The woman’s voice on the phone was hesitant. “Someone gave me your name. Is it possible you could do a wedding on short notice?” She explained that her partner, Jonas, was very ill, and they wanted to marry before he died. I’d have to come to their home.
Curious, and sympathetic to their situation, I said yes. I put on my clergy suit and collar and grabbed my liturgy. Because you don’t go to a wedding empty-handed, I picked up a bouquet on my way over.
The caller, Michelle, welcomed me warmly. Jonas lay in a bedroom with an expansive view of the New Jersey Meadowlands. He was thin and weak, but his spirit showed in his smile.
Jonas and Michelle held hands, he in the bed and she beside it, while I performed the service. As they said their vows, “till death us do part” took on a special meaning: just days, or even hours, from now, it would be over. Jonas chuckled as he told me they were going to “honeymoon” at the hospice unit at Passaic General.
I got a call from Michelle a few days later saying that Jonas had died peacefully and they were grateful to me for marrying them on short notice. A few months later she called again unexpectedly to ask if I’d like to have Jonas’s clothes, since he and I were about the same size. I received several bags of clothing that were much better than I could afford on my clergy pay.
I still wear one of Jonas’s black suits with my clerical collar. Nobody knows but me.
Secaucus, New Jersey
As a child I thought “Gosh” was God’s wife. I couldn’t understand why I was allowed to say her name and not his. Maybe she was just nicer than he was? God must get lonely up there, I figured, floating among the billowy clouds and overseeing existence. He needed a good woman to keep track of things while he helped NFL quarterbacks throw game-winning passes and endowed actors with the talent to land an Oscar. Maybe Gosh helped with the little stuff, keeping a ledger of every time someone swore or made a deal with God: “If you make my horse win, I’ll never cheat on my taxes again.”
Most of my childhood friends had to spend their Sunday mornings in stuffy, solemn churches while I roamed cow paths through the verdant fields surrounding our house. I wondered why anyone would go inside to worship a deity who lives in the sky. Finally I realized what I truly believed: that there is no God’s wife named Gosh, because there is no God.
For years I taught at a Catholic university. My students were eager to make sense of Big Ideas. For most I suspect the idea of God having a wife would have been ridiculous, but somehow an omnipotent father in the sky was not. I’m still struggling to see the difference.
The summer I was twenty-two, I had just left my husband and was living at my mother’s house at the Jersey Shore with my two-year-old boy. My mother’s Jesuit cousin, Father Arthur Long Jr., spent a few weeks at the shore every summer, and this year his vacation was interrupted by my mother’s cry for help — for me, her drug-addicted daughter. Not a religious woman, she must have been desperate to ask for aid from her soldier-of-God cousin.
Father Long asked me to meet him on the porch of his worn-out resort hotel. Assuming he wanted to force-feed me unwanted marriage counseling, I defiantly hung a roach clip around my neck to show him I was antiestablishment. Seeing it, he talked about my marijuana use and asked me to give up drugs for my mother’s sake. I made a sarcastic reply but quickly realized I was no match for Father Long, who’d once been the disciplinarian of an inner-city Catholic boys’ school. Scrambling out of my chair, I heard him say to my back, “I’ll pray for you.”
When I was twenty-four, I overdosed and was admitted to a mental hospital. My father, whom I hadn’t seen in five years, came to visit me and suggested I go to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings on the facility’s grounds. He himself had sobered up a few years earlier and now attended meetings on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I followed his advice.
After six months sober I was the speaker at a large AA meeting in Montclair, New Jersey, one of New York City’s bedroom communities. I talked about my inability to stop drinking, smoking pot, and taking drugs before I’d started the program. I teared up with gratitude toward my father, who had brought me into the fellowship.
Afterward a petite woman approached me and said, “I pray for you every day.” Confused, I asked if we knew each other. She told me that she went to AA meetings in New York with my father. She and the other members of the group had helped him decide what to say when he visited me in the hospital.
“A lot of us have been praying for you for a long time,” she said. “And here you are.”
My mom was raised in a Bible-thumping Baptist church, but when she married my dad, she became a Unitarian, and they raised their children on the Big Bang theory and evolution. By the time I was seven, I could name each geologic period and its major milestones as I jumped rope. At night I dreamed about the way the earth shifted from one age to another.
Today I hike with my dogs (descendants of prehistoric wolves, thirty thousand years ago) in the Middlesex Fells Reservation in Massachusetts, a woodland carved by the Laurentide Ice Sheet twenty-five thousand years ago. Birds (Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago) seem to complain about our presence, but the turtles (Mesozoic era, 220 million years ago) don’t care.
I believe in science. But when I am on this trail and a bald eagle or a great blue heron soars over the water, I know I am in the presence of God.
When I was in my twenties and trying out different churches, a friend invited me to join him in visiting an evangelical church called New Life.
On the day we attended, the pastor explained to the congregation that homosexuality was a sin, and that we as Christians had been called by God to stamp it out. He passed out clipboards to collect signatures on a petition supporting a state ban on same-sex marriage.
“If gay marriage passes into law,” he warned, “God will destroy our town like he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.”
When the clipboard was passed to us, we politely refused. My friend and I were in the U.S. Air Force, and we did not know if we were allowed to sign such a petition.
The man who offered the clipboard stared at us with disgust. I wondered what might have caused his hostility. Then it hit me: here we were, two young men sitting together.
I turned to my friend and said, “He thinks we’re gay.”
We explained to the fuming Christian that we were in the Air Force and were legal residents of other states: “We aren’t sure we’re allowed to sign petitions in Colorado.”
“Oh,” he said, his face relaxing. “Welcome to Colorado Springs.”
I never went back to that church.
Months later the pastor who had railed against same-sex marriage stepped down after he was outed by a male escort.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
After more than ten years as a practicing Muslim, I have become weary of talking about faith. Whenever I get into a discussion with somebody who identifies as belonging to a specific religion, I usually don’t have to wait long to hear something like: “Yes, but God said that the only way to achieve the kingdom of heaven is . . .” That’s where the discussion ends for me. If there is only one God, as followers of the monotheistic religions believe, then why would He show only one group the way to salvation while keeping all the others in the dark?
Some people have the nerve to tell me that no matter how good our deeds in life have been, if we die without accepting God, then those deeds will be in vain. On the other hand, if we screwed up most of our life but repent at the end, then God will save us.
When I recently discussed this with one of my Muslim brothers, he told me, “God created us for one simple reason, which is to worship Him.” But what exactly does worship mean? Apparently most believers think it means to pray and to accept God as the creator of everything. But why would a perfect, self-sufficient, and complete God need us to worship Him? It seems like something we humans might think would benefit us. Maybe to really worship means to be thankful for whatever is given to us in this life, and to treat God’s creation respectfully.
Kansas City, Missouri
The federal-prison worship services I attended as a child were a mixture of Christian denominations — Catholic, Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal. There was singing and shouts of “Amen!” as we clung to our incarcerated loved ones — in my case, my mother.
Family members were invited to attend services at Christmas and Easter. Dressed in our Sunday best, we’d sign in, empty our pockets, and listen as guards explained the rules. They’d divide us into groups of ten and lead us into the gymnasium, where our families would be waiting. The inmates served as greeters (we even received a printed program), ushers, pastors, and choir members in an absurd attempt at normalcy.
What was it that we praised in that place? God? Jesus? Maybe. More than a divine being, though, we worshipped the moments we could kiss, hug, and simply touch our mothers, wives, or sisters.
When I was eight, I asked my Dad why we didn’t go to church. My father lowered his newspaper and took a drag on his Marlboro. “Because when I look up at the sky, all I see is a big, fat question mark.”
It was the fifties, and our Mid-western suburban neighborhood teemed with kids playing hide-and-seek and red rover, but on Sunday mornings it became a ghost town. Everyone was in church except me, the oldest daughter of two self-proclaimed agnostics.
With all the other kids gone, I was bored. “Why can’t we be like everybody else?” I’d whine. One Sunday my father snapped for me to get in the car. As I scrambled onto the front seat, he said, “When you see a church you like, holler.” We pulled onto Main Street and cruised in tense silence past steeple-topped buildings until I pointed to a modest church at the end of a gravel road. Dad swerved into the parking lot and let me out, saying, “I’ll be back in an hour to pick you up.”
And that’s how I ended up at the Dutch Reformed Church. I loved the Bible stories, the singing, and the pageantry. The only problem was hell, which terrified me. I was certain my heathen family was doomed to eternal damnation. So I prayed like mad, begging God to forgive my mom, my dad, and my three clueless siblings. I even prayed for our dog, Woody.
I attended that church for five years, never missing a single Sunday. When I was thirteen, the subject of baptism came up in Reverend Janssen’s catechism class. Confident that baptisms were for babies, I casually mentioned that I’d never had one. The reverend was aghast: “We can fix this.” He would squeeze me in the following week between two infant baptisms.
I assured him that wasn’t necessary: “I’ve got five years’ perfect attendance.”
That’s when I found out that good deeds mean nothing if you aren’t baptized. I was devastated.
When my dad’s Chevy pulled up, I collapsed into his arms. “I’m going to hell!” I wailed. “Or, worse, limbo with a bunch of unbaptized babies!”
At home Dad steered me to the kitchen sink and turned on the tap. Murmuring some words in Latin, he cupped his palm under the faucet and ceremoniously sprinkled water across my tear-stained face. “There, honey, you’re baptized.”
I looked up at him with a mixture of disappointment and disbelief: “Really? That’s all it is?” He shrugged and popped open a bottle of ginger ale. “Drink this. You’ll feel better.” Then he headed outside for a smoke.
I never went back to church. Ten years later my father was dead from lung cancer. Today when I look up at the sky, I don’t see a big, fat question mark. I see my dad, who had enough faith in me to let me find my own answers.
I attended a Catholic elementary school growing up, but eight years in that rigid, stifling environment was enough for me. I moved on to a public high school, where my teachers exposed me to a wider range of ideas and were more open to questions. I still went to Catholic church with my parents, but the robotic sermons and weekly requests for money, not to mention the sexual-abuse allegations, all turned me off. I left the church and stayed away for many years.
After graduating from college, I wanted to study art history in Florence, Italy, and I found a program at a Jesuit university. The program director met all of my worst expectations for a priest. It was an open secret that he profited from his post, and students and teachers talked about how he kept two sets of books. He even skimmed money from the student fees. On top of that, he had a mistress and was frequently seen returning from her apartment early in the mornings. I couldn’t believe he had the audacity to perform Mass every Sunday. His hypocrisy was just another strike against religion for me.
About five years ago my cousin told me that the church where I was baptized would close at the end of the summer. Remembering the loveliness of its jewel-toned stained-glass windows, I decided to attend the last few services. Then, when the diocese reversed its decision and the church remained open, I continued to go, drawn not only by the church’s beauty but by its sense of community and the warmth of its parishioners.
What was once a congregation of Italian American families like mine is now made up of African American and Mexican American families. Several have disabled children who often make noise during the service, but no one ever demands that they be left at home. Instead the parishioners try to find ways to occupy them during Mass. When the priest tells us to offer our neighbors the “sign of peace,” he waits until we’ve shaken hands with everyone in our vicinity — and even waved to the people across the aisle — before continuing. I’m still not deeply religious, but the modest and friendly attitudes of the worshippers here remind me to be more generous, sympathetic, and sensitive to those in need.
Many people attend the coffee hour after Mass, filling their plates several times with cakes and cookies. Sometimes people ask if they can take a plate home to hungry family members, and the woman in charge always finds a little more. She even welcomes those who don’t attend Mass but come in only during coffee hour to eat.
Once, while helping out, I asked about a man in work clothes who came in during a rainstorm without an umbrella. I was told he was a recovering alcoholic struggling to get back on his feet. I asked how I could help and was suddenly in the middle of an impromptu conference with several women who discussed what he needed, what they believed he would accept, and how I should approach him. Now, each Sunday, I make him a package of fruit, soup, and crackers.
Every time I leave church, I feel a tinge of sadness that I have to wait a week to return.
Ann Marie Antenucci
Staten Island, New York
I trace my religious roots to Central Florida, where horses, cattle, and barbed wire make up most of the landscape. Jesus is a popular figure there; the billboards tell you so. I went to an Assembly of God church. Every Sunday a painted-over school bus picked up my next-door neighbors, Sissy and Tommy, and me. We were supposed to be getting saved and asking God to forgive us our sins, but mainly I went to church to see Mark. I longed for him to press me up against the Sunday-school wall when no one was looking. I prayed to God every week for this to happen, but God didn’t listen. Mark took up with Ellie instead, and I watched from two pews behind while he slid his arm around her spaghetti-strapped shoulders.
My sixteen-year-old brain was flooded with envy, lust, and anger — three of the seven deadly sins. While the organist played “Jesus Is Calling,” I trudged to the altar and asked God to forgive me for my transgressions and save me from my immoral failings. Why was I praying for a boy to run his hands up my shirt — something that could bring nothing more than ephemeral pleasure? Why didn’t I pray for the good of us all?
So I prayed for Sissy and little Tommy, my parents and grandparents, my cousins and friends, and even Mark and Ellie. Afterward I thanked the preacher for his sermon, boarded that painted-over school bus, and didn’t once look back at the ladies in their floppy straw hats or the men loosening their colorful ties. Sissy told me she saw Mark and Ellie groping each other under the canopied oak, but I barely listened. Instead I just gazed out the bus window at the grazing cattle, the bales of hay beside them, the sun high above the horizon. Church was the place where I yearned for a boy. Out here was where I truly saw God.
I grew up in a secular Jewish family that celebrated Passover and Hanukkah but never attended synagogue. I became an atheist at sixteen.
In college I majored in piano performance. Needing income, I auditioned for an organist position at a church. Other than two hours of practice, I had never touched an organ (nor had I ever attended a church service), but I was an excellent faker and got the job. For the first few Sundays a choir member cued me through the order of the service. I played only on the keyboards at first, then gradually figured out how to incorporate the pedals. A year in I bought a pair of real organ shoes, started taking lessons, and devoted myself to the “king of instruments.”
My organ career has now spanned twenty-five years. I have worked for three Christian denominations and played more than three thousand services. As my musicianship developed, so did my understanding of Scripture, the cycles of the church year, and the profound interconnectedness of music and worship. Though I have yet to feel a glimmer of faith, I appreciate the New Testament’s messages of love and forgiveness, which are as radical and challenging today as they must have been two thousand years ago.
I have never come out as an atheist to any of my employers. The pastors and congregants who tell me that the Holy Spirit surely moves through my music also proclaim that atheists are destroying the world.
When Mark and I began dating, I pointed out that our worldviews were vastly different. I had no ties to religion, although I had adopted many customs from my indigenous roots. I wrote my own prayers and practiced my own rituals, free from patriarchy and gurus. He, on the other hand, had been raised in a deeply devout Christian environment and had never freed himself from those constraints (though he fancied himself a rebel among the fundamentalists at his “nondenominational” church).
We knew the odds were against us. But when you’re a single parent, as he and I both were, and you find someone who connects well with your children, you try to make it work.
I drew strength from sitting at my home altar, which held flowers, incense, and photographs of the departed: my first love, my grandma, and my tía. I would share my feelings and worries — sometimes aloud — with their images, which seemed to listen. Occasionally I brought a small ofrenda of food, drink, or tobacco.
Mark knew all this and seemed to respect my spirituality at first. He read endlessly to me from the Bible, and I gathered what wisdom I could from those words. But our differences finally drove us apart when I met Mark’s eldest child, Alex.
It had taken time for me to develop a rapport with his teenage daughters, but his son and I hit it off immediately. I recognized myself in this beautiful boy, whose spirit seemed to carry a balance of masculine and feminine energy.
Mark struggled to get along with his son. He could not comprehend why Alex secluded himself and, specifically, why he couldn’t “get a girlfriend.” In the most gentle and respectful manner I could summon, I suggested that perhaps Alex didn’t like girls. Within days Mark broke up with me, and I was ousted from the family.
Mark insisted this had nothing to do with my suggestion about his son and everything to do with the way I worshipped, and I believed him. During our breakup Mark said I was worshipping death, and that the affirmations I sometimes received from the spirit world were most likely from “demons.” The authority in his voice made me shudder. I even took my altar down for a while, entering a lonely period of soul-searching.
But now I can see it all clearly: Mark was so blinded by his devotion to Christ that he could not see his own son.
San Antonio, Texas
I wasn’t raised to have faith in a higher power. I was six when my father told my Lutheran grandmother, “I don’t believe, and she doesn’t have to, either.” But I learned how to worship in my own way.
My holy trinity: the scale, the mirror, the calorie-counting app on my phone. Together they are the omnipresent, supreme force that I’ve let control my life for the past four years.
Every day I stand in front of the mirror and lift my shirt to examine my stomach. “Thank God,” I say when I see it’s still flat.
Every meal I enter the food I eat into my calorie-counting app. “Thank God,” I say when the number is less than what I should consume.
Every week I step on the scale with a mixture of dread and excitement. “Thank God,” I say when I weigh less than I did last week.
Instead of losing myself in the divine or among a throng of fellow believers, I am physically disappearing.
Everyone worships in her or his own way. I’m trying to change mine.
Thirteen years ago, when I was seventy-two, I regularly saw a group of children waiting for the school bus in the mobile-home court where I live. They entertained themselves with mischief: chasing one another into the street, breaking a split-rail fence while pretending to ride it like a horse, and scratching a vehicle as they ran around it. They needed supervision, so I began waiting at the bus stop with them. When snow and ice made it dangerous for me to walk there, because I am vision impaired, my driveway became the bus stop.
I have become “Grandma Lynn” to the youth, greeting them all with a hug and a kind word as they arrive in my driveway. We laugh a lot, respect one another’s differences, sing “Happy Birthday” to each other, and give and receive valentines. Once in a while I fold my white cane to the length of a Harry Potter wand to “cast a spell.”
The children like to hear stories about my childhood and are amused that I wore pinafores and underpants my mother sewed from flour sacks. They are amazed that all the gadgets they have were not invented yet and that I did not see television until I was fourteen. “What did you do?” they ask.
“I had my imagination,” I reply.
One morning a large bull moose suddenly appeared from the backyard. In a tone of voice the kids had never heard me use, I said, “Stand still as statues. No one run, and no one talk.” All did as they were told. The moose walked up to a girl, lowered his head to sniff her, then turned and walked away. Excited children boarded the bus that day.
Sometimes a child comes early to talk privately to me about a problem with a parent, a sibling, a friend, or a teacher. I listen and give an extra hug along with some encouragement. One morning a girl told me her grandmother had just died of cancer. “Now you really are my grandma,” she said. One boy moved away, then returned after two years. As he walked toward the bus stop on his first morning back, he saw me and began running with arms outstretched, shouting, “You’re still here!” On November 30 last year, a second-grade girl was the only one at the bus stop when a magnitude 7.1 earthquake shook our city. We clung to each other as the earth surged violently beneath us.
I am not affiliated with any religion and do not attend any church. My religion is the love I share with these children, year after year.
After moving back to our hometown, my wife and I began attending Mass at St. Mark’s, a nearby Catholic church. We found a true sense of community in the parish, and we liked the pastor, who seemed to have a good heart.
One Sunday a visiting priest came to say Mass, and in his homily he suddenly began discussing the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. To our shock, he minimized the accused priests’ offenses, stating that most cases involved adolescent boys, not young children — as if that somehow made the abuse less despicable. He went on to say that the problem of predator priests is caused by the “disease of homosexuality.” An audible gasp came from the congregation, and many parishioners walked out. (We should have, too, and I am sorry we did not.)
This priest said the only answer was to rid the priesthood of gay men, and he implied that gay people should be excluded from the Church completely. Sadly, but not surprisingly, a group of about fifteen congregants stood and applauded when he had finished his sermon.
The following Sunday our pastor apologized for the guest priest’s divisive and hurtful statements. “The small and ignorant ideas of the few cannot be considered the views of the Church as a whole,” he said. “You are loved and welcome. All of you.” Hearing these words, a group of about fifteen congregants got up and walked out.
Even in the free world, separating the true faithful from the phonies can be difficult. In prison it’s nearly impossible. No doubt some in here are real believers, but there are just as many who are in it only for what they can get, since religious affiliation grants exclusive privileges.
For example, necklaces are prohibited, but anyone registered as Catholic may order a fancy rosary. Nothing displays one’s piety like a gold cross on a strand of dried-blood-colored beads.
If someone registers as Jewish, he can receive a special diet of pre-packaged kosher foods that are fresher and more edible than the typical prison grub, which is often congealed, stale, or wilted.
Muslims get access to kufis (knitted skullcaps), plus a couple of annual feasts, so they can brag about (or sell) the lamb, fried chicken, hot sauce, and delicate baklava.
About ten years ago tobacco products were banned in prisons, but not for Native American practitioners, for whom tobacco is a sacrament. Overnight the Native population exploded from two people to about thirty. As each man enters the prayer circle, the chaplain hands him a medicine cup containing a teaspoon of tobacco that he can smoke in his pipe, burn in his smudge pot, or secretly smuggle back inside to sell for a dollar per cigarette. (You can easily get five bucks for that teaspoon: that’s twenty ramen soups, twenty coffees, eight stamps, five pills, or one blow job.)
Though we can register with only one faith at a time, we’re permitted to change faiths every three to four months. (That alone should tell you something.) Often, when someone changes religions, his former faith’s paraphernalia — now contraband — finds its way onto the black market: headbands, prayer rugs, Bible dictionaries, shiny crucifixes — it’s all for sale.
Back when they banned tobacco, I registered as Native American myself, despite also professing to be a Christian. Eventually I felt guilty and registered as a Protestant. When that first Sunday rolled around, I lay in bed, craving a cigarette, and heard a voice in my head that I attribute to God. (He sounded sort of like Charlton Heston playing Moses in that old movie.) He said, “You went outside to smoke three times a week for three years straight and missed not one day. In the rain. In the cold. In the heat. You skipped movies. You skipped recreation. You went through strip searches. And now you can’t go to church?”
I got out of bed and went to the service.
That was seven years ago, and I haven’t missed a day since, not even after we Christians lost the three annual feasts we used to brag about. To demonstrate my devotion, I own the most expensive Bible in our small congregation — ornate, leather bound, and handmade (in China). And I no longer pass judgment on whose faith is real and whose isn’t. Despite being a sincere worshipper, I’ve often bent the rules to make this hard life a little softer.
The teachers at our Catholic school told us we were lucky. We would experience a miracle. We were about to see a woman with the power of God in her hands.
Inside the cathedral it was warm and dim. We blessed ourselves with holy water from a thick marble bowl, hushed by the enormous vault of the ceiling painted with stars, the shadowy statues, the stained glass glowing on all sides. Schoolchildren filled the pews: bright-red skirts from Sacred Heart, green and white from St. Ignatius, blue and gold from St. Mary’s. The altar seemed as far away as the horizon.
Men brought out armloads of cushions and laid them along the altar rail. One of them came to the first pew and gestured toward the altar. People shuffled slowly to the front and knelt. A small woman — maybe a nun — walked along the rail like the priest at Communion. But instead of offering a wafer, she stretched her hand out to the people’s foreheads, and they fell backward and were caught by the men, who laid them gently onto the cushions.
She walked fast, the bodies wilting silently, like mown grass. By the time she got to the end, the first people had gotten up, swaying, and were walking back to their pews. A new row took their place.
This repeated in surreal silence. I watched, fascinated and horrified. What was happening? What if I fell? What if I didn’t? What if my skirt came up and people could see?
Finally it was our turn. My fingers trembled against the rail. I took a deep breath and made a choice: I didn’t know what this was, but I was going to be open to it. Maybe I would fall. Maybe I wouldn’t. Either way, I might as well see what this was all about.
I knelt with my eyes lowered and my mind empty. The person on my right melted backward out of view. The woman’s heavy black shoes appeared in front of me, and as I raised my eyes, the air before me solidified, like a dense wall, wide and tall and as thick as a mattress. My eyes passed over her body and her face and up to the ceiling, until they rolled back in my head and that soft wall pushed me backward. I was lowered to a cushion by a pair of steady hands.
I blinked at the ceiling full of stars. I slowly untangled myself and rose on unsteady legs.
Later some of my classmates said nothing had happened. Some said they fell back on purpose. Some said that when they didn’t fall, she gave them a little push on the forehead. Some said they fainted.
I didn’t faint. I didn’t fall back on purpose. The air turned solid and shoved me to the floor.
The mystery was not discussed. We did math, sang in choir, played dodgeball. For a while I was twitchy and dreamy, washed through with an electric sense of my unique place in the cosmos. But eventually minutes passed without my thinking about that invisible force, then hours, then days. Nothing so strange ever happened to me again.
Years later my daughter asked if there is a God. I answered carefully: “Well, nobody knows for sure, but some people think so.”
I remembered that winter day when a tiny woman had flattened me with her empty hand. It had been like something from the Old Testament — the whale, the burning bush, air that turns solid and shoves you down. It didn’t make me feel small, though. It made me feel chosen. When the other kids said they didn’t feel anything, I thought, You were so busy acting cool that you missed the coolest thing in the universe.
This morning I’m going out to my parents’ ranch to help water and feed the horses. I often fill in on Sundays when employees have the day off.
The ranch is nestled among native blue oaks in a secluded valley. As I crest the final hill just before sunrise, I can almost hear the soundtrack music swell. Some mornings I will spot a bobcat, fawn, or raccoon, but not today.
I unlock the gate and bid the horses good morning. They mostly ignore me, but occasionally, when I am filling the water bucket, one will approach and allow me to scratch its neck.
After I finish watering, I feed the horses their hay. They are impatient and jostle for position. I assure them there is enough for everybody, and they will all get their share. I’m wearing my muck boots, because you never know what you’ll step in, and the days have been wet and muddy lately. The boots keep my feet warm and dry, a luxury my rural ancestors didn’t have.
I roll the hay cart past the great blue oak where my beloved dog Ida is buried. She used to joyfully accompany me to the ranch and chase squirrels in the shade of this tree. The river rocks I piled on top of her grave are hidden now beneath a blanket of new grass.
Performing these simple tasks, which in my younger days I would have resented as dreadful chores, is the highlight of my week. I am grateful to be able to do something useful in this beautiful place.
I take my time driving home, stopping to gawk at the carpet of purple wildflowers and the cattle grazing contentedly. I arrive at my house dirty and covered with hay, too late to clean up for church, but it’s all right. I feel like I have already been.
When I was a little girl, my family attended a Protestant church. I guess my parents hoped to instill in me some degree of religious faith or a moral code, but all I cared about was the grandeur: the kaleidoscopic stained-glass windows, the priest’s ornate robes, the worshippers’ neatly pressed clothes.
More than anything else, I loved getting dressed up for church. I had a special Sunday coat, a masterpiece of pastel polyester. My lapel was adorned with a plastic bunny pin — an Easter gift that I had adopted as a year-round accessory — and I wore white gloves with tiny pearl buttons. During Communion I daintily held a thimble-sized cup of grape juice with my gloved fingers, feeling grown-up and cosmopolitan.
I never did subscribe to the teachings of any particular religion, but I still live by the tenets of my own faith: fashion.
Chepachet, Rhode Island
When I select the opening music for our church service in Men’s Central Jail, I always try to choose something with energy, something to help the men shift gears from their life in cells or dorms to an experience of worship. Today George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” pulses through the chapel. As about forty men enter the space, we start clapping to the beat. Some men pick up on the lyrics: “My sweet Lord, / I really want to see you, / Really want to be with you, / I really want to see you, Lord / But it takes so long, my Lord . . .” The place is jumping, and for a moment I almost forget that we are in jail.
These men live in the protective-custody dorms because most are at a high risk of being targeted for harm among the jail’s general population. As a result, they receive few services, such as AA meetings. I am not allowed to provide them individual spiritual care. We do our best to have intimate conversations, but they are never private. It seems that those who might need the most get the least.
To make this weekly church service possible, an entire floor of the jail — eight dorms holding hundreds of men — is locked down while our friends are escorted to the chapel. This space might be the closest thing there is to the promised land in this wasteland of a jail, and we try to make the most of it. We mist the air with aromatherapy oils and come prepared with magazines, pencils, daily devotionals, and rosaries.
“My Sweet Lord” begins to fade, but the energy is still high. The bland room has been infused by the Spirit and anointed by the presence of these holy men.
I always have several of them help lead the worship. Today Manuel is reading the Epistle; Jason, the Gospel; and Enrique, the Psalm. Thomas, who is new today, leads the Prayers of the People. If someone fumbles his part, the others kindly help him. One of the men serves the bread while I offer an anointing. This feels like a real church community the way Jesus imagined it for us.
During Holy Communion I cue up “Angel,” by Sarah McLachlan. Men are on their knees praying, crying, and connecting with something deep within yet also beyond themselves. I weep, too. When the music ends, we sit in silence. Even the deputies standing watch seem moved by the moment.
After the service Thomas asks if we can talk. He tells me that a couple of weeks ago he was accidentally released from the jail. Although the error was discovered, and he was re-arrested about a week later, he was able to visit his dying mother during those scant days of freedom. As he speaks, he begins sobbing and thanks God for the mistake that set him free so he could see her.
He knows it was no mere mistake, and so do I. It was God’s grace.
Rev. Dennis Gibbs
San Gabriel, California