Friday, January 05, 2007

Making sense of years of devotion

I used to be very religious. Growing up we, with my mom and my sister, joined a baptist church near our house. I was about 5 years old when we starting attending the church. My closest friends were there, and we spent a lot of time going to services, meetings for a couple of committees my mom was part of. There was this one committee I liked in particular; it was the committee for the anniversary celebration and my mom was the secretary. They met on Monday nights. And while my mom was talking about how much money the church needed to raise for certain date in order to have enough for chicken sandwiches and building maintenance, I was out the temple playing with two of my friends and my sister. Their dad and mom were in the same committee.

I decided to invite God in my life in what I figure was a Saturday in December 1991. We had gone around the communities surrounding the church and had invited people to come see a movie about the apocalypse. I was 6 years old. I sat up front to get a better view of the movie and by the end of the night I was thinking I didn't want to go in desperation like the people in the movie had seemed to be. I wanted to be happy in heaven with Jesus by the time all that went on. So I prayed with the youth leader that got up after the movie to invite people to come to salvation. From that night on, I've believed I'm part of His family.

I started growing as a Christian. And there came the time I was able to serve at church. It was a very early age compared to what people were used to seeing, but I wanted to serve. I had an urge to serve, my heart was burning because I wanted to grow more and know more and serve more. But to be able to serve, one had to get baptized or transfer the church membership to that church. I went through the baptism classes and on Sunday, December 26, 2006 I and my group of friends, that generation of kids, got baptized. I saw a picture from that day and we were so little. I was 11 years old. It was a good day. I remember my dad came to church and saw us take that step. That made my day so much happier, just the fact he came to support us.

He's always wanted us to believe in God. He used to tell my mom to look for a church and take us to the Sunday school so that we could somehow acquire a set of values. Before going to what ended up being my church we would go to a little church which temple I never saw finished. It was just walls, there was no roof. But we would meet in our Sunday class and color drawings of men with tunics and camels or sometimes mules by their side. I remember the day we learned about Joseph and his dreams. I remember that day because we had to color the tunic his father gave to him, the one with all the beautiful colors.

I don't remember the first committee I joined at church. I do remember when I was in the missionary committee people didn't take us seriously. And I guess that's what you do when you see a 12-year old sitting in one of your meetings, except by doing that they were hurting me because I really wanted to serve but there was something about me (I didn't know what) that just wasn't good enough to be given any responsibilities. Things changed later, when they started to need me for things I was good at, like making people laugh and drawing.

I started as a clown in, I think, 1997 when we went to a very small and poor town on Morazan, one of the Departamentos (the geographic divisions in El Salvador are called Departamentos, kinda like States) of El Salvador. The town was 8 hours away and we went with a big group. My mom, my sister, and I went. And I saw extreme poverty as I'd never seen it before. I had seen poverty, but not like I saw in Joateca (the town). I saw kids walking miles barefooted each day to go to school or work. I saw kids whose clothes so thin and old that soap would rip them. And in the eyes of little kids who were happy because we took some toys or used clothes in better condition than theirs I saw life and injustice. And I got so mad at everyone because that reality should be for anybody. It's inhumane, but yet I was looking at it, I was there powerless about the present and future of those kids and their parents. After that trip we kept going back to the town until we established a little mission over there. I went a lot and always enjoyed the time and the opportunity to make a small difference in the lives of those we helped. Last time I heard of that mission it was left alone by my church. Some internal problems came along and there was no strength to keep working for others-- or something along those lines. It seemed ridiculous to me, but by that time I wasn't part of the church or the country anymore. And then I felt more powerless than the times I looked poverty in the eyes.

I learned to not hate until it was too late. There was a kid at church, Dennis, who seemed a little more feminine than the other boys. I was 13 the most, and he was about a year or two younger. I used to make fun of him because he had an attitude about things that seemed funny to me at the time. He would get really mad if we told him he was wrong on anything, and deep down I felt he was gay. I never meant to hurt him, but I know I probably did because I didn't treat him like I treated everybody else. I know he felt me stare the times I wondered if he really was gay. The last time he got mad at me was all a mistake. I had seen a commercial on TV from some new houses for sale, one of the kids playing basketball in the commercial looked just like Dennis and so next time I saw him at the Sunday morning class I asked him if it was him, but he got so mad at me and yelled to quit bothering him. I wasn't making fun of him that time, it was just a question, but then I knew I had hurt him. I only told Caro about my thoughts on Dennis an how he had gotten mad that time. And I only talked to her because I was feeling very bad because he never came back to church after that day. That talk with Caro was the first time I realized I had to change.

Being a kid is very dramatic. There's an age when you don't count for the adult world, but that you know you're not a kid anymore. And there was a lot of drama at church. For a bunch of Christian kids we were horrible. There was a little group that seemed to be dedicated to keep new kids away. I thought it was ridiculous, so I was constantly giving speeches about how bad that attitude was and how God didn't want that. Those kids would constantly make fun of my sister and would say that she was dumb or things like that, and I would get really mad and tell them how they were the stupid ones that would not ever grow up to be anything good. Sadly, I was right. We grew up and they were as useless as they were when we were 12. And it's even more obvious now, when I remember the things they cared about and how they treated others... they never changed. I left the country and they were still the same. I learned a lot from one of the youth group leaders, Maria Ines. She was pretty awesome. One of the qualities I admired the most of her was humbleness. By the time she came into my life I had grown a cold heart and attitude. I don't know why, but I'm not good at expressing my appreciation for those I love. The last time I saw Maria Ines, la Chinita, was a Monday and I had given her some tapes of Christian music. And she hugged me and said "I know you love me, even though you're so freaking cold" (she said that in Spanish, of course). And I just smiled. It really bothered me when she or someone else asked me if I didn't like them, if I didn't love them, or if I hated them. Those questions would make me feel uncomfortable, but eventually people learned to know how I expressed my feelings. The Tuesday after la Chinita said that to me I got home after school and my sister was crying because she had had a stroke and was in intensive care at the hospital. We spent that night at the hospital, praying. I was 15.

She died one month after the stroke.

I was appointed "collaborator" for the leadership of the youth group when I was 14. I guess I was too young to be called a leader, though I had the same responsibilities that the other 6 leaders had. After Maria Ines died it all changed. We didn't deal with her death. Just like we, in my family, hadn't dealt with my grandmother's death. And so the youth group at church suffered, specially the leadership. Next thing we knew the first leader had turned his back on the group and everything else in his life, he was Maria Ines' little brother. After a few months he left the church.

We weren't taught how to deal with death. I realize this is something the majority of people have such hard time understanding and overcoming the changes cause by it, but we just didn't talk about it at all. When someone passed away in our church some people would get together and go to the funeral or if it was at church we would meet there and sing those songs you only hear at Christian funerals. Songs that talk about a place brighter than the sun and it's our real home, yet they seem so lifeless and stripped from any hope they were meant to bring to the soul.

I remember sitting at the very back of the church for Maria Ines' funeral at church. The place had never been more packed, not even for her wedding was the church so full. People were telling stories of her kindness and the beauty of her life. And I was crying in silence. Because for some reason, there was this unofficial rule that said you couldn't cry out loud for somebody's death. God forbid you were to break down, for it meant you had no hope in that the person was in Heaven-- a place where you'll meet them later in the afterlife. So all that pain was inside, masked with conversations we didn't want to have. At the cemetery nobody wanted to cry, but then it was so that you could be strong for the family. Her husband, one of my best friends, cried in silence while her coffin was taken down to where it'd rest from then on. I saw that and broke down. A friend next to me hugged me and I stayed there until it was time to go. In the car on our way back Maria Ines' brother was laughing and telling jokes, so I knew then that he'd break down in different ways. I could never understand those times and all I could think about was my dad laughing at the cemetery after we buried my grandpa, his dad. I didn't understand why people were laughing when all I wanted to do was to be sad.

To this day, I don't deal with death well. When I lost April in September 2005 my world just stopped. And reliving things through all the news coverage on her murder and then on the trial a year later just came to open the wounds. But the thing is, I don't want to talk about it because I'm afraid I'll offend God. The beliefs I grew up on tell me some people don't go to heaven, and that just seems so wrong to me. So unfair. Why should a life be measured to standards set by certain beliefs if life was not fair? Not all people are given equal opportunities in life, and that's what I refer to when I talk about fairness, but they're supposed to go through an equal judgment after death?

I grew up scared that my family would go to hell if they didn't believe in what I believed. I started trying to convince my dad my beliefs were the true beliefs everyone else had to follow too. And the night I talked to him about the salvation plan as I had been taught to explain, he said we are all Jesus children. He told me not to be blind, because God loved everyone. That night I cried thinking my dad will not go to heaven with me. I wanted to save him like I wanted to save everybody else. So I decided I'd be a missionary. I wanted to go to the theological seminary in Guatemala and study there after I graduated from high school. But when I went and talked to one of the leaders at the seminary about my decision he told me I was too young to go there. I didn't understand for they didn't give me any explanation. I now think it all worked out for the best.

I don't go to church anymore. When I moved to the U.S. I started looking for a church, but never found one I liked. I wanted my church from El Salvador, I wanted those same friends, that same place, the same things I had but they just weren't in my life anymore. I hold on to many of those beliefs still, but many I've disregarded. If things aren't based in love I don't think they're good for humanity. There was a lot of conflict, materialism, and hate in my church and all throughout my spiritual quest; but it's only because we're human and those things happen. Overcoming those things is where the power is, in learning to love for free, as the Jesus in the Bible did; but many interpretations of things and secondary rituals of religion get in the way of unconditional love for God and others most of the time. I got tired of talking about the right way of singing at church or the right way of dressing for church, I got tired of little things that at the end don't matter.

I've explored this in my art also, in the painting series "Historia de Creencias" I tried to make sense of my spirituality and, in a way, that series goes well with what I've written here. Spirituality and religion are a very important parts of my story. Making sense of the experiences that have shaped my beliefs in different ways is important to me, and that's why I wrote all this. Not all is said, but now I feel better about where I stand on some things.

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