God in Disguise
Trudy Taylor Smith
Reviewed by Kelly Treleaven
As a teacher in the American South living in an upper middle class neighborhood and wrestling with my own religious identity, I didn’t expect to feel as personally moved as I did by an account from a Christian missionary seeking solidarity with the poor in India. But that’s exactly what good memoirs do, they connect: across continents, through spaces and experiences and beliefs. With admirable narrative dexterity and piercing vulnerability, Trudy Smith relates her spiritual and physical journey in a way that will reach those longing to hear God’s voice, especially those who may suspect they are unworthy of hearing it, incapable of interpreting it, or deaf to it altogether.
The heartbeat of God in Disguise—that listening to God’s voice means being invited to participate in and marvel at paradox—is palpable from the prologue:
If you quiet yourself to hear God’s voice, you will likely begin to hear things that are comforting and alarming, loving and disturbing, wonderful and terrifying… As you journey onward, your heart will burst with compassion. Yet if you venture even further, your scarred heart will be melded to the heart of God, and you will begin to mend. You will discover that your neighbor—and your enemy—are yourself. And you will fall in love with this wild God who companions you on the journey, over and over again.
Part I begins with a recap of Smith’s childhood and formative years in a conservative Texas suburb, which lays the groundwork for later exploration of questions related to faith, salvation, and the treatment of women across religions. “Fear and Punishment,” the name of the chapter, refers to the various ways in which her early experiences with God were shrouded by doubt about her own conversion (the Baptist tradition demands certainty, “Know that you know that you know”) and her frustration at the expectations of women in various religious circles. Anecdotes about the effect the Left Behind series had on her (“Every time I was unable to locate my family members in the house, I assumed [the rapture] had happened”) as well as the double standards for swim attire at church youth functions (girls had to cover up with t-shirts “in order to ’keep our brothers from stumbling’—poor helpless things”) are almost comical, except for the spiritual terror and shame they embedded.
Smith’s relationships and experiences in college begin to address and make sense of these childhood frustrations, and there’s a certain relief when Smith and her husband, Andy, complete their first year of marriage happily as English teachers in a developing area of China. But that comfort is short lived as the reader quickly encounters in subsequent chapters the “comforting and alarming” aspects of Smith’s initial experiences in India. A description of the Bengali spices in the air, and moments later the stench of rotting trash. Witnessing a horrifying train accident followed by radical hospitality of a host family. Downing tiny cups of sweet, hot chai with host family members during the day, and, at night, encountering the harsh and pervasive violence against women in the neighborhood. The beautiful and the grotesque seem to be in constant pairings.
Somewhere within the extremes of these observations of life in the slums, questions and paradoxes begin to bloom in Smith’s inner landscape as well, ones that practically reverberate off the page. The revelation that beauty tends to incite violence, whether in the abuse of women or the crucifixion of Christ. The problematic question of whether God’s mercy is dependent on the number of intercessors. The entire notion of a gendered God. Yet in bringing these very serious questions about faith, doctrine, and religion to the reader, Smith’s hands are light, open. Never commanding or heavy-handed, her struggles and questions are presented instead as experiences, stories, an invitation to step out of ourselves and walk around the streets of Kolkata, Delhi, and Ilahabad.
Part II is an extension of the invitation, as one by one we are introduced to Smith’s neighbors and their stories, people she describes as “loyal friends, generous and courageous people, and everyday saints; regular people whose struggles and foibles were universally human.” We meet and quickly fall in love with Amna, Zahera, Meena, three women whose flaws and strengths, triumphs and struggles, serve as mirrors for Smith to examine her own beliefs about loving one’s neighbor, charity, and other tenets of the Christian faith. These powerful stories are told with exceptional humanity and without a trace of sentimentality, highlighting our interconnectedness and the idea that there is no “us” and “them,” or as Smith says,
Even as Andy and I came to realize that we would never be able to bridge the gap between our two worlds, it began to dawn on us that there are not two worlds, after all. There is no ‘ours’ and ‘theirs.’ There is only one world, and we all share a common economy, a common ecology, a common humanity. Within this interdependent existence, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words sound less political and ideological and more obvious and unavoidable: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’
Smith’s own emotional journey, an undercurrent in Part II, rises up as a breaking wave in Parts III and IV as she is forced to confront her own limits and reconcile them with her identity and mission, eventually seeing that “perhaps the whole purpose of life was for us to realize, together, the depth of our poverty and to help one another to accept the Love that would satisfy our deepest need.”
God in Disguise should be read, practically, by anyone considering the life of a missionary, but also for those longing to be nearer to the heart of God and to God’s people. It has every mark of a solid memoir, but most importantly to me, the distinct feeling of homesickness after closing the back cover for a place I’ve never been.
Kelly Treleaven is a teacher and writer living in Houston, Texas. She has a half-memoir, half-survival-guide forthcoming in 2019 with Avery Press about her rookie years as a public school teacher.