papers are dotted with terms that signify their eagerness: apologetics, mission, witnessing.
I have circled these words on their papers, corrected their commas, and wondered how to explain myself to them.
When I think about the people who have heard about the Gospel from me, I can count no great conversion story, no barroom conversation with some lost soul who, through me, discovered the unending love of Jesus.
I can only trace embarrassment, self-ridicule, and a doubt that might unnerve my students. That certainly unnerves me.
I became a Christian in my teens, and my first night at youth group, we were split into teams and told to march through the neighborhood, pretending to be persecuted Christians.
Church members, dressed as secret police, stopped and questioned us about our clothes, the crosses around our necks. Somehow I got into a car and drove to a barn, where the whole youth group sat on hay bales and sang praise and worship songs. The youth pastor preached from 1 Peter: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you, to give reason for the hope that you have.”
One of the secret police burst through the barn door with a rifle and killed the lights. We saw a spark and heard a gunshot. The lights came back, and we saw the pastor kneeling at gunpoint, his face covered with fake blood. It was all a show, intended for us to know that there were Christians in the world who did suffer fear, who risked martyrdom, that our faith demanded absolute witness to the truth.
As my own blood raced, I stood on a hay bale and pledged that I would be a proud, victorious witness to the power of Christ in my life.
I cannot tell you how many awful, awkward “witnessing” encounters I have had with my friends and family in these years. I told one of my friends, in front of a full classroom, that her atheism was stupid; for my older brother’s birthday, my “gift” was a handwritten account of my conversion experience. I spent hours frantically praying in my room for my parents and siblings to believe. I thought that my prayers would redeem us. That the small, persistent joy I had begun to know would swell and include us all, with no fears of hell peeking around the edges.
It’s been ten years, and what has changed the most is my intensity, my ability to give answer. I don’t know how to tell my students, or anyone who asks me, that, most days, I feel like ducking and covering. That my prayers ebb into limp pulses, weary recognitions of the things I daily bear: the loneliness of my loved ones, the insecurities of my own heart.
This week, I gave my bed to my sister, who testified against the young man who raped her two years ago, and who was acquitted of his crime. I carry her, too, along with my father’s anger, my mother’s weeping proclamation: “Thank God that you have faith, Allison. Because you give it to me.”
The etymology of “witness” leads me to a host of words: testimony, proof, martyr. I click on martyr, and I see two words that surprise me: trouble and memory. In the roots of the word martyr, there is the remembrance of trouble.
Maybe this explains the shift—I’m more honest about what I remember than I was ten years ago, more honest than I could have been at sixteen. What I remember is a long string of open wounds that my family cannot help but keep peeling open, each of us worried that someone is going to break soon, that the fissure we live in will crack wide open, finally, and that we will be lost to each other.
My students’ writing shows that they, too, remember trouble: abuse, cancer, and doubt creep through their sentences. In the margins, I write encouraging words, try to bring comfort through my sloppy comments.
But it is easier to believe in comfort for others than for myself. In the mornings, I sometimes find myself talking to the mirror, my voice alert and confident: “Yes, it is a terrible thing to go to court. But I am grateful for how far we’ve gotten, how we are getting this behind us.”
I don’t know who I’m speaking to, what testimony I am giving. I don’t know what comfort will come to rape, to loss, to me.
This past weekend, I got to see Over the Rhine for the fourth time. They played a song from their upcoming album, The Long Surrender, that I keep humming as I go through my days. I can only remember one phrase: There is something to be said for tenacity / I’ll hold on to you, you hold on to me.
Tenacity. The song swelling up as I type this, a mournful, persistent sound. Hold on. Hold on.
Allison Backous teaches at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is the creative writing editor for The Other Journal.