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  • Johnny Carrol Sain

The Road to Damascus: the whore's testimony




I grew up in the Assembly of God church. AG dogma is like a blending of Baptist and Pentecostal. Some notable AG beliefs: A literal six-day creation, the rapture, speaking in tongues as demonstrated in the second chapter of the book of Acts, being “slain” or “drunk” in the spirit, and then pretty much every other solidly fundamental Christian thought. It’s a rigid system, and I shared some of those beliefs to varying degrees up to my mid-thirties.


I never believed the six-day creation story. Mom had read too many dinosaur books to me when I was very young, which fueled an early interest in biological sciences, which lead to knowledge backed by empirical evidence. I just knew too much from an early age to buy it. But I loved the allegory, and even more so as an adult for reasons I’ll write about later on.


As an adolescent, I grew increasingly skeptical of speaking in tongues or falling out (slain in the spirit) because, though, I’d done both, it wasn’t due to some mystical power. It was a desire to conform, to be among those “in the flow of the Holy Spirit.”


Through my teen years I was terrified of the rapture and the tribulation. With my general lack of faith in so many tenants of the church, I was screwed. There was no way I would make the cut. And then I was pretty sure I’d take that mark of the beast in exchange for keeping my head (guillotines played prominently in tribulation lore for reasons I’m not sure of). I’d never hear Gabriel’s trumpet anyway. How could I with the raging flood of high-octane testosterone that was finally (I was a late bloomer) coursing through my system, fueling a continuum of lustful thoughts every minute of every day — even while I was asleep? There was nowhere to run from that devil.


As an adult, I don't think I believed any of it, though, the lines between "belief" and "unbelief" are murky. I attended church in a fog of ambiguity because I thought that’s what good husbands and dads did. It is what they do in rural Arkansas, or at least it’s what’s expected.


I’m not a Christian anymore. I'm not sure I ever was, and even less sure about the definition of “Christian." But I am sure about the degree to which I've changed over the last few years. You could say I've been reborn, transformed by the renewing of my mind. When folks ask about the change, I usually offer an anecdote and call it my “Road to Damascus” moment. For those who did not grow up in church, Saul became Paul — he of New Testament fame — on the Road to Damascus, and flipped from a life of persecuting Christians to becoming one. The story is told in the book of Acts chapter 9:


And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?

And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.

And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.

~ Acts 9:3-9 King James Version


My change wasn’t nearly as dramatic, and while I’m not keen on going blind for three days, there’s been a helluva lot of occasions that a bright light bearing down and the booming actual voice of God telling me what I needed to do would have been welcome. But I never got that from Jesus or Jehovah… or Zeus or Thor or Cernunnos for that matter. The god (or whatever it is) who speaks to me now does so in a still, small voice, though, sometimes with a power that leaves me quaking in a puddle of awe and humility. And it (he/she?) has orchestrated subtle changes in my thinking punctuated by a few life-altering moments. It’s like how a creek changes course over the years — slight shifts, mostly, as seasonal volumes ebb and grow the waters nibble away at the banks. Then a deluge, a flood happens unexpectedly.


And, suddenly, the creek channel isn’t where it used to be.


I’ll share more about this transformation — which has actually made me feel more “Jesusy” than I ever did as a churchgoer — on the blog from time to time under the “Road to Damascus” title with another subtitle. But don’t look for the supernatural in the stories. Instead, look for something more human than any deity could ever understand.


Ironically, the particularly poignant moment — the closest thing to Paul’s “Road to Damascus” moment that I’ve experienced — in this first installment of RTD happened in a church. It was during the summer I was splitting time between home and St. Louis for a job in recycling. It was crappy company ran by a crappy character, but it was a good idea and I met some good people. I was a Christian at the time (I think) and fell in with the one Christian I worked with. He, of course, invited me to his church.


Wednesday night service in an inner-city St. Louis church was an alien setting to this country boy who, at the time, attended a church that required crossing two one-lane bridges and sat literally where the pavement turned to dirt. Everyone in my home church was white. Almost no one in the St Louis church was white. But there were similarities. For starters, people in both churches were poor to varying degrees. Also, we all had our demons to battle and our blessings to count.


The pastor had asked us to gather in small groups to discuss a topic, and the topic that night was gratitude. In most church circles, this is called offering testimony, as in testimony to God’s power in your life. I heard the usual gratitude lineup -- health, finances, spouses, kids, patience. But then this young black woman with outrageously long fingernails took her turn. She wore tight-fitting clothes and had big hair, and also a warmth about her. I don’t know what I believe regarding auras, but she seemed to be backlit by an orange glow. She mentioned her thanks to God for her kids and health, too. And then she said some words that forever changed my heart about god and humanity and privilege and gratitude. Time has faded my memory a bit so this isn't an exact quote, but to the best of my recollection she said:


"And I want to thank God that I didn't have to turn any tricks this last year to feed my babies."


Her words nearly knocked me down. I remember feeling light headed, and I could not focus my vision. The orange glow was all I could see. Reality seemed to falter as waves of emotion rocked over me.


A light. Nearly knocked down. Not a voice, but waves of emotion. Sound sort of familiar?


When I regained composure, the woman was still speaking but for how long I don’t know. During that mental blackout (orangeout?), I thought about the absolute desperation this woman must have felt. I thought about her sincerity in sharing this, probably the darkest and most humiliating portion of her life. I thought about her faith and the tremendous personal strength that must have carried her through a time of poverty that may have ended in suicide for many. I thought about how many back home would label her a whore (she was, of course, no different than labeling me a writer) and end it at that, blaming her decisions. I thought about her definition of god and my definition of god, and how my place of privilege -- and this was fresh on the heels of a bankruptcy, losing all of our money, land, investments, what I thought was my life -- provided my definition of god. I remember praying to my god that I could keep my 55-acre farm and cursing him when I could not.


This woman thanked her god that she didn't have to sell her body and soul to feed her kids.


I needed to reevaluate my god.

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