Posted on: February 26, 2015

Nessa prays in the woods, without faith, without any sense of proximity to God the Father. She grew up hearing that when we don’t have words to pray, the Holy Spirit would intercede on our behalf, but she feels nothing and cannot fabricate a spiritual sensation. Sealing her prayer with Jesus’ name feels like sending email straight to a spam folder. Nessa sighs, tilting back her head and studying the canopy above. She breathes in wilderness, closing her eyes as she imagines rooting down into the earth, becoming a tree, becoming old, being still.

When she was sixteen years old, an older woman at church sat next to her and said that she had a word from the Lord for Nessa.

“God only hears the prayers of the repentant,” the woman began, smug.

Nessa felt a sense of grief and hatred. Suddenly, there was an image of a baby in her mind.

“God wants you to know you weren’t alone when you had the miscarriage,” Nessa blurted out.

The older woman’s lips parted as she stared, knuckles turning white.

“God wants you to know he heard your cries, even though you hated him.”

The woman stood up and walked away.

Nessa always knew too much about people she didn’t know at all. Youth pastors and mentors would try to convince her that it was a gift, but she found it to be a burden. It seemed rude that God would tell her other people’s secrets like a teenage gossip. What good was her gift when all it did was make people uncomfortable?

Nessa opens her eyes and unzips her backpack, pulling out dozens of journals, flipping through one or two of them and scanning her handwriting. Over a decade of prayers are scattered across these pages, prayers for other people and prayers for herself. But the most heartbreaking secret that they kept was self-hatred, the number one lesson she learned growing up an evangelical. We are sinners. We don’t have an ounce of goodness in us because we chose our will over God’s will in the Garden of Eden. When Nessa would write, “Please, speak to me, Lord,” and receive no answer, she assumed it was because of her wretchedness. There must be some sin that keeps God from hearing her prayer. There must be something wrong with her.

“Your pride keeps you from repenting of your sins,” a woman told her once in bible study, her voice seething with the sweet undertones of jealousy. “Because you have a gift, you forget that you are a sinner like everyone else.”

She tosses the journals within a ring of stones on the forest floor, and covers them with pine needles. Nessa pulls a matchbook and mini bottle of vodka from her jacket pocket, spilling the liquor over the pile, then lighting a match. She places the flame in a space underneath, and smells the chemicals leach from the paper. The smoke is very black. Like her sins? Like her shortcomings? Like the void that Jesus had so much trouble filling?

“A prophet is not without honor, except in his own hometown,” Jesus said to his disciples. In one story, he visits his home in Galilee, but everyone mocks him. He was just the son of a carpenter after all, with questionable parentage. Who was he to think he knew the secrets of the universe and the will of God? Who was he to strut around thinking he could heal the sick and raise the dead? And he couldn’t do much good there because no one believed in him. His own people did not believe in him.

But sometimes people will believe in you, then use you. Nessa remembers the meetings behind closed doors with men who should have given her guidance. Instead, she was the all too eager student devouring every word and directive. She let them kiss her, and tell her that their flesh was weak. She let them touch her, and tell her this is why women cannot lead. She let them shame her, and tell her that it was her fault. The victim is always the one to blame if she doesn’t cry out in time. She’s to blame even if no one ever teaches her what the red flags look like in the first place.

As her journals take to flame, she remembers the darker years when she shut people out. She remembers begging God to take away her gift, demanding that he speak to her, to show her why she never fit in. She remembers weeping, rocking back and forth in the corner of her closet on so many nights, feeling like Jesus, feeling like Joel and Elijah and all the prophets who had a message to tell, and no one to listen. She remembers disconnecting from the present, dissociating from her existence. She remembers asking for death, and eventually trying to take it for herself. In strips of red across her skin and fantasies behind her eyes as she looked in gun cases, Nessa danced around the act of suicide. Could she convince herself to do it? Could she seduce herself to cave in as she had unknowingly done to all those awful men with so many highlighted verses in their Bibles?

Then, one day, it was over. She stopped praying. She stopped reading her bible. She stopped looking for a church that would accept her. She stopped trying to fit in. When people ask her where she is going to church, she stops saying, “Nowhere right now,” and says, “Nowhere.” Nessa stopped listening to people who had a word from the Lord for her. But it wasn’t because she was angry. It was because she was tired of being in a relationship with something that made her feel like shit her whole life. Like the boyfriend you make up because everyone else has one; he won’t satisfy.

Nessa watches the pages curl in torment. She loses faith in God, and gains faith in herself.

Written by: Natasha Akery
Photograph by: Blake Bronstad

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