photos by Dakota Fine
Gina Welch is an atheist Jew from Berkeley, California who spent 5 years undercover as an Evangelical Christian at Jerry Falwell’s Church, Thomas Road Baptist. Gina’s editor expected an exposé on what really goes on inside the (non) smoke filled baptist ministry rooms. Instead, Gina found herself writing about the real people of the Evangelical movement and after learning how to speak the language of the reborn, how not unlike herself they proved to be.
The psychological stress of leading a double life took it’s toll on Gina as she found herself isolated. While her secular friends couldn’t relate to her intensely emotional experiences at Thomas Roads, Gina found her increasingly important friendships within the Church and her undercover identity harder to maintain.
Join us as we talk to Gina Welch about her new book, In The Land Of Believers, chronicling her years undercover as an Evangelical Christian.
BYT: Did you set out to write a memoir?
Gina Welch: When I originally set out to write the book one of my models was a book called Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. She spent seven years in the Bronx, kind of embedded with this working class Latino family. And even though she’s not on the page you can tell that she’s had this really intimate relationship with people and that’s why she gets all these great stories from them. So initially my goal was to write something that didn’t have me that wasn’t about me. But I think because of my background, because my background is diametrically opposed to most of the people at churches it was necessary to talk about who I was, where I was from, what my perspective was and how it was changing over the course of researching the book. And it became sort of a memoir too because I had to talk about my narrative arc.
How did you become interested in the Evangelical movement?
I moved to Virginia for graduate school, and I had never been around evangelicals before. There are a lot of evangelical Christians in Virginia and my boyfriend had grown up Southern Baptist. His parents weren’t like Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, but I was aware of the fact that they were uncomfortable about he and I living together. SO that was certainly one of the experiences that got me thinking about like okay what are my prejudices of evangelicals and are they founded on anything real or are they just based on things like that movie Saved with Mandy Moore.
I think that really attracted me about writing about evangelical Christians was that there was this un-confronted ignorance in me. it was something that I knew nothing about. When I grew up, I thought I was born an atheist. The way some people are born Italian. Whenever I would ask my mother or father about religion, they sort of told me, when you die you’re dead, the world is a complicated enough to worry about without some big white dude in the sky. So I just didn’t know anything about Christians.
After the re-election of George W Bush, there were so many stories about evangelical Christians and how they were becoming this incredibly salient political force and this is after the political heyday of the moral majority.
Did you know people who went to Liberty?
Yeah and they lived in Charlottesville and one of them was a graphic designer, one was a waiter.
Did they tell you stories from college?
No, it’s a little awkward. You don’t want to seem like your prying. But part of it is that I didn’t know how to ask questions in a way that wasn’t. I was just so ignorant about it. I was worried that I would sound like I was attacking them. Charlottesville is actually a lot like Berkley. It is a really progressive town. It’s a university town so there’s a lot of bookstores there. And it was so strange to me that there was this Jerry Falwell, sort of center of his universe was an hour and a half south. So I was really intrigued by Lynchburg. And the haunted house of all haunted houses that Liberty University puts on for the students, Scare Mare, was super intriguing to me.
Oh My God, I’ve been dying to go to Scare Mare! Did you go?
Yeah. Yeah. That was actually the first thing that I went to to try to infiltrate the world of Evangelical Christians. I went alone.
How did you prepare yourself to immerse yourself in this world?
I didn’t. Part of the conception of the book was that I would go in as a blank slate. Which of course, is not accurate because I actually had a firm sense of who I was. But part of the idea was that I would go in to Scare Mare and absorb Christianity as they wanted to package it. So I went alone because I thought, at the end of this night I would have new Christian buddies. There are other hell houses that dramatize abortions and like people taking ecstasy. And at the end, you see those sort of people suffering in Hell. So Scare Mare is meant to be more universally appealing so it doesn’t have those heavy handed messages.
So what was your next step after going to Scare Mare?
I started going to this class called Connections, it was like this introductory class with the church. Where they talk to you about what the church believes, how their church is different from others. The entire time I was taking this class I kept thinking that something, something’s missing. Something hasn’t quite been hashed out. And it was that I never, I’ve never become a chrsitian.
Because you were never been re-born. So you missed the seduction of them trying to convert you, that’s what you were missing?
I thought I was missing some sort of door way into church. And I thought, “Oh I’ll go to an event. Oh that doesn’t work. Okay I’ll enroll in this class” And I think what I was missing was that the conversion happens before all of that.
I just didn’t know what anyone was talking about. I think there’s a geographical difference. There’s an educational difference. The pastor who was leading this class, I told him I went to Yale and he became obsessed with it. One day when he was praying he said, “Thank you God for bringing so many new interesting people to me whether they be Yale grads or CIA agents.” And I was like duly noted. He didn’t trust me. And I think part of it was that I spoke in this completely different way.
Can you give us an example?
For example, my mother came to visit the church and my mother is a lot like me. And I took her to my singles class that was led by this young pastor. Before he started his lesson for the day he was talking about something he wanted people to pray for him about. He wanted people to pray for his wife’s son’s father, to get him to let the pastor adopt his wife’s son. And he was saying, “I want your prayers to get this guy to sign the papers so I can adopt his son.” And my mother came up to him after the class and said, “I hope that things work out for you with the adoption.” And he said, “Well its whatever God wants.” So it was like this fundamental, they pouch hopes in different ways. Where I might say, “I want to do this or I do hope to do that” they would say, “if God wants this to happen, let it happen”.
That is the essence of fundamentalism isn’t it? That definition of reason is basically just want God wants.
There’s just lots of different ways to look at it. So they would say that my desires would take a backseat to God’s desires. As somebody who doesn’t believe in God, I wonder where that voice comes from that is telling you what to do. And I think for a lot of Christians it’s conscience. Some people who are more cynical than I am might believe that Christians manipulate the voice of God to align with what they want for themselves. That is a really fundamental difference in terms of how you express yourself. There’s lots of stuff like that. “God put it on my heart to do this” instead of “I wanted to do this”.
You weren’t really feeling like you were on the same page with everyone at Connections, how did you ingratiate yourself into the church?
Well I had find a different doorway. The church moved locations so it was originally at the same building since Jerry Falwell had opened the church in 1950. When the church moved into the new building, it was a mega church. Which was a huge complex, with a huge 6,000 seat sanctuary. Giant stage, 300 person choir and big lights overhead. When the previous church had been a sweet dollhouse church. It was a 3,000 seat sanctuary that felt more intimate. So I went to the first day that they opened the new church. And the service that day was so moving. It was about the history of the church, it was about the Falwell family, it was about the relationships between the church members, it was about resilience and hope. It wasn’t about politics. Every sermon I had gone to up until that point had a political message. Jerry Falwell never preached a sermon without a political message. He always tied it back to his view of the world. And his political view of the world, which I didn‘t agree with. I didn’t agree with him on anything. So I think the fact that I was there on this day where the emphasis wasn’t on politics, but on relationships. Really just changed my ability to receive what was going on around me.
Church was full, people were crying, the music that day was really powerful. To hear a 300 person choir in-person was intoxicating. So that day I felt something happening to me that day and that was the day I was going to have to come forward. Because I was feeling something, and felt I could connect with a church member over that feelings so I decided to respond to the call for people to dedicate themselves to the Church at the end of the service.
As I’m walking down the aisle I’m thinking, “Do I believe in God?” And I didn’t! I had this eerie connected-ness to everyone around me and this feeling of limitless jubilation. I just felt like really elevated like I was experiencing a high but I couldn’t connect that to any sense of God. I just connected that to a sense of community around me. That was the day that I came forward to get saved.
What happens when you rededicate yourself to the church and how did you navigate that important ritual?
Aligning this hallway are salvation guides and they are standing there with the Bible waiting to pair up with people who are coming down to get saved. I saw that as soon as I entered this hallway I wondered if I should be strategic about who I should choose but by then it was already too late and there was a woman with me. and she took me into this chapel, a new chapel that still smelled like paint. She’s asking me why I was coming there and there was some confusion again because I just didn’t know the language Christians used to talk about their faith and feelings. I didn’t know what somebody says when they come forward to get saved.
Finally she realized what I was coming there for and she was ecstatic. It was like she knew me. And I think the feeling was probably from her, I mean she had an authentic sense that she was face to face with somebody who was going to go to hell, who then had made a decision to not go to hell and to also become a member of her family. So, she led me through the sinner’s prayer, she asked God to flush the inner of my heart, and that was it. And they let us all back out in front of the church, and I was standing in front of this 6,000 seat sanctuary and everyone sort of looking at your approvingly and I thought I was going to faint. And Jerry Falwell was right there, reading all the names, and he read my name. And that was it.
I can only imagine that sense of elevation you would get surrounded by thousands of fervent believers set to intense music. Seems like it was overpowering and intoxicating to be in that environment.
Music is really powerful. I had a professor in graduate school, who said lets face it if any of us carry a tune we would all be doing music instead of writing. It is this very direct way of emotionally influencing somebody. With writing you try to involve your reader you try to sort of get your reader to enter this space and twin up with these characters. You’re asking them for long moments of your time where as with music its instantaneous. And you can do it in person. It’s a very powerful medium. It really is.
Since you were going through this world alone, how did you share this intense experience with the people close to you from your secular life?
After every trip to church, I would get in my car and tell the story of what happened into my dictaphone. And remember every detail of what happened. The day I “got saved” I was driving back to Richmond, which was a long drive and it was about 100 degrees. I got outta church and was wearing this nice white button down that I took that off immediately when I was alone. I sat in the car feeling just exhausted and called my boyfriend at the time and told him about it and my feelings but wasn’t able to effectively transmit what had happened.
I wanted to tell him how he needed to understand how powerful this service was. And it was impossible for me to relay that. I just couldn’t explain what had come over me. and I think the way that I was describing it made it sound like I had a religious experience. But it wasn’t religion it was this other thing.
So what was your next step then? Baptism?
I had to be baptized, in order to join the church you have to get baptized. After my baptism the Church assigns you a pastor who helps you find a place in the church. He suggested that I join the Singles Ministry. So I started going to that, and that’s where I started meeting people who became my friends.
Tell me about your friends
All of my friends were women. I was very guarded about interacting with men. There aren’t a lot of male-female friendships, but I was worried that somebody was going to interpret my friendliness as a romantic invitation. And my feeling was that, I was ethically very uncomfortable with the idea.
Were you at Thomas Roads when Jerry Falwell died?
Yes. It was a huge trauma for everybody because he was old and he’d had heart trouble. There was a lot of talk at church, about how the church was going to grow after Falwell. And they had prepared for his transitions. But he dropped dead. My friends were singing “ding dong the witch is dead”.
And how did these opposing reactions make you feel?
Very confused. I thought that he had been a force of incredible damage, had worked against so many things that I believe in, in terms of reproductive rights, in terms of gay rights, in terms of freedom from religion. And yet, I had a sense of him as a person and I knew how important he was to people I cared about.
I had a sort of weird affection for him because he was really charismatic and he was really funny and watchable and I looked forward to hearing him even though some of the stuff he said made me sick. So to lose him so suddenly was a real shock and made me feel alienated from I felt my reaction was way more similar to the reaction of evangelical Christians than it was to my friends and family. So that was actually a fulcrum event for me and it made me feel really intimate with people.
So what did the church do structurally after Falwell died?
Jerry Falwell had two sons, Jonathan and Jerry Jr. the decision was that Jonathan would take over pastoral duties that he would lead the services every Sunday and that Jerry Jr. would take over chancellor of the university. And so that went into effect very quickly, but there was a lot of uncertainty about, I mean Jerry Falwell founded the church the whole network of institutions was built around his personality and his appeal. The old time Gospel hour which was his radio program and then became his television show was as successful as it was because of Jerry Falwell. The question I think for me and everybody else who was involved with the church was “can this network of organizations outlive the man who founded them?” And Jonathan Falwell preaching sermons was so different than Jerry Falwell.
Jerry Falwell was bombastic always joking. Always making fun of people. Always talking about national and international politics. He was a little bit of a bully. He made the congregation feel like if they were the bully’s side they were safe.
Jonathan Falwell’s demeanor was much quieter, he looks a lot different, he’s very thin, he has red hair, he almost looks like a Kennedy. He speaks in a whisper. The things that he preached about and still preaches about are family, personal responsibility, accountability. Being a good Christian. Taking personal responsibility for what you want your church to do
His father always reported what the Liberty Council was doing prosecuting a Christian agenda and what he was doing on the phone with the President. Like you give us money and we’ll take care of business. And that is an outdated model of evangelical Christianity. The new evangelical Christianity is about a member led church. That everybody is involved somehow, that everybody is taking personal responsibility. Which is really funny to me because that is exactly what Obama is saying! We all need to pick up our shovel and get to work.
So you were more dramatically attracted to Jerry Falwell’s church than his son Jonathan’s church, even though his son’s values reflect what you believe, or more your own values?
Well this actually became a problem for me in that while Jerry Falwell was alive I always had this wedge between me and everybody else because I fundamentally didn’t agree with Jerry Falwell. But after his son took over I was like, “well except for the whole evangelical Christian thing, I sort of am down with everything this guy is saying.” Everything he was saying about poverty and personal responsibility and all that. I think I began to get much more sort of disoriented about where I stood. Because I mostly agreed with everything they were saying.
How does this whole experience bleed into your actual life? Are you talking about these new Christian values all the time to your friends and how the Church is changing for the better?
I would talk to a couple of close friends, my mother, my step father. There was this feeling that I couldn’t communicate to anybody what was going on because I felt a lot of ambivalence about what I was doing and I felt that things weren’t as cut and dry as everybody thought they were. That’s the whole basis of the book.
Were you afraid of being rejected by your friends if you told them?
I wasn’t afraid of being rejected I think that I thought rightly that they thought I was being brainwashed. They didn’t think rightly that I was being brainwashed. I talked about it, but I felt like I was being received with a lot of skepticism.
How did that make you feel?
Really lost. I felt like when people who are close to you, insinuate that you’ve lost your bearings, it can be very confusing.
And this is all happening while you have this new community that is willing to accept you.
Yes, I felt very lost. Which made me feel like I was in jeopardy. Then suddenly what side is more seductive. I came into this book I was 25. I really thought I knew who I was and then all of a sudden I don’t really know who I am and I don’t really know what I believe it was getting blurred. So I realized why all that was happening, I was potentially in a precarious situation as far as changing my whole self. I didn’t want to. I really didn’t want to. I liked the way I lived. .
Tell me about the relationships you made within the church.
The woman that I got closest to is a lot like me. I ended up changing so much while I was there and felt so personally involved with the church because I could relate to her equally. When you meet somebody in your life, you get the way that they are patterned. They make sense to you.
She had gone to Liberty and was working in a doctor’s office, but she was unhappy. She’s super smart and witty, and we just got along and joked together. She was really self-aware.
Was self-awareness something you found rare in the Church?
No. That’s really I think one of the things that I really admire about evangelical Christians. There was this constant soul scrutiny. I don’t really think that this is true in the leadership. My book isn’t really about the leadership. I think that there’s a level of manipulation that goes on in the leadership. But I think with most of the civilian church members I met there really is an emphasis on reflection. On a turning over one’s own traces and behaviors and trying to make sure that you’re living in accordance with your principles and I liked the way she did that. She was always wondering if she was doing the right thing. She is just a good person.
One of the things my mother said when she came down and met them was that they were just normal people. I think in the book you get really full characterizations of their personalities and you learn how they talk and you learn all of that, but the biggest surprise is that they’re not foreign.
How and when did you exit the church and this life you had created?
I went on a mission trip with the Singles Ministry to Alaska. It was really an uncomfortably powerful experience both because I had to be “on” all the time. When I was going to church in Lynchburg, I lived in Charlottesville. And I could always just go home to Charlottesville. I had my other life there so I felt very safe. And then suddenly I was in Alaska, my phone wasn’t working, I wasn’t on email. And I was staying in a room with another girl. I had to be this Christian-self nonstop.
How long were you in Alaska?
11 days. That was really hard. I just felt like I didn’t have any moment to be my authentic self. It was really weird. As I said I was in a practice of both writing notes and using a Dictaphone to record my experiences. I wasn’t sleeping when I was there because I was freaked out so I was getting up really early in the morning, before anybody else got up and going to some place to be alone and just taking notes.
If this was a movie, someone would go through your stuff and find your notes and bust you for your betrayal in the middle of Alaskan wilderness.
Yeah luckily my handwriting is terrible. I wrote out of sequence. I would write on one page and then continue writing a few pages before. Every time I would read it, they couldn’t follow it. But no one was going to look at my diary. But anyway, while we were there we had to proselytizing to primarily homeless people and children.
Pretty vulnerable members of society….
Yeah I felt really conflicted about it. You know on the one hand it feels good to be taking homeless people seriously and approaching them in respectful way and talking to them about their lives. Its not a position I allow into my own life. I feel like I don’t have time for it or the energy or something like that. So I think doing that felt like a good, nutritious exercise. Like I was doing some good. But I don’t believe in heaven or hell or God.
I tried not to evangelize, I’m wanted to just hang back.
How do you evangelize someone?
You don’t want to beat around the bush, you want to go up to somebody and say, “Hi, how are you, I’m so and so from this church,” then you say “I just have a question for you if you died today, do you know where would you go?”
AHHHHHH! What did people say when you start to Evangelize them?
They usually say, “I don’t know.” And that’s an open door for you to say “well I know if I died today, I’m going to go to heaven would you like to have that perfect assurance.”
Even though I decided I wasn’t going to evangelize people I did. There was one night that I was put into a position where I had to. I was ambushed. I was called out into this hall and left with a nine year old girl. I was there and I was face to face with this little girl. I was asked to give her the sinner’s prayer. So I sat down with her and at first tried to test whether or not she knew what any of this was about. And then I realized that there was no point in that.
So having pretend to be your Christian self in the already surreal environment of Alaska, compounded with having to Evangelize a nine-year-old girl brought you to your breaking point?
That experience really made me feel like I had come to a frontier that I was uncomfortable with. That I had trespassed and that paired with the fact that I was very close to several friends. To a pastor who really trusted me and his wife did too. When I came back I felt like I physically couldn’t lie anymore. I felt like so toxic from what I had done, that I couldn’t imagine how I could keep doing it. I felt like I was rejecting some part of myself. And so that was when I started to leave.
I went a couple more times. Then I emailed the people that I was closest to and I said going to stay in Charlotesville for a while and I’ve got some personal stuff going on and I need space. And they tried to be really supportive. They send me cards, emails.
When were you able to confront your Christian friends with your true identity?
My editor gave me permission. I was having chronic nightmares. I thought I was a really rotten person. It’s like I’ve become a person where I think truth is the highest morality. That’s how I live. When I talk to my students my whole philosophy around writing is you have to tell the truth. That comes first. So I felt like a hypocrite. I had done this thing I hadn’t accounted for or apologized for.
What were the nightmares that you were having?
Most of them were about being, finding myself in Lynchburg and running away from people. Avoiding people. Not being ready to confront the truth. In all of my nightmares I was the monster. It wasn’t that they were bad, it was that I was bad and I had to get away from them. That is a terrible nightmare to have. So I went back down.
I met with the pastor from the single’s ministry and then my friend. I emailed them and the email that I got from the pastor was very suspicious. He said, “hey girl. when you left I thought you were like a CIA agent.” And Alice was like “Oh my god. You don’t have to explain to me what happened. I just really want to catch up with you.” So I was really nervous about seeing her. So as it turned out, the pastor hadn’t been suspicious of me, he was just joking. He thought that something terrible had happened to me. He had preserved the sense that I was a good person and that something had happened to me, rather than that I had done something. So, for him to learn who I actually was, it was a pretty violent shift for him.
How did you reveal the truth to them face-to-face?
I feel like I actually learned a lot from the way they proselytized in how I had to do this. I just got right to it. I was like, “I wana get this out of the way. I’m not who I said I was. I’m not Christian. I’ve never been a Christian.” And then I talked about who I actually was, that I had this idea for a book and what I did to write it. And what happened when I left. I told that whole story.
How did they react?
Hurt. Angry. Confused. Cold. At first. I think both of them felt. I mean can you imagine, somebody you felt close to and who dropped out of your life and you don’t know what happened to them.
I think there’s a reason, its no accident, this country is 1/3 evangelical Christian and of all this sort of demographics that you pull, atheists are the least likely to be voted for president, people think they would never do this. I think that people think atheists have no moral center. So I think to tell them not only did I do this thing, but I’m an atheist. I mean, what a rude shock.
But through the course of conversation the pastor and my friend, kind of pivoted, to accept and forgive me. Their attitude was “everything happens for a reason. I don’t know why it has happened, but everything happens for a reason.” And I’ve stayed in touch with them. My close female friend came to visit me in Charlottesville. We spent the day together, we went out to dinner, I ordered a glass of wine it was no big deal. We got into a discussion about evangelizing to children. And we disagreed and then we started talking about dating.
So because of the relationships you forged at Thomas Roads, this book is more like a profile of young evangelicals in a positive light?
Well there are people I’m critical of in there too. Its mostly about the sort of people who don’t make it on the news. The people who aren’t on message, the people who don’t go to these big meetings, the you and me evangelicals. So, and I think they are the 33%. They’re the ones who I think its more important to understand.
Because you have such a unique relationship between the evangelical world and the secular humanist, how would you like to see those future relations?
I think that the status quo for the last 30 years has been total insularity. I think that there’s been no conversation. I think that both the secular progressive establishment and the Evangelical world are so appalled of the points of view of the other side that the prevailing sentiment that there’s no point in talking to those people because they can’t be reasoned with.
I think that this is the attitude that both sides have: “Well you don’t believe in my God so I can’t talk to you”, “Well you believe in a crazy mythology a God who was born from a virgin so I can’t talk to you”.
I understand because I’ve lived most of my life that way, but I think what happens from it is that there are a lot of issues that there could be a collaboration that aren’t benefitting from, like poverty, like global warming, like disaster relief.
I also believe that an evolved attitude about gay rights, and about the reality of what it is to be gay, is a product of being around gay people. And I think that evangelical communities are insulated from gay people- and yes it is self-imposed. But because of this distance they believe horrible misguided things about gay people which perpetuates the insulation because if you’re gay growing up in an evangelical community, you leave and try to go somewhere you can live as a person and not feel antagonized.
But I think that part of this insularity comes about because of a whole other host of issues. A whole network of issues, part of what that does is calcifies their position. They aren’t around gay people enough to know what being gay is. So I believe that, that conversation and that exposure and the respect that comes with that could soften their position on gay rights, could change their position on gay rights. And I think that you’ve seen that with evangelical leaders. There’s a guy Richard Zizick who was the president of the American Evangelical Association, he signed some full page ad in the New York Times supporting Prop 8. and a couple of months later he went on Fresh Air.
How did this entire experience make you feel about your previous notions of Evangelical Christians?
I think, I personally, feel implicated in their ignorance as should all secular progressives. Why would Evangelical Christians want to participate in our culture if we make fun of them?
++ Pick up a copy of Gina Welch’s In The Land of Believers
+++ Check Gina out at Politics & Prose on March 13th at 1 pm