GW professor’s years undercover with evangelical Christians results in a new book highlighted in Oprah Magazine.
“I grew up feeling very uncomfortable around religion,” says Gina Welch, a creative writing instructor in GW’s English Department who grew up in Berkeley, Calif. “I remember having to say the Pledge of Alliance and feeling forced into the ‘under God’ by it. I think I had a bit of anti-religious orientation.”
So why did this self-described atheist spend two years at one of televangelist Jerry Fallwell’s mega churches in southern Virginia?
Ms. Welch’s quest to understand evangelical Christians in Lynchburg, Va., beginning in 2005— and the emotional and spiritual surprises that came with it — is described in her first book “In the Land of Believers.” The recently released book has received a lot of press attention and was recently named first in March’s “Top Ten Titles to Watch” in Oprah Magazine.
Before she moved to Charlottesville, Va., to attend graduate school at the University of Virginia, Ms. Welch says she viewed the United States as a “pretty secular place.”
“When I moved to Virginia, suddenly I was around very religious people,” she says. “Liberty University, a fundamentalist Baptist university, was right down the road, I knew several people who self-identified as evangelical Christians and in Virginia everything shuts down on Sunday,” she says. “So I had this awakening to how very religious certain parts of the country are.”
George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 piqued Ms. Welch’s interest in religion even more. “There was a lot of media coverage that suggested a very organized, galvanized block of evangelical Christians was instrumental in securing his second victory,” says Ms. Welch. “His reelection was just unthinkable to me, so I was very curious about people who had voted for him again.”
While reading about the religious group, Ms. Welch realized that approximately a quarter of the country self-identified as evangelical Christians. She could not, however, find much information about them as individuals—and thus the idea for a book was born.
“I think I suddenly realized that I couldn’t afford to write them off,” she says. “I felt like I wasn’t able to find anything that gave me an intimate, human understanding of what the church members were like. So I wanted to go firsthand to confront my own prejudices and to figure out who these people were and what they wanted for the country.”
In 2005, Ms. Welch began attending Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. She was soon attending services up to three times a week, secretly taking notes on their interpretation of the Bible and on conversations she had with fellow church-goers. For the first nine months Ms. Welch says she felt like a “foreign body.”“At the beginning I was very judgmental. I was looking at the trappings rather than trying to understand the content of it,” she says. “There’s also a certain vernacular of beliefs that a lot of evangelical Christians shared that I didn’t know. I wasn’t familiar with what it meant to ‘speak in the flesh’ rather than ‘speaking in spirit’; I didn’t know what it meant for God to’ put something on your heart’; and I didn’t know what it meant to preach the Gospel. So it wasn’t that I only couldn’t participate in it; I couldn’t even understand it.”
Ms. Welch’s experience changed when she began to form friendships with a few evangelicals and was able to understand their spiritual message.
“Without the intermediary of someone I could relate to, I wasn’t going to get there,” she says. “I think there are human connections that really transcend religious and political affiliations, and I met people with whom I had natural friend chemistry.”
Before she began attending services, Ms. Welch says she expected church members to be arrogant and self-righteous, but instead found them to be humble and self-reflective. She also realized that their views on certain issues such as gay rights and feminism may just be a result of ignorance, not intolerance.
In 2006, Ms. Welch joined a group from her church on a mission trip to Anchorage, Alaska, where she was tasked with preaching the gospel. Prior to the trip, the group enrolled in a course called “100 Percent Effective Evangelism” to prepare, but Ms. Welch says nothing prepared her for how emotionally difficult the trip would be. She was moved by her discussions with local homeless but “appalled” when she was asked to preach to children.
“To see visible relief and refreshment on the faces of homeless people who were praying, it made me think that there may be something to be said for the genuine comfort that prayer brings,” she says. “But the proselytizing to children…for people who grew up with religion, that’s banal, but for me it was shocking to talk to children about Hell and to frighten them into belief. I wasn’t comfortable with it.”
It took six months after Ms. Welch left the church before she felt comfortable enough to begin writing about her experience. “Breaking up” with the friends she had made was difficult for Ms. Welch because they did not know who she really was.
“I had close relationships with people to whom I had lied about who I was, and I was also confronting the fact that I had done this a series of ethically ambiguous things, so that made it hard for me to figure out how to finish the book,” she says. “I think I first had to decide whether or not it was OK to do it at all.”
Last year, Ms. Welch told a few of her closest church friends about the book and says they were eventually forgiving of her deception.
“I don’t think their forgiveness is automatic, but it’s something that their resilient faith generates,” she says. “They believe everything happens for a reason so they can accept anything that comes.”
This kindness, and many more, are just a few of the personal insights into evangelical Christians that Ms. Welch hopes to leave with her readers.
“I hope the book works as a softening agent and provides a humanizing portrait to replace the sorts of clichéd notions of the way evangelical Christians operate.”
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