God, Jesus, Dad, and Me

I was asked to contribute my ‘deconversion’ story to a book project about black non-belief. Since it’s (in my opinion) a pretty solid piece of writing, I thought I’d add it here. You can compare it to a previous occasion when I wrote this story, albeit in less detail.

I can’t tell the story of my ‘deconversion’ – my escape from faith – without telling the story of my father. Dad was born the youngest of seven in Guyana, a country geographically located in South America, politically located in the Caribbean, and geopolitically located in the third world. A British colony, Guyana was home to a simmering political dissatisfaction (which would be resolved during Dad’s adolescence with independence), ever-present racism, and serious poverty.

Dad, taking one of the few opportunities available to a bright young man, entered the Catholic priesthood. He was educated at the seminary, growing up with other priests in training. Dad also grew during this time as a musician and photographer. His missionary work took him all over the Caribbean, and eventually to Toronto, Canada as part of a foreign mission organized out of Scarborough.

Facing his own doubts, particularly around the church’s teachings on birth control (he would tell me, many years after I was born, that he felt as though he was contributing to the suffering of people he was supposed to help), Dad left the priesthood in the late ‘70s. It was also around that time that he met my mother, although he has repeatedly assured me that those two developments were not related in any way.

I was born the youngest of two in Vancouver, British Columbia to two university-educated parents in their 30s who were both on track to complete graduate degrees. Whereas Dad, who by that point was a social worker, swam in the Demerara river in the Decembers of his youth, mine were spent on the ski hills of the Okanagan. And while Dad fought for his education any way he could, I grew up in a household where there was never any question of whether or not I would go to university, to do whatever it was I wanted. He and my mother had worked to make sure of that before I was born.

Church was a part of life growing up in Vernon. I can still remember the smell of the pews and incense, struggling to read the words to the hymns, studying to take my first Communion (which I actually had to receive twice – my mother was in the terminal stages of breast cancer at that time, so we had a private ceremony with our parish priest in her hospital room a few days before the ceremony at church. Mom would recover enough to attend the church ceremony as well, with the help of a wheelchair and an oxygen tank). I remember Sunday school, taken across the street from our church, where all questions were answered patiently and adroitly.

A number of events, my mother’s death among them, prompted us to move to Ontario so that Dad could get his Master’s of Social Work at the University of Toronto. It was at that time that I moved from the public school system to the Catholic system, moving through St. Raphael’s, St. Michael’s, Cardinal Newman, and finally to St. John Bosco between grades 5 to 8. I was identified as ‘gifted’ at age 10, which is what prompted, along with some issues the school board was having, the many moves that would mark the coming years.

I was convinced at age 13 that I would join the priesthood. I had already begun to see, from my position playing violin in our church choir, that the church was in serious need of reform, and that I would be the one to do it from the inside. The kindly Fr. Keith was replaced by the much younger, and much more conservative Fr. Tony, whose frequent sexist and tyrannical outbursts would come to typify my view of not only him, but of the church in general. God wanted me to bring kindness and open-mindedness back to His church, which had strayed from the path.

Dad had taught me to challenge authority – a lesson I’m sure he would come to regret in my more independent-minded teenage years – and so it was with more than a little righteous fury that I tore into an anti-choice newsletter that I was given at a church youth group meeting at age 15. Infuriated by the claims – that condoms weren’t effective against HIV, that human overpopulation was a myth, that abortion resulted in the loss of the friendship of God – I wrote a lengthy retort to the editorial board. I also published it in my school newspaper – I was, by that time, at a public high school.

I struggled for years to quiet the rising voice of doubt that was growing within my own mind. The church was wrong about everything – about abortion, about homosexuality, even about things as basic as keeping the commandments. Surely I wasn’t the only one who saw this? Dad tried his best to explain why it wasn’t idolatry to venerate the cross at Easter or why intercessory prayer wasn’t blasphemy, but there were always more questions from me than answers from him, and our arguments usually ended in a shared sulky silence.

Finally, exasperated with a church that I could plainly see was not only wrong today, but wrong repeatedly throughout history, I began dropping items from my weekly profession of faith at mass. No longer did I believe in “the Holy Catholic Church” or “the resurrection of the body”. I wasn’t even sure that I believed in the divinity of Jesus – a story that made less sense the more I thought about it. Why didn’t he stand up to Pilate? What kind of shepherd leaves a whole flock of sheep to find one lost lamb? Why did the resurrection occur under such shady circumstances?

And yet, even as I felt my doctrinal faith slipping away, I struggled ever-harder to preserve it. Driven off by Fr. Tony, we moved to a new parish, where I volunteered as a reader of the liturgy. I also taught Sunday school – a perverse position for me, as I had to respond to questions with answers I did not believe myself.

And all the while I prayed. I prayed that God would answer my questions – questions that could come from no other place but the devil. When that didn’t work, I asked God to give me patience, knowing that the answers would come in the fullness of time. When that didn’t work, I prayed that God would take the questions away altogether, so that I could worship him with the pure faith of my younger years. And when all that didn’t work, I turned to the bible. This would prove to be the biggest mistake of all.

Continued in Part II

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