I was a child when I became aware of man’s capacity for violence and cruelty. Surrounded by my schoolmates, all of us gamely facing the challenge of learning to write with a real ink pen, playing jumprope in the schoolyard, forming lifetime friendships, and beginning to catch a glimpse of a world outside our respective homes, we were perhaps a little unprepared when the nuns introduced us to a man named Jesus. Jesus loved us, even though he hadn’t met us. He loved everyone. He was a good man. He was the son of God. The son of the man that the Baltimore Catechism taught us “knew all things”.
It was inconceivable to my six year old mind that the good man Jesus, who had never hurt anyone, had been cruelly put to death on a cross. That he was nailed to that cross. That he hurt for hours and no one rescued him, not even the angels in the heaven where his Father ruled. Not even his Father!
Nightmares followed, as they often did in those early days of learning about the all knowing God and his son Jesus, while I was filled with love, puzzlement, and fear about all the mysteries surrounding me. The spiritual world became almost as real as my waking world, and perhaps it was then, kneeling before my Jesus crucified for no good reason, that I began to rebel against injustice. Kneeling in front of the cross all of the lessons about forgiveness, turning the other cheek, loving thy neighbor as thyself, all the lessons of goodness took root on the fertile ground of my innocence. Somewhere in my being, I also stored the incomprehensible shadows of evil and man’s inhumanity to man.
It was not long after those experiences that I arrived home one day to a horrible stench, arrived home to find a man who had been dipped in tar lying on my bed. He was dying. My father, who had somehow negotiated his release from a Batista prison, had brought him to our house to die “in peace”. His fingernails and toenails had been ripped from his body. His excrement and urine were unable to escape and he swelled like no balloon I had ever seen. My spirit was even more unprepared for the suffering of this man, my tutor Marta’s brother, than it had been for the cross of Jesus. As I took in the stench, the blood, the agony of the man on my bed, words roared in my mind:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in Heaven.”
I began to say the Our Father for the man lying in my bed, as I tried to hold my breath and take in the inconceivable tableaux.
Years later, long after the man had died on my bed, the mattress had been replaced, and the room repainted, a bearded man named Fidel arrived in Havana with contagious visions of freedom, with promises of love and respect for his fellow man. He proclaimed himself our savior, and in a country where The Savior was worshiped, it was easy for him to find fertile ground for his gospel among the people of the island. At first we didn’t want to see the incongruence of the men who wore crucifixes and carried guns. But it wasn’t long at all before the executions began and the blood began to flow again. I watched the mock trials on TV while thinking: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And it wasn’t long after when one of the saviors hit me in the face with the butt of his rifle as I clung to his beard desperately trying to stop him from taking my father to a prison cell where he would pay for wielding his pen as a weapon against the regime. Still as they left the house the words roared despite my fierce anger and fear : “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be sons of your father in heaven”.
Fifty years ago I arrived in this country as part of the Pedro Pan exodus, an exodus of over fourteen thousand children whose parents gifted with the possibility of living in freedom. We came to a land of opportunity, a land where we were told we could be and become anything we wanted.
I landed in the sixties at a time when being white meant I could not sit in the back of a bus with my black brothers and sisters, or drink from the same water fountain they drank from outside my doctor’s office in San Antonio, Florida. At the time, not even the black people seemed to mind that state of affairs. But for the rest of its citizens, this country, now my country, seemed to indeed offer endless opportunities to succeed. Time passed as did the voices of my childhood exhorting me to forgiveness. My fear of Cuba happening again led me to become a Goldwater Girl, enticed by my ideals as well as by the scent of English Leather Barry Goldwater’s son liked to wear. For a while I became an “against” machine. Against Communism, against the people Archie Bunker would one day refer to as “pinkos”, against anything that would allow for the possibility of any child’s father ever being ripped away from their arms to be taken to a prison for thinking or speaking his mind. The shadows in my being that had found no room in the child I was then, began to sprout roots in the form of prejudices and hatreds as the young woman alone lost herself having been given the opportunity to become anything she wanted before she knew what that was.
If there was a particular incident that helped rescue me from my againstness, I have no memory of it. Slowly or abruptly I came to realize that the shirt of conservatism was a straight jacket that would forever force me into a position from which I could not escape. A place of no growth. It was a place that asked me to become blind to the fact that NOT all men are equal in talent, in life circumstances, in health, or in creed. That asked me to believe that EVERY person could “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” out of poverty, out of addiction, out of any life circumstance. It was a place that kept me from imagining a world of possibility, a world where perhaps one day man would love man enough to help man when man needed help. A world where a government OF THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE would help the people to live a decent life, a healthy life; a world where people of all colors could rejoice together; a world without war, without violence; a world without hatred.
It is a world that seems to be slipping further and further away as the elected officials of our country appear to be more intent on destroying our country’s first black presidency, than on the urgent needs of the people they were elected to serve. Hateful emails clog the internet taking us back to the days of segregated buses and the “n” word, while a condition resembling amnesia affects those who try to make our president appear to be responsible for our current circumstances. We walk away from blaming not only the last few administrations led by white presidents for the disaster we are living, but we walk away from facing our irresponsible handling of our financial lives.
I fear that we are nearing the end of an era. That the myopia of hatred will forever eradicate the far vision of freedom. That those leaders purporting to be fundamentalist Christians will not take into their hearts the words of the fundamental Christ that they hear every week in their churches when they contemplate the issues facing the poor, the ill, the aged, the different. Words like:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.
Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'”
(Matthew 25.35-40 )