Jesus Has Left the Building
"How many of us have accepted the Lord, Jesus Christ, into our hearts?" asked the fleshy, blemished, spectacled young woman. All the children proudly raised their little hands except me. The juvenile-looking woman and her fellow Bible-school educator hurriedly ran to my side and singled me out this time as the others witnessed. "Julia, have you accepted Jesus into your heart so that you may live in eternity when you die?"
I began to tremble and sob, "No, I haven't." Gasps echoed throughout the frigid basement classroom, shaking the cut-out construction paper Jesuses taped to the whitewashed cinder-block walls. The instructors undeniably resembled Shaggy and Velma from Scooby Doo. She, wearing an oversized orange sweater, orange pleated skirt, orange knee-hi socks and loafers; he, tall, thin, wearing wrinkled rust corduroy bell-bottoms and an olive-green T-shirt, sporting a four-whiskered goatee; both looking as if they had just jumped off the Mystery Machine, eager to foil their next foe--Satan--who was currently shacking up in my right and left ventricles.
They immediately dismissed the class and asked me to stay. They sat on both sides of me, sandwiching me in the middle, grabbed my hands, and slapped them on the Bible. "Let's ask the Lord to save your sinful soul so that you will not perish in hell." I was only six years old, but this was an event that scared the living shit out of me, and one that would occasionally haunt me throughout my life.
It was my first day of Vacation Bible School, annual summer-school classes for neighborhood kids, who were, more than likely, forced by their parents to attend. It was a Baptist program, but a Christian affiliation, and my Catholic mother thought it would be interesting and educational for me to see how other denominations functioned. Little did she know this was the first and last day she would let me attend.
After five minutes of beseeching Jesus to reside in my heart, we said a quick prayer, engaged in a group hug, and then Velma and Shaggy walked me to the bus. Though they meant well, they soon realized they might have overstepped their boundaries in the name of instilling good Christian development. They decided to ride the bus home with me to explain to my mother why it was that her daughter had the hell scared out of her at a Bible school class. I hid myself, knotting up in a ball in the ripped green backseat of the sky-blue Vacation Bible-School bus, which righteously displayed "Honk If You Love Jesus" and "Life Is Too Short To Dance With The Devil" bumper stickers. I cried steadily, convincing myself that it was too late to be saved. Images of pitch forks, explosive flames, and being good old Lucifer's right-hand gal further polluted my imagination and added to my hysteria.
As the bus approached the cul-de-sac where I lived, I saw my mom standing in the middle of it waiting for me. I began to cry harder. Shag and Vel tried to calm me down, but I wouldn't stop. We got up and walked off.
"What's wrong with Julia?" my mother asked.
"Well, Mrs. Ramirez, Julia is a little shaken up at the moment."
"You better have a good explanation."
"Oh, it's nothing serious," Velma stammered nervously as perspiration beads formed around the thick black rim of her glasses. "It's just that today's subject was about accepting the Lord into our hearts, and well, Julia was the only one in class who hadn't done so. We told her it wasn't 'too late.' Unfortunately, she's convinced she's not going to heaven." Shaggy stood there, not saying a damn thing, probably because he had a pretty good idea of what my mother's response was going to be. Just like the real Shaggy did at times of confrontation, he let Velma do the talking and take the heat.
"How dare you intimidate my daughter! She's only six years old! Julia has been baptized. She's been taught that Jesus is forgiving and loving, that He accepts everyone regardless of an invitation. She knows that He loves all who believe and those who do will be allowed into His Kingdom," my mother preached as she knelt down to wipe my eyes with the base of her skirt, hugging me to soothe my sobbing.
The Bible camp teachers stood speechless, bodies quivering, mouths open. "Don't expect Julia tomorrow; she will not be returning," my mother affirmed as she dragged me by the arm toward the house. I turned back to wave goodbye, but the bus was out of there within seconds.
Ironic that nineteen years later, I'm sitting in a synagogue awaiting the ceremony of my mother's conversion to Judaism. Here we are, the entire family, seated in a congregation foreign to us, to behold this monumental event. I'm not sure if I'm shocked, pissed off, or confused. I can't believe this is the same woman who would ground me for not going to church every Sunday. The same woman who was an influential and active parishioner of our Catholic Church. The same woman who actually studied to become a deacon. The same woman who would sing, "Jesus loves me, yes I know, for the Bible tells me so." The same woman who cursed those defenseless Vacation Bible School teachers about the significance, relevance, and benevolence of Jesus Christ. Mom, come on! Remember him? Jesus Christ, only son of God, the Prince of Peace?
I watch my father, who is sitting a few seats down from me. He's wearing a yarmulke on top of his curly sparse hair. He sits there motionless and emotionless. I wonder what he must be thinking. Is he angry? Is he hurt? Does he feel as betrayed as I do? How did this happen? We've all known of Mom's interest in other religions and cultures, her voracious reading on subjects she wanted to learn about. I figured her interest in Judaism was no different than the others. But soon she began to attend services at a synagogue, then an instant friendship with the rabbi developed. Next thing I know, she lays the bomb on us. None of us have said anything to her or have asked her why. Why not? I don't know. Probably because we've never been allowed to question anything she's done. She's a headstrong independent woman who's done whatever she's wanted; meanwhile, for the majority of our lives, we've had no choice but to live according to her beliefs.
This is what makes me angry: having been led to believe, demanded to believe, in a particular faith, but then one day after years and years of teaching, she dismisses this conviction, as if it never existed. She could have converted to Hinduism, Buddhism, Scientology, or a New Age religion, and I'd still be left wondering what happened to those strong Catholic doctrines of hers that she required I accept and share.
She's walking to the altar. She steps up to the podium and begins to speak Hebrew softly into the microphone. She finishes her reading, smiles, and looks over at us. I've never seen her this radiant. She's elated with happiness and pride. I can't deny her that, nor do I want to. She has found peace. She has found solace. Who doesn't want that? Sorrow sieges me and I cry. I realize now that maybe I shouldn't have been so worried about whether or not Jesus was a permanent part of my life, because as of this moment, he's vacated the premises of my mother's heart, no longer existing in the soul of someone I thought had all the answers.
Julia L Ramirez is associate editor of Minnesota Parent.
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