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Posts from the ‘(un)belief’ Category


You fatefully step out of air-conditioned bliss and into the middle of some desert.  Your trip’s chaperones have driven you and your fellow students three hours north of Los Angeles to visit the former site of a domestic concentration camp named Manzanar.

Outside, after an impossible brightness relents from your eyes, the landscape’s natural colors begin to materialize around you.  Actually, colors is a strong word.  Black, brown, gray, ailing yellow, and occasional tufts of green are the full expanse of the local shades (with the notable exception of the pregnant ocean hanging above your head).

You look down and are horrified to find that your skin – your proud, Hawaiian, Japanese, well-pigmented skin – seems to be sizzling helplessly in the sun.  Woefully, you brought with you neither shades nor sunscreen.  (You greatly underestimated the strength of that word, desert.)  As you walk towards the narrow copse of trees ahead of you, you breathe in the taste of dry, dusty air.  The wind is whipping itself hard against your lips, which immediately begin to crack.


Your group is taking a couple of minutes to explore one of Manzanar’s few remaining preserved sites: a small stone and wooded area, once a sort of desert oasis.  A nearby placard indicates that this dead space formerly housed a vibrant garden, designed and constructed by some of the most creative and resilient women and men who were incarcerated here.

Later, in the museum, you will see photographs, glimpses of what this place was.  In these pictures, prisoners and staff alike linger here, spending a few moments together in the sacred peace of blue and green,  koi and cactus and cool stone.

Yet bitter irony screams out from these quiet images, as this sad, bizarre juxtaposition abounds.  In this desert garden, in this concentrated safe space, enemies and friends gathered together in peace in the midst of inescapable violence.  It is truly the eye of a hurricane.

There isn’t much life left here.  The fish have died, the guards gone, the plants dulled, their colors masked by thin, cloaking layers of sand.  Only the harshest flora and fauna have survived the death of this place.  (There are perhaps a few prickly, aggressive-looking bushes left.  And tumbleweeds.  Scorpions.  Real rattlesnakes.)  The riverbed itself, which once drank deeply of water pumped in through local irrigation fields, is just as extinct.  Thin cracks jet across its concrete floor, reaching center and spiraling out again from long-dried depths.

In recent years, archaeologists sponsored by the national parks service have unearthed (and subsequently restored) many of these garden spaces.  These constant and complicated excavations are necessary because after the Supreme Court finally decided against the legality of the mass incarceration, the federal government undertook a desperate surge to erase the evidence of this crime.

Bulldozers were ordered to promptly demolish rows of barracks and homes, strip down fences and guard towers, fill in handmade gardens and ponds with cement and dirt.  This project was not an act of contrition, but one of obfuscation.  Your country’s military and political leaders did not want people to find out what really happened here, so they summarily dismantled the existing testimony.  (This was also certainly the reason why all “sad-looking” photographs depicting life inside Manzanar were ordered to be destroyed before the camp closed.)

Not much other than what was already dead survived this purge.  Out of respect, or perhaps a sense of shame, Manzanar’s cemetery was not destroyed by this fleet of censure.  To this day, the modest piece of land stands strong and silent on the edge of camp.  Formerly imprisoned Buddhist and Christian leaders have made pilgrimages to the site each year since the camp’s closing, to perform traditional remembrance ceremonies.  Aside from this, no one was allowed to return to this twisted Eden.

The burial ground is your next destination.

Your group hops back into the soothing atmosphere of the vehicle, and you drive off.

Inside the van, the desert has already started to seep in; water is in short supply.  Both of your bottles are nearly gone.  You were sure one wouldn’t be enough, so you brought two, and that wasn’t enough either.  The seals crack open and you can barely feel the water flowing across your lips.  Before you know it there’s nothing left.

Outside again, and the world is hot and stale.  You breathe in big sips of desert air, but through your nose, in order to keep your mouth from drying any further.  Marching towards the desert graves, you actually feel heavier, as if gravity itself has been cranked to eleven, working harder than ever to press you back into (the) dust.

As you near the graveyard, you stop in your tracks when you notice it – it is dead silent.  No casual, ambient noises fill your ears – no cars zooming along gravel roads, no music blaring, no cell phones chirping, no more beating wind.  You close your eyes, and picture yourself standing inside a tiny, soundproof room.  This tremendous void is nothing like the Los Angeles you arrived from, nothing like the Los Angeles many of Manzanar’s own residents were forced to “evacuate.”  The silence itself is a form of oppression.

The same year that your government began to illegally incarcerate its Japanese American residents and citizens, your country’s number one song happened to be a popular little tune called “Don’t Fence Me In.”  (Here is a cover performed by your favorite band.)  The song plays a lot like that old anthem home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play – it’s about a renegade, no-nonsense cowboy who’s making a living on the Western frontier, where life is good because he’s free to do as he pleases:

Oh give me the land, lots of land
Under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open
Country that I love
Don’t fence me in
Let me be by myself in the evening breeze
Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in

Even as Manzanar’s artists and architects labored to create stunning stone and wood gardens, its musicians came together to form camp bands, informal groups of vocalists, brass, and string-playing Japanese Americans who were given permission to perform at dances and other public events.  The music these women and men made here, like the camp’s flowered gardens, was a popular addition to camp life, celebrated among staff and incarceree alike.  However, one tune was explicitly forbidden from being played.  And your nation’s most popular song never pierced the desert silence.


the grave of a child who died here, trapped in Manzanar

Over one hundred and fifty people died in this humble Californian concentration camp.  Some passed away from natural illness or old age, others from disease and preventable infection, which often spread like wildfire from barrack to barrack.  A few of those incarcerated here simply lost the will to live.  Others, including two teenage boys, were even shot and killed.

Their thin marble gravestones fleck the barren landscape.  Some headstones are small, marking the burial of infants and children.  Of all those interred here, all but six families ultimately sent for the remains of their loved ones to be transferred elsewhere, or to be cremated in traditional Japanese fashion.  Even the dead don’t deserve to be trapped in this forgotten wasteland.

You instinctually raise your right hand to make the sign of the cross, father, son, holy spirit.  Amen.  But you do it quickly, making sure no one else sees.  Though you’ve taken comfort in this gesture a million times before, somehow it feels out of place… disrespectful even, to be doing it here.  You are, after all, standing on hallowed ground, in a Buddhist graveyard, in a former ghetto on American soil.  It’s one of those moments where you feel split in two.

In the sky, off to the east, it’s almost prophetic.  You recognize the shape of (not a bird! or a plane! but) a rainbow, hovering boldly above a craggy peak.  You snap a simple photo that does not nearly do the moment justice.

arco iris

Although rainbows have certainly come to mean something more to you in recent years, your mind first flickers back to what you learned in Sunday school: that this meteorological phenomenon actually represents God’s covenantal promise to protect and bless his people.

But you’re looking around, and you can’t see this God anywhere.  This God who declared that he would lift his people out of oppression and slavery, this God who promised to break every chain and to give his people a land of their own.  All you see are graves.

Dry, hot tears start to run down your face, creasing into little rivers as they’re pulled away from your eyes.  Where is this God, who, as the great story goes, was himself illegally imprisoned and executed by the government, whose very own body was swept aside and stashed away in a garden tomb?

You remember the great stories your great uncle used to tell you, how he volunteered out of one of these camps to join a segregated military unit which fought in France, Italy, and Germany during the second world war.  You remember the story of Daniel Inouye (who went on to become your country’s most senior senator), who lost his arm and was awarded numerous medals for his bravery in the war, only to return home, in uniform, and be candidly refused service in a San Francisco barbershop – “we don’t serve Japs here.”

Manzanar is absolutely swollen with great stories such as these, pregnant with the ghosts of gardeners, musicians, and soldiers who cultivated careful life, bred music, and went off to bleed and die for a country that kept their mothers and children behind barbed wire.

Yet if there’s one thing you’ve learned today, it’s that only Manzanar’s bleached skeleton remains.  This is not a prison anymore.  It’s not even a graveyard.  It’s just a capital wasteland, a national park eternally illuminated by the inescapable memories of those who lived and died here.  Really, it’s just a shell now.  Just sand and tumbleweed and a few arid landmarks.  There’s not a lot to see for those without the eyes to see it.  But for anyone who has a little bit of empathy, or imagination, for anyone who likes ghost stories, this place is inextinguishable, unlimited.

You really don’t know where this God of salvation and promise is.  The only thing you know right now is that this God of the forgotten is somehow here, in the graves, with the crucified and the restless dead.

You once heard a great king ask his friend the question “what can men do against such reckless hate?”

First, we weep.  And then we close our eyes, and whisper that tired old prayer, father, forgive them, for they know not what they do…

And then we rage.

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.




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.

the Good News

On my second week in San Joaquín de Flores, Costa Rica, my host grandmother woke me up to tell me the good news that she would like me to walk her to mass that evening.  She would feel a lot safer if accompanied by me, she said, and because I am Catholic I might enjoy the service as well.  Accommodating but annoyed that she had awaken me so early, I breathed a soft yes and rolled back under my sheets.

Normally, my abuelita would be just fine getting to mass on her own, walking at a brisk pace to attend her home parish only three blocks north of us.  But her usual church – the big white one in the city square with the six car parking lot – had recently been structurally damaged by a powerful earthquake.  When the disaster hit several months ago, brick and roof and steel and tile all imploded inwards, flinging apart on impact.  (This was an act of God.)

The building is still closed for renovation; a city ordinance saw to it that iron gates and yellow tape obscure the front entrance of the church until the locals can raise up the funds necessary to fix the entire building.  White dust still stains the width of the street in front of the church and it kicks up into the air and makes you cough and sticks to your shoes as you walk over it.

Because of this (un)natural disaster, my abuelita was forced to attend a church several blocks father away.  There are at least four Catholic churches in our little town, so it wasn’t that much farther of a walk but here I was, still being asked to safely escort her to and from this new place because the streets are indeed sometimes dangerous at night.  I mull all of this over and before I drift off to sleep for a few more minutes, I think that if anyone tried to assault us I would probably run.

Christianity first landed in this region with the insidious arrival of a European sailor named Hernán Cortés.  Cortés brought with him to these native shores legions of barbarians in metal armor, men on a wretched quest for God and glory who quickly set about plundering this “New World” of all its natural riches and splendor.  This holy army – little more than glorified rapists – carried with them from across the Atlantic the cruel trinity of advanced weaponry, debilitating disease, and the good news of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Each of these cost many lives.

red sunset cross

Though the conquistadores stole far more than they ever gave, one of the lasting impacts of their legacy was the passing on of their religion and language to Central and Southern America.  Roman Catholicism and its accompanying master tongue – then Spanish, la lengua del cielo (the language of heaven), quickly became the dominant identifying markers of the new empire.  Even today, though pockets of indigenous groups were able to avoid major European influence, the region is still largely Spanish-speaking, still largely Catholic.

“¿Usted es muy religioso?” my abuelita asks me as we make the trek over to the new church.  I don’t really like it when people ask me if I’m very religious because I’ve never been able to find an answer to that question I can sit comfortably with.  Very religious?  I don’t know.  That’s so subjective and I always feel uneasy with people who are more religious than me while also tending to judge those I deem less pious than myself.

“I’m relig-ish,” I responded.  “Relig-ish.  It’s a joke.  I don’t know if there’s a Spanish word for that.”

My host grandmother nodded, giving me the I-have-no-idea-what-you-just-said-but-I’m-sure-it-was-nice look.

“I’m así así religioso,” I explain.

Before I knew it, the white streets narrowed into thin viridescent lines and we arrived at the church.

Like my host family, I cling to the traditions I have inherited from those who came before me.  And despite the abuse of the Christian religion by so, so many cruel men over the years, I still find something quite beautiful and attractive about a group of people gathering quietly together in the practice of ancient ceremony.

I made the sign of the cross and took a seat.

In Christian theology, the liturgy is one of the most intimate celebrations a group of believers can partake in together.  Catholics believe that the liturgy – the meditative call and response celebration of a deep, sacred rhythm – is a form of spiritual breathing.  Many Catholics would say that this ceremony (also called the mass) connects them with the thousands of faithful believers who have lived in years past and with the many saints to come in the future.  I’ve heard it described as the practice of existing in between time, or standing in the middle of a stream, receiving a precious gift carefully handed down over the years and passing it on to future generations.

Sitting, standing, kneeling.  Singing, praying, breathing, again and again, until the mind centers and disengages and ceases to put on a performance.  Chanting, listening, repeating.  Voices raised in unison, crescendoing now until the individual ceases to be the focal point of existence and membership to a group, to the human family, begins to feel real.  Though repeating the same rote phrases and physical actions can indeed seem very trite and exhausting to the uninitiated, the liturgy is an essential practice for those who desire it.

The wooden pews of the church and the hard white floor are familiar to me, but the language they are speaking is not.  I hear different, confusing words instead of the usual “peace be with you” and “and with your spirit.”  Nuestra mujer de fiel.  Padre nuestro.  Jesús Cristo (okay, that one I knew).

Although the spoken language here is superficially different, the tenor behind it is all familiar to me.  The priest, dressed in his usual garb, performs the same physical movements as he does back in Chicago.  Though his skin is a different color now and his tongue makes different movements, speaking a different language than the one he does back home, it is the exact same ceremony.  Sitting there, trying to pray, enjoying the silence, it is surreal knowing that although my abuelita and I had very little in common…for one moment, we shared everything.

I turned to my abuelita and watched her small frame as she kissed her crucifix and kneeled, stood, sat down, and kneeled again.  I understand a bit of the Catholic world, but not all of it.  I admit that much of the imagery and ritual still confuses me in a way that I know my host grandmother cannot relate to.

But that’s just because of how I was raised.

I somehow grew up both Catholic and Protestant by two deeply spiritual parents who didn’t want anything to do with one another’s religion.  My parents couldn’t agree on whether I should inherit my fathers’ newfound evangelicalism, my grandparents’ institutionalized agnosticism, or my mother’s familial tradition of Roman Catholicism, so they answered that question with a yes.  The confusing compromise they came to was that every first and third weekend of the month I would accompany my dad to his large, plush evangelical megachurch.  There, we sang songs loudly and and took communion in the aisles and drank the blood of Christ from little grape sippy-cups.  Every second and fourth weekend, however, I would attend a quieter, more intimate Catholic mass with my mom, a service a lot like this one.  More solemn, less smiling, a lot more sit-stand-kneel body aerobics.

The collection of linguistic and ecclesiastical symbols and metaphors we know as religious ritual have the power to unite totally disparate social identities in a way that few other human inventions can.  Whether it’s Nigerian Muslims gathering with Pakistani believers, or Egyptian Copts sharing a prayer with American Evangelicals, shared vernacular and religious ritual means something.  It can unite entirely different people groups in singular worship of a communal God.

Of course, religion also has been cursed with the sinister potential to disrupt families, to tear apart social circles, to divide and otherwise irreconcilably destroy human relationships.  Those same Nigerian Muslims and Egyptian Copts and American Evangelicals have at times all either chosen or experienced severe violence against them because of disagreements regarding religious practice.  To be sure, healing has occurred but so much blood has also been shed over these differences.

Unity and division, reconciliation and violence – both of these, true to the legacy of religion.

My own faith tradition, Christianity, has itself caused people both untold joy and unimaginable pain.  My faith has been used as a reason to defend innocent life and as the justification for plundering it, a tool to enlighten and lift up masses of people and as an instrument of their oppression.  It is both a frightening and an exciting responsibility to stand in the intersection of how my faith has been so evilly used in the past and how it can be potentially used for such great good in the future.  Standing in the middle of this stream means shouldering a heavy unanswered question, and it’s a mystery of group responsibility, one an individual cannot possibly solve alone.

Before I knew it, it was time for communion.  I walked up to the front of the church and the priest put a piece of bread in my hand.

He said an incantation over me and I chewed my portion slowly.

I stepped to the side and slowly drank the blood of Christ, shed for us, feeling the burn as it went all the way down my chest.

As I crossed myself and turned around to take my seat, my eyes couldn’t help but sweep over the contrite souls seated in the pews around me.  In that sea of repentance, brown faces and brown eyes turned towards me and I saw generations.