The story of Stephen and blind Christianity
I attended high school in northwest Oklahoma City in the late 90s and early 00s. The school was not especially diverse. The population was fairly large (about 2200, at the time) and mostly white, many of whom came from semi well-off families.
For every student whose first car was a hand-me-down clunker, there was one whose first whip was a brand new Camaro or Mustang or BMW. Walking around the halls of my high school, you’d see some students dressed like discount versions of the people in MTV’s Laguna Beach and some that dressed like the discount rack at Ross. All of us didn’t coexist well.
One student in particular (I’ll call him Stephen to protect his identity) stood out to me. Every student at the school was trying to fit into some group or clique. Trying to be fashionable was a big part of trying to find a lane, but the term was relative. “Fashionable” to one group was not at all fashionable to another. Over the course of time, everyone found his/her place. And among all these groups of people who dressed alike (and sometimes even looked alike) there was Stephen.
Make no mistake, Stephen had friends. He hung out with a small group of people that every other group would consider to be the nerds. But while every other person in that group dressed in a similar manner, Stephen still stood out. He didn’t care about his clothes. And it was pretty obvious that he wore them just because he had to put something on. He wasn’t out to impress anybody.
I first noticed Stephen back in middle school. I noticed that he never wore jeans. Instead, he wore black sweatpants and a tee shirt. Every. Day.
High school was no different. In fact, he wore the same black sweatpants and the same rotation of tee shirts. It was evident because the sweatpants were now quite faded. And because he had grown four or five inches taller since middle school, they came to a stop just below his calf. He would always wear long, white athletic socks that would cover the rest of his leg, and plain black sneakers that were so generic that I couldn’t even begin to tell you the brand. He had stopped cutting his hair in middle school, so now his hair ran down his back. In the winter time Stephen would sport a long, black trench coat, and, given his mysterious and reserved demeanor, made most people a bit uncomfortable in light of the Columbine High School shooting of 1999.
Outside of his small friend group, Stephen didn’t have good relationships with many people at all. I think he liked it that way. Well, at least it seemed like he liked it. He seemed to like being the embodiment of counter-everything. He wanted to be an outsider, and he wanted to be left alone. But his appearance garnered attention, mostly ridicule, which nearly lead to his suspension from school after it was discovered that he had created a hit list of students he wanted to kill.
During our senior year Stephen and I had a class together. It was a small elective class that allowed us the opportunity to have some conversations.
It would be a bit of a mischaracterization to say that I was a new Christian at the time — I’d gone to church my entire life. It would be safe to say that in high school is when I really became serious about my faith. I had become involved in several ministries at my church, and I looked for opportunities to share my faith.
Before ever having a conversation with Stephen, I knew that he claimed to be an atheist. To me Stephen seemed lost. He always seemed unhappy. He only got along with a handful of people. He needed my help. He needed God’s help. He needed me to lead him to God.
I started to look for opportunities to talk to Stephen about faith. Those opportunities came fairly often. They also came with a few bystanders in the class who enjoyed chiming in with their own thoughts.
So far, everything I’ve described about my intentions has been good. The problem was my execution.
Conversations between Stephen and I were not at all civil. They were arguments. I’d argue that there’s no way he could believe that there is no God, and he’d argue that I was a fool to believe there is. The students on the sideline to the conversation would often jump in and back me, effectively ganging up on Stephen.
I intended to help Stephen. Instead, in hindsight, I attacked him. I’d question his beliefs (or lack there of) and what lead him to think that way. I’d question why he wore those sweatpants everyday and laugh when he told me that he “didn’t like the way jeans sounded when the legs rubbed together” as he walked. I’d grill him about his alleged hit list, asking if the rumors were true. Once confirmed, I’d ask him why he ever thought having a hit list was acceptable behavior.
Needless to say by the end of the semester, Stephen was no closer to Jesus and definitely no closer to me. I had probably been added to his hit list by the end of that class. I had spent the entire semester trying to beat him over the head with the truth of the Bible as I knew it. I couldn’t understand how a person could think like him, and I gave absolutely no effort to trying to get to know him to understand why he was the way he was.
I never once considered his feelings. It never crossed my mind that he could possibly feel out-numbered. I never wondered if maybe his attire and long hair was less about a choice and more of a function of the economics of his household. I never considered his past hurts, his family dynamic, his current hobbies, his future plans. I never considered him to be an actual person.
I don’t know where Stephen is today. I don’t know where he went to college or even if he went. I’m not absolutely sure that he remembers me. If he does, he remembers me as a person who did not represent Christianity very well to him. He’d remember me as the guy who showed him little respect while constantly trying to prove him wrong. If he has memories of me, they aren’t fond.
In recent years I’ve seen an abundance of Christians acting similarly to the way I did with Stephen. It seems all to common for outspoken Christians to treat other people as less than simply because the two party’s ideas of values don’t line up. It’s as if we’ve become so blinded by our own beliefs that we neglect to see the humanity in people. People don’t need our judgement; they need our love.