Primarily, No Purple – creative nonfiction by Ellen Huang

Primarily, No Purple

“Yeah, we found people breaking this rule once. They said they were doing fellowship.” The incredulous tone of the pastor said it all. The chapel murmured and muttered into a collective laughter. “Sure you are,” the laughter said. Teenagers; naive, stupid youth; never realizing how one thing leads to another. Fellowship! as if!

But that was exactly what we were doing. As the audience and leaders ridiculed the anonymous example, I shrank back on the inside. Winter Retreat was only feeling increasingly lonelier this time. It seemed that everyone, without knowing us, made assumptions about our relationship dirtier than things actually were.

The rule was simple, and I understood in the rush of our culture why the rule existed. “Let me put it this way,” I’ve heard many a counselor say. “The boy cabin is blue, the girl cabin is red[/pink]. [A pause]. No purple.” We were a retreat of Christian youth and in our faith, love was as precious as life and as significant as death—just as you wouldn’t want to meet your maker before your time, you shouldn’t want to awaken love before it so desires. This was also a certain kind of love that everyone alluded to but never addressed, as if everyone was bound to be twitterpated in the same way. It was this kind of mindset, and almost avoidant fear, that started to estrange the kinds of friendships I had.

I grew up with a motley group of friends in church, that my mom once admired for its diversity. “I like how you’re all different ages and grades and have guys and girls,” she once said. My mom, loving me so much and knowing our group so well, threw a unique sweet sixteen surprise for me, letting these friends in on the surprise. What with games of hide-and-seek, E.T.-referencing prayers, and Wreck This Journal, it became probably the most childlike and tomboyish sweet sixteen I knew, and it was perfect. What did surprise me, though, was when I leapt to hug one of my closest friends after opening his gift. After the party, my mom said, with an awkward frown, “I know you’re excited…but no hugging boys.”

And so the differences began. I had to break it to my closest friends that as pure as our intentions were, we were never allowed to have that slumber party, even if guys slept in another room. As far as we imagined, we were just going to hang out like we always did, the only difference being the nighttime setting, allowing us to share deep discussions like in lock-ins. But apparently, not at our house, because you know, one thing always leads to another, and better safe than sorry.

I understand where this mindset comes from and I understand the concern parents have. I understand how the norm is, how society is, and I understand the Christian’s heart in valuing—and waiting for—intimacy. What I think is difficult for the community to understand, however, is that there are different kinds of intimacy besides the kind to procreate.

Julie Rodgers, one of the most authentic and life-loving speakers I’ve ever heard visit my school Point Loma Nazarene University, spoke on these different kinds of intimacy: all equally wholesome and blessed and good. While exploring her identity and the then possibility of celibacy, she expressed how humanity was not created to be alone—but even those who don’t end up marrying and having sex can wholly experience intimacy. There is such a closeness in cooking pasta together with neighbors, a pleasure in playing football with someone you share so much in common with, a depth of awe and wonder in really “doing life” with people in your church. And we miss that, sometimes as a church, when all we can think of as the end-all goal is getting married and starting a nuclear family. When we don’t need to contribute to the family that church is supposed to be, when we think having our own literal families to take care of is enough. Where does that leave people who don’t quite get that ring by spring? Are they less whole for not having found that complementary other half? Romantic love is a crazy-amazing-beautiful thing, but it isn’t the only thing.

Hearing Julie speak, I got the sense of clarity and felt less alone in the world. She gets it, I thought. I had never heard someone describe the desire of my life so deeply, fully, empathetically.

And although Julie has since grown to love and blissfully marry a woman—which I celebrate—and it turns out I am oriented differently, her advocacy for the necessity of platonic love even then still rings true for me today.

I go back to environment in the church I grew up with. My closest friends there happened to be guys, and sometimes at our church, for whatever reason, there was a segregation of the sexes. Girls happened to conglomerate here, while guys gathered over there. In youth groups, even after just a movie night, we split up by gender in order to discuss the movie. And for whatever reason (based on my ability to relate, not to be taken as an accurate picture of these individuals’ complexities), I felt I could relate better to the guys there, have soul-searching conversations about what something really meant or symbolized. After The Young Messiah, the girls’ group speeded through worksheet questions about how Jesus was so pure for not fighting back when bullied as a child (and how we should follow that example). We lightly prayed and made fun of the slowpoke guys as we got to the snacks first. Meanwhile, I saw the circle of the guy small group from afar, especially my friends, deep in some conversation. I longed to talk to them about the film. How Jesus believed the girl who killed to defend herself against a drunk assaulter to be innocent.

I get that not everyone’s comfortable with the idea of co-ed groups, but why couldn’t we learn from each other?

“Always have your best friend be the same gender as you, or else you will fall in love, and it will break you,” a Sunday School series on purity instructed us. “Also don’t date until you’ve been friends first.”

(Okay, that one I can understand—if dating was toward a goal of marriage, it was bizarre to me why anyone would date any stranger with great hair).

“Always have your accountability partner be the same gender as you—but not your best friend, or else they’ll just agree with everything you do.”

These rules were getting hard to keep track of.

Though I could see the concern about flings in our age group, how does one regulate others’ developing friendships? Though I understood the necessity of defining relationships and being on the same page, how does one prescribe a now-or-never relationship? And if the only friends who really got me happened to be of a different gender, why should the only way to pursue our Christ together follow the ways of what society has hyper-defined us as? Jesus broke all the social norms of His day and with pure intentions had deep conversations with women. Why can I not with pure intentions have deep conversations with men?

Maybe I’m not preaching to the choir but to a minority within a minority. Maybe the majority of men and women experience an irresistibility I don’t. Okay, I might be starting to sound like Max the “airhead virgin” in Hocus Pocus who lit a candle because he didn’t heed warnings what it would bring. I can’t speak for everyone, I can’t speak for the guys, and I’m not here to prescribe to you any certain lifestyle.

But I think back to the night we broke the rules of Winter Retreat. We were wrestling with questions of faith, doubts, and identity. We tried to have conversations in our separate gendered small groups, but as friends our motley crew met up afterwards. A cabin game of mafia turned into a light in the darkness, when we shared about real life concerns in a space of true empathy. The next night, after 10pm praise and worship, we approached each other naturally.

“Are we doing the thing?” “Yeah, we’re doing the thing.” We knew where to meet, and we sat on the cold wooden floor and just talked. My friend, whom I’ll call Diaval, had even brought along a new girl, new to our churches, new to Christianity, really. (Let’s call her Kiara). Then and there we showered her with our raw thoughts about our church, about what was awkward and difficult and yet what was hopeful and good and kept us believing. A Winter Retreat of equally lamenting in doubts grew into a reminder of why we still had our faith. That night, we even referenced Harry Potter’s discovery of identity in magic as a way of describing to Kiara the powerful identity of being children of God. Caught between wanting to listen and wanting to talk, I could barely get a word in. A little annoying, not gonna lie, but that was how passionate our circle was to jump in and speak truth. Diaval then asked that we pause, and Kiara said she was overwhelmed at what all the community in this faith means.

Suddenly, the cabin door barged open on us. “OH MY GOD!” someone yelled. A bright light flashed in. A cluster of adults and another girl were waiting outside. We were busted.

Not only was it late, but turns out they had been going around from cabin to cabin in the snow searching for Kiara. They had all been so worried about her. Their focus, of course, was her safety, and this fear that she had run away or come to harm. There was such relief that she was found. In the arms of the girl who led the search, Kiara cried. She hadn’t intended to “run away;” she didn’t realize people would care so much about her missing. Inside I started to worry how the search group saw us, this late-night group of teenagers snuck away in a cabin. Did we look like we kidnapped her—or worse, led her astray?

Well, I guess the following year at Winter Retreat, when the pastor made an anonymous example of us, I got my answer. Luckily none of us had gotten into trouble, and luckily we weren’t called out by name, but sadly people didn’t believe we were sincerely trying to do fellowship in the warmest setting and most platonic sense. The adults seemed to believe teenagers were only thinking about one thing all the time, maybe even especially the guys.

I think back to that secretive, hideaway night. That night we were Lost Boys in a fast-growing world, falling and trying to find our happy thoughts again. We were Wild Things as a forest grew in our room, and we wanted to be where we were loved most of all. And we just talked. We were so real, and contemplating, just contemplating, what it means to hope.


Ellen Huang holds a BA in Writing and a minor in Theatre from Point Loma Nazarene University. She has pieces published/forthcoming in HerStry, South Broadway Ghost Society, Moonchild Magazine, and Gingerbread House, among others. She lives in San Diego with queer Christian friends. Follow her creative work:

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