I’m Dani Ward,

and I do lots of things.

Lessons learned at the Fortress of Faith: An Introduction.

The sign on front campus of Bob Jones University.

This is the introduction of a 10-post series. As I update, I’ll post the links here!

Lesson 1 | Lesson 2 | Lesson 3 | Lesson 4 | Lesson 5 | Lesson 6 | Lesson 7 | Lesson 8 | Lesson 9 | Lesson 10


It was early August 2008, hot and sticky. I was a 21-year-old fundamentalist Christian, interning at a local graphic design studio, spending my spare time with my high school and community college friends, struggling with constant self-hatred and doubts about the nature and existence of God…and starting to pack my belongings for my move south for the fall semester at Bob Jones University.

You know, the college that banned interracial dating until 2000 and has been in the news this year for their mishandling of an investigation into their treatment of sexual abuse victims on their campus. That BJU. And yes, I know. That acronym is…quite unfortunate.

I was completely unaware that within six short months, I’d be expelled for having consensual sex with my boyfriend and having the audacity to think it was a private matter.

I was completely unaware that in just over a year, I’d be married and living on my own.

I was completely unaware that five years later, I’d have rejected belief in God entirely and would be happier and healthier for it.

But here I am, in another hot and sticky early August,  starting my third year as a graphic designer at that very same local graphic design studio, still spending my spare time with my high school and college friends. And, as has happened every year this time since 2008, I’m finding myself half-convinced that I’m 21 again and ought to be packing to go to BJU in a month. It’s amazing what a little bit of trauma can do to the brain.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how my short time at BJU changed me, for good and for ill. In many ways, I began my path to self-discovery at BJU. I learned a lot in my semester-and-a-bit, and what I learned has shaped me into the person that I am today. And so, in many ways, I owe a bit of thanks to the World’s Most Unusual University.

Bob Jones University, you taught me so much. Allow me to innumerate just a few of the many valuable lessons I learned behind your barbed-wired walls.

Some background on my introduction to BJU before we begin.

I thought that the hardest thing about being at BJU was going to be just learning how to follow an amazingly ridiculous set of rules — and frankly, I thought I had that covered. I grew up in a conservative Christian school where BJU groups visited for recruitment purposes. I was usually one of the good kids, so I thought BJU was going to be a college-version of my high school. No big deal.

Boy, was I wrong.

The amount of people milling around at any given moment simply boggled my mind. My community college was small, and I was used to having solitude when I needed it. But among the literally thousands of people always on campus, I had no privacy whatsoever.

The second or third day I was there, my dorm had a meeting for all freshmen and transfers with our dorm supervisor and resident assistants. This was the first time I got a clearer understanding of the culture at BJU. There was a lot of talk about how scary it was to be in a new school away from our parents surrounded by people we didn’t know who might be different from us (and I do mean a lot of focus on this), followed by assurances that if we ever needed to talk about anything, we should come to one of them. It was as if they were first creating a sense of panic then setting themselves up as the solution so we’d be better conditioned to conform. I distinctly remember sitting cross-legged in the floor in that study lounge, saying to myself, “Listen, but don’t become one of them.” My next thought was, “They’ve really got this whole manipulation thing down,” — particularly as they reminded us not to hesitate to let them know if someone was breaking the rules, or we’d be punished just as severely as the person “in sin.”

That was another thing I noticed during my time there: everything was spiritualized. Negative emotions were a lack of trust in God. Getting bad grades was poor stewardship of the abilities God gave us. Forgetting to make our beds was disorderliness (and God is a god of order, of course), not to mention disobedience. It was us fundamentalist Christians against the world, and we had to be perfect as our father in heaven was perfect.

The atmosphere was very much one of surface-level sweetness and safety. Follow the rules, look and act in such a way that falls in line with the rest of the crowd, and everyone is so nice and accepting. But the moment something about you is different — you mention something “uncheckable,” you break a rule as small as keeping your bed made at all times, you act someway other than joyful and compliant — there’s a noticeable shift, as if the niceness and acceptance is a mask that has slipped for a fraction of a second. You wonder if someone is going to turn you in. You wonder if they’re right, that maybe every problem you have really is a spiritual problem that must be eradicated through more prayer and deeper study of the Bible. Everything and everyone is scrutinized, and suddenly you realize that secrecy is a way of life at this place and mistrust is boiling under the surface at all times.

I learned how to be alone in a crowd, since that was the only solidarity I could find. I did have junior privileges, meaning I could take my car off campus alone during the day — but while I was still trying to get used to the campus, I wanted to stay put. It was so hard to wrap my mind around how careful I had to be whenever I would try to talk to friends or family who wanted to know what it was really like.

That’s when the paranoia started sinking in.

With every email I wrote, every phone call I made, every chat conversation I had, I was wary lest someone hear or see something that could be reported and get me in trouble. I had nowhere I could go to have a private conversation. I knew that with my computer as part of their network, they had access to my browsing history and particularly my student email account. I knew that we weren’t allowed to use personal email accounts, but I discovered that my Hotmail and Gmail accounts weren’t blocked — so I emailed people from there, still being careful what I wrote lest someone somehow have access to that as well. Everywhere I walked while talking, there were people. I would walk all over campus, or pace neurotically behind the dorms where I could wear my beloved jeans. But I always had an eye out for people who looked like they might be listening, because there was never a time when someone didn’t have their eye on me.

And it was in this atmosphere that I spent the 2008 fall semester and the beginning of the 2009 spring semester. Just over five months that changed my life.


Stay tuned for Lesson 1, coming later this week.

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