The following excerpt is from one chapter of a book about the year I lived with college students at 23 schools across the USA. Each chapter tells the true story of one week in the life of a random college student at one of the nation’s most interesting colleges. The following chapter tells the story of Gabe, a non-religious student who is invited to attend one of the largest weekly Christian gatherings in the country.
Chapter 19: Texas A&M
Gabe wanted to go to any college other than Texas A&M. His mom, dad, sister, and brother had all gone to A&M, and it was expected that Gabe would go as well. For Gabe, A&M represented his succumbing to familial expectations. It meant that he would not go off into the world and invent himself, but instead that he would become exactly what his parents had always wanted him to become. As a high schooler, Gabe applied to a number of long-shot dream colleges in hopes that he could go to school far from home—somewhere where he could escape the culture of his youth, meet students from different backgrounds, and form a new identity for himself. He also applied to Texas A&M as a backup and because his parents wanted him to. When the college letters rolled in, he was rejected by all of his dream schools. The only college that accepted him was Texas A&M.
Gabe was now nearing the end of his sophomore year at Texas A&M, and I was visiting him for one week before I returned to Austin for the summer. When I arrived, we took seats in his apartment, and he began telling me about his life.
At freshman orientation, incoming A&M students are told about the Two Percenters. Two Percenters are the 2% of A&M students who don’t show school spirit and aren’t eager to participate in school traditions. Gabe identified as a Two Percenter, and he claimed that Two Percenters comprised 30% of the student body. The majority of the students—the diehard Aggies—tended to be Christian, politically conservative, and obsessed with their school.
As Gabe was telling me about A&M, he received a text from Mikayla, a girl who he hadn’t spoken to for a couple months. She was inviting him to come with her to an event the following night called Breakaway. Breakaway is a church service that takes place on campus. It is held in either the football stadium or in an auditorium, and it has a weekly attendance of 9,000 students, making it the largest Christian gathering on a secular campus in the nation.
“Who’s Mikayla?” I asked.
“She’s just some girl,” Gabe said. “She used to like me until I dropped the bomb that God’s not for me. That’s what it’s like here—dropping a bomb. Now she just invites me to Breakaway every now and then to see if she can still convert me.”
“What are you going to say?”
“Oh, I always make some excuse.”
“Do you want to go? I’d be down.”
“No way. I couldn’t do it.”
“Dude, we should go.”
“I really don’t want to, but I’ve always been curious. I’m worried there’s gonna be a lot of this thing.” Gabe imitated the worship style seen in certain Christian churches—eyes closed, one hand in the air, swaying forward and back.
“Is that what it’s like?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s that kind of Christian.”
We spent a while debating whether or not to go. Gabe didn’t want to go because anything church-related made him uncomfortable, and also because he didn’t want to lead Mikayla on. If he accepted her invitation, he thought, he would be signaling to her that he might be a romantic prospect. I suggested that he tell Mikayla I was his friend visiting from out of town, and that I was the one who wanted to go. This would take the pressure off the romantic aspect of the night, and it would also allow Gabe to hide the fact that he might have any personal interest in Breakaway. Gabe was convinced. He texted Mikayla and told her that we were interested.
“This might actually be good,” Gabe said. “This semester my mom told me, ‘Gabe, please go to church for me three times.’ And my sister has already asked me to go with her.”
Gabe stopped going to church with his family sometime during high school. His mom thought it was because their church was too boring, and she figured that Gabe would start going again in college. Now that Gabe was in college, he still had no interest.
“Why did you stop going?” I asked.
“Well, fuck. I don’t have the answers, and I’m not going to. I’m indifferent, but I thought about it. I took a long time to think about it and decided I didn’t know the answers. It’s a lot better to just tell people I don’t care.”
Gabe was drinking a beer and eating a plate of baby carrots. The television was on, and a local jewelry ad was playing. It said, “She loves the Aggies. You love the way she makes you feel.”
“I’d say it’s like 98% Christian here,” Gabe continued. “The atheists are all the goths or lesbians. Or like, the fat kid with the Pokemon shirt and the mustache. And it really is a huge deal to tell somebody you aren’t Christian. They just expect it. And if they find out you’re not, they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s one of them.’”
Mikayla texted back. She was excited to take us to Breakaway. She was even willing to pick us up and drive us there herself. Gabe let out a big grin and shook his head, then he stood and walked to the bottom of the stairs.
“Logan!” he yelled. “Logan! C’mere!”
Gabe’s roommate Logan came to the top of the stairs.
“What is it?” Logan asked, sounding vaguely annoyed like he had been interrupted from something important.
“We’re going to Breakaway with Mikayla tomorrow,” Gabe told him.
“Oh god, I gotta hear this,” Logan said while hurrying down the stairs.