My Weekend Among the Evangelicals
a memoir/essay about white girls, Indian boys, and chewing gum
During my freshman year at Reardan High School, a evangelical Christian white girl asked me to join a weekend retreat for teenagers. Her name wasn't Melody but I'm giving her that pseudonym.
The retreat was to be held at an isolated grange hall a few miles outside of Reardan, a conservative and very Christian white farm town in Eastern Washington. I was a Spokane Indian boy student who commuted to Reardan High School from Wellpinit, my reservation home town. And I wasn’t a Christian. Not at all. I didn’t really believe in God then and I don’t now. In a freshman social studies class, I read aloud a Biblical passage and mispronounced Pontius Pilate as "Pon-tee-ess Pie-lah-tee.” The white kids laughed. One kid named Doug pronounced it correctly for me. I laughed and said, “I didn’t know. I’m not a Christian,” which is a fairly rebellious thing to publicy state in a Christian town.
And, yes, I'll reiterate that we sometimes read Biblical passages in public school classes taught by certain of our fundamentalist teachers. Was that unconstitutional? Almost certainly. But it wasn't something to be commented upon. There was nothing official or mandatory about it. No peer pressure. There was no school prayer in classrooms or during athletic events, though a guest speaker once took the podium in a full school assembly and lectured us on Christian moral values and assured us that R-rated movies, alcohol, cigarettes, condoms, birth control, and rock music were the work of the Devil. I'd guess that our more liberal teachers were silently opposed to the public religiosity. And I know that some of us students weren't happy with it, either. But we were mostly amused. After that lecture on morals, we debated about which satanic rock star was our favorite. But many other students were serious Christians and Melody was among the most publicly devout.
I want to clarify that I don't have a global opinion of Christians, then and now. In Reardan, I was close friends with Catholic, Lutheran, and Presbyterian kids without ever once attending their churches. And there was a Lutheran minister who was widely beloved. I loved him. He didn't judge anybody by their religious faith or lack thereof. During serious snow storms, when it was too dangerous for me to drive the twenty miles back to the reservation, he'd let me sleep on the couch in the church basement.
And, yes, Melody belonged to a evangelical church—one of those sects that didn’t have an official name—but there were also evangelical Indians on my reservation. Evangelicals were just people I knew. Their excesses were odd and ordinary and didn't apply to me.
But then Melody asked me to attend an evangelical retreat so her religion was suddenly…applicable
"The retreat is so fun," she said. "We get there around noon on Saturday, play games all day, like Bible quizzes, and we fast."
"Fast?" I asked.
"Yes," Melody said. "We don't eat for twenty-four hours. It's a kinda ceremony we do. Lots of Christians fast. And other religions, too. It's a spiritual thing. And, oh, every one of us kids from the church are bringing a new kid. So there will be like twenty new kids."
"So I'm supposed to be your new kid?" I asked.
"Yes, you'll be my guest," she said. "And you'll meet a bunch of new people, kids and adults. But mostly kids. And we don't sleep on Saturday night. Then we have a prayer service on Sunday morning. And then we end our fast and have a big lunch."
That didn't sound like fun to me. And it wasn't until years later that I realized the lack of food and sleep was meant to make us new kids more vulnerable to the evangelical preaching. A hungry belly equals a more hungry soul. But I had a huge crush on Melody. She was one of the smartest kids in school and liked to secretly dance. Her favorite song was "Cars," that 1979 one-hit wonder by Gary Numan. You know the song. You must remember the amazing synthesizer riff. It's a song about feeling safe until loneliness, sex, paranoia, and escapist fantasy creep into your brain.
Melody was best friends with a white girl I'll call Jenny. I was good friends with Jenny's brother, a white kid I'll call Eddie. Before I got my license and could drive to and from school, I lived part-time with Jenny, Eddie, and their single mother in Reardan. They weren't religious at all. I dearly loved them and mourned when they moved to California after our sophomore year. I wept the day they drove into the distance. It remains one of the more painful moments in my life.
Eddie and Jenny's mother worked at least 60 hours a week at a 24-hour restaurant in Spokane so we kids enjoyed plenty of freedom. Melody would sometimes come home with Jenny after school and visit for an hour or two. And they'd dance.
Eddie would usually stay in his room but I played DJ for the girls. And I made sure to play "Cars." I'd play it three or four times in a row. Melody had serious dance skills.
"You dance like people on TV," Jenny would often say to her.
When moving like that, Melody would often blush, cover her face with her hands, and laugh.
"This is a sin," she'd say. "Dancing is a sin. This music is a sin."
But she could twist her hips in a way that made me hide my face. And those hip gyrations always made Jenny laugh.
"I can't do that," she'd say as she clumsily tried to recreate Melody's moves.
It was fun and rather innocent. Nothing romantic ever happened except in my brain. But I pined for Melody. I yearned. So when she asked me to go with her to that Christian kid retreat, I said yes. Of course, I said yes. Could there be any doubt that I'd say yes?
A few hours later, Jenny told me that Melody liked me.
"I like her, too," I said.
"No," Jenny said. "She likes you likes you."
"No, I'm not. It's true."
I didn't know what to say. Melody was kind to me. But she was kind to everybody. And I'd always been the boy who fell in love with girls who didn't feel the same about me. In reservation parlance, a failed romantic was called a loser. So, yeah, I'd always been a loser with Indian girls but I was beginning to think that it might be different with white girls.
"Why aren't you going to this retreat thing?" I asked Jenny.
"Because none of those boys like me like me," Jenny said.
That next Saturday morning, my father drove me to the grange hall for the retreat. He'd grown up Catholic. I like to joke that he was the only Indian who ever went to Catholic school on purpose. But he wasn't a practicing Catholic as an adult. I don't remember him ever going to any Christian service or tribal ceremony, either. He was a secular father who'd help raise a secular son but we did bury him and my Protestant mother in a Catholic cemetery. There's no separation of Church and State on the reservation but I've always felt that separation in my soul.
"What’s this thing again?" Dad asked me as I exited the car outside the grange hall.
"Church stuff," I said.
"You're not turning white on me, are you?" he asked. And then he mentioned the name of a cousin who'd left the reservation when he turned eighteen. That cousin's name was always used as a warning against the dangers of assimilation. I just thought that cousin made his own choices, some of them good and some not.
"What time am I supposed to pick you up?" my father asked.
"After lunch tomorrow," I said. "So one o'clock, I guess."
"Okay," he said.
I watched him drive away and lost my breath for a moment. My father was a binge-drinking alcoholic nomad. Sometimes, when he drove away, he'd be gone for days or weeks. He was a kind, quiet, and haunted Indian man.
Shortly after he dropped me off, I heard Melody shout, "Sherman, you're here!"
I turned and watched her get out of her father's car and run toward me. I think she might've wanted to hug me but her father was watching. So she stopped short and offered just her hand. I shook it like we were business partners.
"Bye, Dad," she yelled back at the car. "See you tomorrow."
From the driver's seat, he studied me. I knew he worked a white-collar job in Spokane but he wore a bushy beard that was half-lumberjack. I was scared of him.
"Be good," he said and drove away. I think that order was meant for me.
When he was out of sight, Melody hugged me. Maybe a little too tightly. That's the moment when I first wondered if she liked me only because her father seemed suspicious of me. Maybe, for her, I represented something exotic and maybe even dangerous.
But I was a popular star student, star basketball player, and friend to all the cliques—from the geeky computer kids to the Black Sabbath stoners to the ranch kids who kept loaded rifles on gunracks in their trucks. The only exotic thing about me was that I was a reservation Indian boy Democrat in a town of white Christian Republicans. So, yeah, I was a rebel with a 3.79 grade point average.
But I'd also known there were a few white fathers who wanted me to win them basketball games but didn't want me to win their daughter's affections.
I once overheard one father say to another after a basketball game, "Yeah, Sherm is the best player but he shouldn't be captain of the team. He's an outsider."
"I'm so glad you're here," Melody said as she kept hugging me. She held it beyond simple friendship. It was a complicated hug. Well, that's what I imagined.
"You gotta meet everybody," she said, took my hand, hurried me into the grange hall, and quickly introduced me to a few dozen strangers. I'd expected there to be at least a few kids from Reardan but I didn't know anybody. Among all the whiteness, there were two black kids. But they mostly talked to each other. They had their sense of isolation and I had mine.
"Did you pig out before you got here?" Melody asked. "I hope you did because you're gonna get hungry. Make sure you drink enough water. That helps."
Later that night, nearing midnight, after not eating the dinner that didn’t exist, my belly was so full of water that it sloshed and made me feel like a small boat in a big ocean. I grew up poor so there were times when food was scarce. My sisters and I once subsisted on sugar cubes for a day. And there was a 22-hour period where there was absolutely no food in the house. And I once had to play a basketball game when I hadn't eaten lunch or dinner and was too embarrassed to ask for help. But I'd never truly starved. I only had a small sense of what it meant to be desperately hungry. And I'd never chosen to go without food for any reason, religious or otherwise.
So, only twelve hours into my fast, I was angry with myself for fasting—for trying to impress a girl through a religious ceremony that held no meaning for me. I could've left at any point. The doors weren't locked. But I couldn't call home because our phone had been disconnected for lack of payment. And I was creeped out by the adult chaperones because they were either stoic sentinels or verbose Bible-quoters. So I didn't want to ask any of them for a ride home. I wasn't a prisoner but I still felt like I would be asking my jailers to help me escape.
Most of all, I didn't want to disappoint Melody. I didn't want her to think I was a coward. I understood that she was Christian-missionizing me but I didn't want her to believe that I was unsaved and unsavable.
I wanted Melody to fall in love with me but I was never going to fall in love with her church. And I had no idea how to reconcile those differences. I also felt manipulated but I didn't know if she was consciously aware that she was manipulating me. And, in any case, she wasn't paying much attention to me. I sat alone in the corner for hours while she moved from kid to kid and group to group like a teenage ambassador.
I was seriously considering walking the thirty miles back to my reservation when she suddenly grabbed me by the hand and led me into a small room that appeared to be a museum of ancient tools. The wrenches looked like they were made of elk antlers.
"Did anybody see us?" she asked.
"I don't know," I said. "I didn't know where we were going."
She stepped closer to me and said, "I know you don't want to be here."
I was silent. What are you supposed to say to somebody who knows what you're too afraid to say? Melody was a sheltered Christian girl but she carried her own kind of wordly wisdom.
Then she said, "That's okay. I still like you."
I was more than a foot taller than her so it felt like she climbed me when she kissed me on the cheek. She smelled like wild flowers, well water, sweat, and contraband Juicy Fruit gum. I trembled.
"God loves you no matter what," she said and left me alone in that room.
I wanted to follow her but I was too tired and hungry to deal with any further emotional complications. So I left that tool room and found another room where they stored the folding chairs. The rug was 1970s shag and was comfortable enough for me to use as a makeshift bed.
If that exhausted Indian boy had been in a high school movie then you would've heard him softly singing Gary Numan's "Cars" as he fell asleep.
When I woke the next morning, I heard everybody shouting prayers. The morning service had begun. I wanted no part of that so I sneaked into the kitchen, found a can of peaches and can opener, and ate my blasphemous breakfast.
Later at lunch, I quickly ate so many hot dogs and potato chips that I felt nauseous. I sat with a few of the new kids who seemed ecstatic about their spiritual experiences. I wanted to mock them but I was also jealous. I'd never experienced that kind of ecstasy. Or any other kind of ecstasy. I'd never felt like I fit anywhere. And I'd never felt the joy of being so easily accepted and immediately loved by kind strangers. I understood that it was all kinds of cultish. I'd read a book about Jim Jones, the leader of the Peoples Temple, and how he'd ordered his followers into mass suicide and murder. I knew that Melody wasn't part of a cult or suicide religion but I remained suspicious of them even as some part of me wanted to join their community.
I wanted to be loved. I wanted to be adored.
After lunch, I sat on the front porch as people said their goodbyes. Some of them said goodbye to me. Some of them just smiled and waved. Most ignored me.
After almost everybody was gone, Melody came outside and sat beside me. She'd been helping other women and girls clean the grange hall.
"Is your Dad picking you up?" she asked.
"Yeah," I said.
"Mine is, too," she said.
We sat in silence for a while and then she said, "I'm happy you were here."
"I'm happy, too," I said.
"No, you're not," she said, smiled, and walked back inside to help finish the cleaning.
A few minutes later, her father drove up. He got out of his car and sat beside me in the same place where his daughter had just been.
"How was it?" he asked.
I decided to be honest.
"It's not for me," I said.
"Yeah," he said. "You hear the call or you don't."
Again, if that Indian boy had been in a high school movie, he would've made a joke about his family's disconnected phone line.
But I didn't say anything to that intimidating man.
"Listen, Sherm," he said. "I know you're a great kid. I know you're going places. But this thing between you and Melody isn't going any farther."
"She talks about you,” he said. "She likes you. But she’s gonna marry somebody inside the faith."
I didn't want to marry Melody. We were kids. I just wanted to slow dance with her at the harvest ball and kiss her good night in a moonlit wheatfield. But there was no world where an Indian boy like me was ever going to kiss a white girl like Melody.
"I hope you understand, Sherm," her father said.
Of course, I understood the tacit and implict meaning of his words. We stood and shook hands. Then Melody came running out and hugged her Dad.
"Bye, see you at school " she said to me.
Then they were gone. I don't think Melody and I ever had another conversation after that weekend. I never saw her dance again. We greeted each other in the hallways. She was always kind. But that was it. And then, one day, she was absent from school and I learned that she and her family had moved to Florida.
I wonder about her life. Did she marry somebody inside their church? Or did she abandon her faith? Does she still dance even though she thinks it's a sin? It’s been forty years since I last saw her. Does she remember me?
As I was writing this essay, I told my Hidatsa Indian wife, a mainsteam Christian, about my day and night among the evangelicals. After twenty-nine years of marriage, there are still stories that we haven't shared with each other. When I told her about the fasting and lack of sleep, she shook her head. When I told her about Melody's dancing, she smiled. When I told her about sleeping among the folding chairs, she laughed and said. "You have lived an epic life."
And, yeah, I know that my life has played like an Indian version of a Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story, but I’ve always felt small and afraid.
After my hungry night at the grange hall, after everybody had left except me, I sat on the front porch and hoped that my kind, shy, haunted, binge-drinking alcoholic father was going to show up. I prayed. Yes, I prayed. And when I saw his car traveling down the two-lane highway toward me, I thanked God.