Elementary school. Faith Lutheran Church.

My first encounter with organized religion is my casual enrollment into the church-run summer camp called Vacation Bible School. Each day, I, along with dozens of other doe-eyed youngsters, learn songs, build edible crafts, and listen to fairy tales, all in the name of this guy, Jesus. Other than the idea of a bearded man who walks with a staff, clothed in long white robes, I don’t know much about him. My parents have never spoken of him, nor have they told me that my day-care has an influence.

“He died for our sins, so that we can live in his perfect image,” the adults explain to me.

I’m not quite sure what that means, but I like the stories. They remind me of the books my parents read to me at home, where heroes always save the day and impossible things become reality within the pages. He must be one of those magical and powerful characters, the kind that movies are made about, whose stories are whispered to us late at night while we fall asleep and paint pictures in our minds.

But everyone at school talks about Jesus and God with the same respectful and fearful tone they use for their parents and teachers. For my classmates, there’s nothing mythical about religion. I can see the silent obligation in their faces when they talk about going to church on Sundays. It’s just another part of their life: more adults to answer to. I can’t understand why I don’t also have an obligation to these authorities. Surely, I missed something during those Sunday mornings apart, when the rest of them sailed off to a new island of duty while I stayed behind, forgotten and confused. Fearing further social isolation, I go along with the conversations of my peers, careful not to reveal that I am not one of them. Quickly, I learn that a separate world exists, inhabited by everyone around me, that I know nothing about.

Sixth grade. Language Arts class.

Rebecca Schinsky sits across from me, cradling her wooden cross necklace in one hand and eagerly waving the other in the air. I study the necklace’s worn exterior, and observe the inadvertent delicacy with which she caresses it.

“What is that?” I ask her.

“My grandma gave it to me for my First Communion,” she replies through a smile, memory swimming in her eyes as she looks at it.

“Your first what?”

Now, Rebecca looks at me in slight bewilderment. “You don’t know what a communion is?” She laughs.

I’m a little embarrassed at her clearly-derogatory question, but my curiosity has always preceded me. “No,” I answer simply.

Rebecca leans across the table towards me, studying me with a suddenly accusatory look. “Aren’t you Catholic? You would’ve had a First Communion.”

Silence. I don’t want to say that I am not Catholic, or Christian for that matter, but I don’t know what to put in its place. I have not been asked the question before, so I have never had to come up with an occupation of my own, something that saves me from having to admit I belong to nothing.

“Don’t you believe in God?” Rebecca waits for me to respond with her eyes wide and mouth hanging partly open.

Oh, why couldn’t I just have played along? She has me cornered now. The truth is, I don’t believe in God, but I don’t not believe in him either. As far as I know, my belief in him, or lack thereof, makes no difference in his existence anyway.

“I don’t think so.”

I’m saved by the bell, but not before Rebecca can pull me aside and say, with genuine earnest, “I hope you change your mind. People who don’t believe in God go to hell!”

Vacation Bible School had conveniently skipped over the question of hell, so this fate of mine is news to me. Having learned the general consensus of my peers, I stop asking questions. In time, it becomes clear to me that I am the outsider, and as a preteen, I want to draw as little attention to this fact as possible. Yet, it seems as though the more I avoid talking about religious matters in any form, the more I think about them privately. Everyone around me belongs to an esteemed club that I seemingly have no access point into. The students involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, who go to youth group every Wednesday night, are a gold-star posse of popular kids who smile at me in the hallway but have never learned my name. They wear expensive clothes and braces on their teeth, and they ride the same buses with long drives out to the houses in the country. It appears to me that richness in wealth and social status come with the whole religion package deal.

We all get along well, and I have friends and hobbies of my own that keep me from idolizing the Christian posse too much. But I know there are fundamental differences between us that go beyond my crooked teeth and hand-me-down wardrobe. It’s something in the way they carry themselves, how they seem so at ease. You can tell that they are happy. I never really think about my own happiness, but I feel keenly aware of theirs for it shines off of them when they look at you.

Eleventh grade. Saturday night. Party with friends.

“Did you see Taylor’s Instagram post today? Her Bible quote in the caption?” Savannah, my closest friend, hands her phone to me with the image of Taylor on display. In the photo, my classmate holds hands with another girl, both of them beaming at the camera. The caption reads something along the lines of being grateful for good friends, thanking God for their connection, and features an apparent Bible quote with a similar message.

“If she loves God so much, she should just date him,” I joke while handing back the phone. Savannah laughs and agrees, continuing to scroll down the feed, cracking jokes at our classmates’ expense and muttering about “Jesus freaks.”

Why don’t those people get a hobby? All that constant thinking about God must have them brainwashed. Yeah, that’s it, that’s exactly what religion does: it brainwashes people! Shaking my head at my own ingenuity, it feels like I’ve cracked the ultimate code. It’s a bit harder to despise my religious classmates when I realize their beliefs are involuntary. Worshipping this invisible entity, giving their life away to a system founded on imagination and cult-like persuasion: it’s all they’ve ever known. Despite how content they appear, I have the vantage point to see just how blind they are.

At least my friends here agree with me on that. We’re all self-proclaimed Atheists and have bonded over our mutual contempt for religion and anyone who assigns themselves to one. Interesting enough, though, is the contempt my comrades hold for their families. Unlike me, they grew up in the church. They grew up with God on their shoulder. Over time, they began to resent their forced participation in something they had never even questioned. As thankful as I am for the company, sometimes I think they’re just rebels without a cause. I want to know what led them to turn their backs on the life that bred them, and what makes them different from those who stay committed. Perhaps they have reached the same logically-deduced conclusion I have: that clearly there is no God, because there is no proof.

Still, with the calculations seemingly exhausted and my questions about God no longer needing answers, I feel a hole in my chest when we gather in this dark basement and discuss only the absence of things. With our minds made up, it seems there’s nowhere else to go except in circles. Then, a gnawing thought enters my mind that I can’t expel for the rest of the evening: we sound just like Rebecca Schinsky did when she told me I was going to hell. Though we speak from opposite ends of the spectrum, the certainty in our voices mimics one another. Now, my confidence is suddenly slipping. Being certain about God’s inexistence was supposed to bring me peace! It was supposed to give me a position to hold, an argument to wage, something I could bring to the table I was never comfortable sitting at. I want to be in the club, damn it! But membership demands commitment.

I feel like that little wide-eyed girl in Vacation Bible School, surrounded by conviction but still missing a piece of the puzzle. Years spent digging in others’ drawers and peering over their shoulders for the whereabouts of that puzzle piece haven’t led me to the glorious, unknown destination I envisioned. I start to wonder if I’ll ever reach it.

Sophomore year of college. Office of Lucinda Kennedy.

Dr. Kennedy and I lounge in overstuffed chairs set across from each other. The room is warmly lit and smells expensive with its plush carpeting and mahogany furniture. I survey the variety of décor, the framed degrees on the wall, the grandfather clock ticking away in the corner, counting down each minute I’ve bought. She is the first to speak.

“So, how have you been?”

A plethora of responses floods my head with enough range to communicate my entire life story, and I want to ask her to be more specific because how I’m doing depends largely on whichever day you ask me, but I settle for the conditioned response: “Good.”

By this point, I know that certain formalities are in order for this kind of arrangement, but nothing consequential rides on them. Dr. Kennedy knows this too, and we smile knowingly at each other. Now, we can really get into it.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes, I tell her. Mistakes that have made me question my character, my morality, and my sense of judgement. “It’s like I missed some crucial lesson on being a good person,” I laugh cynically.

I blame my parents for not bringing me to church, I admit both to myself and her. Although I spent years looking down on my God-fearing classmates and friends, I realize now that I envy them. I think I always have.

“You’re looking for God, then?”

I pause before answering: “God always eludes me.”

She shrugs and says, simply, “Where have you looked?”

Where haven’t I looked? I tell her that I searched within those fairy tales and tried to catch sight of him in the eyes of those around me. In cross necklaces, in First Communions, in non-descript churches, in conversations about Bible quotes and youth group organizations, I have searched tirelessly for God! “And I have never felt him.”

We sit silently for a few moments. The grandfather clock seems to be ticking slower now, and I hold my breath in my throat. The hopelessness in my voice precedes me; I haven’t given up entirely. I’m frustrated. Frustrated from feeling left out, from pretending to know things that I didn’t, but mostly, from having to depend on sources outside of me to tell me what to believe.

Dr. Kennedy leans toward me with her glasses on the bridge of her nose, and through a gentle smile she tells me what I’ve just come to realize: “The only place you have not looked for God is, well, within yourself.”

Present day.

Settling down into a couch in my favorite café, I pull out my notebook and pen, savoring the familiarity of the sensation. Customers and workers hurry back and forth around me, speaking quickly to each other as they buy coffee, clean messes, shuffle cell phones and newspapers. From where I’m sitting, tucked away in a darkened corner, I observe the pleasant commotion and write off-handedly. When I look up, I see a familiar face walk through the entrance.

Rebecca Schinsky looks much different from when I knew her in our youth, but she still has that bounce in her step and eagerness in her eyes. She can’t see me over here, but I watch her confident movements and easy stride and think back to our sixth-grade encounter.

For some reason, it makes me grin. I used to think she knew everything. Her own self-assurance had called attention to an absence of my own, so I used hers to fill the void. That void, filled to the brim with images and beliefs conjured from contradicting points of view, that nearly drove me mad, swallowed up anything it could find just to fill in the blanks.

I’m rather comfortable with those blank spaces now. I am the only one who can fill them, and I intend on taking my time. It’s a journey I have to take on alone, but this idea no longer frightens me. In fact, it’s in these quiet times of solitude, where I let that void remain unfilled, and stop worrying about what should be inside it, when I feel closest to God.

Stella Peters is a senior at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She is a double major in psychology and English, with a depth of study in creative writing – nonfiction.