When I was seventeen, I attended a lock-in hosted by my church’s high school youth group.
For those of you who did not participate in Christian youth groups as youngsters, a church lock-in is essentially a big supervised slumber party that usually takes place on church grounds. It’s not that different from any other slumber party attended by teenagers since whenever sleepovers became a thing: there’s pizza, snacks, music, movies, and a general lack of any actual slumber.
My church was a little different from what you probably picture when you think of a church, especially if you have no personal experience of evangelical American Christian culture. My church had over five thousand members, having risen from humble origins meeting at a local high school to purchase a bankrupted hotel-slash-convention center. I attended Sunday school classes in remodeled hotel rooms that had been emptied of beds and nightstands and furnished with straight-backed chairs and long polished conference tables. There was a full bath in every room. We were a privileged bunch of believers—though if you’d asked us, we would have said we were “blessed.”
This immense building was protected after-hours by a sophisticated security system. I didn’t know this until the night of the lock-in, when the adults paced off the invisible lines we couldn’t cross without setting the alarms off, which they begged us not to do or else the intern in charge of the lock-in would be charged a $200 fine.
I felt vaguely that there was something a little antithetical about a church having a security system, but I didn’t think about it much until after midnight, when we were rounded up from our dodgeball game in the parking lot and taken back inside so the doors could be locked. The side entrance we were using had two sets of doors: one of them opened from the parking lot onto a useless little vestibule that contained nothing except a few feet of tiled floor. People left their wet umbrellas there when it rained. You had to pass through the vestibule to reach the doors that actually led into the church lobby.
I commented to my youth pastor that I didn’t understand why both sets of doors had to be locked. I could understand that some enterprising thief with a truck large enough to accommodate several enormous couches might find something worth stealing in the lobby, but what were they protecting in the vestibule besides the dirty rug we wiped our feet on?
“Yeah, we used to leave the outside doors unlocked,” my youth pastor said distractedly. “But homeless people were sleeping in the vestibule, so they had to start locking them.”
I don’t remember what I said to him in reply. Probably just, “Oh.” But I do remember what I was thinking, because it was one of those uncomfortable thoughts that I ignored studiously until they built to a critical mass about a year later, when my faith in God and the church finally broke under their combined weight.
I was thinking: What’s wrong with letting the homeless sleep in a tiny, empty room that you’re not using for anything? Would Jesus lock the doors of a church so that homeless people couldn’t sleep inside it? Wouldn’t Jesus kind of…I don’t know, do exactly the opposite of that?
Thirteen years later—two summers ago—this exchange with my youth pastor resurfaced in my memory, when I myself became homeless and started searching for safe places to sleep at night.
I’ve considered myself an atheist since I was eighteen, but I nonetheless spent a couple of years in college trying to find some form of Christianity that could rekindle a portion of my old faith. For this reason, I made occasional appearances at the tiny, liberal Episcopalian church on campus, where the lack of a deep belief in God didn’t stop me from enjoying a sense of community with intelligent, literate people who shared my values.
In 2011, two life-changing things happened to me: I was diagnosed with PTSD, and I wrote my first (good) novel. I landed a contract with a literary agent shortly afterwards. I thought I was on the verge of the career I’d always dreamed of, and this hope of future happiness made me realize how dissatisfied I was with the life I was presently leading: I was confident that big changes were coming, but there was no reason not to make little changes of my own in the mean time. I decided to move back to the tiny mountain town where I’d attended college from 2000-2004, reasoning that it would be a temporary refuge until my novel-writing career got properly underway and I could afford to move some place more exciting. I’d been happy in college, or at least as close to happy as I’d ever been, and I thought I still had a few friends in that town. I had no real friends in Raleigh. I was isolated, and I wanted to change that.
But things started going wrong almost as soon as I moved. I got hired for a position with an agency that supplied companions to autistic children, but was told I couldn’t start work for a couple of months. My agent wasn’t having any luck selling my novel to an editor. My money ran out, the friend I was housesitting for returned from abroad, and I had to find other accommodations. I ended up sleeping in my car for a week until an internet fundraiser provided enough money for me to move into a very cheap apartment. I starting working, and I managed to get by for almost a year, but my PTSD symptoms got steadily worse until I was completely unable to function. I lost my job just as the lease ran out on my apartment. I was too mentally ill at that point to even try to save myself. I gave away (or threw away) almost everything I owned and moved back into my car, this time for almost a month.
The parking lot of St. David’s, the Episcopal church I had attended in college, was an ideal overnight parking location for a number of reasons. It was on campus, but not technically part of university property, so the cops didn’t patrol there. It was also high on the side of a hill, so casual passers-by were unlikely to see or make trouble for a lone woman asleep in her car. Most importantly, the sanctuary doors remained unlocked overnight. The priest of St. David’s, who knew of my situation, said that keeping the doors unlocked was basically church policy for that very reason: God’s house should be available as a shelter to anyone who needed it. My second bout of homelessness began in the late spring, when it was still quite cold in the mountains, and I spent more than one night sleeping inside the pitch-black church, on the floor between the altar and the first pew. I was grateful for the refuge, but dismayed when I discovered that the door inside the sanctuary leading to the church’s only bathroom was not just locked—it didn’t even have a doorknob on the outside. Apparently God was happy to let people sleep in his unheated sanctuary on a cold night, but he drew the line at letting them pee in his toilets. I got used to driving a mile to the 24-hour Wal-Mart in the middle of the night, until finally I just stopped drinking water after eight in the evening.
I learned a lot about the various public buildings in my little town while I was living in my car. Since my most urgent need during the daytime was a wi-fi connection, I spent most of my time at the public library, unless I could scrounge enough money to buy a coffee and occupy a table at one of the three restaurants in town that provided free internet access. Sundays were difficult, however. Everything in the area was closed after 2 pm, including all but one of the restaurants. Almost the first thing I missed when I became homeless was the opportunity to simply lie down flat and let my body relax completely. My car seat would only recline so far, and lying at an angle meant that I was partially supporting my own weight as I slept by bracing my feet against the floor. Even when I slept for twelve hours, I inevitably woke up exhausted and groggy, with sore, stiff muscles. So on Sunday afternoons, when there was absolutely nothing else to do, I would wait until I was sure the church would be empty, then go lie on the floor by the altar with my head on the cushion the priest knelt on, listening to music on my computer while I tried to convince myself I would feel better if I could just cry.
Just as the weather was turning from uncomfortably chilly to uncomfortably hot, I ran into an old friend at the public library. He’d been a grad student in the English department when I was an undergrad, and we’d worked together at the university writing center. He and his family had stayed in town after he graduated; he was now the youth pastor at the Presbyterian church. I told him all about my situation. By that point, I had lost any reticence I once felt about admitting I was homeless. I no longer cared about making people feel uncomfortable, and I felt no shame when they gave me pitying stares. Every new person I shared my story with was someone who might have a solution of some kind, and I took every opportunity that came my way.
Of all the people I reached out to, David was the first person who was both willing and able to help. There was a house next door to his church that had been made over into a youth center. David’s office was there. The house was empty on Sunday afternoons, and it had a kitchen and (most importantly) a shower. He said he would have to check with his boss (the church’s head pastor) but he didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be able to sleep there that night.
A few hours later I was settled at the house, showered and wearing clean clothes for the first time in days. I was bone-weary, but I didn’t go to sleep right away. I didn’t want to waste the incredible contentment of being alone in an air-conditioned house with internet for the first time in over a month. (Being comfortable and alone at the same time was another sensation, like being able to lie down, that I hadn’t realized I would miss when I became homeless.) I even had food—David had gone to Wal-Mart and bought me a frozen pizza to cook.
At one point, a few hours after I arrived at the house, I went to sit out back, where the wifi signal was stronger. A strange man came up the sidewalk between the house and the church next door. He was middle-aged, handsome, well dressed, and I knew instantly he must be David’s boss—pastors just have a certain look about them. He introduced himself and shook my hand and gave me his phone number. “David told me about your situation,” he said. “Anything you need, anything we can do to help, please don’t hesitate to call.”
I was touched by his obvious sincerity, but at the same time I was thinking: If David told you that I’m homeless, then you already know what I need. Can you hire me? Do you have a place I can stay for more than one night? If you really want to help me, what are you waiting for? I was also struck by the fact that he, like most people I met, seemed to regard my situation as some kind of shocking/surprising tragedy, which seemed a little naive, considering that on any given night about 600,000 people in the U.S. are left without a place to sleep. But I’d already come to understand that what really shocked people like David’s boss was the fact that I was a young, well-educated white woman. I belong to a class of society that is normally well-protected—the factors that make me a strong statistical candidate for homelessness, like my mental illness and abuse history, are invisible. But even though I felt that I was probably being unfairly singled out for compassion, my priority was survival, not justice. I would take all the compassion, all the pity, all the charity I could get. Not that it amounted to much: even people like David’s boss rarely had more than kind words to give.
It was David himself who found a room for me in the end. Even though he was supporting a family of six on a very modest salary, he offered me the room over his garage to stay in for as long I needed it. He could have made extra money by renting the room, but ever since he’d bought the house he’d used that room to help people in the same situation I was in. It was his own remarkable generosity that put a roof over my head for the next four months, not the church.
When I decided to return to Raleigh and its superior employment prospects that October, I moved in with online friends who professed to be “giant Communists.” They supported me for over a year, until last spring, when they decided to sell the house. They gave me a few months’ warning so I could find a new place to live.
I was panicked, and more than a little furious with myself. I’d been given a rare opportunity to regain independence and stability, and as far as I could see, I’d wasted it. For a long time after I returned to Raleigh, my mental health had only seemed to get worse; I was seeing a therapist for awhile, but I had also begun recovering memories of sexual abuse in my childhood, which raised my anxiety to whole new levels. I hardly ever left the house. I did find a part time job caring for elderly and disabled persons in their homes, but I worked very few hours and never made enough money to pay rent, or build savings. I was terrified that I would have to sleep in my car again, this time in a city where I didn’t know any safe places to park at night. But I also felt that if it did come to that, it would scarcely be more than I deserved for not having forced myself to push past my illness and work more over the past year.
I began frantically pricing apartments and looking for new jobs. Then, about two weeks after I was told that I would need to move, I was raped by a man who lived on the same street as me. Significant portions of my higher reasoning seemed to check out entirely after that. I no longer had any kind of coherent plan for my future. My only goal was to move out of the house, and then leave Raleigh for good, as soon as possible.
I began reaching out to everyone I knew who might be able to help me get a job and resettle in a new city. At first, I thought my luck was changing: an old college friend knew someone who worked at a major homeless shelter in Charlotte. They were hiring, and he thought my work experience in human services would make me a viable candidate for the position. There was just one snag. The organization was a private Christian charity, and the job application required candidates to state their religion and sign a faith-based mission statement.
I hesitated, naturally. I looked up information about the shelter and discovered that they were known for working with interfaith organizations, which seemed promising. They were also committed to paying even their part-time employees a living wage, which seemed to indicate broad-mindedness. I exchanged emails with my friend’s contact in the organization and told her frankly that while I could completely support the organization’s goals, I couldn’t honestly profess to be a Christian. I also disclosed that I was queer. She wrote back to me that she didn’t foresee either of those things being a bar to my employment.
I was in high spirits for a week or so after I sent in my resume. I thought that I had an especially good chance of getting the position, because of my past work experience and my friend’s personal recommendation, and also because, in my cover letter, I had briefly described my prior experience of homelessness. I assumed that my lived experience of the very problems the mission was working to solve would be in my favor. But the next time I checked in with my contact, I was told the position had been filled by someone else.
I briefly considered driving to Charlotte and presenting myself at their women’s shelter as a recovery program participant, since I couldn’t be staff. Then I decided that I’d wasted enough of my life trying my luck with religious institutions.
I spent a long time after that struggling against the temptation to just accept that I was doomed. But thanks to the generosity of close friends and support from the internet, I survived long enough to transition to a shaky stability. I have an apartment in Baltimore now, and enough money for a few months’ rent. I have food stamps. I still don’t have a job, though I’ve had a little luck with freelance proofreading work. Homelessness is a more remote specter now than it has been at any point in the last six months, for which I am pathetically grateful. It isn’t that I don’t possess enough advantages to feasibly bail myself out of another dire situation: it’s just that, after a certain point, I tend to stop trying, because I don’t think I deserve any better.
My friends get worried and unhappy when I say things like that. Both because they’re my friends, and because they believe everyone deserves to be safe, to have food and shelter and clothes. I believe that too. But there’s a glitch in my thinking that allows me to believe that I’m the exception to that rule. That glitch was created a long time ago: when you’re abused as a child and no one intervenes, you grow up feeling like everyone around you is in a conspiracy to ignore the evidence of what’s happening to you. It feels like all the adults in your life have looked at you and said, “Well, kids in general deserve to be protected, but this particular kid is just getting what’s coming to her.”
When I was a kid, every adult in my life was connected to the church in one way or another. At first they were teachers at the Christian school I attended until eighth grade; later, they were pastors and leaders in my church youth group. Despite my passionate belief in God as a teenager, I never really fit in at my church. Every Sunday, I was told that the church was my home, and my fellow believers were my family, and when I looked around me, I saw that this seemed to be true for everyone else. But even though I had plenty of friends at school, I never had any at church. I was close to my drama and English teachers, but my youth group leaders were obviously uncomfortable with my questions, my sense of displacement in the church, and my outsized emotional needs. They reinforced the message that I was an exception: that because everyone else had access to a sense of community and belonging in the church, it must be my fault if I was different. Rather like with my biological family, my church family kept assuring me that I was loved, even though their actions didn’t bear this out.
It took many years before I could bring myself to cut ties with my abusive family. Long after I realized that their version of help was just another kind of harm, I felt obligated to maintain contact. Part of me always hoped that one day they would understand their mistakes and change their ways. I think this may be why I continued to have high expectations of Christian organizations long after I stopped identifying as a Christian. As a professed atheist, it sounds strange when I say that I’m disappointed by Christians. Most of my closest friends have been atheists all their lives; hypocrisy and inconsistency in the Christian church doesn’t surprise them, because they never expected anything better. And when I look back at my time in the church, I can see hypocrisy in moments like that conversation with my youth pastor about locked doors. But when I was at my lowest and most desperate, the fact that the church seemed to have nothing but crumbs to spare me still stung. It also continued to reinforce that glitch in my thinking: Christ commanded his followers to love and serve the poor unconditionally, but apparently I was the exception again.
There’s not much comfort to be gained from the knowledge that when it comes to the paltriness of Christian charity, I wasn’t really an exception at all. Everyone at the bottom of the barrel gets the same inconsistent attention from the church. My church was by no means unusual in helping the poor only when it was convenient to do so. Volunteering at a soup kitchen was God’s work; going out of the way to lock the door of an empty vestibule just because the needy continued to be needy after the soup kitchen was closed was just business as usual.
Considering the fact that the failure of the church to live up to its own teachings was what drove me away from it in the first place, I probably have no right to be surprised by the fact that nothing’s changed in the last fifteen years. But that’s the heartbreaking thing about dysfunctional families: you never stop hoping that, one day, they’ll be better. And you never stop taking it personally when they disappoint you all over again.