I was once asked by a pair of missionaries, why I hadn’t, like my sister, become a Christian.
The truth was that I had “accepted Jesus as my Personal Savior,” as a girl, long before our family careened into chaos, after which some of my younger siblings were radicalized and rooted as Believers.
I had initially understood that once I’d let Jesus into my heart, I too was saved, but apparently, that offer had expired or I had, at the age of 8, failed to read the small print.
I was going to Hell.
Up until meeting the missionaries, I had politely bowed out of some of my sister’s social gatherings, avoiding discussing with her and her friends anything delicate, such as the condition of my soul, for how else could I live among them for several weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, just after Bush’s re-election and the accompanying war drum? Indeed, one of the tell-tale signs that war was imminent was the sudden absence of one of my sister’s frequent house guests whose clearance dispatched him immediately to DC.
I was, as I am, as I have always been, even as a girl–vocal–but I also wanted to show respect to my sister and her family for the kindness shown by welcoming my boys and me, not only into their home in Florida for several weeks while my husband finished our house in Vermont but into their faith and homeschool community.
I was even permitted to offer a weekly writing workshop to the homeschool group, alone. I chose Luke for its beautiful rendering. I chose “WWJD” for a prompt. No doubt, my sister went to bat for me. No doubt she often had, explaining to her fellow Christians, that her sister and community members in Vermont, though non-believers, were astonishingly good people.
“You’d make better Christians than us,” my sister and brother-in-law once said to my husband and me, shortly after they were saved.
What I began to understand was that I was to my sister’s community, what she was to mine–an anomaly.
“They just want to ask you a few questions,” she pressed on behalf of her friends–a young couple, just back from their assignment abroad. “You can be honest. No hard feelings.”
Reluctantly, I left the safe confines of my room and joined them in the parlor, their shining faces aglow with God and purpose.
Did we stand or were we seated? There was the desk where my brother-in-law paid the bills. There were the curtains, closed, on the sliding doors to the pool.
I remember pressing one knee against the arm of a small sofa.
I remember the sincerity of the missionaries and their questions:
“Why don’t you want to be a Christian?”
I paused, carefully considering how to respond, and then opted for being succinct:
“There’s nothing you have that I want.”
I went on to say that I appreciated the strength of their community and the personal relationship they shared with God and that I felt the same for Jews and Muslims and Hindus and also for the cultures that these well-meaning missionaries wanted to eradicate abroad.
“But they mutilate young girl’s genitalia,” they explained.
I nodded and suggested that perhaps the practice was rooted in something beyond culture. Had this conversation occurred fifteen years later, I’d reference the Patriarchy, but, at 40, I hadn’t shed enough distance from it. Instead, I shared how tradition dictated the mutilation of my sons’ genitalia right here in the United States and that I had been rebuked and ridiculed by many for refusing the cutting.
“But what of the Devil,” they pressed before I turned to leave the parlor and return to my room. “Aren’t you afraid of going to Hell?”
I paused, but there was no need to consider how to respond to this question which I did with a question of my own:
“How can I be afraid of that which I don’t believe?”
“But it’s in the Bible,” they protested.
I smiled and explained that it was the hell on Earth that I wanted to change.
On this, we agreed and sincerely wished each other well.
“Pretend that we are visiting another culture with strange traditions, some of which will make us uncomfortable,” I said, a handful of years later, as my boys and I drove south from Vermont for a Thanksgiving stay at my father’s house, a first since he remarried twenty years earlier.
A self-proclaimed Agnostic, my father had been the one to nurture my capacity for thought and argument. He had also been the one to refuse my Christian baptism at the age 8 because I was “too young to make such a decision,” even though he had been the one to send me to Sunday School “to help develop a sense of right and wrong.”
Despite the dominance of the Patriarchy and my father’s towering height and inclination toward aggression, I had never shied away from expressing my opinion to him. I had persisted, even after he sent me from the table to my room for hours on end, and even later, home from my first semester of college, when he knocked me to the floor three times before turning on his heels and heading back up to bed, and even as he lifted his hand to do the same in the lobby of a London hotel when he’d come for a visit during my semester abroad.
That long Thanksgiving weekend in Annapolis–sailing and scrabble and sightseeing–went off without a hitch.
To everything, there is a season and a time and a purpose.
Over the years, I’ve realized I too am a missionary of sorts, but among differences instead of countries, and in particular among the righteous intolerance of Non-Believers (myself included.) I assure my activist friends that there are good people who identify as Evangelical or Catholic, not just here in Vermont, but in the South. There are even those who fight to protect the environment and marriage equality and who support women’s access to abortion; and if they don’t, it’s not for nefarious reasons, just as those who do support access to abortion aren’t villains in some dramatic rendition of Good vs. Evil.
These days, it seems, I spend less time speaking about Christians and more time talking about those I love who voted for Trump–believers, non-believers, highly educated and less-educated, critically informed and misinformed, worldly and unworldly, rich and poor.
One such relative can’t stand Trump and says he’s full of shit. Another attempted to see the best in him despite the facts. Others aren’t inclined to probe complexity and as such are accustomed to leaning into the loudest voice–as a matter of belonging but survival which is to say that Trump’s boisterousness and toxicity are comfortingly familiar. Like family pain. Bad habits. The good ole days.
Some friends expressed that they felt that their children, as soldiers, would be safer under Trump.
Others their financial futures.
Some women saw this as their chance to do right by the unborn, unable to tolerate the paradox that assuring women’s bodily sovereignty–in every way–is the best assurance of dignity–for all.
Most, I expect, were tired of feeling guilty for being less open-minded then they wanted to be or thought wise or moral or “American.”
Many appear so overjoyed with the upper hand that they dismissed the erosion at their feet.
And Trump’s faith-based bedfellows, however appalling, aren’t wrong when they claim him as God’s gift.
I heard it too, on the weekend before the election. He is waking WOMEN around the world.
At times, I grow so angry with the haters that I hate them. This is when I wake up from the trance of my own superiority, understanding that we are One, each capable of hate.
Sometimes my anger is directed toward those who refuse to see the truth of our shared humanity and the inalienable rights of love and identity, survival and faith, and I am reminded not to lose sight of their humanity.
Often, my rage is directed toward the liars, they who mislead and divide, but what I can sense in them at times is what I sensed in some of the men yesterday during the Russian Intelligence Hearing. They believe in themselves, so despite their compromised leader, they persist, no matter how incriminating or false or cruel because they know their aims to be true.
This teaching from my Jesuit university days comes to mind: The end never justifies the means.
In the face of all this entitlement, we must persist, as one does with an adolescent, knowing how fragile his state is.
“Sometimes you have to stand there like a jackass in a hailstorm and take it.”
That imagery about parenting through the teenage years, speaks to the tenacity required of us now for the well-being and future of… just about everything.
It is hard this being human.
No wonder we grasp at the things that mask what is true. For no matter our place in society, even youth or the Oval Office, we are vulnerable, imperfect, and impermanent, and as such do our best to distract ourselves from this inalienable truth.