A few years ago, I was waiting for the bus on the corner of Main and Arch Street to go to class. A young woman approached. She wore a colorful headwrap, and was pushing her child in a stroller, a boy who looked to be a little over a year old. One of her eyes was bloodshot red, the skin around it black and swollen. Someone had punched her. As she boarded the bus, she handed the bus driver a ripped transfer. I could overhear the driver admonishing her, and her apologies. After she sat down, she took out a copy of The Watchtower that I’d seen a Jehova’s Witness hand her and began reading it intently.
The phrase “Religion is the opiate of the masses” is a standard weapon in the arsenal of the non-believer as we lash out against the believers. It’s a phrase that I’ve often repeated mindlessly, without appreciation of what the quote actually means and without understanding of the context of the entire quote. After all, it seems so self-evident to us heathens: what better way to subdue a person in this world than to promise them everything in the next? That interpretation fit neatly into what I already believed about the world.
The image of that woman, swollen eye and tract in hand, has sunken into me. It’s become a part of my outlook. She isn’t a symbol of perseverance, or helplessness, or domestic violence or young pregnancy or any of the pat assumptions we make about those we brush by for a moment. I’ve received The Watchtower before. I’ve read it, and made the obvious jokes. When I recall that woman in my mind though, as I have hundreds of times, she isn’t reading those words just to make a bad joke or bolster an argument against God. She sees something in the words, in the message, that I don’t. Perhaps the question isn’t “What’s wrong with her,” but instead, what’s wrong with me?
My son is named Gabriel. In the Abrahamic faiths, Gabriel is an archangel, the messenger of God who speaks to humans. He foretold the births of Jesus and John the Baptist to Mary and Zechariah, and revealed the Quran to Mohammed. When Gabriel appeared before me, he told me that babies are difficult and expensive, but also the greatest gift one could receive. Despite his divine name, my son’s birth was a secular miracle, the predictable outcome of sexual intercourse, gestation, and the delivery process. His life, while precious, was the result of his beating heart, his expanding lungs, his functional brain. There was nothing more to it than that.
The irony of naming my son after an archangel was not lost on me, but I liked the name. My ex-wife chose it, a woman even more secular than I am. My relationship with faith was non-existent, while hers was antagonistic. Her father was a Palestinian Muslim who fled to Puerto Rico shortly after the founding of Israel. He learned their language and their customs, but never left behind the mix of culture and religion that we in the West find so threatening. It was very threatening to her, a Western woman despite her father’s heritage. I once suggested to her that we should join a church, not to bask in the Word of God, but to meet other young families and ease the isolation that we felt. Even the House of God had no religious or spiritual significance for me. It was a social place, somewhere to meet others to do something other than praise God. She said no, that we would find other ways to socialize with families and other people with children. We never did.
While we rejected God’s attempt to enter our lives socially, we were not as quick to dismiss Him in education. Gabriel attended the Richard A. Battles branch of the Mount Olive Child Care Development Center. I attended Mount Olive when I was a child, and it was important to me to send my son to the same place. There were dozens of other competent daycares around the city, but I wanted Gabriel to be in a place that I knew, in his own community, where he would see his friends and teachers both in and outside of the classroom. The RAB center is affiliated with Mount Olive Church, and is named after Reverend Battles, but the school itself is completely secular. I was glad there was no religious instruction at the school. I never stopped to consider why Mount Olive had decided to start providing child care services to its community, or what motivated Reverend Battles to carry on the battle for civil rights. Gabriel was born at Hartford Hospital, but it could have just as easily been Mount Sinai. I knew that these places were related to faith, but I was still uninterested in what that meant. I didn’t start to wonder until I got off the bus that morning in October that I saw the woman in the headscarf, and found myself crying as I sat at my desk. I was crying for her, but for myself too, for my complete inability to do anything to make that woman’s day a little easier. This was what I was in college for, this was what I wrote for, to try to make a difference in whatever way I could. But when confronted with the real circumstances of another person’s life, I didn’t have anything to say. I didn’t know what to do.
When I was growing up, my father had a friend we called Randy Dread. He wore his locks in a knitted cap, with the colors red, black and gold embroidered throughout. I looked forward to his visits, and his stories about growing up in Jamaica punctuated by his hearty laugh. It was the first time I’d heard someone describe a life outside of what I knew as an American, the first time I learned that not everyone lived the same way or believed the same things. Randy often talked about the differences between America and Jamaica. I could tell that he was not impressed by what we considered living here.
I remember the day I saw him take off his knitted cap. I finally understood why they called him Randy Dread. His locks dropped into his lower back with a loud thud as decades of hair slammed into him. He struggled under their weight for a moment. They weren’t like the well groomed dreads of sports stars and actors. They were knotted and clumped together in places, uneven and unraveled in others. Gray hairs snaked throughout them. Yet as he let his hair down, Randy looked rejuvenated, and a broad smile broke out from underneath his overgrown facial hair. He clapped his hand together, shaking his dreads and chanted, “Ja! Ja!” I looked to my brothers as nervous tension built between us. He clapped louder, shaking his head more fiercely and continuing to chant. “Ja! Ja! Ja Rastafari!” And just as unexpectedly as he’d begun, he stopped. He smiled at us one more time, and went off to find my father elsewhere in our apartment. My brothers and I laughed, and turned Randy’s celebration into an in-joke between the three of us, shaking our heads and yelling Ja Rastafari at random and often inappropriate moments. We were embarrassed and frightened by what we’d just seen, something that we couldn’t understand. As I grew into an adult, I still found myself embarrassed and scared at that memory.The best tool I know of to combat fear is knowledge; the dark isn’t as scary when you know what’s in it. I began studying Rastafari, and found myself laughing even harder. Haile Salassie as the reincarnation of God on earth? Somehow, someone had come up with a theory even more ridiculous than a carpenter from Nazareth being God. I found the concept of Africa as Zion particularly baffling. Africa held no special meaning for me, except that a major pet peeve of mine was people referring to Africa as a country and not a continent. African Zionism seemed to be doing the same thing, treating Africa as if it were one culture where Ethiopia was the same as Liberia or Sudan or Djibouti or South Africa. Besides, there was already a Zion, a place soaked in blood by people desperately trying to prove they were worthy of it.
It’s very easy to confuse the process of receiving sensory information with actually absorbing it. I’ve sometimes been guilty of hearing, but not listening when people talk to me, and of not realizing I was doing it. I was very much aware that I was not listening on December 14th, 2012 during the Sandy Hook school shooting. I acknowledged the texts I received from friends as the news out of Newton grew grimmer. I read the Facebook posts expressing horror and sadness. I saw the headlines and breaking news graphics screaming across television screens all over the city. None of it penetrated me. I couldn’t let it. In some barely aware corner of my mind, I knew that I could not absorb this information, not yet. Over that weekend, I went into information lockdown, avoiding anything that could force me to confront what had happened. I’d heard the news, but I didn’t want to listen.
It was a week later that I broke my isolation by attending Ana Márquez-Greene’s homegoing celebration at First Cathedral Church in Bloomfield. That was the first time I’d seen a coffin small enough for a six year old. For the second time in as many months, I was crying uncontrollably, for Ana, for myself, for everything. Again, what could I say? What could I do? The unimaginable cruelty of murdering this child, and nineteen others like her, overwhelmed me, just as the helplessness I felt towards the young woman had. This time though, I would do something. I closed my eyes, and as the tears streamed down my face and the choir thundered through the hall, I prayed. I prayed for Ana, that the violence and pain she experienced in the last moments of her short, beautiful life was eclipsed by the love she’d known from her family, and by the joy she was experiencing in the light and glory of God. I prayed for her parents, for them to be reunited with their daughter in heaven someday. They weren’t simply prayers for the occasion, squeezed out of me because I was surrounded by the faithful in their house. I offered them freely, hopefully. And I believed them. In that moment, I knew that Ana was home, that God had delivered her into His love and justice. In that moment, I understood.
In the weeks after, that understanding grew, from a moment of clarity into something more. The connection between hope and faith has been laid bare to me, and more importantly, the desire, the need, to believe. I don’t mean faith; that’s something different, something narrower than belief. Reverend Battles believed in causes he championed. His love of God was twisted and knotted with his love of the people in his community, inseparable like the locks on Randy Dread’s head, his covenant with God. Rastafari isn’t about smoking weed or growing dreads or even Haile Salassie. It’s about the belief that God looks like you, sounds like you, thinks like you. It’s about believing that He hasn’t forgotten about you, the ancestors of millions of people taken from their homes and worked into their graves; that those people will receive their reward someday, and that we shall too. Justice is the undercurrent of it all, connecting civil rights to affordable daycare to Ana, a river carrying us all to the same destination, Zion. I still don’t think that Zion is located in Ethiopia, or Israel for that matter, other than the literal mountain named Zion. What we seek, that place of love, peace and justice, exists in our open-hearted belief in it. It is a belief that is powered by faith, but it must be expressed in our words and deeds as well. It need not be as grand as leading a struggle against injustice, or as denominationally specific as handing out The Watchtower. Any act in the name of bettering each other and ourselves is a step down the road to Zion.
Where does this leave me? I admit that this is a rather self-serving definition of belief for a heathen like myself. For as much as I may say I believe, I’m still missing the key component of faith. Not faith in God or a higher force specifically, but faith in the unseen, the unknown, for myself. I still wholeheartedly know that Ana is in heaven right now, but I also know that I’ll never join her. I may have finally figured out what’s wrong with me: my faith works for everyone else except me. I want everyone else to be with their God someday, to find that ultimate arbiter of love and justice. For me though? There is no God. I don’t think that’s as contradictory as it sounds, or I may have to accept it as one of those many things that will never make sense. God continues to be a means to an end for me, whether it’s for a nice name, a good school, a way to understand the world, the promise of ultimate justice.
In middle school, I once turned off every TV and radio in the house and locked myself in a closet. In complete dark, and total silence, I told God that I wasn’t leaving until He said something to me. My brother woke me up a few hours later when he found me asleep on the floor. I can see the shining gates of Zion in the distance, and I can feel myself inching there, bit by bit. But I’ll never enter, and that’s okay. Someone has to keep Moses company.