Author: marga (Page 3 of 158)

Oh God!

My Religious Journey

My father’s greatest gift – though sometimes I’ve felt it was a curse – to me was Christianity, its precepts formed me and forged me and have led me to be the activist I am today. But it wasn’t straight forward.

My father grew up Methodist. His mother, the daughter and granddaughter of German immigrants to the US, had been raised a Lutheran. His father, the grandson of Basque immigrants to Argentina, was a Catholic. In my father’s home, it was Granny’s religion which dominated – though my aunt would become a Christian Scientist for some years.

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My grandfather, grandmother, aunt Gladys and father.

My dad was always a strong believer. As a young adult he was very active in his church and might even have considered going into the ministry. Many decades later, at a human rights conference in Nuremberg, I would meet one of his church youth leaders, José Miguez Bonino. Bonino had gone on to be one of the founders and principal expositors of Protestant liberation theology, as well as an activist for human rights during the military dictatorship. I was thrilled to hear him remember my father as a very smart and upright young man.

Alas, instead of the ministry, my father went into mechanical engineering and he met my mother while working at the Laboratorio de Ensayos de Materiales e Investigaciones Tecnológicas, a government lab that tested (and maybe also developed) “materials” used by government and industry. The only concrete “investigation” I remember was into developing paints for ships that would make it harder for sea life to attach to them.

My dad when he was working at the Lemit

Papá worked in the lab, mamá – who had studied chemical engineering but had not finished – in the library. Once, at an after-work function, sparks flew – he dumped his fiance (or, as my mother recalls, ghosted her), she dumped hers, and less than a year later they were married. I was born 9 months and fourteen days later, for those who were counting. And yes, she had co-workers who were.

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My parents in love.

My mother came from a traditional Italian-Argentinian family. Both of her parents were super religious. My grandmother would go to church at least once a day. My mother, of course, was raised in the Church but I don’t think she was ever particularly religious – indeed, when I was a little girl, my aunt and her would comment the gift of faith I’d been granted, sort of implying they didn’t have it. Still, being Catholic was part of her identity, and she was not going to give it up.

In Argentina, people have two wedding ceremonies. The first, the legal marriage, takes place at the Civil Registry and is often a relatively austere affair, even more so than City Hall weddings in the US. But this is followed by a religious ceremony, usually at a church – which itself is followed by a reception. The Church wedding is, of course, not obligatory but Argentina is a very Catholic country and people didn’t consider themselves married if they weren’t married in church. My parents didn’t get married in a church, though, because neither would agree to get married at the other’s one church. So they got married in my grandfather’s living room, with both a priest and a pastor officiating. Not my father’s pastor, mind you, as he refused to participate, but another Protestant pastor that agreed to do the deed.

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My parents’ wedding.

My mom wore a green dress.

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Back then, at least, and perhaps still, there weren’t enough Protestants in the country to merit multiple seminaries, so a single seminary in Buenos Aires trained the pastors for all the Protestants sects (save for the Baptists). Indeed, my Lutheran grandmother had become a Methodist because that was the only Protestant church in La Plata when she moved there. We were Protestants, denominations were meaningless.

My parents religious enmity continued after I was born. My mother wanted to baptise me Catholic, my father was fundamentally opposed. In his church, Protestants chose to get baptised and did so when they were 12 or so. This put the literal fear of God in my maternal grandmother. Limbo had not yet been abolished, and thus I was subject to spend eternity in this circle of hell if I died before I wasn’t baptised. Not a fate any grandmother could accept for her grandchild. One day and without my father’s (and maybe mother’s) knowledge and permission, my grandmother took me to her neighborhood church and had me baptized by her parish priest, Padre Montes.

Father Montes, who I can still picture in my mind with his baldish head, large glasses and long robes, would later become the rector of the Cathedral of La Plata and later the auxiliary bishop to Monsignor Plaza, the archbishop of La Plata. Later, he’d be named bishop of Chascomús, a nearby locality. But it was his years at the Cathedral that would have the greatest impact. Later, as a human rights activist, I’d encounter his name often in the stories of family members of the disappeared who would go to him for help finding their loved ones, very seldom with any success. “Stop looking for your granddaughter, stop bothering me”, he told Chicha Mariani, the founder of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, when she went to see him at the Cathedral for help looking for her granddaughter Clara, who had been taken from her parents’ home by the military when she was only 3 months old. Everyone else in the house had been killed. “She is in the hands of very powerful people”. Chicha spent 48 years looking for Clara, until her death at 94 in 2018. The BBC carried her obituary. It did not carry Padre Monte’s.

Hasta Siempre: La lucha de Chicha, abuela de la Plaza de Mayo | En  Profundidad | teleSUR
Chicha Mariani next to a mural remembering her granddaughter Clara Anahí.

Being baptized as a Catholic robbed me of my chance of being baptized as Protestant – apparently, you only get baptized once – something that really irked me as a child. Once I became an atheist, of course, that stopped mattering.

I think I was not yet six, and has not yet learned to read, when my father got me a Children’s Bible. It was a very simple affair. A thin book, with an orange cover and a picture of something I can’t quite make up. Trees? Leaves? A monkey? Surely not that…

On a whim, just now, after writing the paragraph above, I decided to search for the book in question. I knew the title, La Biblia del Niño, “The Children’s Bible” but that didn’t give me much hope. How many children’s bibles must have been printed since my father got me that one in the early 1970s? As luck would have it, it was the first image Google would bring to me. And yes, there were trees, leaves, and not a monkey but animals from a Paradise scene. The cover seems to have been more red than orange, but perhaps mine faded with time.

Google is getting waaaaay scary in its ability to produce what we search for.

But I digress/ It was this book – a story book – that initiated me into Christianity, but I soon graduated into the two books that would define it for me and form the essence of my value system ever since. El Gran Libro, Narraciones Bíblicas came in two volumes, one for the Old Testament and the New Testament. It was a translation of a book in Dutch written by Ann De Vries and probably published in English under the name Story Bible for Older Children.

The God that De Vries portrayed in her books was ultimately a loving and fair God, but a demanding and uncompromising one – very much like his Jesus. From the books, I learned to always speak the truth (my truth, as it turned out) and to not coy in the face of criticism or disdain. After all, prophets and Jesus himself were persecuted for saying it like it is. I learned to have disdain for money and riches, “it’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven.” I learned that life wasn’t fair – the last will (sometimes, at least) be first – and that we had the obligation to go forward and fight for our beliefs. Back then, I thought it’d be for Christianity, later my gospel became one of human rights.

The Jesus of the Bible, as portrayed by Des Vries, did not accept corruption, despised hypocrisy and invited animosity. But his fight was a local one, against those with local power, not against the Roman empire.

I read through these books over and over and over again. For years, I kept them under my pillow (they didn’t make for a comfortable sleep). And I believed them. I thought the stories were true, that they had really happened. In sixth grade, when the teacher asked how we thought multiple languages had come about, I was ready exasperated anyone would not know: God did it at the tower of Babel. The teacher didn’t argue.

The Great Book did not explicitly call on people to be like Jesus, but that was the purpose of life according to the textbook of my 9th grade Civic and Moral Formation class. This imitation of Christ is a fundamental concept in Catholic doctrine, and the military dictatorship I lived under was eminently Catholic. Perhaps the Catholic Christ wasn’t as much of a revolutionary as the one that came out from Des Vries books, but I seem to have taken to heart the idea of looking at the Jesus from those pages as a model. Much, much later, within the last decade, I would read in Burton L. Mack’s book The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins the theory that Jesus was really a cynic sage, inspired more by Diogenes (in my mind forever associated with a discomforting comic strip) than by God. Jesus, perhaps, was himself an atheist, with later followers adding all the “kingdom of heaven” and “god” narrative to the earlier moral tales. In any case, my values, my ethics, my morality is very much based on the teachings of Jesus as told by De Vries. Even as I became an atheist – perhaps like Jesus himself – I was never able to shed them.

I didn’t become an atheist until college, though the doubts started earlier. After we moved to America, my father tried his hand at a number of desperation-jobs (those which an almost 50-yo not-quite-yet-immigrant could get), including one selling the Encyclopedia Britannica. He never made much money at it. He liked sales – some years earlier, still in Argentina, he had lost his job as an engineer and went on his own buying products in Buenos Aires and selling them to small stores in La Plata -, but he was never very successful at it. I don’t think he made any money at all selling encyclopedias. But he was able to buy one at a big discount – the sets sold for upwards of $1000 at at time when the minimum wage was $3.35/hr and I was the beneficiary. While my knowledge of English was elementary when he got it, it was enough to navigate the mostly Latin-derived vocabulary of the articles that interested me. So I took to them with gusto. I still loved history most of all, and decided that would study the history of man from the beginning.

I knew by then that the story of Adam and Eve was a myth. When I was 11 or 12, Argentinian TV started showing the amazing French TV series Once Upon a Time… Man which told the history of human kind from the Bing Bang on. I was glued to the TV every week to see a new chapter. Eventually, the Catholic Church objected to the subject matter and they stopped showing it, but it wasn’t until after the Renaissance. At about the same time, a history of the world comic book came out with weekly editions, and my mom would also buy it for us. I don’t exactly recall if I had conversations with my father about this new revelation about the origin of human kind, but he didn’t share my literal reading of the Bible (or my biblical narrations), so if we did I’m sure he explained the story of Adam and Eve as the myth it was.

Erase una vez el hombre capitulo 1 ( y la tierra fue) - YouTube
A scene from Once Upon a Time… Man

So I didn’t have a crisis of faith as I read about ramapithecus, a 13 million old fossile that at the time the encyclopedia was written was still postulated as a possible ancestor of human beings. Nor when I read about australopithecus, homo habilis, homo erectus and Neanderthals. But eventually, I made it to the stone age, to the neolithic and to the study of ancient civilizations. And that’s where the problem started. As I studied Sumerian civilization, I came across their creation myths – which were painfully similar to those in the Bible. Humans were created from clay by the Sumerian goddess Namma on the instruction of the god Enki. In the Gilgamesh epic, Gilgamesh meets a man named Utnapishtim, who in the far past had been warned by a god of an inpending flood meant to punish mankind. He was instructed to build a circular ship and fill it with animals. Once it was all over, he sent out a bird to check for dry land. Gilgamesh also tells us of finding a plant that would give him immortality, which was denied to him when a serpent ate it.

Sumerian Tablets Reveal The Secrets Of Noahs Ark - Documentary | Ancient  sumerian, Sumerian, Noah flood

My problem was that Sumerian civilization was far older than Hebrew civilization, which meant that their creation and flood stories were older than the Hebrew versions. Being older, you would imagine they’d be closer to the “truth” – if there was any truth in them. How could I believe the historicity of the Hebrew myths when it was so clear they were modifications of the Mesopotamian ones. The Bible itself told of how Abraham, the grandfather of Israel, came from the Mesopotamian city of Ur.

Still, I started college believing in God. I started going to the Methodist church kitty corner from my dorm (not very popular with students) and became friends with a born again Christian, whose religious views were, unsurprisingly, very different from mine. But keeping faith was difficult.

My first semester in college I took Introduction to Physical Anthropology with Vincent Sarich, who would be my professor throughout my college years, and discovered that I had no need of God to explain anything about the creation of the world or of man. I was seeking truth, human evolution provided it. I also took my first class on Egyptian history, and found out that there was no evidence in Egyptian archaeology of writings to confirm the stories from the Bible. The Egyptians wrote about everything, they wouldn’t have missed the fantastic tales of Joseph or of Moses. Well, it did turn out that there was a very similar story in Egyptian literature to the Bible’s story about Joseph – which was written long before Joseph would have existed.

Without any actual evidence for the Bible or for God, I was left with faith alone. But where could I anchor this faith? Until then, I had done so in the fact that I could feel God. Indeed, since I was a child, I had that personal relationship with God born against are always talking about. But eventually, I asked myself whether people from other religions – from Judaism and Hinduism to the ancient religions – did not have the same experience of feeling their gods. And if so, what were the chances that I was born into the one true religion?

I won’t lie. There was another factor. I didn’t only discover evolution in college, I discovered sex. And as I started my first sexual relations, I did not want to feel sinful and guilty about them. So I gave up God.

The Mystery Book that Wasn’t

When I was 12ish I tried to write a mystery novel. The year before, I had been introduced to Agatha Christie and I had become an instant fan. Over the course of the next few years, I would go on to own every one of her books, which I numbered in order of their publication date.

The novels were cheap, barely more than the cost of a Condorito or a Disney magazine and available at newsstands. On those occasions when my parents or my aunt Gladys would take us to a newsstand and offer to buy us something, I would opt for one of these books. My aunt Gladys had been a fan as well, she had a handful of the slim English language versions that had been discarded from the book club she attended monthly. I don’t think they discussed books at her book club, merely socialized and borrowed English language novels from each other.

So that summer before seventh grade, the last summer I spent with my family in Argentina, I wanted to imitate Dame Agatha and write a mystery novel of my own.

We were spending a fortnight- or maybe just a week, that treacherous memory and all – in a small house we had rented near the beach in Villa Gesell. It was a very simple house, built as part of a complex of similar vacation rentals. The setting seemed promising for a novel. It still does, but I never could figure out even a rudimentary plot. I did write notes, characters and even perhaps some narrative on the backs of discarded ravioli boxes. I think we kept those for a while, until we didn’t.

With my family at the beach in Villa Gesell, our last summer together in Argentina.

I wasn’t fond of those ravioli. I’m not exactly sure why, as I’m pretty sure I ate ravioli – I do recall eating both fresh red fideos from a pasta shop near our apartment, though only with Swift tuco, and canelones con salsa blanca – though my pickiness was such that I might not have at all. I am pretty sure I didn’t eat these ravioli. They came from a restaurant in town and there were always lines of people waiting for tables or takeout. My mom would tell us how smart and lucky we were to be able to buy them raw and cook them ourselves. At least, they provided me with a writing surface. I had not had the foresight to travel with a notebook or even blank paper. I know better now.

My second attempt to write a mystery novel came about a year later, while we were already in the US. And this novel, which never developed beyond a list of characters and a page of text, I do remember. It concerned a rich guy, whose name unfortunately escapes me but I feel I remembered for a long time and only recently have forgotten. He had four children. It might have been six. The two youngest, a girl and a boy, were obviously me and the older brother I had started to fantasize about. The father, Mr. I-can’t-quite-recall-his-name is murdered in the middle of the night. Everyone wakes up, the police comes and investigates and… then what? That’s what I asked myself. Do you go back to sleep when your father has died? To me that seemed very unlikely, but I had no experience with family members dying at night. So instead I had my intrepid young detectives meet in one of their rooms to plan their course of action. But they wouldn’t really do that, I thought. The girl would want to cry, I thought. Wouldn’t I cry if my father had just died? Would I be in the emotional state to investigate his murder?

With my dad, sister Gabriela, brother and aunt Gladys at the house we rented in Encino, soon after coming to the US.

It took 40 years, but I finally found out. When I was told my father had died I cried, and wailed, and cried again. But you can only cry so much (wailing, in particular, is pretty exhausting). Eventually you calm down and ask questions. Investigate. It turns out that that is also exhausting, and you go back to crying, and maybe some wailing, but less. Eventually I did go to sleep.

Faith at the End

The day after my father died, we drove down to LA, as we had planned to do when we thought he’d still be alive. I was reluctant to go, I did not want to face his death straight on, but my sister said she needed me. It ended up being a good thing. I wrote this last night.

Coming to my father’s home ended up helping me. I still feel him here, making him not quite gone. Being with my siblings helped more than I thought.

I’m glad that coronavirus prevents us from having a funeral. It’s much easier that way.

My dad very much did not believe in the resurrection of bodies. Growing up Protestant in a Catholic country, he was almost militaristic in his rejection of Catholic dogma. I know he believed his body was a vessel and it mattered little what happened to it after he was dead. He will be buried with my sister, however, to whom he dedicated his whole life and that feels appropriate. I imagine him in heaven, asking her if she wants her tea and whether she has taken her medicine.

It’s comforting for me to think of them two together.

My brother and I grew up Protestant, we chose the religion of my father over that of my mother perhaps because we liked our dad more, perhaps because he cared about his religion more than she did, and perhaps because we liked being contrarians. We took our Protestantism seriously. We did not, for instance, participate in the annual masses celebrating our school’s birthday (though we did attend a mass in honor of my dead grandfather). For me, promising the flag in third (or was it fourth?) grade brought about a whole crisis of conscience, which was finally resolved by being somewhat talked into agreeing that promising the flag was not the same as swearing it. Still, I think when the moment came I just stood silent and didn’t voice the promise, just like I skipped the line juremos during the daily recital of the Argentine prayer to the flag, our pledge of allegiance, a disgusting militaristic pledge that our military masters forced upon us through our school authorities to say. Many years later I would find out that our school principal was responsible for turning suspicious students to the military to be disappeared. But I digress. Stream of consciousness and all.

Once in college, my brother and I shed our religion at the first encounter with a class on evolution. We became militant atheists and for a long time I blamed my father for lying to me about God. A long time. He took it rather stoically, as he took my latter accusations that he had to know about the disappearances in the factory where he worked. Eventually, with time and age, I dropped it. Life is hard. If believing in God helps you, do it. As long as you don’t force it on me, more power to you. My dad never forced his beliefs, my mom was never clear as to hers.

As anti-Catholic as my dad had been, sometime in the 90s and, I think, against my mother’s beliefs, he actually made a trip to Mexico to buy some miraculous water that had appeared around that time. “What is it going to do?”, I recall or imagine (memory is so treacherous nowadays) my mother saying, “grow her a new kidney?”. The water didn’t work, my dad went back to his quiet Protestantism, and I got a souvenir he bought at the airport, a glass pyramid I still have somewhere.

When I last saw my father, in February, he confided in me that he was losing his faith. All those years of my brother and I challenging it had apparently taken their toll. “How do I know God really exists? And why does he allow all these bad things to happen?” Reasonable questions for a man who had spent most of his adult life caring for a sick child.

“You have believed all your life.” I told him. “Are you going to stop now at the end of your life, when you need religion the most? No. Why?” None of us know for certain, so we chose to believe or not. Religion, at his age, would be a comfort. He could look forward to reuniting with my sister and his family, he could feel there was sense to his life, to ours.

My mom told me that he had become very religious in recent months, he would wake up in the middle of the night and watch a televangelist. I hope it gave him comfort. When I imagine him with his family or with my sister, it’s just a story for me, day dreaming, but it’s comforting.

A daily run

My sister was born on my father’s 50th birthday, and they always had a special bond. Since she was able to walk she would greet him when he came home from work by running towards him. He would grab her and hug her.

I like seeing in this picture not just my mom behind the counter, but the Barbie camper I got as my Santa gift my first Christmas in America.

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