At a diner in Branson, Missouri, we’d been seated in the corner, and at the nearest long table, a youth group held a Bible study. I was 23, at breakfast with my mother and grandmother, and wondered if any of the teens was embarrassed to be public with their reverence the way I had always been when my father prayed before restaurant meals, all of us holding hands, the waitress standing awkwardly with our drink order, her face a confusion of pity and tenderness. Or maybe that was my own face. Anything I had to say to god was just for god, not for the breakfast crowd, not even for my family.
I watched the youth group for a minute, the young man leading them earnest and bearded in the usual way. Nobody spoke loudly enough to be heard from our table, and nobody looked uncomfortable. I envied them their faith. Mine was gone; its place all taken up with anger. Soon, they packed up their Bibles and quietly left and the waitress came round after the door closed behind them and asked if we’d enjoyed our Sunday sermon.
For a moment, I stared up at her.
My mother and grandmother had startled looks, and my mother said, “Well, my husband is a minister, so I didn’t mind at all.”
The waitress startled as we had, and said, “Isn’t that nice?” And raced off again.
My grandmother said, “Being a Christian sure isn’t popular.”
And I felt terrible things. In the first, they weren’t bothering anyone with their quiet study. To mock them afterward to presumed allies was cruel. But why had my mother deflected her own outrage onto my father? Why wasn’t it enough to say, “I’m a Christian, so I didn’t mind at all.”
And my grandmother’s response was at the heart of my trouble with the evangelicals. What does popularity have to do with it? You believe or you don’t. All this talk of being god-fearing while bellowing your beliefs at everyone nearby and bristling at any resistance. Shouldn’t humility be at the center of devotion to god? Do your work, love your neighbor, be honorable. Repeat.
I go back and forth about my mother’s response. About whether or not it was brave. Her face had grown white and tense in a moment and she had defied Southern culture and a lifetime of her mother’s instruction and decided not to hold her tongue. I think it was brave. I wish it had been braver. A wish at odds with my argument. She was only saying she didn’t mind. Giving voice to exactly what I’d felt. They aren’t bothering us. Let them alone.
A plea for tolerance. And that’s why I find myself, 15 years later, so focused on the exchange. Why am I so much less deserving of tolerance than a table of strangers?