While preparing for her baptism at Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church, Gina Welch was handed a checklist: She’d need a towel and a change of underwear. Arriving at the church without the latter, she was advised to rush across the street and purchase it at TJ Maxx. Immersed during the ritual, Welch “saw [herself] pictured on the JumboTrons, saw Dr. Falwell sitting on the stage, slit eyes turned up toward the baptistry. Flashbulbs glittered.” Feeling every inch the imposter she was, Welch struggled to produce “a sweet smile that felt as leaden as my robe.”
The baptism — along with the church suppers, the singles group, and the mission trip to Alaska during which she told strangers that they were sinners — was part of an experiment recounted in Welch’s new book, In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church, which she will discuss at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St., Berkeley) on Monday, March 22.
Before moving to Virginia for grad school — which at the time she saw “as a kind of elaborate performance art project” — Welch had been raised as a secular Jew by a single mom in Berkeley; her father, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, had asserted that faith was obsolete. “When I was a kid, religion barely touched my life, and when it did, it delivered a neat, repulsive shock,” Welch reflects now.
Eager to shed her own prejudices about Virginia, Welch realized that to understand its heart, she had to hang with Evangelicals.
“I was squatting in Christian country,” she said. “Naturally, I felt alien there.” In the America that had just re-elected George W. Bush, “I felt it critical to grapple in person with what that meant: What were Evangelicals like when they weren’t speaking into a microphone? What was it like in their churches? What was their vision for our shared future?”
So she went undercover, joining Falwell’s church because Falwell was so famous: “He was on TV all the time, asserting his prejudices as moral truth. I had this very strong impression of him as a bad man.”
Chatting with fellow churchgoers about angels, miracles, and ministries, Welch began her imposture with blithe nonchalance, viewing the rituals in which she engaged — whose premise she scorned inwardly, but which her new friends “believed was the meaning of life” — as mere means to an end. And while she didn’t become a full-on convert, she emerged from the experiment feeling abashed about her fakery and imbued with gratitude toward those she’d planned to mock.
At first, “I couldn’t bring myself to take Evangelical Christians seriously,” she said. “Of course, once you develop relationships with people and you begin to respect them, you’re suddenly struck by the imperative of respecting what they believe.” 7 p.m., free. BooksInc.net