God Bless America

XASS: America, thank you so much for joining me today. I’m excited to spotlight you. So let’s start with the basics. Tell us who you are and where you’re from.

America: My name is America, and I was born and raised in the great state of Indiana. I highly recommend a Midwestern upbringing. I mean, cows, corn, tornadoes— what’s not to like? As of right now, I’m a super senior majoring in economics and co-terming in computer science (very original, I know). And I’m mixed-race, but I generally don’t offer up details about it because I prefer when people just take a wild guess and run with it. I find it wildly entertaining. Psychologically speaking, I’m not sure what any of that means, but it’s probably not good.

XASS: So you’re nearing graduation. What do you see yourself doing a year or 5 years down the road?

America: I don’t know… I don’t want to graduate, but I also don’t want to NOT graduate. What I really want to do is be with Jesus, but you can’t do that without dying, and I don’t want to die either.

Seriously though, I can tell you the truth, but it’s strange for me to talk about it because people don’t usually ask me about it. The long and the short of it is that I see a life and a purpose for myself in Middle America. Growing up in Indiana was one of the greatest blessings of my life, and I’m very proud of my home state. We’re probably 5th best at everything Midwest! I just have so much affection for Indiana and the childhood I was able to have there. And hearing all this you might think, “Oh, she just really wants to move back to Indiana”. But no, I just think that growing up there shaped my ideas for the future and the desires of my heart.

I see glimpses of what God has planned for me, and I feel at peace. I’m not much of a city person, and I’m very Midwest at heart. So I don’t want to go into finance in New York or tech in Silicon Valley. In truth, I just want to build something meaningful to me in a place that means something to me. I want to set down roots somewhere out of the way and be part of a community where people hold each other accountable and love one another and serve one another. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, where you can see the stars at night and where people live out the gospel. That’s my ambition. I can work from anywhere, so why not a place like that? That’s what I think about when I think about the future.

XASS: So what are your non-academic hobbies and passions?

America: I have this habit of doing anything and everything that fascinates me. I assimilate like the Borg. And I collect practical skills. I’ll stumble on something and be completely taken with it. I’ll devote myself to it, share it, and make it a part of my life. Then, I’ll start the whole process over again.

Knitting, diving, archery, ballet, metalworking, astronomy, 3D graphics, scale modeling, orchestra, tennis, gymnastics– you name it. I joined a competition sailing team, having never even seen a boat before, so you can imagine how well that went. But I don’t really mind being bad at something when I’m trying to get better. And if I can’t figure out how to do something well, I just enjoy doing it poorly.

Walking though. Walking is my passion. I’ll wander around outside for hours and hours, perfectly aimless. I probably average 16 to 18 miles a day, just walking. 20 on a good day. Oh, and I’m an avid baker. I invent my own recipes and weigh everything down to the gram like a mad scientist. Giving out baked goods is one of my favorite ways to show affection, so I end up baking a disturbing number of cookies in the middle of the night sometimes. What else… I love watching old classic ‘60s TV shows like Get Smart or I Dream of Jeannie. I had a big crush on Don Adams when I was younger, which is probably not something I should admit to. But if something is funny or witty or even just wholesome and silly, it automatically earns a special place in my heart.

And okay, this is going to sound weird, but I also really like war atrocity books. They’re very affecting. I’m not easily moved, so when something can cut into me like that… I appreciate that. I usually see everything as funny, and in my mind everything is a little bit funny because I don’t take the world (or myself) too seriously. But I feel something different, more visceral, when I’m reading The Rape of Nanking, or Ordinary People, or my favorite book, The Gulag Archipelago, which is probably not a great example because Alexander Solzhenitsyn is actually very wry and sardonic, but I don’t know…

I’m also a huge fan of Winnie-the-Pooh, but that’s unrelated to the war atrocity thing.

XASS: When did you discover that war atrocity was your jam?

America: Well, I remember when I was first learning to read, I read a lot of depressing non-fiction. I was a strange child, but I liked to learn, and I just preferred dispassionate writers who didn’t try to editorialize or sensationalize events. I can tell when someone is trying to emotionally manipulate me, and I don’t like it. But when the facts on their own are just so profoundly horrifying and speak so deeply to human nature, or when history is told coldly, purely, almost like bullet points, it does something to me. And when I say I was young, I was very young, and I didn’t even know that I could feel that way about something. But I was drawn to awful truths and to clear-eyed observations, so that’s where it began.

XASS: Now, shifting gears a little bit. America, how did you find out about XA?

America: It’s kind of a long story, but the punchline is Sam the PhD student and my fellow Indiana person. He and my older sister actually went to the same elementary school together, and he was drafted into this “big sib, little sib” program with her when he was in 8th grade and she was in 2nd.

Time jump to my sister visiting me at Stanford for the first time: I’m showing her around campus, when out of nowhere Sam bikes past us, and my sister recognizes the back of his head. I drag her over to say hi, and the three of us chat for a bit before Sam mentions that he’s on his way to a Chi Alpha Happy Hour and asks us if we want to tag along. I actually thought he was inviting us to go day-drinking with him and his fraternity, but my sister seemed to know that XA was on the up and up, so I just decided to roll with it.

Then I met you, Glen. And I remember you made a beeline for me the second I walked through the door. You locked onto me like a bloodhound, like “Who are you? Are you in the Slack yet? Let me add you to the Slack.” And before I even figured out what was going on and that this was a Christian fellowship, I was added to the Slack and properly introduced to maybe half a dozen people.

It was just so wild and lovely. I started showing up for everything and befriending so many exceptional people. It’s been the best part of my Stanford experience. And it must have been divine intervention because it happened exactly when I needed it most. Things were going well for me, but I was feeling a bit adrift. I was bereft and existentially lonely. I’d been neglecting my relationship with God. But in those 30 minutes or so, meeting you guys, I felt God moving in my life so tangibly. Of course, He’d always been there. I just hadn’t been paying attention.

XASS: Now, it sounds like you were raised with some sort of religion or faith tradition. Tell me about your religious upbringing. 

America: My mom’s Catholic and my dad’s Protestant, so I grew up in an interdenominational household. I ended up gravitating more to the Catholic side, but I’d say I was fairly loosey-goosey about it. I was a material heretic, as the kids say. Papal infallibility was a no-go for me. And Transubstantiation felt awkward because I’m a vegetarian (not for any good reason, just a bet with my sister).

But I enjoyed the recitations, the consistency, the beautiful edifices, the hymns, and the gravitas. And I’m going to sound like a total curmudgeon, but I thought Protestants played their music way too loud. Plus, they seemed a little too buddy-buddy with Jesus for my Catholic sensibilities. I’d go to a Protestant service and think, “Whatever happened to the fear of God?” Over the last couple of years though, I’ve realized that the things that I liked most about the Catholic Church were not necessarily bringing me closer to God. And I couldn’t tacitly endorse a doctrine I didn’t believe in.

Now, I’m just trying to earnestly follow Christ, pray constantly, read the Bible, and delve into theological conversations with people more knowledgeable than I am. I think the practice of Christianity is not so important as the object of my faith. And I’ve given myself to God. But yeah, joining the XA community was probably the final nail in the coffin for my Catholicism, and I’d say I’m pretty much in the Protestant camp now, which— I’m sorry, Mom. I hope she doesn’t read this. I still feel so guilty. I’m so sorry. Yeah, that’s the honest state of things.

XASS: How has your experience at Stanford been for you spiritually? Has it been a positive, neutral, or negative part of your faith?

America: Absolutely a positive. I— I don’t know how to explain this. Because I think I always had Christian values in a sense. I mean, this is going to sound tangential, but I went to a military boarding school for high school, and I almost went to the Air Force Academy. But when Stanford offered me a full scholarship, I decided to come here instead… which was probably for the best because I don’t think I would have made it past basic training. Can you imagine me trying to keep bearing? I am the worst person to look at in a serious situation. I start laughing uncontrollably whenever someone yells at me, and if I’m in physical pain, I will laugh even harder.

Still, I see the love of Christ in military service. Duty, honor, courage, and sacrifice— what amazing things to dedicate one’s life towards. But I wasn’t looking to God when I was having these convictions. I was self-justifying, and I thought that being right was the same as being righteous. There’s this C.S. Lewis quote that I’m going to butcher and paraphrase, but it’s that, divine judgment isn’t based on our raw materials, but on what we do with what we have. I had excellent raw materials, but I was wasting them. I’d grown up in the faith, but I wasn’t prioritizing faithfulness. And the things I did well, I wasn’t attributing to God. I had manufactured a few good principles, but I was missing the point— the fruit of the Spirit can only come from the Spirit.

So if you’re asking me if Stanford has had a positive effect on my faith, I’d say absolutely yes. Because even if, at the Air Force Academy, I would have been acting as though I were a Christian, I wouldn’t have had that most important part, which is always turning to God, giving all glory to God, and only boasting in God. I think I would have ended up feeling like a good person all on my own. I would have ended up feeling like, “Oh, I’m doing something meaningful and purposeful and good and right with my life, and I have all these values”. But if I was still clinging to the world and ignoring God, it would have been empty.

And if I had gone to school somewhere else, I wouldn’t have experienced the crazy sequence of events that brought me to Chi Alpha and made me rededicate my life to God in such a real way. So I’m grateful for my time at Stanford, and I have no regrets because of it.

XASS: Do you have a favorite Bible verse or passage? 

America: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.”

I think of that so often, and it resonates so deeply with me. I know it’s not an uncommon answer, but I consider it my steadfast favorite.

Lately, though, I keep coming back to this whole big chunk of 2 Corinthians, chapter 4. It goes, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” And then it continues with, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” Those are my favorite parts, but the entire passage is just— gah, I love God’s Word. It’s so good.

XASS: What is something else that maybe I wouldn’t think to ask, but you think would be a very interesting story to tell?

America: I’m surprised you didn’t ask me about my traveling because it seems to come up a lot around Chi Alpha. I love America, but I’ve done my fair share of adventuring. I took a year off from school just to circumnavigate the world by myself. I had a very Esther 4:16 attitude about it.

I crawled up mountains in Nepal without a guide, equipment, or experience. I spent a month living in a medieval castle in the Scottish Highlands. I inadvertently hitchhiked my way across the Turkish countryside. Oh, and I almost got deported from Estonia because I didn’t understand the Schengen Area visa system.

If not for the grace of God, I wouldn’t have made it back, at least not with all my limbs attached. I don’t exactly plan things out. I just commit. I move forward with a vague purpose and eager expectation, and things just seem to work out for me. God bless America, I guess.

XASS: America, the classic final Spotlight question is always, “Are you in a relationship?”

America: Nah.

XASS: And are you happy in that situation? Are you angling for a change?

America: My plan is just to keep getting weirder until a man goes, alright, let’s see what all this is about.

But no, in truth, a romantic love is more of a prayer than a plan for me. I think that God wants me to become a better person first. To be more at peace with myself and to understand who I am in Him and be grounded in that assurance. I need to become someone who I’d want to spend the rest of my life with. And that means knowing, loving, and resembling God in deeper and deeper ways.

But at any point, if God wants me to have a husband and kids and to build a family, then that’s what will happen. Or I could die alone. That would be fine too I guess. I’m not an artful person when it comes to social dynamics, and I don’t take a casual view on dating. So I am content, because I want nothing that is not from God, and I trust His timing.