I was a senior in high school when my youth group rented two charter buses to travel to an event called The Call in Washington, D.C. My youth pastor said it would be an amazing opportunity to pray for America, and we all knew that America needed prayer. I was 17, an alumna of four international missions trips and countless evangelical youth conventions, and a leader in my church’s 800-member youth ministry. Of course, I would go to The Call!
There were about 100 of us on the buses that left our church late on that Friday night years ago. We were the passionate ones who knew that giving up a weekend to pray and fast for America was worth whatever we were giving up: studying, a party with friends or lazily watching late night TV. Plus, who could resist a chance to hang out with one another, our best friends, the misfit public school kids who loved Jesus with all our hearts and never shut up about it?
There wasn’t a lot of clarity about what The Call was, exactly. We knew that during the 12-hour-long event, we would not be allowed to eat, as the purpose of the trip was to fast, pray and worship. This was the first event of many national youth gatherings that Lou Engle, a preacher I had not heard of, would host over the next 15 years. Engle is a major player in a massive ministry called the International House of Prayer. Its trademark is marathon sessions of prayer, worship, and prophecy. Billed as a sort of a youth version of Promise Keepers, The Call DC 2000 attracted 400,000 teenagers, including me, to the National Mall on a beautiful day in September.
By the time we arrived, most of the other participants had already found a place on the lawn. In videos from the event, there is a crowd of pray-ers at the front of the stage, their bodies swaying to the music, hands lifted, faces pinched with the effort of intercession. Our day wasn’t crowded, though, because we managed to find a relatively empty area in a central square of the mall. We spread blankets on the ground and took turns sharing portable camping chairs, and even though we were running late, we were ready to get this thing underway — ready to pray, ready to sing, ready to change America.
But we couldn’t hear anything.
It took only a few minutes to figure out why that section of the mall was so unpopulated compared with the areas packed with people: our Jumbotron was broken. We couldn’t see anything, and we couldn’t really hear anything, either. When Lou Engle and his friends rose to preach to us, we couldn’t make out what they were saying over the echoes of their voices. When the worship band spent hours leading us in song, they sang lyrics we didn’t know and there was no projection of the words.
The day slowly stretched itself out in front of us and passed in a weird haze of hunger and boredom. One guy, a college student who was chaperoning us, got out a pennywhistle and started taking requests. My little sister and I tried to learn to make flower chains out of the grass at our feet. A friend and I laid on a blanket under the sun and talked about our college plans and the boys we loved.
We may have been devout, but we were also teenagers with teenage attention spans and a tendency to let our minds wander. There was no way we were going to spend 12 hours in communal prayer and supplication.
We did little praying and even less worship. Every so often, our youth pastor would try to focus our attention on the event itself. Engle was saying that we were a generation of Nazirites, but his explanation for whatever that meant was lost to the noise of the crowd. Engle’s teenage son wept and prophesied over us, screaming into a microphone with eyes squeezed shut that we would be a generation that would change the world. Most of all, we were going to prevent God’s wrath striking America by being the generation that would overturn Roe v. Wade.
I thought had misheard. Of course, we were familiar with the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion and, of course, we were all vehemently pro-life, but did he just say we were going to overturn the law?
In 2000 America’s youth groups were full of weird, passionate kids who cared deeply about serving God. We didn’t date, except to “date God.” We didn’t listen to secular music or watch R-rated movies. We hated our outgoing president and were praying that our new one would be George W. Bush. Overturning a Supreme Court decision was not, however, on our list of expectations for ourselves. We viewed abortion as a great moral evil, and yet no one had suggested to us that the solution to the problem was trying to change something that had been decided the decade before most of us had been born.
Engle said that the blood of the unborn was on the hands of our nation and that God’s judgment against our vileness would be swift and horrible. We had to rise up and force the older people in our churches to support us as we brought legal challenges to shut down abortion.
The pennywhistle guy and I sat side-by-side and furrowed our brows and tilted our heads a bit, sharing each other’s confusion. “Is that really what we should be focusing on?” I asked. “That seems farfetched,” he agreed. As the day’s focus became more and more directed at the repeal of Roe v. Wade, our limited enthusiasm for the event waned.
The last two hours were just worship, and I fell asleep in the grass with my sweatshirt rolled up as a pillow.
By the time we got on the bus that night, many of us were scratching our heads and trying to figure out what we had just seen. We didn’t feel enlightened or connected to God. We felt hungry and tired and confused. I had been to so many Christian youth conventions that I spoke the language of the youth movement well, and yet I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe this event or the weird way that it had made me feel.
Hindsight allows me to piece together things that I didn’t understand at the time. I was growing out of my intensely religious phase. My brain was becoming more adept at critical thinking. I was becoming better at judging the intentions of others, including people on a stage telling me that God had given them a message to share with the world. My habit of reading countless books was teaching me empathy at the same time that I was learning to hold two conflicting ideas in my mind at the same time: Abortion makes me sad and abortion should be legal nonetheless.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but I was beginning to be resistant to the manipulative setup of 12-hour-long prayer sessions and the forced hyperspirituality that these services triggered in emotionally charged teenagers. I was starting to mistrust the spiritual leaders of my youth, thanks to enough years of watching their teachings line up poorly with the world I was experiencing. It was no wonder I was uncomfortable at The Call DC. It represented a world I was growing out of, right as I stood on the cusp of adulthood.
Last Saturday when I stepped foot on theNational Mall again, it had been more than 16 years since I last visited Washington. So much has changed. As a teenager, I had fasted in the capital; now in my 30s I marched to protest our new president. I am still a religious person, a spiritual person. I am someone who writes frequently about my Christian faith, which looks different than it did when I was a teenager but still remains a powerful force in my life.
I was too young by a month to vote for George W. Bush in 2000, but I would have said then that my faith informed my politics, and I still say the same today. My objections to President Donald Trump are rooted in my religious beliefs, although it pains me to acknowledge that his voters root their support of him in their Christian faith, as well.
The day before I marched with my daughter, my friends and hundreds of thousands of other marchers to stand up and say that Trump’s behavior is abnormal and should not be accepted, that city filled (well, not exactly filled) with those who see him as a hero. A lot of those people are, like me, churchgoing Christians.
As we walked through the city over these last few days, it has been easy to spot some marchers and inauguration-goers thanks to their respective hats and T-shirts, not to mention the marchers’ clear plastic backpacks. Still, a lot of people don't have an obvious affiliation that one can easily notice, and I've found myself wondering if the people I interact with are on “my side” or not. Are they smiling because they're nice people or because they think I was at the march or because they think I was at the inauguration? Was that person scowling because of my daughter's pussy hat? Would that person in the Trump hat hate me if she knew I was here to object to the man she voted for?
It is hard to think that I have much in common with the Christians who voted for Trump. I know that many of them made the decision they did because Trump claims to be pro-life and anti-abortion, and his vice president was one of the first people to lead a movement to defund Planned Parenthood (which he did in my home state of Indiana.) I think Trump is lying about his beliefs on abortion, and I am sure that his newfound convictions are a way of pandering to Christian voters. But more important, I still don’t think that overturning the Roe v. Wade decision or legislating ways to make it difficult to get an abortion are the routes to reduce the abortion rate.
T free birth control for all men and women in the form that is best for them, high-quality and low-cost health care for pregnant women, paid parental leave for the first year of a child’s life, free early childhood education, fewer hurdles for impoverished families to receive food and necessities for their children, a stronger public education system that's not undermined by for-profit educational systems and income equality for women. These are just some of the reasons I enthusiastically voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election. When it comes to considering abortion matters, I’d rather vote for the woman who believes the procedure should be legal but has strategies to make sure women don’t need one than vote for the man who says he hates abortion but offers no solutions to the problem of unplanned pregnancy.
I don’t understand my Christian loved ones who chose Trump, who represents everything I was taught to despise as a devout Jesus follower in high school: his ego, his crass humor, his self-indulgent personality, his habit of ridiculing his rivals, his blatant lies. As a kid on the National Mall in 2000, I would not have believed that my peers would choose a man with those characteristics.
I wonder how many people stood on that mall with me in 2000 voted for Trump. I wonder how many of them still believe that we need to protect ourselves from God’s eternal wrath by overturning Roe v. Wade. I wonder if I even have anything in common with these people and their vote that seems to contradict our shared faith so strongly.
Then again, I know people who were at that prayer event who also marched on Saturday. I'm not the only person who has changed over the years.
All during the march, I found myself reflecting on that day in high school. I thought of that 17-year-old girl on the mall with her friends. High school senior me, devout and dedicated and also full of questions and doubts. I think, What do I have in common with her? The answer is nothing. I am as far away from her as I am from the Trump voters who bewilder and confuse me. The answer is also everything: She is me, and she will be me, and she is always going to keep changing and growing.
Someday she will proudly cast her vote for a woman for president in the hope that history is going to be made and she will feel the devastation of loss when things go so wrong. But she will also sit down with her quirky, politics-loving daughter and say, “We don’t quit when we lose.” She will put her money where her mouth is by supporting organizations that do the work that a Trump presidency jeopardizes. She will support refugees and promote empathy. She will teach her students to question everything and reject the status quo.
In these first days of Trump's presidency, I don't have much patience for calls for unity or claims that deep down, we're all the same. It's hard to feel much in common with people who decided they could vote for someone who speaks of grabbing women's pussies and demonstrates zero compassion for others and targets individuals on Twitter and calls women pigs and lies about easily provable things.
I may have felt like I had everything in common with my fellow marchers in Washington this weekend and nothing in common with the people celebrating Trump’s inauguration, but I’m going to think about how much I've changed and choose to hope that everyone is capable of growth, no matter where they currently stand.