Everything To Do With Faith
By the time I entered Montclair State College, I had already dropped out of college once. Two weeks before the fall semester began, I rented an attic room in a large old house on Upper Mountain Avenue in Montclair, New Jersey, a short distance from campus. The house was owned by an older woman with the crazy coincidence of having the same first and last names, Judy Judy.
My major at American University, where I’d been enrolled the previous two and a half years, had changed several times, from International Relations to Government, and finally, to Art. I didn’t have a clue what I might do with the rest of my life. But as long as I was in college, given an array of attractive class offerings, I figured I might as well study whatever appealed to me.
The arts had done that for a long time. As a child in Hawaii, I studied the hula and performed with my troupe at luaus and outrigger canoe races. On King Kamehameha Day, I danced in a long satin lavender dress as the smallest of the Hawaiian Islands, Niihau. I beat a hollow gourd, shook smaller feathered gourds, and clicked smooth palm-sized lava stones together as I danced. I even learned to strum the ukulele. Later, I added piano, clarinet and guitar to my musical repertoire, along with singing alto in the high school choir. I also had a brief stint as a tap dancer.
In high school, I started to draw, mostly portraits of people I knew. I thought I had a talent for capturing likenesses, which made me seriously consider studying art. But I felt I needed a career, a profession that would keep me from, as I often thought, “ending up like my mother,” a stay-at-home military spouse whose husband was away much of the time and who spent evenings alone watching TV and getting soused.
I was fighting my own battle with depression, though I didn’t know it at the time. I did know that I wanted to be happy and was having trouble achieving that goal. I figured my misery entitled me to do whatever I wanted, including taking classes having nothing to do with preparing me for a career but which might be fun.
I spent one semester studying Bharatanatyam, a classical dance from South India, staying in a low squat, as I stretched my right leg out to the side and pounded that bare foot against the floor, then brought the leg back in and repeated the movement with the left leg and foot. During the long winter break, I rode the bus into Manhattan for modern dance classes with the late renowned choreographer, Paul Taylor. During one of the first classes, Taylor shamed me in front of the other students, after catching me chewing gum.
Beyond dance, I ventured into a new experimental program at Montclair State called Urban Cultural Development. As best as I could understand, the program combined art, architecture, urban planning and sociology, aimed at improving city neighborhoods and the lives of their inhabitants. In one class, we worked with neighborhood residents, a mix of Italian Americans and African Americans who didn’t get along, to create what was dubbed a “vest-pocket park,” in a narrow empty space that had previously served as a dumping ground for dirty and dangerous used hypodermic needles, empty catsup-stained Styrofoam containers, and plastic soda cups.
In the fall semester of my second year at Montclair State, I signed up for an offering in the Music Department, simply titled, “Black Music.” Not surprisingly, I turned out to be the only white student taking the class.
The class was taught by Reverend William Gray III, who also served as the minister of the Union Baptist Church. During each session, Reverend Gray made a point of inviting us to come over on Sunday and hear him preach.
Each week, I heard Reverend Gray’s kind offer but dismissed it. First, I assumed the Union Baptist Church was an African American church, given that it had a black minister and was located in a predominantly black section of town. Second, I wasn’t Baptist. Third, I never got up early on Sundays. And most important, I wasn’t religious, at least in any traditional Christian sense. I couldn’t be sure I even believed in God.
Instead of an exam, we were assigned to do a final project to complete the class. Years later, I don’t recall what I did. Neither can I remember the other students’ projects. Except, that is, for one.
Darrell was scheduled to present his project last, on the final day of class. After Reverend Gray announced that Darrell would go next, the somewhat short student, wearing a white shirt, dark dress slacks and a gray tie, stood up, hurried down the aisle of the small theater, and walked out the back door. I waited in silence, along with the rest of the students, wondering what Darrell was up to.
The silence was broken moments later, when the back door opened, letting in light from the hall. That silent space suddenly exploded with sound – high, low and in-between – blending into a rich, thick harmony so splendid it nearly made me cry. Those deep voices had such power, the music seemed to raise the room up toward the sky.
Dressed in royal blue robes with Darrell in front, the choir marched up the aisle toward the stage. They clapped their hands as they sang and walked. Soon, the audience was clapping along with them.
With his back facing us, Darrell directed the choir as they finished the song, his arms raised, his torso swiveling from left to right. The music was joyful, with the members of the choir swaying together from side to side, smiling the entire time.
We gave Darrell and the choir a standing ovation, with some students shouting for an encore. The applause didn’t stop until the choir started in on another song. When they were done, Darrell asked for another round of applause.
“Come hear them this Sunday,” Reverend Gray shouted, struggling to be heard over the clapping, as the singers marched back down the aisle and out the door. Even when they were gone, we continued to applaud.
I didn’t make it to Reverend Gray’s church every Sunday. But I did get there once or twice a month, for the music, not the Christian message. Even so, hearing the choir in that tabernacle, with its soaring ceiling and stained-glass windows, I felt as if I was being offered a small secret taste of the divine.
Unfortunately, the faith Reverend Gray preached about each Sunday didn’t seep into my heart. The dark depression that weighed me down much of the time seemed impervious to light. At least, listening to the choir provided moments of respite, as did watching the female parishioners arrive, all dressed to shine.
That spring, still not having found a path forward to a career or some deep purpose for my life and grieving the end of a relationship, I dropped out of college for the second time. Living in New Jersey, I believed, was adding to my depression. So, I packed up and moved back to D.C.
Eventually, I did earn a bachelor’s degree in Art Education, through a University Without Walls Program, or as I like to think of it now, Hippie University. I taught art for a year in an alternative elementary school in Albuquerque, dabbled in painting, drawing and even weaving, and then moved on, continuing to search for meaning, purpose, direction, and, I suppose, faith and hope, though I didn’t realize it at the time.
I made a few half-hearted attempts to delve into Eastern beliefs. I practiced Hatha Yoga, learned from my devout D.C. roommate, Andy, using the living room wall to prop up my legs in a shoulder stand. In Seattle, where I lived for several years, I tried Aikido, bowing on entering the spare dojo, located in a rough neighborhood, and experiencing brief periods of euphoria in the hours after meditating and then practicing rolls and throws, dressed in my pressed white Gi. And later in San Francisco, I studied Tibetan Buddhism, at a center presided over by an American nun. I didn’t enter another church, even just for the music, until I ventured south, to the hot humid country of Nicaragua.
Years before, when I attended the Union Baptist Church, I became enamored with its rituals, even while I couldn’t see my way into believing the Christian message. I especially enjoyed people-watching, observing the women in their pink, green and royal blue dresses and wide wonderful hats, the size of small umbrellas. When Reverend Gray preached, I got caught up in the rhythm and poetry of his words, much as I did with the choir’s singing.
In the same way, I was drawn to the pageantry of the Nicaraguan Catholic Church. I went to the country three times, first as a publicist for a nongovernmental organization and later as a freelance journalist, staying for several months on each visit. While there, I learned that Nicaraguans mixed local cultural and some native traditions with those of mainstream Catholicism. In early August, a group of people ventures to Las Sierritas Parish Church in the southern part of the capital, to pick up a statuette of Saint Dominic, aka Santo Domingo, Managua’s patron saint. They walk the several miles to Santo Domingo Church in the center of Managua, carrying the statuette, while thousands of other Nicaraguans line the procession route. When they reach Santo Domingo, they place the statuette in a glass case that sits atop a pedestal. The faithful file in for several days to see the saint, known by locals as “Minguito.”
Before I ever observed Minguito myself, I heard that he had one feature that distinguished him from most other Catholic saints. Minguito had dark skin, resembling the majority of Nicaraguans.
One morning, I went with my landlady, Marta, to see the saint. As always, the day was hot and damp, in the mid-nineties with equally high humidity. The line of people waiting to enter the church stretched for blocks. By the time we reached the front door of Santo Domingo, the back of my loose cotton dress was soaked.
The interior of the church was dark. It took several minutes for my eyes to adjust. The air was also smoky from incense and rows of small candles burning on the side.
Having heard the story about the annual procession, I expected to see a large carved statute, filling a coffin-sized, glass-lidded container. When we finally made it to the spot where the saint had been deposited, I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was the size of a small child’s doll.
A few years after my last trip to Nicaragua, I slipped down emotionally, further than I’d ever fallen. Though I had long struggled to hold onto hope and faith that my life would get better, I now couldn’t grab on to even the slimmest thread of light. A friend suggested that I try some short-term therapy.
I met my new therapist, Annie, in a tall Victorian, located on, of all things, Church Street, at the end of the J-Church streetcar line. After asking me a series of questions, including whether I had been abused as a child, Annie told me to sit with my back straight and feet flat on the floor. Then she suggested that I place my hands on my lap, with the palms face-up, and that I close my eyes.
I followed her instructions that I take a deep breath in and imagine the breath with my mind’s eye, as it traveled into my mouth and throat, down to the lungs, and flowed into my belly, thighs, and eventually into my feet.
“Feel your feet,” Annie told me, “The toes and the arches.”
I would soon learn that taking the breath through my body like this could miraculously unlock feelings that had been buried for years.
Over time, in addition to weekly sessions with Annie, I learned to use these mindfulness techniques on my own, to untangle emotions, in order to feel anger and sadness, instead of collapsing into the dark dull numbness of depression. Unlike being preached to about believing in an invisible male god hovering in the clouds above me, I started to develop a faith in myself. I began to believe that I could be the vehicle for changing my life. As crazy as it would have seemed before I went to therapy and learned to watch the breath, I now thought I had the means within, to heal my depression and be happy.
Eventually, after years of dabbling in an array of different subjects, I realized that I wanted to write. I started with journalism and then made my way to creative writing. I even went back to school, earning a master’s degree in English with a concentration in creative writing. This time around it was easier to stay focused, since I finally knew the path I wanted to follow.
I also found my way to a church that fit, one in which the various traditions I’ve explored can comfortably reside, and where what matters to the congregation is that we care for one another and the planet, and work toward a better world.
Recently, working on edits for my latest book, I suddenly remembered that long-ago Black Music class, along with Darrell and the choir, and Reverend Gray, of course. Until that moment, I had completely forgotten about the class and my short-lived attendance at the Union Baptist Church. Curious to know if Reverend Gray might still be preaching at Union Baptist, I Googled his name. Unfortunately, I learned that he had passed away five years ago. I was surprised to learn that before his death, he served in the United States Congress, representing his Northern New Jersey district.
While I had consciously forgotten about that time of my life, the impressions the choir and the visits to the church made on me hadn’t entirely vanished. I had written a collection of interconnected stories, set in what had been a predominantly African American neighborhood that was now in the process of gentrifying. Suddenly, I recognized that scenes in the book had been influenced by those forgotten visits to Union Baptist Church. Working on those scenes, I hadn’t known ahead of time where the writing would lead me. I gave up any sense of control and let the writing take me wherever it wanted to go. That, I suppose, had everything to do with faith, and of course, hope.