This week starting Passover Wednesday evening and going through Easter Sunday marks twenty-five years of my becoming a nondenominational Christian. As I said in my posting last December, the spiritual travels in which I’ve embarked since April ’84 have taken me many places. My relationship with The One is more complicated yet as simple as it was the day I gave up being a Hebrew-Israelite.
To think that it was only three and a half months before my conversion that I had stood on a bridge overlooking the Hutchinson River Parkway and connecting Mount Vernon to Pelham contemplating suicide. I didn’t do the deed, possibly because I heard God speaking to me, just as likely because I was still too full of myself to let my stepfather, my in-school tormentors and life push me over the edge. But I wasn’t happy, knowing in large terms what needed to happen for me to get out of 616 and Mount Vernon and to move on with my life to college and beyond.
It was this period twenty-five years ago that led me to Christianity. I’ve gone into the details of using my ninth grade classes as a entry point into other religions in the first months of ’84 in a previous posting, and covered how I eventually concluded that Christianity and Jesus was the way for me to go. The beginning of that final decision was on Passover evening ’84. It was a rather unremarkable evening of candles and raw horseradish, kosher leg of lamb and parsley, matzos and badly-spoken Hebrew about “the Lord our God the Lord is one,” or something like that. It wasn’t that the evening of sweet Manischewitz mixed with my tongue on fire again was particularly vexing or brutal. It was that I simply no longer cared one way or the other about Yahweh or Pesach or about the existence or lack thereof of the Lost Tribes. I wanted out, and more importantly, I wanted God in.
Once I made my decision, I went through a period of covert Christianity. For five months I was the only person who knew that I had done the prayerful deed. I bought my own first Bible, had started to not wear my kufi in public, and no longer considered the sabbath day from Friday evening to Saturday evening. It was only after my first day of tenth grade, when I went to school minus the kufi, that my story was out. It was only then I felt like I could say that I was a Christian and defend it with all that I believed in.
Then I went through what some folks call a baby Christian stage. I dedicated myself to being as devout as I could for about seven months. I took my Bible wherever I went. To school, on the Subway, to whatever watering hole I found my father Jimme drinking at. I proselytized at times, reinforcing my standing with a few former high school classmates in the process. But most of all, I held out in hope and prayer that God would somehow hit me and my life with a bolt of divine wisdom and intervention, transforming me into the strong person I hoped I could become and giving my life meaning beyond measure. It took the end of tenth grade and my rollercoaster Regents exams week to snap me out of that notion.
For about four and a half years after June ’85, I went through a period when I prayed, but only when I had to, and read, but more out of monotony that for understanding or peace or praise. There were too many conflicting ideas and images, too much to sort out or catch up on, for me to approach God and Christianity in a child-like manner. I only talked to God about the big questions or when I was in crisis, like during my homelessness ordeal in ’88. Otherwise, I took on what I faced in life pretty much the same way I had when I was a Hebrew-Israelite, as if it was me, and only me, against the world.
With my mother’s divorce of my stepfather final in September ’89 and my academic struggles the first half of my junior year (I barely pulled out a B average that fall, so don’t feel sorry for me), I decided to get more serious about being a Christian. I started praying more, reading more, and writing on my own. But not just about God or Jesus. I started asking God for wisdom about what to do with my so-called gifts. Despite a couple of my former classmates’ witticisms, I knew that I wasn’t put here just to play Jeopardy and win the Tournament of Champions. I realized, no, I more fully understood that it was as much up to me to seek wisdom and to put myself in position for opportunities, for God’s wisdom to touch me or intervention to make a difference. Seeing myself as more than just an emotional eunuch with a big brain allowed me to both walk with God and actually enjoy life for the first time.
That didn’t mean that I didn’t see the contradictions that were in my life. It would sometimes shock me how imperfect I was, my life was, even with my walk with God. Despite my academic success, the climbing of a steep learning curve that took me from an emotional twelve-year-old to twenty-one in less than a year and a half, I still didn’t feel comfortable as a Christian. Not fully. Not with my mother, now herself a Christian, constantly reminding me of the sinfulness that was a secular higher education, about the wrongheadedness of abortion, gay and lesbian rights, evolution, interracial marriage, and so many other pitfalls that I now must avoid. I did practice avoidance, partly through my first couple of years of grad school, where debating about the social construction of race was far easier than looking at the social construction of late-twentieth century Christianity.
It dawned on me that in my first seven years as a Christian that I’d only been to church twice. It wasn’t until August ’91 that I joined my friend Marc at his church in Wilkinsburg (just outside Pittsburgh). This place would become my church home for the next seven years. At first, I only attended about once every three or four months, during the holidays or in between semesters. Then, after another financial crisis and crisis of confidence in the summer of ’93, I decided to dedicate a significant portion of my social life to spiritual affairs, to learning how to be in God and in academia at the same time. It was a period of change, as I had transferred to Carnegie Mellon, no longer was racing back to New York and Mount Vernon for summer work, and was otherwise a full-fledged adult in every conceivable way. Yet just like Bono sang — or at least as I’m paraphrasing it — I still hadn’t found what I was looking for, as Christian as I was.
The church that I attended did provide a lot of what I was looking for. Emotional release from being in a stressful environment like lily-White Carnegie Mellon. Fellowship with mostly like-minded Christians. A pastor who didn’t just scream and holler and blather about speaking in tongues every other minute, but actually explained scripture like a good theologian. It was far better than much of what I’d cobbled together from my own studies and from the TV evangelists that were on every Sunday morning. I really got into this church. I became part of the men’s choir, tutored high school students there for a year and a half, went to Wednesday Bible study, tithed in a literal sense, and got to know about a hundred members on a first-name basis.
It was my last two years in grad school that made me realize why I was attracted to Christianity in the first place. Jesus’ willingness to forgive when most others couldn’t, and his corresponding capacity for compassion and love. Jesus’ socialistic, anti-oppression and poverty message. His standing in the breach for the downtrodden and otherwise untouchables in his life, in his world. It was in ’95 that I finally prayed and formally forgave my ex-stepfather for his abuse, not to mention my mother, my father, my former classmates, myself, for sins committed or omitted. That particular prayer gave me the release I needed to see myself as spiritually worthy, not because of anything I’ve done, but because I believe that God sees each of us that way.
It was understanding the two basic principles of Christianity — having no other gods other than God, and to love others as you love yourself — that led me to eventually leave my church home even before we moved from Pittsburgh in ’99. If there are any words in the Bible to be taken literally, the ones I just paraphrased would be the ones. Yet I saw Christians who were far more religious about their Christianity than I who’d violate these principles at every turn. I saw how the gospel of prosperity was the only sermon we’d get every Sunday. Or how gays and lesbians were to blame for Pittsburgh’s long-term decline as America’s ex-steel city (they never explained why New York, Washington, DC and San Francisco were doing so much better even though these were alleged gay meccas). Or how our lives were in disarray because we didn’t know how to live in “perfect” faith. It made me realize that the brand of Christianity practiced at my church was different enough from how I practiced it in my own life that I needed to move on.
So I did. By ’98, I was without a church home. I went to my wife’s church in Pittsburgh until we moved to DC. For the past decade, I’ve been to many a church, not finding exactly what I’d like to see there.
I’ve realized that my spiritual self is more than just this innocent, wanting-myself-and-the-world-to-be-better-than-it-is core. That even my spiritual self is far from perfect. That while there is such a thing as perfect faith, that it’s like nuclear fusion, in that we can only achieve it in a moment. That most faith, supernatural or not, is our ability to overcome the fears that exist in all of us. That spiritual, unconditional love is a choice, and that forgiveness is a choice that we need to make regularly if it’s to mean anything. Most of all, I realize that all of the perfection, balance and wisdom that is in this world but not of it isn’t the monopoly of Christians or even folks who seek spiritual guidance from a higher power. That I as a Christian have to be open to other possibilities if my choice of Christianity is to mean anything at all. That’s a lot to learn in twenty-five years.
Speaking of which, the last Seder I attended wasn’t in ’84, it was in ’95. I was invited to one by a group of first-year history grad students at Carnegie Mellon, who were amazed at how much I knew about Passover. If they only knew… Still, it was nice to go and to realize how much more orthodox Hebrew-Israelite practices were compared to this Passover commemoration. I wonder what I’ll learn in the next twenty-five years, or at least, the next twenty-five months.