„Anna, do you believe in evolution?“
My friend’s voice sounds sleepy, I check my watch, it’s past midnight. I use my teeth to pull the cigarette out of the package.
„Do you believe in evolution?“
„Well, do you?“
„Well, I don’t know if I do.“
I can hear Patrick’s voice in the background and remember that he likes to go to bed early. I am pretty sure now my call has woken them both up.
„And the devil? And hell? Do you believe in hell?“
„Well … yes, I suppose. But not the kind of devil you know. No horns, no hooves. No fire.“
„Okay. Thank you.“
Anna is laughing now. „Does that help you?“
„Well … I guess I just never assumed that you’d doubt something like the evolutionary theory.“
„It’s called a theory for a reason, isn’t it?“
„Well, yes it’s called evolutionary theory and no, that does not mean it’s not a fact. But I mean, come on, God created Adam from dust, and then he created Eve from Adam’s ribs, and then Adam and Eve created mankind? Seriously?“
I met Anna through work. I had just started to work in that little bookshop, righ next to that church in Leipzig, when one of the first things she said to me was something about „that book with that nasty gay cover“. I knew she studied theology, and that comment confirmed all my prejudices. For the first couple months I’d refer to her as „the church girl“ whenever talking about work stuff. But we actually got along very well, and before I knew it we became friends. I was fascinated by her strong believes, and she was open to sincerely answering my provokative questions. (So you hate queer people, right?) She grew up in an evangelical charismatic church; the kind I knew mostly from films like „Jesus Camp“ or „God loves Uganda“, a documentary that follows American missionaries trying to convince Ugandans to follow Biblical law, essentially leading to Uganda´s parliament considerung an anti-homosexuality bill. I had not touched anything religious in two decades, but I knew I wanted to see that for myself if given the chance. Religious fanaticism, bigotry, homophobia, islamophobia – I wanted it all.
I was raised Catholic. The kind of Catholic who goes to church on Christmas Eve and is baptized because babys are being baptized, period. By the time I was old enough for my first communion I had started to read, and I had discovered the bible. My grandmothers both were grandmasters in storytelling, and I grew up with brave heroes and mighty warriors. And the bible, if you think about it, has the bravest heroes and the mightiest warriors of them all. Samson and Delilah, David and Goliath – hell, Jonah and the whale! I knew where my parents kept it and I’d steal it from the shelf whenever possible. It was an illustrated edition and I vividly remember browsing for one specific painting, Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, just for the thrills and chills. I was that kind of a kid. I loved going to church because of all the drama. Whenever someone asked me what I wanted to be when grown up, my answer was: a nun! They had the best dresses, and I’d wrap myself in blankets and play „marry Jesus“. My obsession had clearly gotten out of hand. My mother still tells the story of me hiding in the closet, crying rivers and seas because I had found out about the crucifixion. My pain had no end. Luckily for everyone around, my time as a believer did; when I changed my career aspirations from „nun“ to „priest“ I learned that girls weren’t allowed to preach and ditched the whole thing out of pure indignation. I never truly believed that God and Jesus thing, anyway; I just really, really liked the drama.
So when Anna suggested taking me to one of the super conservative church communities in Leipzig (to satisfy my curiosity, not to convert me) and asked me what I was looking for, I knew exactly what I wanted.
The very first thing I notice when entering the hall are several shields of David on the walls.
„Okay, beware“, Anna says, „they might say not so nice things about Palestine in the sermon.“
We are already late; the service is about to start. It’s a saturday evening, 7:30 pm, and the room is busting with people. Many of them wave in our direction, smiling, two ladies approach us immediately.
„Welcome!“ They shake our hands. „What brings you here?“
Anna, all smooth, tells them about her family’s church, a well known charismatic community in Southern Germany. „I’m just a friend“, I add. We are seated. The couple next to us wants to know our names, they stroke our backs as if we’re puppies. They all seem very pleased to see us. I look around. Everyone knows everyone; some people are sitting and chatting, others are standing and stretching their extremities as if they’re about to start a gym class. In front of us is the stage. There are microphones, a keyboard, drums, guitars; Oh lord, I think, they have a band. There are more shields of David, and to the left I discover a huge Menorah. It’s quite absurd; the only Christian symbol I can find is a simple wooden cross on the right side of the stage, rather small. No bleeding Jesus, no mother Mary, not even an altar. All catholic girl, I am a little disappointed. In a corner I discover three flags: Germany, Israel and the United States of America.
„ARE YOU READY TO MEET JESUS?“
The band has entered the stage; everyone around us jumps to their feet.
„Jesus, we shout your name
Jesus we make your praise
Glorious … You are glorious!“
Within seconds, everybody is singing and jumping. After a couple songs Anna is on her feet as well. They have a screen behind the band and project the lyrics onto the wall. I feel like standing up, singing along, but I don’t. Instead I watch my friend. I know she never got baptized in her family’s church. Instead, she decided to study Protestant theology. She has told me that she sometimes misses these very lively services she experienced as a kid, and that she hasn’t found her true church home yet. I wonder if she’d participate more passionately without me next to her.
„Let it rain, let it rain.
Open the floodgates of heaven.“
All songs have the same structure: a mellow start, constantly repeated lyrics, a strongly built climax. They all end very loud, with everyone singing at the top of their lungs; many have their eyes closed and their right arms raised, an image that, combined with the Jewish symbols all over the room, makes me bite my lips several times.
„Oh clap your hands
All ye people
A bunch of teenagers enters the stage and dances in choreography. Anna is dancing on the spot, I have begun clapping along and my feet sort of pound in the rhytm of the songs. The drummer is a young woman. I notice her locking eyes with me across the room; it almost feels like flirting. It makes me laugh. No wonder, I think to myself, that they feel the spirit here. Jesus, this is one big happy family.
„I invite you to talk to the Lord! All of you, let us talk to Jesus!“
The lead singer, who turned out to be the preacher, stares at me. I realize I am the only one still sitting in my chair.
„It’s called speaking in tongues“, Anna whispers.
I turn my head. The woman next to me is mumbling, her eyes closed, and so is everyone else.
„I’ll explain later.“
I have once experienced something similar, people falling into trance, speaking in unknown languages, being possessed by ghosts – during a Candomblé ceremony in Bahia, Brazil. Never in a million years had I expected that a couple blocks from my apartment in Leipzig, Germany. To my great disappointment nobody stands up from their wheelchair to start dancing. Nobody even faints.
„I invite you all to sit down now and listen to what the Lord has to say.“
The band leaves. Two men carry a small table onto the stage and place a bible on it. I look at my mobile. It’s almost 9 pm.
As quickly as the past one and a half hours have passed, as long seem the next. It’s the preacher’s turn. Everyone has grabbed their bible as well as a notebook; the lady next to me scribbles down every single word the preacher says. Whenever she strongly agrees with something she shouts a loud AMEN! And boy, are his words important. He even has his own interpreter, a young man to his left. They are a well oiled machine, they make that perfectly clear. After every sentence the preacher pauses and lets the interpreter translate into English. And he does not only translate the spoken word, oh no; every single gesture is being repeated, every little intonation is being imitated. They talk about sowing and harvesting. Sowing and harvesting. Sow your seed so you can harvest what will become your fruit. Sowing. Harvesting. Even Anna next to me becomes all twitchy, I guess that part is part of why she left the charismatic movement. Sowing and harvesting. Have you not gotten the point yet? Listen to what the Lord tells us through the Bible: Sow your seed. And eventually, you will be able to harvest.
Where’s all the homophobia? Not even a tiny little bit of Palestine bashing? What about sex before marriage? Where’s all the drama?
Good lord, I am bored out of my mind.
It’s after 10:30 pm when we leave the premises. The preacher has officially ended the service, but the band is back on stage and people are standing in couples, hugging, praying together. I feel mostly confused. And I am surprised by how seriously I actually take in the whole experience. I expected myself to be all cynical, instead I find myself asking Anna tons of questions. Speaking in tongues?
„Yes, that’s what people do.“
„And how does that feel?“
I sense this is not a topic she’s very comfortable with. „It’s the Holy Spirit. When you need to speak to God but are missing the right words he sort of speaks out of you … in a language you don’t neccessarily know. And sometimes what sounds to you like blablabla someone else actually understands because you happen to speak Hebrew, or Ancient Greek, or Finnish.“
„And that has happend to you?“
„That has happened to me.“
I look at her. I know Anna from many conversations and I have always experienced her as a very intelligent, very interested, very open person. I know she’s a critical thinker. I know she proofreads every statement a hundred times before acknowledging it.
„And you never questioned that?“
She shrugs. I can see how uncomfortable she feels, so I let it be. Instead, I tell her how the singing clearly functions as a brainwasher so people would bear listen to all that crap that follows afterwards. She laughs and asks for a cigarette.
Later that night, we sit in my kitchen and drink beer. I feel exhausted, one of the songs from the service is stuck in my head, a tedious merry-go-round. We talk about sinning and how God loves everyone. I refuse to understand the concept. „God does not love the sin, but he loves the sinner“, Anna says. She looks tired, too.
„So you believe I am a sinner“, I say.
We have talked about that before, quite often actually, but in this very moment I just want to confront her, I want her to look me in the eye and tell me.
„I believe what’s in the Bible“, she says. „The bible is God’s word, and it’s being very clear about that.“
„So you believe I am a sinner.“
„If I were a priest, and a gay couple asked me to marry them, I’d refer them to someone else, yes.“
„I don’t get it. I am sitting in front of you, you are my friend, I trust you, and still there’s this stranger telling me I am a pervert.“
„You’re not a pervert.“
„But the Bible says so.“
She tells me how she has read numerous books on the topic, how there’s this theory that the bible actually talks about temple prostitution, that it may all be about power and abuse and not homosexuality.
„It’s a theory“, she says. „I want to believe it, I really do, but I can’t. There are things written in the Bible that tell me otherwise.“
I try to think of all these other horribly weird things that are written in the Bible, something like stone your wife to death when she sneezes too loud, but I can’t remember any. „But you have met me and my girlfriend. You’ve seen us together.“ „And I think you’re a great couple.“
„But the Bible says what we do is against nature, and the Bible is God’s word, and God is your highest authority.“ „Yes.“
„So this is what you believe.“
I try to make out some struggle in her face, anything that tells me this is hard for her.
„It’s okay. The bible is no authority to me. It doesn’t mean the same to me as it does to you.“
And it really doesn’t. I can choose to believe the person I know and trust; I can choose to see the person who’d never feel superior to me based on how I sexually identify.
The next morning she texts me: I’m so terribly sorry. I just can’t change the way I feel and believe. You know I love you.
Two weeks later, I am back. It’s saturday night, 7.30 pm, and service is about to begin. Even though I am on my own, I feel quite confident. I know the procedure. Been there, done that. The band is already onstage. The couple from last time waves and gestures, there’s a spare seat right next to them. They even remember my name. They take me into their middle and pet my back, and oddly enough it makes me quite happy. I recognize a few faces, and I notice that there are more people than two weeks ago. I flirt with the drummer. I even stand up. I sing along. I dance. I feel welcome, I feel safe. Things are a little different this time, inbetween songs people „bear witness“, as they call it. It means they tell the community how Jesus changed their life. It’s quite simple: boys tend to have had this bad boy lifestyle before, nicotin and alcohol and, everyone groans loudly when it comes to that, drugs. They felt empty and unhappy until they welcomed Jesus into their heart. For the girls it’s all about the boys, of course, how they used to seek attention, how they had, groaning in the audience, meaningless sex before marriage.
And all the sudden there it is, all the drama I initially came to see.
I pay more attention to the details this time. How the preacher asks the audience to „let Jesus come inside you“. I don’t get how nobody finds this funny, but I pull myself together.
„Resurrection Power, whoooaaaaa
you’re alive in me
Resurrection Power, whoooaaaa
I’m alive in you!“
I try to actually understand the murmuring when people around me start to speak in tongues. But nothing, no Finnish, no Ancient Greek, no Hebrew (not that I’d recognize any of these). I even close my eyes and wait for the Holy Ghost to enter my body. (He doesn’t show up. Bummer.) Then there’s a little theater play (Jesus approaching a drunk, Jesus approaching a Muslim, Jesus approaching a sick person; all three of them turn poor Jesus down), and some of the kids have prepared a choreography they show onstage.
„Here I am,
Down on my knees again,
Surrendering all, surrendering all.“
They even wear matching black t-shirts, on the front they have the word GOD written in huge silver letters. Generally, the kids are the most enthusiastic in the room. They throw their arms up in the air; when they „call to God“ they do surrender all, just like the song says. It’s a bit creepy, or maybe a lot, but it’s kinda sweet at the same time.
After the sermon, which is much shorter this time, I stay, and I watch people couple up. They pray together, usually one of the two has their hands on the forehead of the other. They look highly concentrated. One girl is crying, her face all red. I’m a little scared someone might come up and ask me to pray with them, but they leave me alone. I sing, together with everyone who’s not onstage praying, and I have a warm and fuzzy feeling in my stomach.
„Find me here,
Lord as you draw me near,
Desperate for you, desperate for you.“
Finally, the band stops playing. A woman invites everyone downstairs for coffee and pancakes and more music. I think about it for a moment but don’t feel brave enough to join. A young woman puts her hand on my back.
„I’m Anna“, she says. „Would you like to join us downstairs?“
„Downstairs“ is a huge room, there’s a smoothie bar and a few couches. We sit down right next to the dance floor.
„So. Have you met Jesus?“
„No. And I actually don’t believe in God, any kind of god, to be honest.“
„But you’re here. Why?“
„I don’t actually know. Curiosity, I suppose. I’m not sure.“
„Well, do you want me to tell you about Jesus?“
It’s crazy. It feels unreal, me sitting in some basement talking about Jesus. I find out that Anna is about my age, and that she has met Jesus in 2009. Lots of partys, she says, lots of booze and meaningless sex. Aha, I think.
„When Jesus changed my heart and made me see his glory, joy returned to my life. Before that I was unhappy, unhealthy. I didn’t care about my study, and I didn’t care about myself. All I cared about was partying. Jesus led me back to the right path and stood beside me. Without him I’d have never finished my studies.“
„What did you study?“
„I’m a doctor. I work in the hospital in Halle.“
Doctor Anna is all smiles, all enthusiasm. Every time she says „God“ or „Jesus“ she jumps a little on her seat. She tells me about the inner peace she has gained from believing. I ask her if she believes in miracles.
„Oh, I’ve experienced many miracles.“
„Okay, can you name one?“
„I’ve seen legs grow for example.“
„Oh yes. You know how back pains usually come from unevenly long legs? I’ve healed many back pains by praying for the shorter leg to grow, and it always did.“
The kids on the dance floor are all jumpy and wild, the music is so loud I can hardly understand Doctor Anna. The conversation switches into a more serious mode again.
„Okay. Say, I tell you I’m a sinner and I do not intend to give up on that sin, because, well, it’s just not an option. Would God still welcome me?“
„Of course. God loves everyone. And once God enters your heart, he changes your heart. You change.“
„But I really won’t.“
„There is no Never with God. He only wants the best for you. He wants you to go to heaven. He’s the light. „
Doctor Anna’s smile is glued to her face. She tells me about that affair she had with a girl when she was 15 and in boarding school, how it felt all wrong, and how only much later, when she met Jesus, she understood why. Boarding school, lesbian teenage lovers. On the inside, I salute her. She has answers to everything, nothing seems to trip her up.
„Alright. You said heaven. What about hell?“
„Hell is the place that awaits those who do not believe.“ „And the devil?“
„You believe in the devil.“
„I believe in the devil, I believe in angels and I believe in ghosts. But really, what we in our modern society call ‚ghosts‘ are in fact fallen angels.“
I think for a moment.
„Evolution! Do you believe in evolution?“
„I believe God created our world, and God created mankind.“ „But you’re a doctor, how can you believe God created Adam from dust, and then he created Eve from Adam’s ribs, and then Adam and Eve created mankind?“
„I believe God, being all smart, gave Adam an extra rib from the beginning, so that when he took one to create Eve they’d still have the same amount of ribs.“
(I swear to God that’s what she said. And I swear to God that what happened next really, really happened:)
I look into her face. I try to find something, anything, that tells me this was not easy for her to say. Nothing. She’s dead serious. And then, from the corner of my eye, I see someone in an ape costume enter the dance floor. He grabs the microphone, turns around and shouts: ARE YOU READY TO MEET JESUS?!
Back on the street I reach for my phone. I have no idea what time it is. It rings a couple times, then she finally answers the call.
„Anna, DO YOU BELIEVE IN EVOLUTION?“