Among the Train Hoppers

By Vic Sizemore

I drink with train hoppers. I seek them out, hang with them. My wife is fine with it. She accepts my fascination with them, even if she doesn’t fully understand it.

Here in Lynchburg, Virginia, in among the train hoppers is where I find the gang I’m looking for: a cluster of former Liberty University students. That they are here isn’t what fascinates me. All university towns are full of people who come for school and put down roots. The interesting thing about these kids is how hugely unsettled they are.

I have come to see them as the Liberty Diaspora.

They obviously haven’t wandered far geographically, but in a very real sense they are homeless, sojourning in the wilderness. They live in old warehouse and factory buildings down by the tracks, or in a couple of derelict flop houses over in the ghetto. You can find them any evening, drinking late at the hipster bar. I have bought a lot of PBR to keep conversations going.

Here’s what I’ve found: these kids—I call them kids, but many are past college age; some are closing in on thirty (the new twenty?)—grow up in conservative evangelical homes. They arrive at Liberty and find themselves on familiar and comfortable terrain.

Then something snaps, and they rebel. This rebellion—rejection is probably a better term—isn’t anything new.

As evangelical America always lags behind the general culture by fifty or so years, a swirling eddy in the stream of history, this group resembles nothing more than the hippies who dropped out and turned on in the Sixties.

They are rejecting the same fake and materialistic religiosity that their free-loving predecessors were, and doing it in a lot of the same naïve, idealistic ways. That’s where it begins anyway, with social disaffection. The problem actually runs much deeper.

The belief system they’ve been taught all their lives is a theology of one calcified piece, each point taught with the same absolute certainty as every other. They begin to notice oddities in this theological landscape. A stone seems fake, held in place unnaturally—say the doctrine of verbal, plenary biblical inspiration and its subsequent inerrancy; or the prohibition against women in the ministry; or the insistence on a literal, twenty-four-hour, six-day creation six thousand years ago—and they get suspicious, start to kick around.

They finally kick away a stone—decide, for example, that they cannot believe in a literal talking snake causing all the world’s woes any more than they could believe in a literal, historical Pandora. The one stone falls away. And then another falls. And the collapse begins, the ground crumbles from beneath them in outward circles like ripples on water, everything their lives were built on falling away until they are floating, totally unmoored, casting about among the twisting and drifting fragments of their childhood faith, trying to cobble something together that they can live with—all this while trying to evade the come-back-to-Jesus talk their parents are waiting to spring on them. They don’t know where to go, but they know they cannot go back to their childhood faith—there’s nowhere left to stand back there.

Why do I find these kids so appealing? Because they are where I once was.

I was raised fundamentalist Baptist, and the questions came early, along with the trepidation. Had I discovered that everything my entire world was built on was a lie? Could I voice my questions? Would I break my parents’ hearts? Disappoint everyone I knew? Become an outsider, shunned? Bring the wrath of an angry God down on my head?

I longed to return to a simple faith, to an unquestioning belief that would carry me safely and surely through life. Why was it not to be for me, as it appeared to be for so many I knew in childhood?

Of course, blind faith is not really what I wanted.

Maybe I envy their willingness to live out in their daily lives what is happening to them spiritually/philosophically. I find honesty in that. I don’t mean to romanticize their lifestyle; it is uncomfortable and often brutal—whether or not they have the safety net of parental wealth, as I’m certain many of them do—and too many have real substance abuse problems.

Still, I can’t dismiss them. What I’ve found to be true of them almost to a person is that they are bright and creative and thoughtful. They are serious about ideas. They make art, they write, they sing. While they do tend to drink and smoke too much, they are nevertheless earnest in their pursuit of what I can only call capital T Truth.

Their world is flying apart, and they are searching for the center which holds.

So I talk to them when I can, living as they do at the edge of society, trying to strip away anything false and see what remains. I don’t know if they are just social outcasts, or if their wandering might actually lead somewhere good and true.

Either way, I like these kids. My heart goes out to them. I wish them well.

Vic Sizemore earned his MFA in fiction from Seattle Pacific University in 2009. His fiction and nonfiction are published or forthcoming in Story Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Rock & Sling and elsewhere; he won the 28th New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction and has been a finalist for the Sherwood Anderson Award. Sizemore teaches writing at Central Virginia Community College.