“I need to ask you something,” I said, my eyes fixed on the graveled path beneath our feet.
“Do you think I’m going to Hell?”
Kate paused, leaving only the sound of buzzing cicadas. She inhaled sharply and said, “Yes.”
Kate and I had met years earlier while volunteering for Teens Encounter Christ (TEC)—a program that sponsored weekend church retreats for high school-aged youth—at a planning meeting for an upcoming retreat.
After brief introductions, I was called to the front of the room to do a practice run of a reflection I’d agreed to share during the next retreat. Practice talks were done in front of all of the volunteers, and since mine was a reflection on my struggles with being queer, it meant I was coming out to the entire TEC community—many of whom I’d never met before that day.
I was terrified about how this group of Christians would respond. But to my delight, I received a lot of support after the talk. Among the first to approach me was Kate.
Though we were strangers before that day, we became friends in the way some people fall in love; our connection was immediate and intense.
We shared secrets, developed intricate inside jokes, and overindulged in peanut butter-covered Oreo cookies. She supported me as I came out to friends and family; when my first boyfriend and I broke up after his deeply religious parents discovered our relationship, she sat with me and prayed for his safety. To thank her, I made a mix CD featuring the Ben Folds Five song “Kate,” which sings the praises of a woman named Kate. The song’s joyous refrain: “I wanna be Kate!”
And I did. I wanted to be as kind and courageous as she was.
After high school, we went to the same college—but once there, things began to change. When my religion professors challenged me to critically reflect on what I believed and why I believed it, I started asking difficult questions and eventually realized I was actually an atheist.
As I drifted away from Christianity, Kate and I drifted apart. I began to feel that we were too different; that some of her beliefs ran counter to my ideas about the world.
I started to shut her out, dismissing her sincere questions and convictions because, on some level, I felt I had outgrown the beliefs she still held dear. The beliefs we once shared—the faith that brought us together—was replaced by contrast and contradiction.
Eventually, we decided to talk about this shift. We went to a park and started walking, giving one another permission to ask or say anything. We spent hours circling that lake; I kept pushing at her and challenging her. She responded patiently and thoughtfully.
After our third lap around the lake, I asked if she thought I was going to Hell. At first she said yes. But after a minute of silence, she admitted that she didn’t know whether or not I would go to Hell because only God knows that—but if she had to guess, the Bible says that no one comes to the Father except through the Son.
I told her that I don’t believe in Hell so it didn’t really matter, and I meant it. But it still stung. My best friend thought I might spend all of eternity in Hell. I was hurt.
“It hurts me, too,” she said. “I don’t want us to spend the afterlife apart, and I certainly don’t want you to suffer.”
The conversation stretched past the park into the parking lot, and we sat in her car for another hour until we couldn’t talk about it anymore. Though stationary, we were still going in circles.
“I need time to think about this,” I said. Can I really be friends with someone who thinks I might be going to Hell for all of eternity? I thought.
Over the next few years, we revisited the conversation. We decided to trust one another and to treat one another with respect. And as time went by, we got better at talking about it. We developed a kind of understanding, and learned to accept the discomfort of disagreement. This ongoing discussion challenged us to be honest, listen, and learn from one another.
A couple of years ago, Kate got engaged. We discussed it excitedly, and then she asked, “Will you be in our wedding?”
It would of course be a religious ceremony, she explained. Her father, a Lutheran pastor, would officiate.
“But, if you’re comfortable with being in a Christian wedding, we’d like you to give the one reading we’ve selected that isn’t from the Bible,” she said. “It’s important to us to have you in our ceremony, and that you can participate in a way that’s true to what you believe.”
I was moved by her sensitivity and said yes. It was a beautiful wedding.
Earlier this year, Kate reached out to me on my birthday to share some exciting news: She and her husband are expecting a child. I couldn’t be happier, because I can confidently say that no matter who that child is or what she or he believes, Kate will love and accept that person wholeheartedly.
We still don’t see eye to eye about the afterlife, and that can feel uncomfortable at times. But our love for one another in the here and now trumps that disagreement. Her continued presence in my life is a reminder that it sometimes pays to be patient in the pursuit of understanding.