Long before the popularity of the “Jesus Is My Homeboy” T-shirts, I considered Jesus my BFF. More accurately, he was my hero, protecting me from the being much more terrifying than any imagined monsters underneath my bed — God.

Though prayer was a priority in my household, my parents didn’t go to church much; however, as soon as I showed an interest in religion my Granny made sure I was there most Sundays. After listening to a plethora of sermons and memorizing a heap of bible verses, one day I told her, “I like Jesus way more than I like God.”

She gasped as if I’d just said a dirty word.

“Don’t say that,” she snapped. “Jesus is God.”

I was now utterly confused.

God was a white man with a white beard wearing a white robe and sitting on a white cloud waiting to strike me down once my bad deeds filled up his white tablet. He made note of each time I took change from my Lenten folder for visits to the candy lady or the ice cream truck and each time I cursed while listening to rap music.

Jesus, however, was, the best friend of my dreams, literally.

At night I’d dream of Jesus teaching me how to be better at kickball and taking me back-to-school shopping, buying me clothes my parents could never afford. Sometimes we’d take walks in parks, but not the parks in my neighborhood where drug deals went down as soon as the sun did. We strolled in the nice parks made for rich white folks, parks I’d never go to in my real life because rich white people scared me much more than drug dealers ever did.  

Despite this, Jesus, my homeboy, was white. But I didn’t mind. His hair was coarse and thick like mine so he never asked to touch my tresses. His face was not the face of a white man who would wield a billy club on brown bodies. He had a boyish face, a mouth that always seemed to be on the verge of a smile, and eyes that twinkled. And I figured my white Jesus would never make fun of me for “talking like a white girl” as I was sure a black Jesus would.

My Granny’s declaration that Jesus was God pushed me to read the Bible every single day, eager to figure out if she was right. But the more I learned, the less I understood. The Bible just convinced me that there was no way Jesus could be God. Jesus would never flood the world or burn down a city. Jesus would never ask someone to kill their own son. Jesus would never turn me into a pillar of salt. The Bible showed me that I was right all along. Yes, Jesus was my Savior, saving me not from sin but from the wrath of his terrifying Father.

In middle school, however, I learned that I was in fact not saved. Even though I read the Bible every day and hung out with Jesus in my dreams every night, I found out I couldn’t call myself a Christian because I had never prayed the prerequisite prayer. I had never invited Jesus into my heart (even though I was sure he was already there) and I had never asked him to be Lord of my life (even though I was sure he already was).

In 8th grade, my boyfriend, a preacher’s kid, invited me to one of those Christian haunted houses where you go to different rooms to see scenes of what life will be like on earth for those left behind after the Rapture. After sweating in fake hell I prayed and asked Jesus to save me from the real one.

After this, I did feel different. My bones felt full of fire, my heart too big for my chest. I decided this feeling was the Holy Spirit that the old folks at church would shout about. And I knew I was finally saved.

Then I went to high school.

Now attending a special school for students gifted in the arts and sciences, I found myself around the most diverse group of people I had ever experienced. No longer at a predominantly black inner city public school, I was around white students, Indian students, Asian students, Middle Eastern students, and Hispanic students, too. I met people who were Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist. I even met people who didn’t believe in God at all! To make sense of it all I turned to words, of course.

One day after school I went to my neighborhood library and checked out books on each of the major world religions and spent my weekends reading through them all. I even started reading the Book of Mormon and the Quran. Later I would join a program designed to encourage cultural exchange between black Christian and Jewish teens, through which I learned more about Judaism.

Just as with my study of the Bible, the more I learned the less I felt I knew. My reading, my searching didn’t bring me answers, just more questions. At church I was being told Christianity was the only true path to God, but suddenly God felt too big to fit into one religion. And how could a person as kind-hearted as Jesus be OK with God sending condemning people to hell in his name?

In college, my love God and my love for writing would merge when I started writing my prayers instead of speaking them. I had started going to church with “the white folks” as my family said and the white folks introduced me to the idea of a prayer journal. I carried my prayer journal with me all the time and would stop to write in it anytime.

Around this time I also stopped trying to imagine Jesus as a wrathful God and started imagining God as loving as Jesus. My prayer journal became a collection of love letters to God. My prayers became poetry and suddenly God was everything and everywhere. God was a post-workout smoothie. God was the sun kissing my brown skin when I would lie on the quad reading. Once on New Year’s Eve, I felt God with me on the dance floor of a nightclub.

But the more I found God in the world the less I felt God in church.

It was the church telling me my gay friends were sinners. It was the church telling me that my Muslim and Hindu friends were going to hell. And it was the church that first told me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl.

To be continued…