Going to church

I went to Good News Church because Roshan implored me to.

“It’s a global community of like-minded brothers and sisters who emphasise on right doctrine and don’t preach legalism. You’ll fit in there,” he said. 

So I made my way, one humid July day, the flames of the forest burning orange in the heart of Bangalore, the petrichor emanating from the few gardens interspersing concrete jungles, and found myself in an air-conditioned room with plushy, red chairs.

On my way to the church, I expected a thriving, god-fearing community of Africans, Chinese, Americans, Japanese and British. A potpourri of culture united by faith. Belief in a just God triumphing over diversity. I entered and realised that the church was predominantly white. Southern Baptist, partisan white. Men are leaders, women are baby-making machines, deep south, Bible belt white. Republican, liberal pansy hating, death penalty supporting, country white.

I didn’t mind then because I saw them as earnest missionaries, lovers of the good fight who’d left behind Western Civilisation to bring the gospel to a Christ-starved nation that was imploding because of religious violence and punitive, draconian laws passed by a majoritarian government. I thought that these zealous crusaders were holding their little candles of hope despite the darkness closing in from all sides, threatening to engulf everyone and everything.

A young, white, razor-backed pastor gave the sermon. Despite the closeted nature of his Calvinism, which was radically different from the fire-and-brimstone I’d prepared for, something was amiss. I couldn’t pin down what it was. Did he not preach hell enough? Did he not stress the deleterious effects of sin enough? I wondered, but it was something else. Something alien that eluded my mind like a mythical sea-beast that fails to show itself to sailors seeking it out.

I signed up for a three-day retreat, and the next day, I found myself on a bus heading for a resort in Goa. On the way, I looked around and wondered where the white people were. Everyone on the bus was Indian, either hyping up Good News Church or talking about the Mayweather Pacquiao fight happening in another part of the world. I tried my best not to listen in because a part of me wondered whether a sport like boxing was Christian, but I caved in.

“Who was winning?” I asked Tom, a young man from Nagaland who was training to be a pastor.

“Pacquiao was when I was watching it, but Mayweather started dominating was what I heard,” he replied. “Are you planning on becoming a member of Good News?”

“I’m considering it.”

“We’re a young Church, but we strive for gospel authenticity. We hope we can extend our ministry to other parts of India.”

“Will you become a pastor of one of those other churches, then?”

“No. I will serve in some capacity. But all our pastors come from the US.”

“I don’t see them on the bus. Are they coming on another bus after a while?”

“No. They are flying.”

It should have dawned on me at that very moment, but I was in my early twenties, and naïveté shone like a golden halo on my head. I figured that the warriors of the faith had busy schedules and hence had to take the plane. Why don’t they mix more with their flock? I still wondered, despite a cacophony of thoughts like missiles bombarding my mind and rebuking me for my cynicism.

We reached hot, sticky Goa in the early hours of the morning. As we wandered through the winding roads, doubt inundated my mind. I wondered whether becoming a church member and faithfully attending services every Sunday was my thing. I then questioned my salvation, and fear gripped me. I wanted to throw myself into the debauchery that is Goa. Smoke cigarettes and fuel my system with booze. Meet good-looking girls who weren’t scrupulous or inhibited and figure things out. But another part of my mind despised me for being so depraved, and the struggle continued until we reached the resort.

It was on the beach, and entering the sweltering heat of Goa, I wondered if I’d done the right thing by signing up for the retreat. I looked at the cerulean waves eating up the shore and felt something antithetical to their ardour: a deep lassitude that made my eyes bloodshot and my knees weak. I wanted to give up, become nothing, and drift away to some obsidian oblivion where life’s anguish and the impending dread of death didn’t matter.

They assigned us our rooms, and at first, they gave me lodging with the young pastor who had preached the previous day but then changed it to some North Indian who was very Pentecostal in his views.

“Who’s rooming with John, the pastor?” I asked my new roommate.

“Oh. It’s Bill, the other pastor. He’s from Texas.”

Two sermons and a few activities took up the first day. The sermons concentrated on the struggle with sin, and though I understood every word, a part of me wanted to be anyplace but there in the assembly room.

There was something strange about everything. Folk mingled with each other and laughed and joked, but I felt alone. To be honest, I’ve never felt comfortable in a church. We claim that it’s a place where sinners seek God, but all churches have their politics and hierarchies. They aren’t very different from schools or colleges with their cliques and notions of who’s popular and who isn’t.

John sought me ought. He seemed very concerned about when I got saved, which I found weird.

“Did you experience salvation yesterday when you attended our service?”

“No. I don’t know when God saved me.”

“In India, every person I talk to says that they’ve seen an angel. It’s ludicrous! They watch some televangelist who claims to have had an extraordinary experience and believe God owes them the same. That televangelist is busy making money, and these people are foolish enough to believe him.”

“I’ve never seen an angel. In fact, I don’t even know if I’m saved. I write vulgar poetry, smoke a few cigarettes, and read books that are pornographic.”

“None of that matters. A Christian can watch R-Rated movies, write all the laments he wants and smoke to the glory of God like Spurgeon did.”

I wondered if he was preaching antinomianism, but I refrained because I believed he knew better. I now despise myself for looking at a crater and believing it to be a verdant valley.

But even the free-spiritedness of the minister didn’t bother me too much. There was something else. It was in the way the Indians practically bowed down to these foreigners. They seemed to have sacrificed everything Indian and adapted to the practices of these white folk, even though they were still in India.

“I get stomach cramps often,” Tom, the Mayweather Pacquiao analyst, said.

“Why? What do you eat?”

“That’s the problem. It’s these burgers that the pastors love eating. I eat them, and they affect my stomach.”

“Don’t eat them then!”

“No. They insist on eating burgers when we’re in Bangalore. And I agree.”

I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t have the time because my roommate, Arun, had come up to me.

“I went swimming with pastor Bill. He took me deep into the sea. It’s so different from swimming in his apartment complex with its heated pool,” he said.

“His apartment complex has a heated pool?”

“Yes. It has all kinds of amenities. We don’t go there often, but the pastors and their wives get together every week and party and drink. You should shower, by the way. I noticed you haven’t since morning. It’s healthy.”

I stood transfixed, unable to say anything. If the comment about the pastors partying and drinking had left me slightly unnerved, the one about my personal hygiene had left me disoriented. I walked away and headed straight to the bathroom, where I washed. I applied soap three times, wondering if I smelled. Did John refuse to room with me because I reeked?

That night, Arun talked about Pentecostalism and how pastor Bill was the man I needed to speak to regarding salvation because he was open to different doctrines and loved discussion.

They asked us to eat with people in our neighbourhoods the following evening. Finding no one who lived where I did, I approached Arun’s table. Tom and pastor Bill were with him, and they were in deep conversation.

“Can I join you?” I asked.

“Listen, if you don’t live here, you can’t join us!” Bill barked. “Sit somewhere else!”

“I don’t know where to go. There’s nobody from my neighbourhood here.”

“That’s not my problem! They must be in that restaurant on the beach. Walk and find them!”

I wondered what I had said that had provoked such an angry outburst. Was it the way I looked? Thin, scrawny and docile? Was it because I smelled? I had scrubbed myself. Washed three times with soap! I walked back to my room, trembling.

That night, Arun came to my room and said he’d added me to the church’s WhatsApp group. He didn’t mention Bill’s outburst, and though I yearned to ask him about it, I kept silent.

We returned home the next night, and it surprised me to find Bill on the bus.

“He’s getting off on the outskirts of Bangalore. He needs to meet a friend there,” Tom said.

I noticed he was carrying two large plastic bags. As we rode home, I felt more ostracised and regretted coming on the trip. I had quixotically thought I’d find a home here, and though a voice within whispered: “There’s no such thing as a perfect church,” I felt compelled to ignore it.

Midway through our trip, I looked through the church’s WhatsApp group. One particular conversation made me nervous.

Sahil: The recent earthquake in Shimla happened because of God’s wrath. None of this will stop until the second coming.

Bill: Sahil, whoever you are, you know nothing about God’s wrath. Don’t attribute things to his wrath and develop ‘ingenious’ ways of explaining quotidian events.

The pastor seemed like a cantankerous, rancorous man! What was wrong with him? I wondered, but my thoughts hushed me by urging me not to question the church’s elders.

I put my phone in my pocket. The police had stopped us. They entered the bus and whispered something to the driver. Pastor Bill looked around nervously and then handed his plastic bags to Arun. Arun became agitated and gave me the bags with a bill. I looked inside the bags and found bottles of alcohol.

“Why are you giving this to me?”

“Just keep it with you with the receipt.”

“But I didn’t buy this.”

“It doesn’t matter. Just keep it.”

I started trembling, not knowing where to stash the bags. Pastor Bill and Arun were looking straight ahead, and Tom was trying not to look in my direction.

Fortunately, the police left us in peace, and Arun yanked the bags out of my hand and gently gave them to Bill, who took them.

In the years since I’ve loathed myself for being so impressionable. Christians are just as bad as the rest, if not worse. I finally understood what was wrong with Good News Church. It was racism. Americans who couldn’t cut it in their country, making their way across the sea and treating Indians as second-class citizens in their own country. Texans or preachers from Arkansas expecting the brown man who lived in squalid houses on potholed streets riddled with urine and dog shit to bend the knee. What was more tragic were the brown Uncle Toms who did.

Many colonisers come with their notions of culture, independence and truth and make the brown dog eat the crumbs that fall from their tables. They might wear a kurta and post an Instagram picture, saying they’re adapting to a new culture. Still, there’s always that scorn for the Indian. The feeble-minded Indian who needs to take the bus while they fly. The mindless Indian who must eat what they eat. The ‘spiritual experience seeking’ Indian who listens to fraudulent televangelists who ironically are from the same Bible belt. The ignorant Indian who doesn’t know his theology and comes up with asinine explanations for everything. The gullible Indian who must take the blame for their sins.

Last I heard, Good News Church closed for a while because the founders hadn’t declared to the government that they were running a church. They had insisted that it was a business until some investigation caught them red-handed. The authorities deported them.

I don’t know what I believe in today. Within me, there’s a need for people to know that I exist, that I’m also a person with his idiosyncrasies, faults, and bouts of madness. That is why I write. I just want people to hear what I have to say. Not everybody will like it, but at least my writing tells you I have a voice, and I want it to echo in the darkness. I also write because I’m lonely, burdened with an oversensitive conscience, and unable to delight in the pink twilight’s cadence at dusk. I can describe it, even lyrically, but I’ve lost the capacity to feel beauty.

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