Andi Scarbrough Is Ready for a Spiritual Life
The hairstylist had abandoned religion as a teen. Then a profound experience in a forest in the Middle East set her on the path to be a chaplain.
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Andi Scarbrough told her story to producer Sarah Fuss Kessler for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I was done with the church. I was not on speaking terms with Jesus. We were not cool. I did not identify as that. I wouldn’t even say the word “Jesus.” I just said “the Christ” anytime I was talking about it.
I live in a weird geodesic dome home in the middle of the woods on the central Oregon coast. I’ve been a hairstylist for 21 years in Los Angeles, and grew up in the Piney Woods on the north side of Houston in Texas.
We were raised in an evangelical Christian Church. I mean, a layin’ on hands, a castin’ out demons. I can play the shit out of a tambourine. That was a big part not only of how we grew up, but also a greater sense of communal belonging. It was not a matter of “Do you go to church?” It was, “Which church do you go to?”
My mother’s father was a pastor. We’re actually descended from Scotch-Irish priests. So the tent revival goes all the way back across the Atlantic.
From my earliest memory, I questioned everything about the church. I loved the singing and I loved the food. But I found the rest of it really problematic. I was always a rebel and always asking questions, and that was really inflammatory. I took issue with the idea that some little girl in the Far East that had never heard of Jesus but lived a good life would go to hell. I refused to kneel for communion. That was a whole thing.
It also didn’t help that I was queer as hell and was sexually awakened at a young age. I remember getting kicked out of a slumber party when I was a kid for making out with one of the Baptist minister’s daughters—in her closet of all places.
By the time I was 14, I was told that if I had so many questions, perhaps my time would be better spent in the library, because I was a disruption to the experience of the other people in church. There was a very inherent understanding that I was led to believe that I did not belong and was not welcome.
I was done with the church.
I’d been on my own from a very early age. I left home at 16. I’d been working. I’d already married a man, because that was the next thing that I was supposed to do. So I was deep in the throes of living life very much here on Earth, and had very little time to be concerned with God, spirit, source, however you wanna call it.
My father died suddenly and tragically by suicide. The day before he took his life, I realized that there was maybe an opportunity. He’d had a big shift in his experience, and I was anticipating a reunion. There was this feeling of, Oh, finally, a homecoming is waiting. And rather than be able to go home, it felt like that door closed forever.
All of that exoskeleton that I had built around this wound just cracked open. And then my marriage ended. That saying like, “There are no atheists in foxholes, right?” When the need becomes so great, God was the only one that I thought could answer. But anything that I would identify as the church, I abjectly rejected.
So, it was a very thick four or five years. I had a very dear friend who lived in the Middle East, and I wanted to go and experience her life there. We planned some ventures into Lebanon and then Dubai.
I’d heard of the Cedars of Lebanon before. I think something that they would akin to like a national park, you know? So it’s protected and enclosed. It’s interesting that there’s like a military base on one side of it. I think there’s skiing there in the winter, but we were there in kind of an off season. So it was a quiet, sleepy resort town that also happened to have this ancient, sacred grove of trees that are mentioned, I think, 77 times in the Bible.
As soon as we walked into the grove of trees, there was an eerie sort of quiet. It seemed like we were all having a kind of internal experience, and there was a palpable sensation of time shifting and slowing. Everything just felt sweeter, my body felt heavier, and I felt more of my feet in contact with the ground. I heard every little sound, every little rustle felt magnified.
I learned that it takes a hundred years for those trees to even be mature enough to produce a cone—one was at least a thousand years old—and so the humility of time and scope, and the breadth of these trees that were viscerally more alive and different than anything else that I’d experienced.
The next morning, I decided that I needed to walk down to the entrance of the park, and it was not open yet. So, I decided to go and wait by the gate for them to open. And I realized quickly from the hours posted that I wouldn’t actually be able to get back into the park before we had to leave. I was really upset about it. I remember having this feeling of estrangement or longing. I was so frustrated that I was right there and couldn’t get in. I had a good ugly cry about it. And then I posted up on a little stone wall where I had a nice view of this one specific tree that I loved, that was especially battered and old.
As I sat, the light was changing as the sun was coming up, and I noticed from the corner of my eye this little old man opening one of his shops. Then, before I knew it, he was coming over to me, speaking to me in a language I didn’t understand. Later, I learned he was Turkish. He brought me this little Dixie paper cup full of hot tea, and just set it down beside me. Then sort of teetered away back to his little shop.
A moment later, he brought me a little cup of cream and a cup of little cubes of sugar and just set it down beside me, and then teetered away. Then he came back with a cookie, and put the little cookie down beside me and then teetered away. Then, he came back with his own cup, and just sat down beside me.
He looked at me, and he recognized whatever it was that was moving in me, and he gave me the sweetest smile. He dipped his cookie in the tea, showing me how to do it. And so I did. And as the light was changing, and I was sitting on the stone wall outside of this grove of trees, that felt like the purest experience of God as vitality, as connection, as the enduring life force.
Here was this old man that had brought me what was essentially holy communion, and I remember dipping that little cookie into the tea, and thinking, This is the connection. This is the belonging that I have been looking for my whole life.
I managed to suss out that he had left Turkey not necessarily intending to stay, but had come to the trees and had such an experience that he felt like he had to stay there.
He’d invited me into his morning ritual. He came and sat down with his tea and communed with the trees every day. We both had tears in our eyes, just in the recognition of something so holy and old and ineffable.
As we finished our tea and sat, I knew that my friends were gonna be driving down the hill any moment to pick me up. He walked with me over to his little shop, and he gifted me one of the cones from the cedars. He pulled out this box of photos of all of these people that he had sat with. Some of them I could tell by the hair were at least from the early eighties.
There were so many things that shifted for me after this experience. It helped me really begin to reconcile my relationship with God; redefine a force that I’d felt was so punishing, and open up space to find the loving, allowing, creative life force energy.
Fast forward a few years, and here I am, living in the woods on the Oregon coast with these great-grandmother maples and the evergreens, while I go to school for a degree in religious studies and sociology, so that I can ultimately serve as a chaplain. And offer, I hope, some fraction of the space that that old man in Lebanon offered me.
Andi Scarbrough has been recognized by L.A. Weekly as one of the city’s top hair colorists. She lives part-time in Oregon, and is working towards becoming a chaplain. Follow her on Instagram @getadamnhaircut.