Fissures of Men
The Marble Room: How I Lost God and Found Myself in Africa
There was no turning back. I had crossed a threshold, and what once gleamed like polished marble was now cold and dark and riven with flaws.* * *
My breaths were short and shallow. I tried to swallow, but my throat seized shut in the thin, crystalline air. Blood surged through my temples and thumped against my knitted cap and helmet. Brad was somewhere ahead of me, maybe fifty feet, but the sun had been down for hours and I'd lost track of him. I was alone. Darkness closed in.
We had been climbing Mount Kenya for seven days, and had reached the summit twelve hours earlier. Descending from 17,000 feet, we had rappelled onto a narrow ledge that sloped off to the Lewis Glacier a half mile below. I was unroped and had no headlamp or flashlight. The moon was full, but the higher pinnacles and gendarmes surrounding me draped long shadows across the rock wall and ledge and stole all sense of depth. I was blind.
Temperatures were below freezing, but my face prickled with sweat. I panted. I stepped into the black. I reached for the invisible rock wall to my left and was reassured when I found it, but leaning sideways stole traction from under my feet. I took a timid step, and then another, but my next step turned on an unseen stone that shot into the void. I screamed and wheeled around. My feet pitched into the air.
Then my mind stopped. The sky filled with stars, glittering unconcerned, and an intense stillness surrounded me. Time stretched endlessly away. I floated in space, unattached, and I felt calm and peaceful. My breath misted my eyes and moistened the inside of my nostrils. The smell reminded me of my last supper: cold peanut butter.
"William!" Brad shouted.
Gravity returned. I crashed onto my backpack, face up, and my feet dangled off the ledge. I clawed for anything I could get ahold of. My pack was my only point of contact and it began grinding over the sloping surface. In a second or two, it would be too late.
It was January 1996, and I was approaching the end of life as I knew it. Without being conscious of it, I had tempted fate in ways that exploded my understanding of God, truth, and reality.
But would it be worth the price, even if I did survive?
A year and a half earlier, I had boarded a plane for East Africa. Until then I was little more than a racist, camo-ball-cap wearin', born-again Christian. I received the Holy Spirit as a child at the Pentecostal revivals in my small, southern Illinois town and raved at Christian rock concerts as a teen. At the age of twenty-four, I married the sweet, evangelical Baptist girl I had met at a local mall. In less than four years, I was divorced, childless, and bound for Tanzania as a Peace Corps volunteer. This profound shift was due to a series of fissures—tiny cracks that had spread in the bedrock of faith that was the basis of my entire worldview.
Growing up in the Bible Belt, I regarded Christian fundamentalism not only as true but as exclusively true and peerless. My God was the only god. He was good, all-powerful, all-knowing, and apparently a white American male. My beliefs were solidified at an Assemblies of God church, where my mother taught Sunday school and my father helped take offerings. As a boy of eight or nine, my life was bounded by dogmas that were beautiful, prejudiced, and absolute.
Every Sunday morning before church, I fed the livestock, took my turn in the shower, and poured myself a bowl of Golden Grahams. After breakfast, I clipped on a tie and scrunched down in the beanbag chair to watch either The Hour of Power with Rev. Robert Schuller or CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt. Before long, my mom, dad, little sister, and I piled into our '72 Dodge Charger (with a 400-cubic-inch, V-8 engine, reminiscent of the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard), and drove down country roads hemmed about with fields of green sweet corn.
My dad sometimes smoked a pipe on the drive to church. He preferred Half and Half Pipe Tobacco—half burley, half bright—packed in a tin. Since the windows stayed up to protect my mom's teased-out, pageboy hairdo, swirls of smoke filled the car, which smelled like a mixture of chocolate, coffee, and my dad's English Leather aftershave. I liked the smells, even though the smoke made my eyes water. But my dad would just crinkle his eyes, reach for the AM radio, and find a down-home country-music ballad to entertain us on the half-hour drive.
We went to church every Sunday, and when a baptism, faith healing, or visiting gospel quartet was scheduled to perform, we fellowshipped at Wednesday evening revivals, too. We almost never missed church, despite the fact that gas prices had shot up from thirty cents a gallon in 1973 to sixty cents a year and a half later.
Our family was members of a white, working-class, conservative congregation. In every service, we prayed and sang and raised our hands to receive the Holy Spirit and glorify his holy name. It never occurred to me to ask why there weren't any black folks in our church, when over a quarter of the people in town—and over half of those in the greater St. Louis metro area—were African American.
Nevertheless, it eventually came up. One Sunday afternoon on the drive home from church, and after we had eaten lunch at York Steak House, my dad set the record straight. "Listen here," he said, shifting the toothpick between his teeth. "The Bible says that Noah's son, Ham, went down to Africa after the flood. And since they was all monkeys down there then, he married one of 'em and had kids. Now, that's how them niggers came to be, and that's why we don't mix with 'em. Period."
I was no expert on biology, but I had seen enough episodes of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom to learn that different species could not interbreed. Plus, the miniseries Roots and an episode of The Brady Bunch made it clear that black people were just as human as white people. After mulling it over, I decided to take my father's interpretation of the Bible with a grain of salt and lump it together with his many other discourses on wops, dagos, spics, wetbacks, and japs.
Incredibly, my dad's teachings yielded unforeseen benefits. Instead of strengthening my childhood worldview, they weakened it. Tiny nicks in my carefully sculpted outlook on life eventually made it vulnerable to total failure and collapse.
But some of those nicks came directly from church. Altar call was an emotional part of the service when the pastor invited worshippers to come forward and confess their sins or make prayer requests. In the meantime, everyone sang slow-moving hymns like "Just As I Am" and "I Surrender All." As the scents of Dentyne gum and Final Net hairspray re-circulated through the central air conditioner, many in the congregation twitched and wailed and reached toward heaven, begging forgiveness and exalting His majesty. Occasionally someone was moved by the Holy Spirit and started ranting in tongues.
Immediately, the organ died down and everyone stopped singing, closed their eyes, and bowed their heads. Everyone except me, that is. I was up on tiptoes, stretching to see over all the dark polyester suit jackets. While the mouthpiece of God spoke in tongues, the pastor reached up to the three gilded crosses hanging behind the choir and chanted in Hebrew: "Adonai Elohim, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah," over and over. Others prayed aloud: "Thank you, Jesus" and "Praise Jesus."
After a minute or two, the person speaking in tongues was released by the Holy Spirit and collapsed into the hands of a neighbor. On cue, another person in the congregation became a vessel for the Holy Spirit and interpreted the message, every time an acknowledgment of our pain and suffering and a reminder of His love. All we had to do was love Him back and do His will.
At the faintly mustachioed age of twelve, I decided I was ready to accept the divinely offered, grace-given rebirth of my soul and become a born-again Christian. In our church, this event was best demonstrated by being baptized; that is, being completely submerged in a small pool of water at the front of the auditorium.
The angelic, white baptismal gown I wore over my T-shirt and swimming trunks was supposed to make me look like a clean, new creature before God, but I thought it made me look more like a ghost. It resembled a death shroud (which, in a certain mystical way, it was), and I felt very nervous. After leading us in prayer, our pastor motioned for me to come up to the pulpit. From there he took my hand and led me down into the waist-deep baptismal font until we were at eye level with the congregation. The water was warm and made me want to pee.
"Son, as you know, Jesus is the Son of God. He was sent to this earth, born of a virgin," the pastor said, projecting his voice for the congregation, "and when He grew up, He became a carpenter and then a healer and a teacher. He was the perfect blood offering, Who was sacrificed on the cross for your sins," his voice now boomed, "and for everyone's sins, for all time! Can you say amen?"
The congregation answered, "Amen!"
"Amen," I said.
"And after lying there in that tomb for three days, our Savior rose again! And He ascended unto heaven!" Flecks of the pastor's saliva sprayed my cheek as he bounced up and down in the pool.
In a moment, he raised the handkerchief in his left hand high over my head and placed his right hand on my shoulder. "Let us pray." He squeezed his eyes shut. "Dear Heavenly Father, You have assured us that if we trust in you with our all our heart and lean not on our own understanding that You will make our paths straight!" Many in the congregation said amen and grunted approval. "So we ask of you now, Father, come into this young man's life, make his paths straight before him, and prepare for him a place in your Kingdom." He closed by quoting John 3:16. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever shall believeth in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
"And everyone said, amen."
The pastor looked down at me and asked in a solemn voice, "Son, do you believe Jesus died and rose from the dead for you?"
I couldn't help it. I started to pee. "Yes, sir?"
"Then by the powers vested in me, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit!"
He cupped the handkerchief over my mouth and nose, plunged me back into the water, and immediately pulled me out again. I sputtered chlorinated water and beamed at the congregation with my white buck teeth I was still growing into. The organ piped "Bless the Lord, O My Soul," and I splashed my way out of the pool. I saw my parents. They looked so proud.
Soon afterward, my dad felt it was time I learn how the world's religions stacked up. He said that we, the Assemblies of God church—together with the Baptists, as he'd been raised—occupied the topmost rung on the ladder of godliness. We were most correct. After us came the Anglicans and the Methodists. Farther down were the Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. Seventh Day Adventists and the like were mixed in there somewhere toward the bottom. That was about it—unless you included the Catholics. In my father's opinion, the veracity of the Roman Catholic church was dubious at best, and Catholicism was barely visible above the cutoff line for all Christians (Vatican II events notwithstanding). After all, Catholics decorated their churches with graven images of saints, which smacked of idol worship. Not only that, he said, but they actually drank real wine during communion and practiced the baptism of infants, well before a person has a chance to understand what baptism is all about.
Any group lower than the Catholics was definitely out of luck. They were the "unsaved" and therefore did not receive a get-into-heaven-free pass when they died. This meant the Jews (especially the Jews, since they had killed Jesus) and everyone else in the world would end up simmering in some hellish netherworld for all eternity. At the time, I didn't know who "everyone else" was, but I guessed there couldn't be too many people that fell into that category; maybe a few primitive tribes in the jungle and, of course, atheists, devil worshipers, and communists.
However, as I headed into my teens I learned that "everyone else" included Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Jains, and many others. They were, in fact, most of the people who had ever lived—the immoral majority, as it were—all going to hell in a handbasket. It sounded senseless, even brutal, and because of it some Christians thought God surely judged "everyone else" differently, perhaps under a divine exception clause. Maybe they could earn merits once in heaven and eventually even become full-fledged saints? Though there was no biblical support for such conjecture, and I wondered: If Jesus was the only way, how could there be any other way?
In the meantime, it felt good to put my fifty cents in the tithing envelope at church and check the box on the reverse side that read "African Missions." Maybe we could Christianize the heathen Africans, save their souls, and teach them about right and wrong. My dad smiled when he passed the faux-gilded collection plate down our pew and saw my donation. It made me think my mom might be right; maybe I should go into the mission field to help save some of those lost souls. Like Jesus said in Matthew 4:19, Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.
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