One winter afternoon when I was twelve years old, my father picked up a teenage hitchhiker who was standing on the side of the road wearing blue jeans with big holes in the knees. It was thirty-five degrees out that day. He climbed into the van with us, and then my dad drove on. The ensuing conversation, which I will never forget, went something like this:
“These are my kids, Andrea, Ben, and Nate. My name’s Sam. What’s your name?”
My father paused. “Have you ever heard of Amy Carmichael?”
“Um, no …”
“She was a missionary to India who worked to save young girls from sex trade. She worked at a place called Dohnavur, which is kind of close to your name, Donavan. So you have a good name, a name with Christian purpose.”
In the hitchhiker’s long pause that followed, I remember thinking, “My father is out of his mind, preying on this young hitchhiker who wanted a ride and instead got a church sermon on Christian missionary history.” I felt embarrassed in the same way I did when my dad prayed over our food in a restaurant and the waiter brought the ketchup while he was still praying.
When we reached the cut-off road to our house, my dad pulled onto the shoulder and then turned to my older brother. “Ben,” he said, “Why don’t you give Donovan your jeans. It’s cold out.” In the back seat of the van, Ben took off his pants while my little brother and I looked sideways at each other. Proverbial Christian wisdom says you give away the coat off your back, not the pants off your backside. In exchange for my brother’s, Donavan handed over his own ripped jeans and then climbed out of the van.
When we asked where he was going, Donavan said, “Farther north toward Canada.” That was all. He was out wandering alone in the prairie land of eastern Washington. I watched from the back seat as he diminished into the distance, a tall lean figure standing on the side of a long winter road.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, that experience foreshadowed the day that I would get up and leave behind the faith of my childhood. I would be the one climbing out of the car, striking out on pilgrimage into the unknown.
The reasons for my departure were complicated. I spent my early childhood in Kenya as the daughter of “social-justice-and-Jesus” hippy Quaker missionaries and the rest of my growing up years in a healthy, smart church community back in the U.S. And yet, when I came of age and turned 23, I chose to leave the church. I literally stood up from the pew one Sunday morning and walked out right in the middle of a sermon.
A few months before—in the summer after college—I’d worked at an orphanage in the slums of Nairobi and in those months started feeling deep unease about the Christian faith. I wanted to know: Why does God seem distant and inaccessible? What good does prayer do for an AIDS baby or anyone else? And why in the world does God allow kids to suffer parentless in a slumland?
When I came back to the U.S. in the fall, I walked out of the church sanctuary one morning and started into a two-year journey away from Christianity. My faith had a flat tire. I was a lonely college graduate standing on the side of a cold winter road, a lost hitchhiker with no car and no direction, looking out at the wilderness of my heart.
Years later, I returned to church with a changed faith. But I didn’t know that at the time. The day I left, I set out on a search having no idea where I would go in my wandering and or how I would find my way back home.
Andrea Palpant Dilley