This week marks twenty-four years since I became a Christian, giving up forever on the idea that I was somehow special as a supposed member of the Lost Tribes of the ancient Hebrews. For those of you who sit in the agnostic or atheist camps, this blog post should still be of interest. We all need salvation, we all need hope, whether we seek it from ourselves or in the love of others, or whether we seek it from God, Jehovah, Allah, The One or a higher power. It is this dimension of life that provides meaning beyond quantum physics and natural selection, evolution and the near infinity of the universe itself. This is my story of a significant part of my life, the story of how I made sense out of the senseless and began to walk a path to find myself and my purpose in this life.
It was in the aftermath of my fourteenth birthday at the end of ’83 where I began the journey to find myself spiritually. As talked about in my blogs from Fall ’07, this was the day where I spent the afternoon planning to jump off a bridge overlooking the Hutchinson River Parkway on East Lincoln Avenue in Mount Vernon before a voice in my head pulled me off the bridge. After I decided not to take my own life, I spent the rest of my time during the holidays 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, my stepfather 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.
After the holiday break, much of what I did was to use my Afro-Asian Literature and History classes to compare and contrast the various belief systems with each other and with Christianity especially. I went from Taoist yin and yang to Zen Buddhism and the need for balance to Confucianism’s ethical standards and the practice of Animism in various cultures around the world. The common theme in every major philosophy or belief system I looked at was achieving a state of spiritual balance. This kind of balance would lead to balance in my physical world. Now some philosophies, like Buddhism and Hinduism, discussed the need to seek a path to full enlightenment and some sort of ultimate balance. That seemed a bit like Judaism and Islam to me. The need to take a long and difficult spiritual journey in order to gain a connection to this essence, or higher being, which would lead to an ultimate state of balance and being.
The long history of social stratification and strife in older and wiser civilizations like India, China, the Arab World, also left me wondering. How much were these belief systems about maintaining a certain social order, and how much were they about providing true enlightenment to every person who was willing and able? Nearly three years as a Hebrew-Israelite had left me feeling like I was part of an oppressed group within an oppressed group within a naively freedom-loving society. Despite the attractions of balance for and in my chi, the status quo of accepting poverty, abuse, and ignorance just wasn’t going to work for me.
Then I turned to Christianity in the everyday lives of folks around me, not my classmates necessarily, but in Mount Vernon generally. Most Blacks were Baptists, most Latinos and Italians were Catholic, while other Whites ranged from Presbyterian to Episcopalian. Afro-Caribbeans were all over the denominational plain. By the time I turned to Christianity in all of its sectarian forms, the beginning of March, I’d already read enough of the New Testament to understand that the writers were all concerned about the creation of sects. It seemed to me that denominations were idiotic. Didn’t everyone who claimed to be Christian worship the same God and believed that Jesus was his son? Does it really matter if one form of Christianity forbids its pastors from having sex and another allows its pastors to marry? Without a full knowledge of the long history of Christianity and its nuances both as a form of social control (see Roman Empire and medieval Europe) and a form of social unrest (see life of Jesus, Protestant Reformation, and Civil Rights Movement), I just assumed that Christians formed different sects because they simply didn’t like each other.
Catholics in so many ways reminded me of Hebrew-Israelites and orthodox Jews. Although they already had spiritual redemption, they lived their lives as if they didn’t. Between Confirmation, Easter, and confession, not to mention the dress of popes and priests, Catholicism didn’t seem all that dissimilar from what I knew about Judaism. The other denominations didn’t seem to me to do much in the way of really making sense of how to reconcile salvation and redemption with how to live my life while waiting for the inevitable.
But more than anything else, I wondered about the brutality of life and how to understand that in the context of other belief systems. I lived in a world where whenever I made a mistake someone was there to jump down my throat about it. At school, if I screwed up, someone was there to make fun of me, to destroy me from the inside out as I saw it. Or some teachers were there to make light of my mistakes. If I made a mistake at home, if I said or did the wrong thing, my mother would yell at me, or I’d have to go back to the store or I might put myself in an abusive situation with Maurice. I felt like I had no margin for error, and any error I did make led to swift and severe retribution.
That was what being a Hebrew-Israelite had come to feel like by the time I was in ninth grade, an unending, broken-down mule kind of burden. Becoming a Hindu, Buddhist or Taoist seemed much more attractive but didn’t provide any immediate or beyond life answers for me that I could put faith or hope into. Becoming a Muslim, a more traditional Jew, or a Catholic would’ve been like trading in one overwhelming, earn-your-salvation-for-the-rest-of-your-life belief system for another. Denominational Protestant Christianity, despite all of its appeal, didn’t seem so different from what it had protested in past centuries.
I was left with one choice. Christianity, plain and simple. If the New Testament said that the only things I needed to concern myself with were putting God and Jesus first in my life and loving others as I should love myself, then that was enough for me. I sat back on the morning of Easter Sunday ’84—no one at home was awake at the time—and after watching a televangelist preach about the power of redemption, I found a corner in my room and prayed for Jesus to come into my heart and life. In my mind, I thought I’d feel a thunderbolt hit me in my stomach. Or at least I thought I might cry or become giddy or something. Instead what I felt was a sense of relief. Nothing more, nothing less. I knew that, maybe for the first time in my life, I made a conscious decision for me, not for anyone else, not influenced by anyone else, at least not anyone bound to earth.
My objective was first to find some sense of peace with myself, enough where my only thoughts late at night weren’t about suicide or nuclear war, taking out Maurice or leaving 616. First I decided not to tell anyone about my spiritual conversion and rejection of the Hebrew-Israelites. Despite the outward contradiction with the kufi, I knew who I was in my heart of hearts, after all, a follower of Christ. Second, I made the decision that with a little bit more than three years left before the possibility of college and life away from Mount Vernon that I would focus more energy on my classmates and my siblings than I would on Maurice. Third, I made a pact with myself to never consider suicide a serious option unless the God I now believe in betrayed me in some way, which to me would be if my stepfather killed my mother or something like that. Fourth, I decided to think of myself as being someone who had some worth, if for no other reason than because I was a child of God. If I couldn’t find anything else worth preserving about me, being one with The One would have to do. This meant doing something that had been difficult in those heady months. I had to not give up on me.
My spiritual faith and journey has gone through a fair number of ups and downs over the years since my conversion, some of which were self-induced, many in the midst of some crisis or another. I can’t say that I’ve never thought about death or suicide at all since ’84. But I know that I’ve never seriously considered it as I did at fourteen. I’ve discovered my own sins and shortcomings, failures and weaknesses, as all who occasionally reflect upon our impact on the world, over the past twenty-four years. But I know that despite all of my imperfections, that I have a purpose, a reason for being, a message to others in this life. That hope, faith, and even salvation on some level are necessary in order to live the purposeful live. And that these things can help a human being overcome just about every hurt, every discrimination, every roadblock put up by this world and this life.