Is God Even Real?
Farmhouses nestled in the snow-covered Austrian countryside. Smoke rose from chimneys, making me think of hot cups of tea, apple strudel fresh out of the oven, and families gathering around warm fires. As the train sped toward Vienna, I stared out the window, trying to fight that familiar, lonely feeling of being a minority.
Along with two dozen other college students, I was about to spend winter quarter in Vienna, Austria. The others in the program were chatting about their Christmas holidays and discussing concerts, balls, and operas they were hoping to attend. I sighed. They have so much in common, I thought. I was an immigrant from India; they'd all been born in America. I was paying for college with scholarships, loans, part-time work, and my parents' sacrifices; their wallets were probably full of platinum credit cards and inherited money. The biggest difference between us, however, was that they were white and I had dark skin.
"Didn't I see you at the Christmas service on campus?"
I turned around. A blond girl with friendly blue eyes was smiling at me.
"Uh-huh," I said. It had been my one and only experience attending a Christian church.
"I'm Elizabeth," the girl said. "My family drags me to a Christmas Eve service in our home church, but I like the one on campus better, don't you?"
I mumbled something and went back to watching the scenery. The last thing I needed was another Christian friend. In fact, that was one reason I'd applied for the program in Vienna. I wanted to continue my search for truth far away from the influence of friends and family. I was tired of listening to the opinions of devout Christians, passionate atheists, and even spiritual Hindus like my parents. It was time to decide for myself whether or not I believed in God.
A friend back at school had asked me to take a closer look at Jesus. And I'd agreed to read C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity as well as the Bible while I was in Vienna. But it seemed to me that Christianity was for white-skinned Europeans and Americans. I was from the world of dark-skinned people, people who worshiped Hindu idols, believed in Allah and Muhammad, and followed Buddha and the eight-fold path. If Christianity were the only way to salvation, as my friend claimed, then the Christian heaven would be full of white people, just like the train I was riding. My beloved Hindu family would be nowhere in sight. How could I turn my back on my own people and heritage by accepting this white religion?
And I had other unanswered questions. A guy I'd liked in high school had died in a car accident involving a drunk driver. How could an almighty God allow this type of chaos and pain? I'd lived in India, Ghana, Cameroon, and Mexico; I'd seen people struggling to survive, children on the verge of starvation. How could a merciful God allow such suffering?
I Couldn't Get Away from Jesus
I decided I needed solitude and privacy to search for answers. Once we arrived in Vienna, I planned on keeping to myself, reading books about different religions and writing in my journal. But in spite of my best attempts to stay aloof, the city's warm friendliness drew me in. The woman at the post office came from behind the counter to tie my scarf more securely against the cold. The vendor at the chocolate stand stuffed extra caramels in my bag. Austrian food seemed bland to my Asian taste buds, and the cheerful roast-potato seller generously sprinkled paprika on my steaming potatoes.