I read a news item in the newspaper the other day about a severed penis discovered in one of those self-serve car-washes that you'll find around the state. Seems some guy noticed the thing while washing his car and reported it to the police, who treated it as some sort of Lorena Bobbitt/murder case. As it turns out, medical examinations later determined the "penis" really to be a cow's teat. So what was once a murder case is now a "cow mutilation case." I hadn't realized such cases existed.

Cripes, I thought. I need to get out of this state.

My sister went to the same university that I did for the same reason that I did. Which is to say, neither of us was sufficiently motivated, during our senior years in high school, to be aggressive about applying to bigger and better universities around the country. Both of us got some scholarships for the state school, and applications for the place aren't exactly difficult to fill out, so it's where we both ended up. I've finished my first degree there; she has just begun hers.

She came home for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday to bake some cookies for her friends back at school. She bought bag after bag of sugar, eggs, and other stuff you use for cookies, and for three days straight, she spent most of her time in the kitchen, talking with our parents, our siblings, etc. It was one of her more benevolent visits; ever since she emancipated herself from the family (in order to become eligible for federal grant money), things are often tense when she's home.

The last day she was home, she gave me a ride to work, since we share the car when she's home. For some reason, she chose to tell me her news during the five minutes it takes to get to work. Maybe that was so that I couldn't argue the point with her.

"You know, it's weird," she said as we turned the second corner.

"What's weird?" I asked.

"Well, I was just talking to Dan last night about how it's weird, because he's just stopped going to church, and now, I'm going to church."

Dan was a co-worker of mine who was a fast friend of my sister's. I didn't know him as well. I didn't figure he was the church-going type, so it didn't surprise me to hear that he had stopped going. That my sister was going, however, was news.

We had almost arrived at work. "Why are you going to church?" I asked, in that not-so-subtle "critical query" technique I've mastered.

"It's not like a Catholic church or anything," she said. We had both been raised Catholic. "It's like a 'Church of Christ' or something. It's Ryan's church." Ryan was a friend from school. We had arrived at work.

"Dad thought it was interesting," she added. I sat for a moment, before getting out. I didn't know what to say.

"Well," I said finally, "a dog by any other name is still a dog," and I got out of the car.

I didn't know quite what to make of it. My sister, going to church? An evangelical one, at that? Religious fanaticism was like a joke in our family, organized religion was a kind of "necessary evil," dogmatic teachings were almost completely ignored.

My mother was raised Baptist, my father, Catholic. They got married, and they promptly converted to Mormonism. A couple of years of that, and my parents bucked at the brainswashing techniques that church used to keep members in the church and converted back to Catholicism, where we stayed for a few years until my parents becamed disillusioned with that church as well, experimenting for a time with the Lutheran, Divine Unity, and Unitarian Universalist churches. For a while, my mother worshipped gemstones. Then we were Catholic again.

After that, being Catholic, or being religious at all for that matter, was really inconsequential to our lives. One by one, us kids rebelled and left the church behind, and our parents didn't object too much.

So, my sister, going to church? When six months previous, she had been a rebellious fat girl in an all-girl Catholic school? Exposed suddenly to a diverse, liberal environment away from home? How the heck did she get it in her head to start going to church?

A few weeks later, she called me. She sounded defensive from the get-go.

"Hey Jake," she said.

"Hi Lynn, what's up?"

"I was just wondering what you would think if I asked Mom and Dad to sponsor me for a mission trip."

"A mission trip?"

"Yeah. Me and some of my friends are going to Mexico over spring break. The only thing is I need like $250 to go. Do you think they'd be willing to help me out?"

This disturbed me greatly. Again with the critical query: "Why do you want to go to Mexico?"

"Well, it's something I've been thinking about doing for a long time. I want to go and be selfless for once."

"So, you want to go and be selfless to satisfy your own selfish desires?"

This upset her. "If you don't want to be supportive, that's fine. I was just asking if you thought Mom and Dad would help me out."

And an argument ensued. The next day, my father received an e-mail, asking for money and prayers...when my father declined, my mother received another, very similar e-mail, asking for the same things. My mother asked me to read the e-mail. It didn't sound like my sister at all.

She said she had found peace. That she was happy. That she was sorry for the pain that seeking her emancipation had caused (since seeking that emancipation essentially meant labeling her parents as abusive, even though they weren't). That, if we couldn't help her with money, would we at least keep her in our prayers.

"I pray for you every day, and I love you very much," she wrote.

This, I thought, is not my sister.

The clues are rare and hard-to-find. My sister actually has come home several times since she left for university, since it's only about an hour's drive away. Each time, my sister and I would talk about school, about how much she's loving it. I was happy for her. She told me once about Ryan.

She had met Ryan while doing laundry in her coed dorm. It was late, so there was nothing on TV. He was reading. She was inquisitive. So they got to talking.

"He's really religious," she said. "He converted just a few months ago. Before that he was on drugs and stuff. So he's really into church now."

"Sounds like a born-again," I said.


Ryan introduced her to a whole gang of Jesus freaks. She took an immediate liking to them. Whenever she came home, she would have a story about some time she was hanging out with them.

About how they were scandalized by a cast party where some of the guys got dressed in women's dresses and playfully "whipped" each other with these novelty whips (she had pictures). About how all of them seemed really into their faith and their Bible studies. I figured she probably hadn't told them that she had a gay brother yet. I'm sure she would have told me about the ensuing ruckus, if she had.

Since I had gone to the same university, I recognized the community, if not the individuals themselves. Calling them Jesus freaks really isn't accurate. It's more of a Jesus chic, where, for a strange new generation, it's cool suddenly to be Christian. A whole community thrives around the influx of rebellious teenagers and foreign students. They come, they befriend you with a saccharine kindness, they listen to you, they appeal to the post-modernism you've inherited from your parents; after a while, they invite you to come with them to Sunday service, or Wednesday Bible study; and then you're one of them, too, befriending lost and confused students and bringing them to God.

In fact, I had been targeted by the same community, once. The Jesus chic clique in the School of Music invited me over to watch movies, to hang out. Until I had a conversation with a few of them.

"It's not that I don't believe in God," I had told them. "I mean, not necessarily. It's just that I feel like, even if there was a God, it would be my path to stay away from Him, like it's my fate to only know that love from afar. Like it's not my kind of peace." They didn't invite me out as much after that. Which is a shame, because I really did like hanging out with them. Jesus freaks are some of the friendliest, most sincere people I've ever known. It's a shame about the whole Christian thing.

So I watch, now, as my sister is swept into the arms of the community willingly. I try to get past the propaganda, and it's no use. She's willing to view me as the brother that wants to see her in pain, to keep her from whatever happiness she claims to have found.

Yet it's that pain that makes her, that makes my whole family, unique. She's throwing that away, tempted by a vision of illusory comfort. And I am powerless to stop her.

Well. So it goes, I guess.

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