Religious fervor, an African nightmare, and, finally, great wisdom.
posted on 28 March 2015
Maybe there are no shortcuts to wisdom. That idea came up in my recent conversation with a young man named Jonathan Hollingsworth, who strikes me as a compelling example.
He grew up in Virginia, the son of a minister and a writer, and was moved by deep spiritual yearnings from early childhood. As a teenager, he sought out the homeless and bought them meals. To show solidarity with the less fortunate, he sold most of his possessions and slept on the floor of his bedroom closet.
Then, in 2012, the 20-year-old quit college to spend a year as a missionary in Cameroon, what he thought would be the ultimate expression of his compassion and his devotion. The first photos from Africa, posted on Facebook by his mother, Amy, were of the smiling young man with children hanging around his neck.
But then the mother’s posts grew dark and foreboding. In reality, the mission was a cult-like sham that virtually imprisoned the young idealist when he arrived, editing his blog posts, deciding with whom he could and could not associate and what people he could serve. He came home after less than five months, spiritually and emotionally broken. He says those wounds were compounded by leaders of his in church in Virginia, who told him to keep quiet about what had happened.
That is part of the story of the new book, Runaway Radical: A Young Man’s Reckless Journey to Save the World. Jonathan and his mother have collaborated on the haunting and ultimately hopeful memoir. It was in the writing of the book that Jonathan found healing and something more.
Before Africa, his love of God wasn’t enough. Jonathan felt he had something to prove to himself, the world generally, and to God. Not anymore.
“My conclusion now is that God doesn’t love us any less when we fail, but he doesn’t love us any more when we succeed,” he told me. “We find ourselves trying to win his approval, and win his love that’s already been given and can’t be changed. It’s a complete one-eighty from what I was thinking before.”
He shared spiritual insights that I had never heard put quite the same way. For the 23-year-old, they had been hard won. He would probably agree that there are no shortcuts to wisdom.
What follows are excerpts from our conversation.
Tim Madigan: Tell me about the decision to go public with your story. Most people would have done just the opposite.
Jonathan Hollingsworth: When I got back from Africa that was easily the lowest point in my life. I was diagnosed with severe depression. I was barely getting out of bed. I wasn’t going back to school. I didn’t go back to work right away. I was drinking excessively. What I experienced in Africa, that corruption and manipulation, was bad enough, but then coming home and telling my church only to have them say ‘We don’t want you spreading this story around.’ I would say that was probably the biggest blow.
My mom was working on another book at the time but my story kept creeping into what she was writing. She said, ‘We should just tell your story.’ For me it started out as an exercise in journaling, just making sense of everything that had happened. After being silent for that long, just putting it on paper was really freeing for me. Whether it got published or not, I needed to go back and figure out where everything went wrong.
TM: I was fascinated by the passages that describe those early spiritual yearnings that took you in some unusual directions.
JH: There are definitely embarrassing parts of the story. The truth is, I used to sleep in my closet. I thought it was my duty as this privileged guy to give everything I had to the less fortunate. That meant I was sleeping on the floor to show solidarity with the homeless. It was this backward sort of logic. I had to make myself more uncomfortable because it felt wrong to indulge myself when so many people were suffering.
TM: You have called it ‘radical obedience.’ With the benefit of hindsight, what do you think was going on?
JH: I think that there was definite sincerity, even though a lot of my conclusions were misguided. I want to help people. I don’t want to be lazy. I don’t want to be apathetic. Millennials are extremely informed. But if we know so much and we’re not doing anything about it, we’re part of the problem. And so you know it was this sincere desire to help, coupled with this guilt that, ‘Oh, my gosh. I know what’s going on overseas, but here I am eating my ice cream.’ Guilt is a powerful motivator, but it’s one of the worst reasons to help others. I fell for it.
I don’t agree with that at all now. I think guilt is a terrible motivator. I don’t think we should manipulate people into helping others. It just doesn’t last long.
TM: Where are you with these questions today?
JH: That’s a good question. Let me think about that for a second. I think it’s a lot easier for me to identify sincere compassion, as opposed to guilt. My problem was that at that time I had never felt I was doing enough. There was always more to give, more to sacrifice. And I went to Africa to save the world. I wanted to see concrete results. I wanted to be able to measure my impact, and I just think that’s a recipe for disaster. You can’t measure those things. When it comes to helping others, I don’t think it should be a numbers game.
Now I leave room for mystery. Now I do what I can for others, but it’s no longer this contest. It was an unsustainable sort of game I played with myself and in the end I don’t think that helps anybody. And it’s more meaningful, more heartfelt when you allow for mystery. We never know the people we’re going to impact.
TM: Have your ideas about God changed?
JH: Absolutely. The truth is when I got home from Africa, I didn’t want anything to do with God. I didn’t want to go back to church. I didn’t want to read my Bible and I didn’t want to pray. I had been hurt by this mission organization. I had been hurt by my church. At the end of the day I thought, ‘God, why did you let this happen? Good grief, I went to Africa to help people. This is what you like, right?’ So when I got back I didn’t want anything to do with God and that was the best decision I could have made at that time. I really needed to examine my own motives. I needed to process everything that had happened and I needed to change my understanding of God.
I had been obsessed over doing something big, proving my devotion. That’s how I viewed God then. God kept raising the bar to a level that I could never meet. That kind of thinking was bad for my relationship with God. It was bad for the people I was trying to help and it was bad for me. It just led to this dead end.
So I sat back and took a break from everything. Now I have this idea of God as an entity that gives this supernatural, unconditional love. If that’s the case, there is nothing we can do to screw that up. My conclusion now is that God doesn’t love us any less when we fail, but he doesn’t love us any more when we succeed. We find ourselves trying to win his approval, and win his love that’s already been given and can’t be changed. It’s a complete one-eighty from what I was thinking before. I think it’s a much healthier view of God.
TM: That might be the most important message of your story.
JH: It’s so freeing, to have the freedom to give without needing anything in return. Our connection with God is exactly that. It’s love. That’s it. There is no expectation that we have to love in return. To me, that gives us the freedom to do so. If we’re not obligated to help others, we do it because we want to, and that’s the best motivator. And I think that motivation lasts so much longer than anything that’s motivated by guilt or shame or anything like that.
I think grace is the best motivator, this idea that I have the freedom to do good, not because I should, not because I’m obligated to, not because I feel guilty, but because I want to.