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a bible and a form letter

Your professor is eccentric.

You’re sitting next to him on a Chinese-made coach as he pages through a book on the history and culture of Cuba’s afrocubano population.  Your bus rumbles slowly along a seaside road on its way to the resort town of Varadero (Google it!), where you’ll presumably be spending a warm weekend lying in the sun and sand.

You’re looking forward to taking a couple of days off from classes, but the insistent words of that Presbyterian missionary still echo softly in your head: “it’s a lie, it’s a lie.”  Though the area has a clean façade for foreigners, he explained, marginalized local residents are often left all on their own to deal with the problems that tourism creates.

You’re thinking about this as you wind further away from La Havana.  Outside, thick greenery streaks by and you can see the mingling blue of the ocean just beyond. Inside, close to sixty passengers surround you.  Most of these are Cuban citizens, eight are your fellow students, and one is your scholarly seatmate, Professor Arlington*.

Your seatmate is a respectable man – intelligent, perennially good-mannered, and full of plenty of characteristics you admire.  As a professional historian, he is also part of a world you will never understand.

Although the two of you were both created in the image of the same God, you are very different creatures.

It’s difficult to imagine offhand that you have much in common.

You, for instance, want to work in social services.  You want to connect people, to be part of a church, and you want to be an author.

He’s an author too, but he doesn’t really write for the laity.  He is quite happy working in the academy, does not identify as religious in the least, and he only ever uses the word love when applying it to his wife, his daughter, or his grandchildren.

As you watch him read, the word academic comes to mind.  Academic.  The title fits him perfectly.  His chest rises and falls with each breath, and you imagine the word taking physical form and wrapping itself around his frame.  His entire persona, both in personality (refined, serious, erudite) and in physical appearance (bespectacled, bald, thin) confirms his status as a man utterly at home within the scholarly arena.

But he must be eager to pull away from his reading, because he keeps leaning over you to point out oil fields and banana farms as they pass by.  So you begin to talk about the Cuba revolution and the conversation ripples outwards from there, towards structural violence and Marxist political theory.  Soon you find yourself dumbly nodding along, as you always do when people speak to you in foreign languages.  Autodidactic Proletariats.  Dialectical Materialism.  He’s begun talking about things you’re far too uninitiated to grasp, so you ask lots of personal questions.

These lead to stories.  In his faint European accent, your instructor shares with you that he was in fact born in Hamburg, in 1946, where he grew up in the shadow of all that occurred in Germany during the second world war.  He tells you more about this experience, about what his country and childhood were like, and then the two of you get to talking about the one thing you always seem to get to talking about.

Ah, Religion.

This is a photo of the Cuban church you visited in Varadero, the one the Presbyterian missionary works with

This is a photo of the Cuban church you ended up visiting in Varadero, the one the Presbyterian missionary works with

Professor Arlington tells you how he grew up Lutheran, how after dutifully attending his church’s confirmation classes, the local minister visited his home.  Over dinner, the seasoned pastor, taking your young professor’s polite participation in class as evidence of a divine calling, implored my teacher and his family to consider entering the vocation of the ministry.  However, Arlington and his mother respectfully turned the reverend down at this point, assuring him that Arlington still had many doubts, many questions, but that he might reconsider the pastorate at some point in the future, when he became stronger in his faith.

“This was all actually towards the end of my religious phase,” Arlington tells you, smiling delicately.  “The next year was my sophomore year of high school, around age sixteen or so.  That was when I went to study abroad in the United States, where I stayed in Michigan, with a very working class family, near Huron.”  He pauses.  “As I said, that was around the end of things for me.”

The question jumps out of your mouth: “what happened?”

Your professor shifts forward and sets his book completely aside.  He leans in and begins to tell a story you’re sure he hasn’t told in years.

“Well, back in Germany, my family didn’t own a television set.  But in America they did, and I recall seeing Billy Graham and the like, on the air.”

“Oh,” you say, surprised to hear that man’s name, one of evangelicalism’s all-stars, coming out of this man’s mouth.  Your lives lap over a little more than you thought they did.  “And you watched quite a bit of Billy Graham?” You manage.

“Yes,” he continues, “I watched him preach and evangelize when I could.”

Growing Up Evangelical™, you heard plenty about the good man; Billy Graham is the closest thing the Protestant side of your faith will ever come to having a beatified saint. His very name carries a holy weight, an aura of sacredness otherwise generally reserved for mystics and the Roman Catholic side of your faith.  The reverend is revered in every inch of the Culture you were reared in.  You once saw a picture of him standing confidently with Martin Luther King Jr.  You remember swelling with pride at seeing one of your dad’s heroes standing next to another American legend.

“I watched Billy Graham yes, back when I was still searching for God. It was in this phase, when I heard him on television and I thought…interesting, the things he’s talking about. I wanted to know more.”

You want to know more. Even though Arlington’s life path has been so different than yours, even though he grew up over fifty years before you did, you can’t shake the feeling that his fate – his faith – is somehow tied up with yours.  You need to know what happens next.

“So,” Arlington cuts in, ignorant of your inner scandal, “I actually wrote him a fourteen page letter…or well, maybe it was closer to three or four very large pages, but certainly it was plenty, and in the old-fashioned way.”  He closes his eyes. “I found his address and at the top, I wrote, very respectfully ‘Dear Reverend Graham,’ and in the letter I was explaining my situation and just sort of pouring my heart out about my questions and doubts on faith in God. How I’ve been trying to find God, how it’s been so hard.”

It’s difficult to believe the man sitting next to you was once this boy.

But with some effort, you can picture it, you can see it all happening.  Your professor, growing up in a foreign land, sitting in a small, blue-collar living room.  Working hard, trying to study, wanting to learn something worthwhile. Shifting forward, setting his books completely aside as something on television catches his eye.  Walking over to the set to increase the volume.  Listening, big-eyed as this larger than life man on the screen starts talking about God, about solving the unknowable mysteries.  Eagerly filling with hope at the prospect of finally having the answers.  Flying upstairs to his room to commit emotion to paper.  Finishing a letter, breathlessly mailing it off, waiting impatiently for weeks.

“Did you ever get a response?” You wonder aloud. Once again you ask: “what happened?”

His next words sear themselves into your brain:

“They sent me back a Bible and a form letter,” Arlington concludes, “and that was the end of it for me.”  There isn’t an ounce of resentment in his voice.

But you are beyond frustrated.

Your imagination takes off and you amplify the absurdity of his letter in your mind.  DEAR FRIEND, you picture it reading, in harsh metallic type: THANK YOU FOR YOUR LETTER. IF YOU SAY THIS PRAYER ALOUD, JESUS WILL ENTER INTO YOUR HEART AND YOU WILL BE FORGIVEN FOR YOUR SINS AND BE WITH GOD IN HEAVEN FOREVER.  HERE IS THE PRAYER: GOD, FORGIVE ME, FOR I AM A SINNER.  I INVITE CHRIST INTO MY HEART.  THANK YOU.

CONGRATULATIONS, NEW SON OR DAUGHTER OF GOD.

ALSO HERE IS A BIBLE.

He has the bravery to pen fourteen pages of doubt, honesty, and hope and he essentially gets back a computer-generated greeting card.  And just like that, a young man’s sense of wonder and discovery about God is crushed.

You grimace, but then nod in latent affirmation.  His is a sad story, but it’s also a very familiar one.  Being casually dismissed or cruelly extinguished by the system after asking too many questions is the story of his generation and yours, of skeptics and spiritual seekers alike.  It’s your story too.

* * * * *

A long time ago, long before he became a Christian, your dad used to read comic books.  Once, he saved up money for weeks, until he had enough to seal it all into an envelope with a magazine clipping and send it off to a P.O. box in California.  The comic ad had promised him a pair of authentic X-Ray Vision Goggles, but in the end what he got back was a chunk of cheap, colored cardboard infused with worthless synthetic lenses.  He could still only see what was right in front of him, in just three boring dimensions.

A long time ago, Arlington’s own heart once swelled with that same young anticipation.  He too rushed to a mailbox, saw his name printed in neat, wholesome letters, tore open an envelope, and received a shallow imitation of what he deserved.

And Arlington’s whole story makes you grieve.  You don’t want to admit how much it hurts.

Because the trajectories of your two disparate lives happened to intersect just once, finally curving close and bumping together for the briefest second.  And the collision revealed that you’ve both been wounded in the same way.  The overlap just happened to be around the one issue that’s at the core of your identity. The one thing you always seem to get to talking about. Faith. Doubt. Christianity. Evangelical culture.

Yet in this sadness you also feel a sense of hope, of calling.  You’re reminded that so, so many people have stories of pain or rejection related to the Church, that there is a real, vocational need for people to create spaces where uplifting, healing conversations can happen.  You think that you could be good at this.

Your professor goes back to his reading, and you rest your head on the window, hoping to catch up on an hour or two of sleep.

The next day, you decide you’re going to write a book.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ann #

    I absolutely loved this writing, Ryan. Such a compelling piece. I however, think your professor was lucky to get the form letter and find his meaning elsewhere–in the study of history, which seems to have served him very well.

    June 2, 2014
    • thank you so much for reading this, for your comment. Oddly enough, I think I agree. He is a kind, wonderful man, someone I have learned so much from and am so grateful to have had so many insightful conversations with. We all have our roles to fill in this life, and I am happy he’s found a niche that suits him so well. Hope the same happens to me one day.

      July 19, 2014

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