Before I came to America, I had a couple of assumptions about Americans, about the South and about Baptists. I come from a Catholic family in France, but I have not been to church in years and we do not practice religion in my household. When I got accepted to this exchange program, I will not lie, I was concerned with the religious aspect of the institution which I was to attend.

Last year, my master’s degree program provided me with a class on religion in America. We studied secularity, and the various denominations throughout the country’s history. What I learned about the Baptist religion is as follows: Baptists are part of the most important branch among Evangelical Christians. They rely heavily on the Bible, the born-again experience, mission work and baptism as an adult.

More than anything, what I read about Baptists made me believe they were, pardon my words, a bunch of extreme Christians that were going to try and convert me at any cost. The fact that the North and South Baptists separated in 1845 due to slavery matters did not help me have faith in the Southern Baptist Conference. I know it is a prejudiced way of approaching my trip, but at least I recognize it, right?

So there I came, nine months ago, ready to run away from any person coming at me to ask: “Do you know Jesus?”

And I have to say, what I found here made me realize how assumptions are not always right, and how to a certain extent, as Karl Marx stated it, religion is indeed the opium of the masses.

The people on my journey here have proved to me that learning in books what a religion is cannot be completely accurate. I was wrong to think they were “extremists.” They just have an extremely strong relationship to God.

The fact that the pope, or your church, or even your pastor might not necessarily share your opinion on certain matters makes people live their faith far more personally than what I have seen in France. Here, I have met people that live through God, and Jesus Christ, in the most genuine manner. Bible verses can be found everywhere on campus and are inspiring for everyday life, even for someone like me who is not religious.

I believe, to a certain extent, that the fact that the university I attend is a private Baptist university does have an effect on the population of students you find in Waco. Be it the Southern hospitality or the Baptist religion, I have been welcomed with open arms and charity. I have never been followed by anyone trying to make me meet Jesus, but I have been willing to get to know this religion exactly because I was not forced to. Religion is everywhere, but it is not as oppressive as I thought it would be.

The picture looks almost too perfect now, so I have to nuance it. If most of the people I surrounded myself with are truly “Godly people,” I have also found that religion is sometimes used for appearances. People who asked me “What church do you go to?” and expected me to go to church as a given were also the ones I saw acting in ways I consider unchristian. Karl Marx wrote, “Religion is the opium of the people.” However, before the actual famous quotation, he stated:

“Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again.”

I understand this as religion being something people need to belong to, because they have not yet found themselves. I do not agree with Marx’s statement, but I believe there is some right. Some people will post Bible verses on social media, but will be critical of others in real-life conversations. Some will go to church on Sunday, but are the ones lying and cheating the other six days of the week. We are all college students trying to find ourselves and we all make mistakes, but I get irritated when these people try to give me lessons about life because they are Baptists and I am not. Being a Baptist does not inherently make you a good person.

All in all, coming to a private Baptist university introduced me to the Baptist religion and a new religious community. I discovered a faith that can strengthen people, and that drives many in the right direction. Many of my friends here are Baptists, and have taught me values that I will cherish for the rest of my life. What I also learned is that religion can be used as a shield for people to act wrongfully in disguise. But that’s for every religion, right?