Genesis

A tall, slender man turns his mule off the main road. He rides down an inner track before turning onto a dirt path. His mule grunts with familiarity as they pass field after field; fields bearing fruits and vegetables that Jamaicans have lived off for decades since they were taken from Africa. Bananas, oranges, yams, breadfruit, pawpaw, and others burst from the ground bringing news of a successful harvest.

The man, William Case, only in his mid-twenties but a full grown man all the same, stops in front of a piece of land, tying his mule to a wooden post before walking down a narrow path, crops as far as the eye can see welcoming him back. This is his land; his first piece of earth. Maybe he knows that it is the beginning of something larger than himself, larger than digging his hands into black soil in the hopes of feeding his future family; larger than the speeches he has yet to deliver to his people who will listen to his words with unyielding confidence; larger than the truck he will purchase, the town’s first automobile, and use to transport people, the harvest, and anything else that requires more than a mule’s hooves. Maybe he knows this, but it is unlikely.

After surveying his crops, William removes his wrinkled hat and stares into the sun, closing his eyes as the wind sweeps past his face. He exits his field, mounts his mule, and makes his way across the dirt path, up the inner track, and onto the main road when he hears a voice that says, “William, go back and get some food and take it to Miss Winnie Christie.” Without hesitation, William turns around, zigzagging through the narrow dirt roads, and picks fresh yams, bananas, potatoes, and more before loading them onto his mule.

William rides back home, but doesn’t stop. He continues on, much farther, to Miss Winnie Christie’s home. “Miss Winnie! Miss Winnie!” he calls out from the entrance. “Hold dog!” he yells, a common Jamaican expression when approaching visitors, so guard dogs don’t attack.

When William enters her property, opening his bag of fruits and vegetables for Miss Winnie Christie, she raises her hands in praise, looks towards the sky and says, “Thank you, Lord. You have never lied to me. Whatever I’ve ever needed, I’ve only needed to ask for it, in faith.”

Miss Winnie Christie, despite being older than William, says, “Come with me, Mas William,” addressing him as one would an elder. Stepping inside, he removes his hat, following her into the kitchen. As William enters, he sees a pot of boiling water on the stove. “This,” Miss Winnie Christie says, pointing to the pot, “was in preparation for the food that I knew God would provide for me and my children.”

As a child, I heard this story many times, always told with the same details, admiration, and conviction in trusting God to provide. I no longer believe in the God that told William to go to Miss Winnie Christie’s home, but I do believe this story. You see, William Case was my grandfather.

Leviticus

Two boys enter a bedroom. The older one goes left, pulling back his covers and jumping into bed. He closes his eyes and clasps his hands so tightly his wrists shake. The other turns right, moving close to the wall so that his father, or sometimes mother, can lay next to him. “Gentle Jesus,” the older one begins, signaling for the younger brother to follow. “Meek and mild. Look upon a little child. Pity my simplicity. Suffer me to come to Thee.”

The boys repeat these 19 words every night for over a decade. Words handed down to them by their mother, who learned them as a young girl in Jamaica. The older boy would never know the impact these 19 words had on his younger brother, but he knew what they meant to him. They were a key. One of many keys he was given — by his mother, the Church, and the Bible — that would help him earn his way into heaven. The Ten Commandments were another key, which is why the boy never lied for so long; afraid of receiving third-degree burns for eternity, something he often tried to fathom but never could. In his mind, the more keys he had, like a janitor’s belt sagging from the weight of entry accrued over a long career, the safer he was from the evil at the end of the tunnel.

He said, “Oh my gosh,” instead of “Oh my God,” in accordance with the fourth commandment. Whenever he felt the impulse to want what someone else had, he swallowed it like a large rock, plunging it deeper into himself until it settled at the floor of his stomach. He got dressed every Sunday, along with his younger brother, and attended a church where no one looked anything like him, including images of a European Jesus; a savior, the boy was told, who was the son of a God who created humans in his image. “But,” the boy would think, before swallowing this doubt, “if that is the son of God, who made us in his image, why do I look nothing like him?” He knew he had to kill the questions in order to survive; that questions only introduce doubt, and faith has no room for doubt.


The older of the two boys, now 11, is told that his aunt is paying for him to go to a Bible camp in New Hampshire for a week that summer. He’s excited to learn more about the word of God, hopefully extinguishing the questions that have grown taller, smarter, and stronger than him. Maybe he will meet others, like himself, praying to a God they have never seen. His brother will also go.

At the camp, the two boys are a hit. Being from New York, they command a certain swagger that attracts others. They close their eyes and raise their hands towards heaven, singing the glory of God with the other children until their throats run dry. They go on hikes, experiencing the beauty of a world God made in only seven days. The older boy asks his counselor, a lawyer, questions like, “How come only Jesus could understand tongues?” “If a baby dies, does it go straight to heaven?” “Do people who commit different levels of sin go to the same hell? And just how hot is it?” But, the boy finds, his questions aren’t met with rebuke. Instead, the lawyer rewards his curiosity with a purple and orange foam football.

On the final night of a perfect week, the boys, along with the other children, are ushered into a large building with glass walls and a glass ceiling, exposing them to the night sky. A man grabs a microphone, asks all of the children to stand, and tells them to close their eyes. The boy can hear counselors walking row by row, ensuring everyone follows along. And then, the man with the microphone instructs the children to begin speaking in tongues. The boy, only knowing tongues to be gibberish, doesn’t know what to do. But he hears children all around him speaking an indecipherable language, and he does the same. As the nonsensical sounds swim past his candy-stained tongue and fall into the air, a counselor approaches, asking him to speak louder, “loud enough for the Lord to hear.” The boy increases his volume, feeling foolish; embarrassed not from the sounds he is making, but from not believing that anyone, including Jesus, would be able to understand them.

“Good, children,” the man says. “Now, I want you to picture something. Picture men with black masks and black clothing breaking through this glass ceiling and these glass walls.” The older boy pictures the men, muscles tearing through their shirts and bulletproof vests stretching across their chests, shattering glass as they drop to the floor like spies flying down black ropes. “These men have big guns,” the man continues. “Picture them putting the guns to your head.” The boy feels the weight of the cold black barrel resting on his nose before making its way to his forehead. “These men will shoot you if you maintain your faith in God, or let you live if you denounce him. What would you do?”

What would I do? The older boy wonders — his heart beating so hard he thinks it will break a rib. A masked gunman stands before him, finger on the trigger, ready to blow his brains out, but he doesn’t want to answer the question. “You have to make a decision,” the man with the microphone says to the group of children. “But I don’t want you to say it out loud. Only you’ll know your answer.”

The older boy feels sweat pouring from his hands onto the floor beneath him. And it is then he knows that it’s no longer just the questions he has to fear, but also the answers. His answers. “Open your eyes,” the man instructs. As the boy looks around, he sees a sea of faces that look nothing like how he feels. The children, he knows, have gained another key. Maybe it is then that he sees it is the beginning of the end; maybe he can feel an unraveling in his heart, like the peeling of an orange, that, no matter how hard you try to put it back together, will never be as it once was. But maybe he was just disappointed by his lack of faith, because he knew that if a gunman gave him a choice, he would denounce God; he would choose the guarantee of life on earth over the gamble of everlasting life in heaven.

That boy was me.

Ecclesiastes

As I grew, my questions grew with me. I would still say that same prayer every night, and try to speak to God, but, unlike my grandfather, I never received a response. It was around this time, my teenage years, that I realized that the God I was taught to believe in didn’t exist. Why else would children starve to death while others were allowed to not only survive, but live and thrive in excess? Why did those who put their faith in God often never receive his mercy? What does it mean to be a good Christian, when the good Christians who built our country were more devilish than Lucifer himself? Was this the same God who slave owners thanked for their dominion? The same God whose breath blew ships across the ocean, into the heart of Africa, to spread word of his glory to people who had never seen, or heard, his divine word? No, this God didn’t exist. And, if he did, I wanted nothing to do with him. But, I wasn’t fully there yet.


It was the summer of 2007, and I attended a two-month summer program at Harvard where high schoolers could take classes alongside college students. It was a summer of revelations both romantic and intellectual. Before leaving, my grandmother experienced her fifth stroke, rendering her speechless. This woman, who had raised me and my brothers, who had an unshakeable resolve in living the word of God versus talking about it, rested her head in a hospital bed, looking around the room with wandering eyes.

I knelt beside her; before bringing my lips to her forehead, I touched them to her ears. “Grandma,” I spoke, “If there is a heaven, I know you will go there. Please send me a sign.”

When I returned home for a few days after the first month, my mother asked if I wanted to visit my grandmother. Having just learned how to play poker, I said that I would see her when I returned the following month, because surely if there were a God, he would help my grandmother, who devoted every fiber of herself to him, recover. But she didn’t.

Revelation

I was 18, studying abroad in Italy, and laying down for the night. But when I felt the impulse to begin, “Gentle Jesus. Meek and mild,” I stopped. I would never pray to a man in the sky again.

Where I went from there were the same places many young men and women go in search of answers. I floated, like a honeybee collecting pollen, from far eastern philosophy to 20th century mystics to the transcendentalists to anyone professing to have figured out how to survive in a world without a Christian God breathing down their neck. For a while, this sustained me. Men like Alan Watts, Walt Whitman, G.I. Gurdjieff, Lao Tzu, D.T. Suzuki, Carl Jung, and countless others provided balm for festering wounds formed by years of unanswered questions and fear. But I eventually found that these men, like all others, were only men, and that what comes of man is no more than a cosmic child pointing at the stars and trying to form patterns out of unfathomable stardust.

When I think back to the destruction of my faith, neatly reviewing experience after experience as I’ve laid them out here, I always arrive at the same place — for faith to be destroyed, you have to have had it. And the more I search my soul, with an unflinching honesty, the more I know that I never believed. Perhaps, like an arid climate, the soil of my soul wasn’t fertile enough for God’s roots to take hold. But what is more probable is that my relationship with God was stunted from the beginning due to the fact that church, for me, was never the same refuge it is for so many others; nor was it a place where I would congregate with people who looked anything like me. The mandate that I receive the Bible as fact was too much, even as a child with an endless imagination, and having the answers for an overwhelming amount of questions postponed to after the death of my body seemed an unfair amount of time to wait.

I don’t believe in a Christian God, and make no claim to know what comes after our bodies go cold and turn to dust, but I am not someone who trolls forums and Facebook posts in an effort to destroy other people’s faith. No, I am thoroughly envious of those who believe in God, Allah, or any other deity they find comfort in. Because they have answers to the questions that I still ask. They put faith in master plans and the words of those, like my grandfather, who were fortunate enough to hear them.

But my child won’t believe in God. They won’t grow up in fear of a man in the sky raining down fire and brimstone if they don’t do what they’re told. They won’t repeat 19 words written down centuries ago by a man who knew nothing about them. And they won’t dream of a heaven where all of their best friends, and favorite foods, reside without pain, struggle, or death in sight. If I do my job, however, my child will grow up respecting others’ beliefs, learn what they can of them, and decide, if decision plays any role in it, what to believe in while making room for the unknown, unexplainable, and almost unbearable weight on one’s shoulders when trying to make sense of it all. They will know that what we do here on this earth matters, that to be a good person has nothing to do with religion, and that while the questions they have may never cease, it is okay. To question is to live.

But before all of that, they will hear the story of William Case and Miss Winnie Christie. And when they ask me if I believe it, I will smile, and I will say yes.