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Monday, September 20, 2021

Column: Speaking in tongues

Half an hour before I’m asked my conviction about the end of the world, two hours before I have a debate about globalization with the keynote speaker in front of the whole group and three and a half hours before about 20 people circle around and lay their hands on me while speaking in tongues, I’m walking into what I think is a lecture from a missionary who returned from the Middle East.

It’s Sunday night, and when my housemate David asks me what I’m doing tonight, I can’t lie because all the evidence around me (the laptop on Facebook, the sweatpants, etc.) confirms I have no plans. He tells me tonight is the second session of a three-week series on evangelism he helped organize, and if I have nothing to do, I should go. I figured I’d show some support.

I show up a few minutes late, and there are about 25 people in the room. The lights are dim and the first thing I notice is to my right – a yellow cloth hangs over the window so the outside light glows from behind. It says “Back to Jerusalem.” The first thing I think of is Marcus Garvey and the Gaza Strip.

Once the singing ends, the light turns on and the speaker shares a little bit about his life and his conviction. His life is the standard: He partied his way through depression at Rutgers, and eventually found God at the end of the tunnel. His conviction is God gave him a sign the world would end in five to 10 years.

He then asks us to go around the room and share our life story and conviction about the end times in two minutes or less. One of the girls stands up and shares a dream she had about the end of the world involving three planets, unequipped space travel and a giant clock that is rapidly approaching midnight.

She is not the only one as fervent about the cause, and what strikes me isn’t what they are saying, but how they say it with such raw intensity. And this is surprising, finding a group like this on a campus full of seniors who can’t even figure out what they want to do after graduation.

As the night continues, the speaker goes on for hours about how Jesus will return as a political leader, and the gospel must be spread to Jerusalem to hasten the end of the world. This reminds me of Cold War conspiracy theories and the myth globalization will usher world peace.

At one point, I raise my hand and challenge the speaker in a futile debate over whether or not the Bible should be interpreted literally. What happens in the end is everyone still believes in what they believed in two hours ago. I label myself as the unsaved agnostic who apparently cares more about going to Costco next weekend than spreading the gospel to Jerusalem.

The last 40 minutes is reserved for prayer. This is the strangest part of the night. When the lights dim again, the entire room is struck with instant and uncensored fervor. People begin yelling over each other at the top of their lungs with prayers in languages that have never been spoken before.

I ask David later that night what he thought about the night. He tells me he wasn’t expecting any of it, either.

“You know, I don’t buy what they said any more than you do,” David says. “That’s what I meant last week when I said I had mixed feelings about the group.

“It’s disturbing to think you could be completely wrong about something, and still have such strong convictions about it. But at the end of the day, they’re the ones going to Jerusalem. What are we doing?”

I think about the moment when I’m pressured to stand in the middle of the room during the prayer for UC Davis students. The rest of the room is around me, laying hands on me and praying for all the problems they think I have. At that instant, I’m wondering how I can stand in the middle of this and not feel a thing. I haven’t felt anything in a long time. And here everyone is, feeling everything at once: anger, sorrow, passion.

In a way, I think that passion is, in fact, another language. It’s one I used to speak, but forgot how. It’s like when I was a child and my mother spoke Chinese words I used to know. I stared at her not registering a single word.

GEOFF MAK wants to thank Mario Lugo for inspiring him to not be afraid to write about controversial subjects in his column. E-mail him at gemak@ucdavis.edu if you liked, hated or were indifferent about this week’s column.

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