All illustrations by Michael Dockery
If you think starting college is hard, try doing it as a 17-year-old virgin going through a breakup, while spreading the word of God in a really pretentious and aloof way.
I'd discovered religion a few months earlier through my girlfriend at the time. This had led me to the only church with parishioners under 50 in my rural South Australian town, which just happened to be a Pentecostal Church. That's why by the time I started college, I was in the peak of my Jesus phase.
I started university with an act of rebellion—I skipped the orientation week. I felt I had better things to do, like reading the entire Old Testament. Besides, I figured there'd be hardly any Christians around aside from the ones operating the Evangelical Students' Club booth, and those guys looked freaky. Yes, as I said, I was aloof. Little did I know that one year later I would be one of those over-smiley club members desperately trying to ensnare an innocent passersby in a "conversation about the Lord."
Things didn't go too well in my first year. When classes finally started, I introduced myself in tutorials as "Mat, the Christian" and began wearing a homemade "I heart Jesus" T-shirt. Then my Christian girlfriend broke up with me, I was alone and desperate to connect with anyone. So I turned to the only people left: the other Jesus freaks.
They had a clubroom in "oasis," the university's religious hub, which was just a badly furnished room that smelled like a dusty confessional. A couple of dingy couches were scattered at the entrance where you could sit and browse books on anything from Buddhists to the pope. The first time I visited, we read the Bible and talked about evolution. It was a hot topic for me at the time because I was deciding whether, as a Christian, I was obliged to take Genesis literally and swallow the idea that God created the world in seven days, which is obviously pretty difficult to reconcile with modern science. But the group leader, a disheveled mature aged student who looked like he worked at a secondhand bookstore, was adamant that the principles of evolution (survival of the fittest) were incompatible with the loving ways of old-mate Jesus (revival of the faithiest). I didn't get along so great with other Jesus people either, but on the whole, they were friendly and relatively welcoming.
A few weeks later, I was in conversation with some other, non-Jesus-freak people. Someone said, "Jesus!" and I asked them to please never use the word Jesus in vain. I was given a weird, disgusted look, and from there, I realized I would never be accepted by the general school community. A lot of people might change their attitude at this point but not me. Instead, I decided to go whole hog and—on my own initiative—ask to speak to the class before our property law lecture.
In front of a class of around a hundred people, I stood up and invited everyone to participate in our Wednesday discussion group on whether there is proof Jesus existed (you wouldn't believe which side of the debate we took). Needless to say, this didn't go well. My invitation to was met with silence and awkward looks, and I retreated to the back of the hall.
Soon after came the highlight of the evangelically-minded university student's year: religion week. We had plans to reach the entire student population with the wondrous word of God, and we went all out. We had posters, we had booths, we had debates and meetings. Of course, it was all to no avail. In the words of Paul McCartney, "No one was saved." But we clung to our faith and said to ourselves, "Next year. Next year it will be better."
With an optimism unsupported by reality (this is religion we're talking about), I volunteered to run the orientation week booth for the following year's freshmen. I didn't really reflect on it so much at the time, but I'd somehow come full circle. We set up our nice table with our flyers and smiles, polo shirts, and sandals. We said "hi" to people, we called them over, we had so many arguments and great things to say about God, and no-one gave a fuck. Everyone walked right past, avoiding us like the plague, including the Young Labor Party leader with a mad look in his eye.
Between that horrendous stint at orientation week and the following year, I gave up on religion. I wrote an article about it for VICE last year, but I will say that it was a complete relief. No more forcing my beliefs on would-be friends, no more feeling guilty for not talking about Jesus enough, and no more exhausting booths. Sure, it was too late to make things right with anyone from college, but at least I couldn't sink any lower.
Joining a university club wasn't the best experience of my life. In fact, it turned out to be one of the most humbling, humiliating, and demoralizing things I've ever volunteered to do. Those memories will haunt me forever. Nowadays, I feel sorry for the well-meaning, soon-to-be disillusioned people working those booths, as you should, too. But I still always avoid eye contact with them.
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