I was eating my lunch when a girl asked me if I knew Jesus. "He wants me to talk to you so you can come to him," she said, a creepy smile on her face, nonplussed by the fact that I was not only disinterested, but had a hamburger hanging from my mouth.
I chewed the meat on my tongue and grabbed a napkin, wiping the stray ketchup off of my face. "Excuse me?"
Her perfect grin remained intact as she tucked her bangs behind her ears. "I was here with my family and I saw you and he wanted me to tell you that he loves you and that he wants you to pray to him."
I set my burger down and took a good look at this girl. She couldn't have been any older than nine and seemed to be reading her words off a mental teleprompter since they sounded so robotic. I noticed her family when they came in -- one man, a woman, and two little girls wearing floor length denim skirts and bright colored t-shirts. The older girl, who now stood before me, watched me from the counter and the drink fountain, turning away when I caught her staring. It was weird, but I didn’t expect her to come up to me and start preaching.
"Thanks," I said in the nicest tone I could muster. "But I know about Jesus already."
"What’s your name?"
I sighed. “Taler.”
“Well, Taler,” she said. “Lots of people say things like that to me. Most of the time, they’re lying.”
"Well I’m not. Thank you," I said again, but she didn't go anywhere. I picked up my burger and tried to go back to eating until she turned away, her pamphlet fiddling between her hands and her feet shuffling on and off. When I looked up again, I could see her father watching us from his table, eyes narrowed in our direction. Imagining any number of unwanted outcomes, I sighed and set the food down again.
“Wait,” I said. She stopped and turned around, a little too eager. I sighed before saying, “What else did...did Jesus want you to say to me.”
As if me telling her to leave never happened, she started rambling on about the way of God, his workings in the world, the types of things that in the real world, she’d be too young to know about. Her words went over my head as I kept looking back to her father. He gave a nod in our direction before turning back to his wife.
“...but we can only be saved through His grace. You have to have Jesus in your life, or else you’ll spend eternity in hell.”
I looked back over to her, fighting back the urge to cringe at her words. “What’s your name?” I said.
“Jamie, why don’t you sit down?”
I could tell by the look on her face that she wasn’t expecting that response. How could she, when her mission work likely got her nowhere, since Irvine wasn’t exactly the Bible Belt. She pulled out the chair and hoisted herself up, setting the pamphlet on the table and tucking her long hair behind her ears.
“Listen,” I started as she watched me with piqued interest. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do. But I don’t think it’s necessary.”
She gave me a condescending head shake before pressing her hands together. “But I could see from the second I came in here you needed me.”
“And why’s that?”
There was a pause. “I just…” She leaned in closer, her tone hushed. “God told me. Sinners come in different packages, and it seems like you’re not close to him.”
Of anyone in the restaurant, it would appear that I was the one who needed to be “saved” the most. Not only would my shorts and crop top be considered “immodest,” my hair was an unnatural white blonde and I had tattoos on most of my visible skin. To someone like her, I was Satan personified in the sea of modest dresses and saddle shoes, however presumptuous that may of been.
I took a napkin and wiped my face, unable to look her in the eye. “You know it’s rude to judge people before you know them.”
“I know that, but--.”
“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment,” I said. “What is that, Matthew--John? I’m not quite sure, It’s been a while.”
Her eyes grew wider.
I smirked. “Wasn’t expecting that, huh?” I plucked a fry and took a bite. “Told you I knew Jesus.” She was visibly stumped, and I could see her father watching us. I decided to meet her halfway. “Not everyone’s relationship with God looks the same, despite what you may think,” I said, side eyeing her father.
She drew her hands back under the table, her eyes refusing to meet mine. “A lot of people think they know God, but they really don’t,” she said, her voice monotone.
I turned towards her family’s table, her mother’s attention on us now too. “Well, I guess that depends on how you see God.” I nodded to her.
“What do you mean?” she said. “He’s... he’s God. He makes the rules and we have to follow them. We pray to him and live by his word. That’s true for everyone, right?”
“For some people, I guess. But…” Shaking my head, I pushed my fries between us, offering her a few. She hesitated. “Go ahead, this might be a long discussion.” She reached over and grabbed a few fries as I chewed up the last bite of my burger.
Once she swallowed, she said, “What else is there?”
I toyed with the straw of my drink, turning the words over in my mouth. “I’m assuming you’ve read the Bible.”
“And there are some lovely words in there, but that isn’t all there is.”
She huddled into herself, and for the first time, she looked like the child she was. “Daddy says that it’s God's word that has to be followed exactly as he said.”
I couldn’t imagine the havoc her father would unleash on me if I started in about that, so I took a deep breath and tried to dance around my point. “But it’s just a rule book. Things change. People change. We weren’t given brains not to use them, right?”
Her eyebrow raised, and I could tell if I didn’t get to the point, I’d lose her.
“Okay. A lot of people talk about pleasing God, but if what’s written in the Bible is true, and we’re only saved by believing, what’s the point in being a good person, right?”
She opened her mouth several times and then shut it again.
“It’s not that black and white, even though lots of people think it is,” I said. “But the idea of pleasing and all that only makes sense in terms of God as a person. And to me he isn’t a person at all.”
I expected her to get up and walk away, but I had her attention as she clung to my every word for real.
“I think of him as more of a... of a concept. Even when I was little and went to church, the idea of some... some old man living in the clouds was a little farfetched, especially since everything about him was higher than a human could conceptualize.” She seemed confused, but was still listening. “Do I believe in a higher power? Sure. Things don’t just materialize out of nowhere, and science can only explain so much. But I feel like the higher power, or God, is in each person. We all have a different opinion on how to be good, how to be moral, things like that. But...the power is in all of us, and it depends on how much we want to listen to it.” I took another sip of my drink, looking into her eyes. “But I’m a music major, not philosophy, so I’m not sure how reliable I am about that stuff.”
It took her a few minutes to answer me. I could tell she’d never heard of anyone so much as thinking what I’d just said, and I was amazed she didn’t call me a blasphemer and run back to her dad. When she did, it was soft, like her mouth was daring her to ask more. “Where did you get that idea?”
Without hesitating, I said, “I thought about it. I read. I even prayed, though I don’t do that often. But the truth is, I think that because I don’t know.” Her eyes plead for more of an answer. “I feel like things like God are too complicated for any human to have a real handle on. And people can think they have all the answers, but the uncertainty, the not knowing for sure is comforting. It gives us the room to grow, the chance to make mistakes. And yeah, you may do things that are bad, but most people have the sense to do what’s good.” I took the last sip of my drink and started to gather my garbage. Pushing it to the side, I gathered my bag and my guitar case. “Although let’s hope littering isn’t a hefty sin.
Her face was stuck in awe and confusion, trying to make sense of everything I just said. It contradicted everything she’d been taught, I’m sure but I was glad she at least listened to me. “And hey, it’s cool if you think what you want. You seem like a smart kid. Just be more open to stuff.” I put the guitar strap over one shoulder and my backpack onto the other. “Didn’t expect a tattooed girl to lecture you on God, did you?”
She shook her head, involuntarily smiling.
“I gotta go,” I said, standing up. “It was nice talking to you.”
As I turned to walk away, she called my name to stop me. She stood up, walking over to me. “Here,” she said, handing me her pamphlet. “My dad’ll be mad if I don’t give it to you.”
I smiled as I took it from her hands, shoving it into the pocket of my bag. As I turned and fished in my pocket for my bus fare, I saw her watching as she went back to her family. Her eyes followed me out the door and through the diner windows, lingering on my trail even as I walked across the street. It wasn’t until I was on the bus that I took her pamphlet out of my bag, giving it a quick once over. It had summaries of stories, key bible verses, the types of things you’d expect from a fundamentalist brochure that a kid would hand out at a burger place. The pages were worn out, like they’d been read and handed back before, and unmarked except for a page close to the end. A colored image of Jesus and his lambs on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sun started back at me. One verse, Philippians 2:13, was circled in bright purple pen: For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
Anna Keeler is a poet and fiction writer attending Rollins College. She is currently a columnist for The Odyssey Online, as well as the poetry editor for Brushing Literary Magazine. Her work has been published or is upcoming in Crab Fat Literary Magazine, Red Fez Literary Journal, and Indiana Voice Journal. She lives in Winter Park, FL.