The true story that follows is of a family friend, someone I’ve known since I was 17….
Margaret had to get out of the house. The yelling, the screaming, the arguing were too much to take, even when she was an active participant.
Margaret is 8th in line out of 11 children, most of them boys. It’s San Antonio, 1957- large families are more the norm than the exception.
“Why doesn’t Jose ever have to mop the floor?!” Margaret screams at her mother. Her younger brother Jose doesn’t hear this because he’s already left to go play with his friends. Jose is just one year older than Margaret’s 14 years. The unfairness is grating upon her insides. It’s been this way for as long as she can remember.
Each of her mother’s long black strands of hair are partnered with two competitors in gray. She is never without a scarf on her head and has a face that looks weathered at home, but softens in mixed company. When she speaks to Margaret, it’s always an order. When she speaks to Jose, or any of Margaret’s brothers, the tone changes for all to witness.
Margaret’s younger sister Prieta had another seizure today. Margaret even got yelled at for it. At 2 ½ years old, while at a family gathering, Prieta took an awkward fall and struck her head on concrete. Details of the incident are intentionally not discussed anymore, but the result is that Prieta has not developed normally, and someone will have to take care of her the rest of her life. The future will bring medicines that can control the seizures but someone will have to see that she takes them.
On this hot summer San Antonio day, Margaret disobeys her mother and pushes away the mop handle. The side door slams loudly when she leaves with the screen door bouncing three times for emphasis.
Margaret walks her anger down the hot sidewalk, past her neighbors’ houses, humble and hardworking, all of them…and nearly identical to her own small, overcrowded, family home. Three blocks over and one block up, Margaret comes to a Catholic church. It’s not the same church her family usually attends. This one is two times larger and three times nicer. Margaret enters. It’s cool inside.
Two nuns softly approach Margaret with warm, welcoming smiles. They are young, too. Not teenagers like Margaret, but young women, wearing the full habit and simple black smock. The nuns are beautiful, charming, understanding. They listen to this young girl and validate her feelings. They give Margaret comfort, safety, friendship, and most of all, an escape from the harsh, unjust home she will have to return to that evening to help prepare dinner for her father and brothers…and her sister Prieta.
Margaret walks back to that same church again and again in the days, years, and decades that follow. It’s where her heart can sing, where she feels protected, where she has found a second family.
Whenever I find myself in a discussion about whether or not God is real, you will soon know what I believe. I am fully aware, however, that what I know to be true, that God does not exist, is totally dependent on context. When I think about Margaret and what is true for her, God exists again.
When Margaret turned 18 she told her family she wanted to become a nun. Her mother would have gone along, but her father said no. Today, Margaret Assisi is 74 years old and goes to church everyday: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I list each day alone so you can fully appreciate the seriousness and consistency of her commitment. Often it’s twice a day. God, Jesus, Mary, Holy crosses, Saints, the Rosary, these are all elements of Margaret’s daily life, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Margaret still lives in San Antonio, in the exact same house she grew up in. She argued with her mother up until that tough little lady with the thinning long gray hair and scarf passed away 7 years ago. Margaret still takes care of her younger sister, Prieta, and sees that she gets her medication every day: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.
There is a good chance what I’m about to tell you is the most foundational moment of my life. This is the big one. This is the scene that locked me into a trajectory I’ve been stubbornly slow to veer from ever since. First, you’ll need a bit of background before I get to the clincher.
I have early childhood memories of being made to dress up in my “Sunday best” and attend services at St. Luke’s Methodist Church with my parents. We are talking about late sixties Houston, Texas, and a cookie-cutter society that hadn’t yet been breached by the hippie-led counter-culture. Churches back then had much higher attendance than today and were more intertwined with communities, even in larger cities like Houston.
Being so young at the time (ages 1 – 6), I had no sense that my dad wasn’t too into being a church-goer. I only learned about it years later from my mom who pegged his lack of enthusiasm towards the church on an incident from much earlier in his life. Seems his car was stolen from a Catholic church parking lot one fine Sunday right there during mass. Yes, apparently my dad was raised Catholic, though by the time I came around overt signs of those influences were long gone…perhaps left in the trunk of his stolen car. One remnant of my family’s catholic history endured through my dad’s sister Helen (my aunt), who, much like Margaret in the story above, was a highly motivated Catholic her entire life.
Once old enough, being at my parents’ side in the main church was replaced by me getting herded into the annex hall where donuts were served and Sunday school was taught. My present-day self knows very little about the differences between being a Methodist, Catholic Baptist, Presbyterian, or any other flavor of Christian. But one thing was for sure, at St. Luke’s Methodist church the life of Jesus was something my little mind had plenty of exposure to. The big takeaways for little Gary were just three things. Heaven is an awesome place where good people go. Hell is a terrible place where bad people go. And Jesus is great. Really, he’s amazing! That story of him walking on water…? How cool is that?!
And when you’re 3, 4 and 5 years old, nobody is taking the time to explain biblical events as stories, fables, or metaphors for life. It’s all presented in a very convincing fashion. By the time I am 5, thoughts of Jesus are occupying an ever-increasing portion of my little kid brain. But here’s the thing, all my life up until literally now, I would have said that I did NOT grow up in a very religious household. We only went to church on Sundays because that’s what people did in those days. It’s not like our home was adorned with religious symbols, it wasn’t. We didn’t say a blessing before each meal, only the big ones like Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. We didn’t scramble to find a church if we were out of town on a Sunday, thank God. However…I did say a prayer at the side of my bed each night before crawling into it. If this was your experience too, then you and I were both going to bed with God.
I believe my parents were convinced, as are billions of other parents around the world, that raising your kids with religion will make them better people. It’s like getting a little help from Santa Claus… so your kids stay on the nice list.
Heaven, Hell, Jesus, these were all big influences on my impressionable little mind. And there’s no question about it, I wanted to be a good kid because of them.
Here’s the Clincher!
One night when I was 5 years old, my mom was tucking me into bed. The bedtime story I got that night was a kids book about Jesus. The church library was always happy to lend parents religious books for their kids. Part of their 25 year business model, I suppose. I remember the book having big illustrated pages, always with Jesus leading the scene, and only one or two short sentences at the bottom. This particular book had a drawing of Jesus as a little boy, like maybe around 9 or 10 years old. This caught my attention. Perhaps I’d never thought about Jesus being a little boy. At Church, I’d only seen Jesus as a baby in the manger, or as an adult with a beard and hippie-long brown hair.
There was something else in my 5 year old mind, too. The idea that Jesus would one day return to Earth and save us. This was one of the “teachings” I’d already been exposed to.
Five year old me is putting this all together in my head. Here’s how I think it through:
So, if Jesus was once a little boy….like me. And…. he’s going to return to Earth. I guess he has to start out being born and growing up first. I wonder how old Jesus was when he learned he was Jesus, the Son of God. He probably didn’t know at first, he was just a really good kid, like… he was really smart and knew how to behave and did stuff right. Well, I’m a good kid like that.
My little wheels are turning fast. All of this information is pointing in one direction:
Maybe I’M Jesus!
It’s funny now. But it’s not like it didn’t make sense at the time, right? The next day after what may have been my first (and worst) “epiphany,” I woke up feeling mindful that being the next Jesus was a distinct possibility. Again and Yes, that I am literally the next coming of Jesus Christ, son of God, our Lord and Savior. I carried this thought around with me for at least two days. By day three, after giving it additional consideration, I had come around to the more rational conclusion that I was probably not right about that whole being Jesus thing.
Here’s the consequence. Even though this episode came and went in a matter of days when I was a child of 5, its effects are still echoing in my head today. It was foundational in that it set me up to want to always stay on the extreme “good” side of everything.
An example from my childhood would be, If it’s not good to say bad words, I won’t say them. To this day, my instinct is to not cuss. You will see this throughout my blog, too. I have zero moral objection to people who tend to incorporate a lot of curse words into their communication. And, I will use curse words sometimes when speaking or writing, too, but it will always be in a very deliberate context. The most glaring example from my adulthood is my decade’s long abstention from drugs and alcohol.
There’s plenty of religious people in the world today who would hear my story and say, “Mission accomplished!” I see it quite differently. It’s a burden. I have mental prohibitions other people don’t have to think about. There’s an energetic pop song from the 80’s called Goody Two Shoes, sung by Adam Ant. Part of the chorus says, You don’t drink, don’t smoke. What do you do? Subtle innuendos follow. Must be something inside. That’s me. I was Goody Two Shoes with no subtle innuendos to balance me out. It was something inside….
Damn you, Jesus!!!
The crushing truth is that my natural tendency to not cuss or drink or smoke is not natural at all. And it is not a direct legacy of any single moment from so long ago. My arrival to that Maybe I’m Jesus moment at 5 years old and the further conditioning I received in the subsequent years….up until I was old enough to start thinking on my own. It’s something I should rightly be pissed off about. I was misled, conditioned, and indoctrinated by religion, and by the parents that fed me to those lions. I know their intentions were only good, but my parents, as well as any parent that raises their children in the church, were and are playing with fire. Jesus was a Saint, a peacemaker, a savior of the world, or so the story goes. I was a little boy growing up in a dysfunctional household. My chances of growing up “normal” were less than zero.
I fully left Christianty for good around 15 or 16 years old, but the damage had been done. And now, all these years later, I am still working to uncover who I really am.
Next up, cannabis gets explained to an alien.