Chasing Amy

[Christianity Today, January 2000]

Amy Tracy prepared to die.

She had linked her arms through those of fellow pro-choice activists as they surrounded a van stopped outside an abortion clinic. Inside the van were women in the second trimester of pregnancy, trying to make it inside the clinic for their abortions.

But a band of Christian soldiers had declared it a day of battle. Singing songs about Jesus, the crowd encircled the pro-choicers and pressed in close. A twelve-year-old boy jumped on the van’s hood and attempted to smash the windshield with his sign. The din was overwhelming. A sudden surge in the crowd threw Amy against the van and she found herself crushed against sheet metal by the bodies of shouting, hostile strangers. Gasping, unable to draw a breath, she resigned herself to death. She would give her life for the noblest cause she knew.

As a lesbian feminist activist Amy had found a focus for her idealism, and had risen to one of the centers of movement power: press secretary for the National Organization for Women. She was good at what she did. Amy implemented the grassroots strategy to defeat Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court, and shared the hard work to bring off the massive abortion rights march in 1992. Street-smart and bold, with a mischievous sense of humor, Amy had found a niche where her talents were employed in causes she considered of ultimate importance.

And yet, she says, “My soul was never satisfied.”

Today Amy Tracy works as a writer for Focus on the Family, and has been a liaison to Dr. James Dobson’s office for public policy. She is a dedicated evangelical Christian, and speaks for Focus on the Family on issues ranging from abortion to homosexuality to gambling. But no evangelist or conservative activist can take credit for this dramatic conversion. In fact, this story is marked by a succession of failed opportunities — times when Christians could have shown her the love she needed, or the unknown truth she sought, but did not. No one has the right to hold up Amy Tracy’s head as a trophy. Her conversion was an inside job.

A sad and crooked path had led the young woman to the moment she prepared to die for her cause. Amy grew up on the New Jersey shore in what she terms “a house of chaos and violence.” When things blew up at home she would run to hide at her friend’s house next door, though that family, Amy says, was troubled as well. The two girls were thrown together by adversity, and in friendship with another young teen Amy found the deepest emotional bond she’d known.

Things changed, at least for awhile, in high school. Amy bloomed from awkward, unpopular girlhood into an athlete, the school’s superstar at track competitions. Suddenly, she had friends and admiration. Suddenly, she had her father’s pride.

“One of my most vivid memories is of falling into my father’s arms at the end of a race,” Amy says. “I was muddy and exhausted, and I felt his long, tweed-wool coat against my cheek and smelled the crisp November air. His big sleeves blocked out the noise of the crowd., and I felt peace and safety.”

But that security lasted only as long as her success did. When she began losing races, approval changed to anxious control.

“My dad became the classic sports-obsessed father,” Amy says. He had been a runner too, and now jealously monitored Amy’s performance, advising and scolding, barking at her coaches. “I tried to work out harder and follow the advice people gave me, but before each race I’d go numb, knowing what was waiting at the finish line. Afterward we’d drive home in silence, and it was only a matter of time before I would pay for my loss.”

During one cross-country race, Amy was tempted to veer off and plunge over a cliff rather than face the painful aftermath of losing another race. A different image from the end of a race stands out in Amy’s memory: “As I finished behind the pack, I looked up to see my dad’s back as he headed toward the parking lot.” Amy’s popularity faded, her coaches lost interest in her, and friends who suspected the unhappiness of her home life were careful not to get too close.

Amy describes herself at this point as in “emotional shock.” She entered an all-girl college, still longing for the approval and popularity she had briefly known. She partied hard, drowning the pain in alcohol. By her junior year the fun was wearing thin, and a hunger for the innocence of childhood, for “purity,” drew her to choose a major in health and physical fitness.

“My major was dominated by lesbian professors,” Amy says. “I liked them; there was something that drew me toward them. They were rational, they were strong, they were intelligent, and they had their own little community. I wanted to be a part of it.” A faculty advisor flirted with her and touched her suggestively, and Amy began to wonder what it would be like to love another woman in this way. Before long she found out.

It was more than a sexual experience; it was an identity. Amy had been wondering if her feelings of emptiness, pain and alienation were signs she was gay. Before her first experience with another woman, Amy told a lesbian friend, “I think I’m a lesbian.” The friend responded, “You know, I always thought you were.” That confirmed it. At last, there was a place she belonged.

In Amy’s senior year she went to an abortion-rights march, less for ideological reasons than out of curiosity. Also, it seemed like a good place to meet women. But something she wasn’t expecting occurred.

“It turned out to be one of the most significant days of my life,” Amy says. She found herself in the midst of hundreds of thousands of women, marching past “seats of power’ like the White House and the Capital, listening to speeches by Molly Yard and Jesse Jackson. “It filled my soul with a sense of purpose, and I decided on that day to commit my life to the fight for women’s rights.”

A few months later, she was hired at the National Organization for Women. In that capacity she traveled across the country, helping to organize rallies and protests, and training local activists in non-violent civil disobedience techniques. She led training in preparation for a protest at the White House condemning discrimination against gays in the military, and marched with leadership near the front of the 1993 gay and lesbian march.

“I encountered Christians at these events,” she says, and they left a poor impression. “They showed up at clinics with their condemning signs, eerie songs about God, and robot-like determination to close clinics and obstruct women’s freedom. I didn’t believe they really cared about babies — they only wanted to oppress women. When they rushed the doors at one clinic, scrambling on their hands and knees, forcing their way through our legs, I stepped on them and kicked them as if they were rats. I never felt guilty. I hated them.”

The feeling was mutual. Amy was threatened by pro-life activists on several occasions. In one instance, she served an injunction on a pro-lifer at a hotel. In response, she says, he chased her through the lobby, jacked her up against a wall and announced he’d tear her legs off.

But something else was going on within Amy, something that alarmed her. “There were times I felt a profound sadness for something I could not identify.” She was aware that “joy, purity, and peace” were missing from her life. The yearning grew, and she gradually became aware of a profound hunger for God. And sometimes, unasked, a deep peace would flood her soul.

These feelings were unwanted and disturbing. “I didn’t ask for the hunger. I didn’t ask for the peace. I had a successful career, friends, respect, and a committed relationship with another woman. My world was hostile to Christianity, and I despised Christians.”

Front line protests kept bringing Amy face to face with Christians, where they lived up to her low expectations. Yet it was sometimes in the presence of Christians that her hunger would grow most strong.

One event outside an abortion clinic stands out in Amy’s memory. She was looking into the faces of three pro-life women. One glared at her with fury; another looked through her as if she didn’t exist, and the third regarded her with resentment and fear. Yet, instead of being moved to a mirror reaction of anger and self-righteousness, Amy felt like she was coming apart. “That day, pain was leaking through my armor. I needed them to reach out and touch me. I needed someone to see me as a real person in pain, not just an abomination.”

Things came to a head when Amy stood outside a clinic in Pensacola, Florida, wearing a bulletproof vest. Blood still stained the pavement; a man named Paul Hill had shot and killed an abortion doctor and a pro-choice activist there, and a crowd of protesters stood at the foot of the driveway bearing signs announcing that he had done the right thing. Amy was aware of two things at that moment: that, by this logic, these protesters thought she too deserved to die; and that she longed for God with all her heart.

“I freaked out,” she laughs. “I thought, I’m turning into one of them at the foot of the driveway.”

She knew that unless she could stop the hunger for God, it would destroy her career in the feminist movement. So when she got back to Washington she made an appointment to see a therapist. Her presenting complaint was, “I am feeling vulnerable to the Christian God.” The therapist, however, only wanted to talk about Amy’s childhood, so she quit going.

Instead, Amy and her girlfriend decided to leave the whole Washington scene and move someplace “gay-affirming”: Seattle. One evening before they left Amy ran into a pro-life activist at a restaurant, someone with whom she’d long exchanged taunts. She walked over and made a sarcastic comment, expecting him to respond in kind.

His response surprised her. “Amy, all I pray for is the chance to see you standing in the front row of church, praising and loving Jesus,” he said. ‘Forget you and me and the abortion debate. That’s all I want.” He looked down, away from her, but Amy says, “If he’d looked up again, he would have seen the pain and longing in my eyes.”

In Seattle, Amy thought she’d get a mainstream job and tentatively look into Christianity. But soon she was back in the old loop, working for the state chapter of NOW. Amy spoke in public schools in favor of homosexuality, but something was changing. The old enthusiasm was gone.

“I started to wrestle with what I saw in the gay and lesbian community,” she says. “I mentioned to my girlfriend that many of our friends and fellow activists seemed to be as broken as I was, and she said that was the result of societal persecution. Yet I knew that wasn’t the case. I began to long for purity. I wanted to know what was right and wrong. Yet it seemed that everyone around me based everything only on their feelings.”

Years of crusading anger had taken their toll. “I realized that I had grown into a person I didn’t respect. I was hard, burned-out, and hateful. My loathing of Christians expanded into a dislike of people in general. I began to daydream about having a normal life.”

Amy went to the conference for the Washington state chapter of NOW, and was elected vice president. There she attended a workshop on spirituality. In a cellar room cluttered with candles, participants began chanting to a Goddess. Unexpectedly, Amy found herself growing uncomfortable. She dropped out of the chanting, then, under her breath, began to chant instead the name “Jesus.”

After the chanting the members of the group were to go around the circle and say something positive about their own womanhood. After Amy spoke, the leader stopped the session, saying that someone in the group was “disingenuous” and “unwelcome.”

“Immediately panic raced through me,” Amy says. “I knew she was talking about me. It was the first time I tapped into the spiritual world, and it scared me.”

Amy tried to drown these frightening feelings by plunging into her familiar chosen life. She spent a weekend with her girlfriend in the flagship gay section of San Francisco, the Castro district. They partied hard, tripping on Ecstasy, drinking and smoking pot, then spent hours at a gay and lesbian dance club. All this fun left her feeling slammed against the floor. When she came home, Amy sensed she had hit bottom.

For the next few days she wandered Seattle’s rainy streets. “I know it’s a little weird, but I was looking for someone to tell me how to find God,” she says. She went to the shopping hub of the old city, Pike’s Place Market. She’d once seen someone selling Christian t-shirts there, but he was gone. She looked for a street evangelist who sometimes preached nearby, but he wasn’t out either. Ducking into a library, she spent a while reading the Bible and “Christianity Today.” Back out on the street she saw a man wearing a large cross around his neck, who was walking with his family. “I followed them for awhile, trying to get up the nerve to stop them and ask some questions, but after awhile I started feeling silly.”

After a week of this wandering she turned to the Yellow Pages. There was a big ad for a church with the word “Christian” in it, so she decided to go to a Sunday evening service. She had infiltrated churches before in order to spy on opposition activities, but the idea of going in as a sincere participant was daunting. Arriving at the church she describes as “one of the scariest moments of my adult life.” She was a local lesbian activist with a high profile, and her pickup truck with its rainbow flags and political stickers stood out in the parking lot. Amy thought she might be recognized and thrown out, or tied to a pew, and wind up on the evening news.

Yet when the pastor began to speak, all her self-consciousness melted away. “I was mesmerized by his words, and they soaked into every pore of my being. I learned that it was possible to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and that by placing my life in his hands he would change me from the inside out. That’s what I wanted; I wanted change.”

She snuck back into the church several times, and a few weeks later sat wrestling with the decision to walk the aisle and publicly commit her life to Christ. “I sat in the midst of what I still saw as the enemy. I knew that if I went forward I would lose my job, my friends, my relationship, the respect of others — everything.

“But I did go forward that day, and do you know why?” she laughs. “Because nobody else did!  The pastor had his hand up in the air, he was red and sweating and saying, ‘There’s somebody here who still needs to come forward! Who is it?’ And he wouldn’t sit down! He wouldn’t end the service until that person came forward!” Amy figured  her number was up, so on September 19, 1995, she walked down to pray and commit her life to the Lord. “The pastor lifted my hand up and started shouting — I don’t remember what. I was so nervous I lost all feeling in my hands and feet.”

That God accepted her, Amy says, still seems unbelievable. She had been rejecting him for years, and came only when every other source of meaning had failed and she was near desperation. It is testimony to God’s humility that he accepts converts on such unflattering terms. But Amy believes God did not only see a “God-hater” or hardened activist. He saw a wounded teenaged girl who at last was able to accept a Father’s steadfast love.

The next months were grueling. Amy’s friends alternated between worry about her and anger at her. Her girlfriend, deeply hurt, accused her of joining up with people who “want to put gays in concentration camps.” She ridiculed Amy’s faith and told her that she’d thrown away her life for a lie. “Every time I left after talking to her, I felt beat up,” Amy says.

Storm-tossed, Amy clung to her faith and begged God to keep a tight hold on her through her loneliness and fear. “Sometimes I could actually feel his grip on me,” she says. She could also feel her hardened shell melting away, and innocence and youth beginning to return.

At Calvary Fellowship Amy found a community where her background wasn’t an issue; the church has an explicit mission to people on the margins of society, and as Amy says, many of those who mentored and discipled her “had testimonies far crazier than mine.” The elder who led her class in basic Christian faith was a gruff former drug dealer.

For six months Amy avoided thinking about the social issues that had once been her life. Then, one day, she was standing in Starbucks flipping through the New York Times when she ran across several stories dealing with controversial issues. “A wave of panic swept through me,” she says. “I realized that my position on these issues, once integral to my soul, was now changing.”

She vowed to avoid all propaganda, but one day, while stuck in traffic and scanning the radio dial, she ran across a broadcast of a speech Rep. Henry Hyde had given about partial-birth abortion. While no logical argument or medical facts had ever swayed her on the issue, all at once she felt how abortion grieved God. “It made me sad to think that every day women were destroying people whom God loved, and I repented for the part I played.”

The speech was being broadcast on the Focus on the Family radio show, and Amy wrote a letter to Dr. Dobson saying how it had affected her. She told a little of her background. Soon she was invited to consider a job at Focus. She’s now been employed there almost three years, until recently concentrating on issues surrounding gambling.

We need to be forthright in confronting social ills, Amy says, but never at the cost of kindness. “The people we debate need to see love and respect more than moral reasoning or political arguments. Too often, the words and actions of Christians pushed me farther away from Jesus,” she says. “Now, I can’t help but feel a deep sadness for those who are still searching, yet blinded to Christ. My prayer is that Christians will be able to see those others with compassion, not as enemies; as broken and in need of restoration by the only healer of our souls, Jesus Christ.”

Prayer is more effective than the cleverest argument. The year she converted, Amy later learned, her seven-year-old nephew had adopted her as a special prayer target.

“God brought me out of tangible darkness into light,” Amy concludes. “It’s something he promises us in his word: ‘For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness, and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption and the forgiveness of sins.’ Nothing compares to the freedom I have found in Jesus Christ.

“It’s true freedom. I used to think freedom was loving who I wanted, and smoking what I wanted, and living as I pleased. What I discovered was that true freedom is doing what deep down inside you know you ought to do. True freedom is found in the grace and love of Jesus Christ.”

If that makes it sound like life now is just peachy, it would be an exaggeration. Everything isn’t always perfect. Some days are harder than others. Amy had to leave behind some friends for whom her heart still aches. It’s tempting to carry into battle the same cocky, armored attitude that served her well before. But every day she learns more how to let love in, how to let it out again. It’s the ongoing education every Christian goes through. Amy Tracy is preparing to live.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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