Getting outside hallowed walls to where real people live
I shook as I stepped out of my hatchback and onto the Portland Community College’s Rock Creek campus. This was it. Large buildings circled a courtyard filled with people and tables and chairs. Smoke drifted through the air, puffed from cigarettes and pipes. Women with low-cut blouses and striking tattoos over their chests slouched against stone pillars. I heard the word “sex,” and laughter echoed up from a group of guys by the fountain.
And all I could think was, What have I gotten myself into?
See, I was one of those kids: the kind that grows up in the church nursery, moves on to Big Kid’s Church, and sits faithfully beside his parents throughout elementary, middle, and high school. I started Christian school in seventh grade and graduated five years later.
All day, every day, I was surrounded by people calling themselves Christians. People who said all the right things, did the right things, and never stepped into anything remotely outside God’s dictated moral code. Okay, well, maybe there was that one nursery incident I vaguely remembered hearing about. Or the one time that girl mouthed off to the teacher in eighth grade. Little tiny things – according to me.
I was afraid of people who weren’t Christians. I thought they were ready to pounce down my throat, scratch out my eyeballs, and make me recant anything I said about God. And now I was practically swimming through a sea of them at community college.
Rushing through the glass doors, I hurried to room 203, slipped inside, and hunkered down in my seat while shoving my backpack in front of me. Maybe I could just barricade myself into the corner and hope that this terrible nightmare would fade away.
Anxious students silently fingered pencils a few minutes past the hour. Then a woman burst into the room. She had a large satchel over her shoulder – orange and yellow, if I remember right. Her reddish-brown hair swept past her face as she turned and grinned at us. “Where’s the light switches?”
The bag dropped from her shoulder and she fingered the wall until she connected with a large panel. On. Off. On. She flicked the lights around until a weird sort of half-lit dimness finally fell over the room. “That’s it.” She walked to the front and sat down. “All right. Let’s do this. You’re all here for Creative Writing, right? What is it, 241?”
“Well, I’m Liz. Pull out a paper and a pen.” She threw a pointed finger in my direction. “Don’t let me catch you with a pencil.”
I nodded. And pulled out a pen. And paper. And we all wrote.
We wrote what we were thinking, what we were afraid of, and what had us worried. So, I spilled everything on the page – how I was freaking out about being there, about people who weren’t the same as me, and about not wanting to interact at all.
As we went around the room and read our thoughts to the class of 14 students plus one teacher, I heard other fears. The girl who was afraid her dad might kick her out because her boyfriend had gotten her pregnant. Or the guy who was deathly afraid of sharing his thoughts to anyone. Or the older lady unsure if anyone would accept her as a real student. Or Liz, who was wondering if we would like her at all.
We were all afraid of things and we all had the same sorts of hopes and joys.
Immediately, something changed. I had been living inside a comfortable place with couches, ready for anyone who looked or acted like me to come and sit down and stay for a while. But I never opened my doors to anyone who wasn’t part of my Christian bubble.
Over the course of that term, I grew to like the people around me. Soon, it didn’t matter what sort of baggage they had or who they were. They were all people created by God and loved by Him. And if I truly wanted to be real, living out what I said I believed, I realized I needed to love these people and go beyond the cage – beyond the fear – and into a place where I could love and be loved.
Looking back now, I am grateful for my time within those – at first – foreign walls. I learned wildly different views from teachers, and befriended other students I would never have dared to talk to. Now, as I sit here at Multnomah, I’m glad God took me through a time and place where I’ve seen how fragile people are. We all need someone to step out from his or her “comfortable place with couches” and genuinely extend a hand to those who love Jesus and even to those who hate Him with everything they have.
Jesus seems like He’s that kind of person: someone who’s willing to share life with anyone – from tax collectors to prostitutes to uppity Pharisees. And through it all, Jesus walked around, shattering bubbles and caste systems.
And every day, I ask God to help me. I want to have that kind of love. And I want to be that kind of person. And that person is someone who loves beyond their bubble.