I grew up completely surrounded by Christians. My grandmother began teaching me about Jesus before I could understand what she was saying. We prayed before meals, naptime, and bed. We went to church at least on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. We watched Pat Robertson’s “The 700 Club” every day. I went to a Christian school from kindergarten through high school graduation. Until I was 16 years old, I did not know anyone who wasn’t “saved.”
One of the things I was taught during that time was that morality came from God and God alone, and anyone who did not believe in Jesus (like we did) was incapable of understanding the difference between right and wrong. People without God were evil, lost sinners. And if you associated with them, you might begin to “backslide” away from God. Satan was working and waiting to entice you into a life of sin (sex, drugs, rock & roll–you know the drill). If you weren’t careful, you could lose your salvation altogether, and end up in hell when you die.
So, clearly, the only thing to do was try to be perfect. So that God would love me, my parents would love me, my teachers would love me. So that my life would be good. So that I would definitely not go to hell. I always tried to do the right thing. I was helpful. I did what I was told, even though I hated being told what to do. I read all the time. I got straight A’s. I did all the extracurriculars: you name it, I did it, and I tried to do it perfectly. I was the goodiest of goody two shoes. I had impossibly high standards for myself and others. As you can imagine, I was incredibly unpopular.
When I turned 16 (maybe the same day…probably the same day), my parents informed me that I was getting a job. So, I got a job at the Dairy Queen. I imagined a Wonka-like atmosphere, minus the creepy orange dudes and misbehaving children. And that scary tunnel. On second thought, the whole Wonka situation was pretty fucked up. Okay, I imagined being surrounded by sugar. And I would bring joy and ice cream to the masses!
There was only one problem. These people probably weren’t all Christians. They were probably bad people. They were probably going to try to entice me into a life of sin (and sugar overconsumption). I had to be ready.
I was never okay with the idea that Christians have to tell people about Jesus all the time (something I was told a lot as a teenager). I felt like that was awkward and forced. So, my plan was just to be a Christian example for them and lead them to Jesus with my words and actions, which would obviously be so different and so much better and more holy and pure than theirs that it would be obvious to them from Day One that there was something about me that was different. They would be curious. They would want to know. And when they finally asked me, “Why are you so happy and at peace?” Well, THEN, I would tell them about the life-saving power of Jesus Christ, and how they, too, could be forgiven for their sins and spend eternity in heaven. I had a plan. I was going to be a light in the darkness, a beacon of hope to the lost souls working at the Dairy Queen on the two-lane highway at the edge of our small town.
If that sounds ridiculous, it was. Almost as ridiculous as singing, dancing, judgy, orange little people with bad hair.
First of all, because it’s not like these people had never heard about Jesus. It’s safe to assume every American has at least a functional understanding of Christianity and may actually already be a Christian. That did not occur to me at the time. And secondly, because it very quickly became apparent to me that even though they weren’t Christians (which again, was just my assumption), these were nice people. What? Non-Christians can be nice? Okay, I thought, but certainly they have a gnawing sense of emptiness that they’re trying to fill with drugs and booze and sex.
Sure, almost everyone went out back for smoke breaks, but when I said I didn’t smoke, they shrugged, and after awhile, I’d grab a cup of ice cream and join them. It was obvious that I was different. But when they asked me about it (finally, a chance to tell them about Jesus!), they listened, asked questions, didn’t judge or sneer. Surely, evil people would sneer, persecute me for my faith, refuse to be friends with me. Or else realize the error of their ways, and beg to be brought into the fold. But neither of those things happened. Instead, they simply accepted me, as weird as I was, as scared of them as I had been. They were people. Good people. Nice people. Why had I been taught that they wouldn’t be? And how would the world even work if everyone who wasn’t a Christian was unable to have a basic moral understanding?
I mostly worked with other teenage girls. And as the months passed, I realized that we were more alike than different. We talked about the same things–school, extracurricular activities, boys. I was, and always had been, very interested in boys. I understood that this was a problem, but it seemed to be one I was powerless to change, so I just tried to keep it under wraps. My dad had very awkwardly given me a chastity ring on my 13th birthday. In return, I promised him I wouldn’t have sex until I was married. I shudder just remembering it. He probably does, too. I’d also signed virginity pledges at various youth-group-related events. My virginity was super important to a lot of people, most of whom didn’t even know me personally. It was the most valuable possession I had. Of course I wasn’t going to let God and everyone down by “losing” it.
Our boss, Amber, was unhappily married and told us once, “Don’t get married just because the sex is good.” I filed that away. Casey, after a long period of deliberation, finally lost her virginity to her older boyfriend in his red pickup truck. For awhile, Christina and I were still virgins, but then she lost her virginity to her boyfriend on prom night.
And just like that, I was the last virgin at the Dairy Queen.
This was discussed. A lot. I wore the label with equal amounts of pride and embarrassment, not because I wanted to have sex, but because talking about sex was embarrassing. How does it feel to be the last virgin at the Dairy Queen? they asked me. I told them I was waiting until I got married. I had a boyfriend, but we just held hands, made out, went to youth group activities together. I was determined to remain the last virgin at the Dairy Queen. But nobody pressured me. They didn’t make me feel badly. If anything, they teased me about it in a way that said I belonged, that my differences were okay, that they accepted me as I was, a sexually frustrated, sheltered Jesus freak who took a month off in the summer to go tell people in Africa about God. I couldn’t believe it. For the first time, I felt accepted, and by “sinners” no less. I belonged…but not where I was supposed to belong. I was the last virgin at the Dairy Queen, and that was okay.
And then, my chastity ring broke. I was handing a customer her Blizzard through the window in the glass that separated us from the customers, and as I pulled my hand back, the ring caught on the side of the window and bent irreparably. And I looked at it and thought, “Well, I guess that’s that.” I just…knew. I didn’t know how or when, but I knew that it was foreshadowing. And I was right.
I learned a lot at that first job. I learned that things aren’t as black and white as a lot of people would like them to be. And I learned that maybe what I’d been taught about people who didn’t believe in Jesus wasn’t the truth, and if that wasn’t true, what else wasn’t true either?