I’ve been a practicing Christian now for 23.5 years, a Christian in response to living with the dead, repressive and bizarre Hebrew-Israelite religion between the ages of eleven and fourteen. It was a conversion born out of desperation and a sense of hopelessness. For whatever reason, I needed something and someone to believe in who couldn’t and wouldn’t betray me, wouldn’t let me down as an imposter of some sort or another.
It all came to a head on my fourteenth birthday, December 27th of ’83. After a mugging incident and my Humanities classmates treating me like a real human being for a couple of weeks, I found myself in more despair that what had become normal over the past year and a half. Combined with my stepfather threatening to beat me up again because I allowed four boys to jump me at night and steal $13 from me–this despite defending myself vigorously for about three minutes before one of them reached in my pocket to take the money–I was just tired of feeling alone in the world.
That day, my birthday, was to be the day I would attempt to take my own life. I thought about two methods really. One involved getting hold of a samurai sword and committing seppuku, or suicide by ritual self-disembowelment. I certainly felt ashamed enough. But it was too messy, too painful, too much for skinny me. The other was an elaboration on my earlier thoughts of jumping off the bridge on East Lincoln that connected my part of Mount Vernon to Pelham. The Hutchinson River Parkway ran underneath.
I went down and around this stone bridge that cold and hazy afternoon. There was a path, a hiker’s walkway under the parkway and a pedestrian bridge that went under the overpass, crossing the Hutchinson River (really a stream at this point of its run) into Pelham. I looked at the bridge height sign from that spot as cars flew by on the parkway. It read “13.2 feet.” Then I walked from the river and made it back up to the bridge. I looked down at the cars underneath as I put myself, one leg at a time, atop the short stone wall, meant to keep young kids from falling off the bridge I guess. As I stood there, I kept thinking “What do I have to live for anyway?” Tears started to well up as I continued to look down at the cars zooming by on both sides of the four-lane parkway.
Then I had thoughts. And having any thoughts at all, especially thoughts of anything other than suicide, will short-circuit any attempt to kill yourself. One was of the remote possibility that taking my life could actually hurt someone else, my mother, my family, maybe even my classmates or teachers. A second, even more sobering thought was that I could survive the thirteen-foot jump. Only to be run over by a car going at fifty or fifty-five. And I could possibly survive that, too. But I could end up brain-damaged or paralyzed or a vegetable in a coma. There were too many risks involved to just jump off the bridge. For a few seconds I stood there, lost and not sure of what to do next. My next thought, my third one, was that maybe, just maybe, this is what hitting bottom really feels like. Maybe something good for me and my life was just around the corner. Maybe if I hold out a little longer, I’ll find a reason to live my life and live it well. My fourth thought brought me to Maurice. “Wouldn’t that be the best revenge, that I overcome every situation in my life and become successful? Wouldn’t making the ultimate comeback from the edge of the cliff be better than ending it all now?,” I thought.
With that, I got down from the stone wall and went on a long walk through Pelham before going home. I spent the rest of my time off going through everything I could find at home and at Mount Vernon Public Library about Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the three major religions west of India as I saw it. I wanted to know once and for all how to situate myself spiritually. I didn’t want to wake up at thirty only to realize I wasted another fifteen years, ready to commit suicide again. I picked up an old Bible we had in a storage bin underneath my bed. I went to the library to compare Biblical text with the Qur’an. I read key Talmud scriptures that matched up with key Islamic ones.
Two revelations came to me from these exercises. One was that there wasn’t much of a difference between Islamic and orthodox Jewish law. The other was much more significant. Forgiveness and redemption wasn’t automatic in either belief system. You had to go through some form of ritualized spiritual purification to gain Jehovah or Allah’s amazing. You had to earn your forgiveness if you were a Jew, a Muslim, or a Hebrew-Israelite. Messing up even in the smallest of ways left you on the spiritual outside looking in for a connection to The One. It was like being disconnected over the telephone with no way to dial back in except through a holy day of atonement.
In reading the Gospels, it started sinking in that Jesus’ life was about providing a path for each of us to gain unconditional and unearned forgiveness, including me. I read the New Testament at home late at night so that I wouldn’t get caught venturing into forbidden scriptures. Somewhere between Matthew and Mark I found myself, maybe for the first time, realizing that I’ve been searching for someone to save me. From myself, from my family, from a life without meaning, from a life of hell-on-earth, and certainly from an afterlife without my proper place in it. I was finally in a place where I felt like I could turn myself over to my God, possibly through Jesus.
But I wanted to be as sure about this decision as I could be. After the last few years of watching my mother, Maurice and Jimme make so many horrifying and almost fatal ones, I wanted this decision to be more correct that any 100 I’d gotten on any test. I wanted my potential conversion to Christianity to feel as good as I did the day I served as the introductory speaker at my elementary school graduation. And above all else, I wanted to be at peace with my decision so that if anyone asked me about the Hebrew-Israelite thing again, I could respond to their questions—and their questioning of my decision—with honesty and good information.
It took four more months of research at Mount Vernon Public Library and using my Afro-Asian History and Literature classes to explore different religions before I became a Christian. Despite my wildest expectations, my life didn’t immediately get better. It would be another three years before I went off to college, and another five before my stepfather would be out of our lives.
But I did learn something about the need to have something, someone to hold on to in my mind and heart in order to–as Jesse Jackson would say–“keep hope alive,” to invest my faith in. I wasn’t ready to put that kind of unshakable faith in myself, and every person of authority in my life had proven to be unable to live up to the minimal expectations of food, clothing, shelter, security or love that I had. For me at least, becoming an atheist would’ve meant giving up on the idea that someone out there had a vested interest in me succeeding and surviving this life, that my life was indeed worth living. While my faith and my relationship with God and Christianity has had its ups and downs since April of ’84, the lesson of the importance of hope and faith to make my life worth something hasn’t been lost.