Sunday, April 11, 2010
I loved him when we were kids. He was probably 4 or 5 years younger, the 4th born of my Uncle Owen’s 5 children. He was a cheerful oddball, the product of a strange upbringing by missionary parents. Looking back, his sly grin may have revealed a mean streak, but it didn’t seem that way at the time. He seemed quite the innocent to me.
My first memory of Jeff is from my Grandma Madeira’s living room, with the great African American singer Marian Anderson crying from the Victrola, “I Told Jesus It Would Be Alright If I Changed My Name”. He’s sitting on the sofa with his sister Jane, and he’s smiling happily.
Those days at Grandma's were the days of two brothers reuniting, with 8 kids in tow. The bond between Dad and Owen was strong, and typical of brothers, competitive and fun. Dad was older, stronger, wiser, and humbler than Owen, who was nonetheless cheerful, fun, and daring.
Owen gave me my first airplane ride. One day, Dad and Owen put all the boys (of course, just the boys) into a station wagon, and drove out to a cornfield in the Lancaster County farmlands, where a Piper Cub sat idling.
The fuselage was made of canvas, and there was room for 2 passengers. Owen crammed into the back seat, while my cousin Ray Don and I squeezed into the front seat. We sat idling and Owen said, "Boys, let's have a word of prayer before we take off", to which I cracked, "I'm already prayin'."
One icy winter, another stunt was played out on the slick roads of Grandma's neighborhood. Dad or Owen would drive, while the other would lay prostrate on a sled with a few cousins sitting on top of him, hanging onto the rear bumper with one hand, skidding through the streets at midnight. Our mothers never knew.
That was the fun side.
The mean side surfaced in odd stories like this one: In the early 50s, when Owen was in the Army, each soldier was rationed a bottle of beer with his dinner. A non-drinker, Owen's soldier buddies would ask for his beer. Owen, thinking he was doing the men and God Almighty a favor, would smile as he poured the bottle into the trash.
This story was told repeatedly with immense pride.
Owen was a well meaning man who dragged his uptight religious wife Rita to Colombia and Ecuador in the Fifties to make converts for Christ. Along the way, they had five kids, all raised on the mission field. While I wouldn’t venture to bring my children up in a hostile environment nor prop them up as “different” than the natives, it could have been worse.
Take, for example, my Aunt Agnes’ kids, the other missionary cousins.
Agnes’ kids were left at a home for missionary children, for four years at a time, while their parents tried to make children of God out of pagans in Thailand. This has always amazed me, the concept of leaving one’s children in a stranger’s care, while trying to show the rest of the world the love of God. I’ve always thought the best way to show the Love of God is by loving your children, not abandoning them, but these were people for whom making heathens into children of God meant making their own children into orphans.
My parents took a great interest in Agnes’ kids, bringing them to Rhode Island for weeks at a time every summer. It’s mind boggling, but Agnes’ kids saw my parents more often than their own, who were usually in Thailand. We would take them to our family’s holy place, Goosewing Beach, where they were given the gift of belonging to a family, with a mom and dad who were conversant with them. No wonder one of them named his daughter Anna-Lisa after my mother.
We saw Owen’s family once every few years, and it was a major event. Once, I recall seeing them off in New York City where they were boarding a merchant vessel for Ecuador. Their life seemed exciting and exotic, and they were family celebrities for living their life in this sacrificial fashion.
While in Columbia, Owen was hanged upside down and beaten, all for being a Protestant. To this day, he remembers what “the Catholics” did to him.
Other unfortunate events occurred to this family as they sacrificed for the Gospel. As an infant, Richard, their fifth and last child, needed an emergency tracheotomy. The Colombian doctor cut Richard’s vocal cords, leaving him bereft of any natural voice for the rest of his life.
What if my parents had followed God Almighty to some less civilized place? What if their bluesman child had had his vocal cords cut by a surgeon’s poorly wielded scalpel? Tell me what song I’d be singing now.
Richard’s untimely brush with a South American hack ended Owen’s days in foreign missions, so the family returned Stateside, where better doctors were available. Owen’s new mission field was the Philadelphia ghetto of Camden, New Jersey, where his 5 children were routinely picked on as outsiders.
Owen was a lover of the downtrodden, and lived his life to share with the outcast, the minority, and the poor. The price of this mission might have been turning his own children into outcasts and minorities.
I’ve wondered if it was during this season of sacrificing for Christ that the soil of Jeff’s soul was made fertile for racism and hatred.
After high school, Jeff graduated from the Nashville Diesel Mechanics College, and moved to South Carolina, where he enrolled in an obscure Bible school. In a setting which made Bob Jones University look downright upright, Jeff was given a spurious scriptural basis for his hatred for all things black, all things nonwhite.
When his oldest brother Frank married a Jamaican woman in the 70s, Jeff acted out his racist leanings. He stopped speaking with Frank, apart from cruel remarks meant to incite an argument, spoken with a wide, superior, gotcha grin.
News of the family rift was sad, but we lost touch with Jeff for decades, until Barrack Obama came onto the national scene. It turns out, Jeff’s “ideals” hadn’t softened with age, but had become increasingly hateful.
When Obama was running for the office of president, Jeff wrote me a taunting diatribe saying, “The book of Isaiah says that one day I will be able to look down into the Pit and see Obama, Martin Luther King, and Jesse Jackson!”.
Does this, kind reader, send a chill up your spine? It does mine.
I guess I’m not reading the same Bible as Jeff.
Today, Jeff’s certainty in his position is frightening, and there are times when I wonder if he will make the Madeira name famous, by going out and becoming another Timothy McVeigh or James Earl Ray. He seems that far-gone to me.
His father, my Uncle Owen, has a good heart, but is no less stricken with the the same disease of unyielding absolutism.
When the oldest Madeira cousin passed away a few years ago, Uncle Owen sent me the funeral program. In the center page, a man had written of my cousin, “Steve was my best friend. I believe that we lived many lifetimes together, and that we fought many battles side by side.”
I’ve never been one for the idea of reincarnation. No one ever says, “In another lifetime, I was a restroom attendant”. No one ever believes they were a loser in another lifetime, never mind a toad.
But I understood what Steve’s friend had written. It wasn’t good theology. It wasn’t even good fiction. It was just a guy trying to say that he simply loved his best friend, and romanticizing rather than reckoning with that great loss.
Owen attached a note to the program: “Steve wasn’t Christian. Steve was New Age. It must have been an awful shock when Steve woke up in Hell”.
I was stunned. And outraged. Steve, right along with Martin, Jesse, and Barrack, had been assigned to the Pit.
I wrote Owen a letter.
“Why is it”, I asked, “that you Fundamentalists see Heaven as a sparsely populated expanse, where only your kind will find an eternal home?”
My friend Mark says this of Hell: I have to believe in Hell! Why? Hitler and Mama!
I have no need of Hell in my belief structure. The appeal of Christ is His love, not the fear of Hell. For some reason, most evangelists see it differently than I.
Owen backpedaled and denied that he had consigned Steve to Hell. He also recoiled at being called Fundamentalist, and that remarked that he was an Evangelical.
By the way, I am neither.
A few years later, he emailed the known world a letter about Jane Fonda, calling her a traitor and bringing up the ancient wounds of Viet Nam. The heading of the email read “Never Forgive”.
There is a kind of certainty that scares me, a certainty that it isn’t about faith, but about being right. It is connected to the fear of being wrong.
This is what empty religion, theistic or atheistic, accomplishes or aids and abets: fear, wars, racism, murder, genocide, hatred, and unforgiveness.
It boggles my mind that my cousin might as well be in the Klan. I wish we weren’t related, wish we didn’t share our last name. And I can rail all day long about Uncle Owen and the phrase “Never Forgive”, and I’ll remind myself that he and his brother David, my dad, were miles apart when it came to living what, to me, looks like the Christian life.
But the real struggle is my own Christian life. Can I give some breathing room to fundamentalists, racists, and “mama”, or will I silently think “Never Forgive”? I don’t want to be related to Jeff or Owen, but damn, we are related.
What’s more, I am related to every son of Adam and every daughter of Eve, from Al Sharpton, to Madalyn Murray O’Hair, to Jerry Falwell, to Hitler, and to Mark’s Mama.