The road to James' family farm in rural North Florida-- this is what James thought all of America was like.
[Fr. James' note: He's baaaaaaaaaaaack!]
When I moved from Kenya to Florida as an eighteen-year-old in 1999, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. After all, we had come back to the States for three furloughs in the past fifteen years. I had even attended public school!
But the culture of Stetson University was yet another world away from the dirt roads of Grandaddy’s farm and the country schools of rural North Florida. Most of the Americans I now met found my background as a rural Floridian every bit as foreign as my background as a rural African. I was an outsider in almost every way.
When I told people that I was from Kenya, they would usually ask, “That’s in Ohio, isn’t it?” If they knew it was a country in East Africa, they would then express surprise that I wasn’t black. Other freshmen could say, “I’m from Orlando” and that would be that. I’d have to explain where Africa was and what missionaries were and why I didn’t carry a spear.
It could take a good ten minutes of explanation before people understood even at a very superficial level who I was. The one place where such a lengthy introduction wasn’t necessary was in the Evangelical Protestant subculture. Many of the folks in groups like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at least knew what a missionary was, and many even had friends who were MKs (missionary kids). In InterVarsity I could show up and be, if not normal, at least within my peers’ understanding of the world.
But groups like InterVarsity were apt to hero-worship missionaries. Their worldview had a place for me, which was nice, but that place was on a pedestal, which was not nice at all. I was a bitter teenager drowning in a foreign environment—not a mighty and faithful preacher of the Gospel to all nations. I wasn’t even sure I believed in the Gospel.
The Africa Inland Church has no presence in Florida, and so I had no local congregation to identify with. For the first six weeks of college I attended churches each Sunday—there were a variety within walking distance—but had little to no interaction with members of the congregations. Sometimes somebody would say hello, but usually not.
One Sunday I woke up late and instead of going to church I sat in a vacant lot, read Scripture and sang a few songs. The only difference between this, I felt, and ordinary church attendance is that in the vacant lot at least it wasn’t awkward for me to not interact with anyone, since there wasn’t anyone around anyhow. And I didn’t go to church again after that—I could do just as good on my own, so why bother?
Now that my egocentric understanding of God had been underscored by an egocentric understanding of Church and worship, there was very little connecting me to the faith of my childhood. I was relying on myself for any connection to God, and so it was a short step to take God out of the equation entirely. By the end of my first semester of college, this functional atheism had established itself as professed agnosticism. And it was soon to become not simply indifference but outright hostility towards missions and Christianity.
James (on the right) and a friend in front of their dorm at Stetson University. As you can see from James' hairstyle, he traded in his acting career for one as the lead singer in a heavy metal band.