by Geoff Martin
For all the will and the water, I was an ineffectual teenage missionary. My first of two converts, for instance, was an eight-year-old boy who could not sit still during Bible Lesson at summer camp. Instead, we sat up on the hill above a lake reservoir in the middle of Ontario, and I led him straight to Jesus. He repeated the prayer after me and was saved. I filed the paperwork that afternoon.
I knew, even then, before the boy’s same old behavior persisted—still groping the breasts of camp counselors, still not sitting still for Bible Lesson—and well before my own misgivings at this business of child evangelism, that my first conversion was nothing more than subtle coercion. It did not count.
And my second convert seemed to gain her faith at the expense of my own. We were the same age, nearing the end of high school, and we sat on picnic tables arguing about the seen and unseen world. She seemed to be seeking to build a structure on the open field of her family’s agnosticism. I was climbing the hills surrounding the evangelical camp of my religious upbringing, learning to defend the view of the lake. We were probably also interested in each other, excited by the proximity of mind and body, though we never discussed that. We were hiking a more serious trail.
Her truth seeking led us to a Jewish synagogue; we knew little about Judaism but were guided graciously through the Shabbat service. When she had me read The Case for Reincarnation, I had to admit: it had not occurred to me that other people’s religious feeling could be experienced as true; that otherwise unexplainable occurrences would reinforce their own beliefs, too. I suppose I thought that everyone else, in every other religion, was in on their own lie.
I countered by loaning her The Case for Christ and invited her to attend a creationism lecture with my church youth group. We rode a rented school bus to watch a man, since imprisoned for tax evasion, project photographs of frogs and exclaim, “Look! It’s your great-grandfather! At least, that’s what they’re teaching your kids!” It was plain bunk, more fraudulent than anything the town’s biology teachers were offering. And I could see this with embarrassment, my shoulder touching hers.
Only later, as we circled the fake science with incredulity and the night’s gassy appeal for money and study books on tape, did I notice how exhilarating was the pleasure of critiquing what had been infallibly true only hours earlier. It felt as though my toes touched water in the night. The cold shock of it.
We saw each other once more, after graduation, at a youth campfire beside the lake reservoir. She told me excitedly of the spiritual connections she was making, the answers she was finding. The pillars of my own theology, I was afraid to admit aloud, were tumbling, my answers flipping to her initial questions. I was tongue-tied. Eventually, all we could do was stare out at the darkening water as our conversation stepped to silence. Who can map such rivers of faith?
Alongside the camp, a gravel road once travelled, straight and sure. It cut down into the valley where it arched over the river and climbed the opposing hill. Before the dam closed shut and drowned the valley though, the cement bridgework was demolished. Each day of summer, the reservoir level dropped; July’s sandy beach gave way to a late-August shoreline of rocks, bone-white stumps, glass bottles, and plastic caps. And one remaining bridge abutment, a remainder, hovering just below the surface of the water.
My timing was just right on the last week of camp when I kayaked that remnant of lake, stepped out onto the submerged top of the abutment, and pushed my boat back to shore. I stood up tall with the tops of my feet dry. I looked to others from the camp and the surrounding cottages as though I was walking on water, with faith enough to quell the storm. It was peculiar and empowering and seemed to speak the lapping truth that time and water, with enough of both, reveal all. That God, in her good humor, might conspire to allow a kid in doubt to walk on water in the bottom of a river valley in the middle of Ontario and feel that, in faith, he was stepping out into the world.
GEOFF MARTIN is a writer, educator, and fledgling sourdough baker now living in Western Massachusetts. His writing has appeared in The Goose, City Brink, and Canadian Literature, and his long-form essay, “From the Banks of the Grand,” was shortlisted for The New Quarterly’s 2011 Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. He is currently working on a series of essays about migrations and dispossessions, home and belonging, in the Great Lakes region.
Photo: “Walking on Water” by Kevin Krejci