January 21st 2011 Racquetballing for Jesus

During my freshman year of college, I took up racquetball. I’d first become interested in the hobby the summer after fourth grade, when I’d watched the 1996 Wimbledon Tournament on TV and convinced my brother to start playing tennis. Since I knew nothing about tennis save for what I’d seen on TV, I bought a racquetball racquet instead of the proper tennis equipment (a mistake I didn’t learn until my uncle tried to teach me the “right” way to play tennis a few years later). Tennis didn’t work out so well, but I was convinced I should put the racquetball gear to use. It took me a while to make good on my promise, but when I was a freshman, I decided that this was the year, and set out to find a partner. (I was also convinced I was going to die if I didn’t get some exercise, but that’s beside the point.) I ended up playing with my friend and coworker, Andrew. Despite the fact that Andrew mostly played DDR and chain-smoked Djarum Blacks, he consistently beat me. We kept a tally in our cubicle in our office; I think at one point, Andrew was up 18-2, prompting the matronly grandmother of the office to tell me, “You’re really bad at racquetball.” “Maybe Andrew’s just really good,” I retorted, even though all three of us knew the truth.

By the second semester, I was playing at least three days a week, but like so many addictions, it wasn’t enough. I needed more. One day, I packed my gear—which, for racquetball, consists of a racquet and a set of blue balls that make a satisfying sploing! when they hit the floor of the enclosed court—and headed off to the gym. As I stepped outside, the chill January air biting into my exposed chicken legs, I nearly ran into the dorm’s Jesus guy.

The “Jesus guy” was the young man who ran the Bible study group for my freshman hall. In the beginning of the year, camouflaged by the guys dropping off Chinese food flyers and pizza coupons, he’d stopped by my room to convince me that, much like eating pizza, studying the Bible was in my best interest.

As a kid, I’d been captivated by religion. I think it started in first grade, when I read a book about Egyptian mythology and realized that other people had different ideas about God. I didn’t grow up in a particularly religious household—my family last attended church on Christmas Eve, 1994—so this evolved into an academic interest on the nature of religion and spirituality and man’s relationship with it. This interest would later be piqued by a Japanese literature course I took during the first semester of my freshman year. It was called “The Japanese Warrior in Literature” and focused on stories about the samurai. Japanese warriors tended to have strong spiritual beliefs, which in turn made me examine my own spirituality in a different light.

But I wasn’t interested in going to a Bible study. At the time I was an English student, and like any other piece of literature, I was interested in a critical analysis of the work, not a realization of the path to Heaven. I turned down his offer to join, but ended up discussing religion with him for a while before returning to my studies.

From time to time, I’d run into him around the dorm. We’d chat a bit, he’d usually invite me to the Bible study, and I’d politely decline. It was our thing. Sometimes we just chatted. In my childlike naïveté, I thought we were friends, in some distant but amiable kind of way. And I guess we were…except for his ulterior motives.

A lot of the guys at my college dressed in “gym chic”; that is, they constantly wore gym attire—mesh shorts, track pants, wife beaters, that sort of thing—to give the appearance that they’d just come from a workout, even though the only things they’d been lifting were 12 oz. cans of Natty Light. I wasn’t one of those guys, so Jesus dude knew something was up. “Hey, do you play racquetball?”

“From time to time,” I said.

“I haven’t played racquetball since college,” he said. That should’ve clued me in: the best way to build a rapport with a freshman is to talk about your own days in college. “You probably already have a partner, but maybe we could play sometime?”

I did have a partner, but the truth was, Andrew could no longer satiate me. My hunger for the racquetball was too strong. I made arrangements to play a match or two with Jesus dude. The first few times were actually kind of fun. He wasn’t that great, even compared to me, but he offered enough of a challenge that I figured it was worth my time to keep him around. After the third or fourth session, he asked, “Hey, do you want to get something to eat? My treat.”

Every college freshman knows how scarce a good meal is in college. The summer before my freshman year, when I’d lived on campus, I’d become adept at surreptitiously getting invited to dinner by friends who lived nearby, so by now I was a pro. His was an offer I couldn’t refuse. These post-match dinners became a regular occurrence. At first, they were pretty tame, but on the third, when he brought up the Bible, it hit me: I hadn’t been racquetballing for fun. I’d been racquetballing for Jesus.

To be honest, discussing religion over burgers with a Jesus proselytizer wasn’t as bad as I expected, and much less threatening than a Bible study group. Besides—free food. So I kept going for a few months. I wouldn’t say the chats were particularly enlightening, but at least they were fun (and motivated me to get exercise to boot). In the fall, the original Jesus dude left for greener pastures (Penn State University!), and a new guy took his place. He wasn’t interested in racquetball, just God. One day, I caught him peering into my room through the cracked door. I became more adamant in turning down his invitations to the Bible study group.

While I enjoyed the religious banter, I must admit that, despite my interest in religion, I only did it for the food. None of this would have happened if Mithraism had beat out Christianity in ancient Rome. Those guys knew how to throw a feast.