I go to a former Christian college. The town and college were founded at the same time by missionaries in order to create a “Christian utopia.” It’s kind of a footnote in the history of Oberlin when considering what it looks like now. I’m surrounded by people who are careful with their words and are always trying to walk around saying that Oberlin isn’t that religious since religion means different things for different people.
I don’t give a fuck. I don’t think Oberlin is that religious. Period. Especially considering what it used to be, and especially considering my background and how a lot of my friends of varying faiths go to more religious schools, Christian or not. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, it’s really OK. But what interests me as a religiously-raised person is how people talk about religion at a place where people aren’t religious.
It’s academic for sure. I was a religion major for a minute, I figured it would be a great way to understand how people work, by looking at rituals and theories about faith. It was rough. I took two classes on Christianity that I absolutely hated. Mainly because of the students. In both classes I would be surrounded by mostly white, mostly Jewish students who may have been atheists or who just were raised with “parents who taught them to respect all faiths” (“multiculturalism” rearing its ugly head yet again) and just “didn’t understand why people would pray.” These were students who equated “evangelical” with Sarah Palin or their “crazy Grandpa” that they would only see during holidays. I would sit there in class feeling numb, because the conversations (or lack of actual conversations) I was having about religion were not the ones I wanted to have. They made me feel like a freak, and I wasn’t even a Christian anymore.
I may not ever want to be a Christian. Who knows, time will tell. I think it’s funny because the type of Christian I was raised to be is incompatible with Oberlin’s ethos, at this point in time anyway. Oberlin students aren’t about “saving people.” None of that “white savior complex, hierarchical imperialistic save the sinners bs.” I feel that. What has history shown in regards to missionaries coming in to developing nations and “saving” people? But then I laugh because I think Obies try to save people all of the time, they just don’t like using the word “save.” And if you don’t use the word, then you can’t be doing the actions that the word connotes, right? I’ve done so many service trips where after a group of us college students fix the house or watch the kids or test the soil, the people we help express such immense gratitude that we showed up because no one was going to help them. And we blush and hem and haw because in our minds we’re having a breakdown since we don’t want to be seen as saviors. And I laugh secretly because I could be doing the exact same trip with a different group of people with a more religious tone and the conversations might be different, but the results would still be the same (something got fixed, someone got helped, etc.)
I was able to do a religious day of service trip at Oberlin, which takes place half a year after the official Oberlin Day of Service. During the official one, which is during orientation, Oberlin promotes itself as being progressive by bragging about how the incoming first-years (who are already people who want to save the world) are taking time off from drinking and drugs and general orientation fun to “help people.” During the religious version, which is multifaith and usually much smaller, we work for a religious place of worship, do tasks for them, and then talk about the place of religion on campus and in our lives, whether we are religious or not. I enjoyed doing that because it was a nice change of pace from the usual conversations around religion I have at Oberlin that lack nuance. And even though I did the same thing I would do on any service trip, there wasn’t a cognitive dissonance moment of “I didn’t save you, don’t thank me, but I can’t tell you not to thank me because that’s taking away your agency…” that I’ve seen a lot of.
I don’t think that I want to save anyone. So that stops me from being a good Christian in some spheres. But I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing service trips or talking about the importance of religion in multifaith groups. I guess that stops me from being a good Obie. I always say that I want to help people like me, gay Black boys who got fucked over by religion and society at large, but maybe I’m not the one to help them. I have more success helping cis white men (queer or not) realize that they’re stupid than helping any gay Black men feel pride in themselves, at least so far. I don’t think I want to spend the rest of my life doing that either. Sometimes I wonder if Oberlin has made me not want to “save” anyone, besides myself. Honestly, I’m fine with that. Maybe my work will make a positive difference in people’s lives, even if it doesn’t save anyone. I would like that, but I won’t be too torn up about it if that’s the case.