How I Lost God
On growing up torn between one parent who believed, and another who didn’t
In 1962, my dad sat next to a boy who ate blue crayons. If my dad missed school, he’d later open the Crayola box to find empty slots where all the shades of indigo and sky had been. At the desk one over, was a kid with a guilty grin full of wax.
This was a Catholic grammar school in Northeast Philadelphia, a place run by nuns and stuffed with children. A classmate fled in a doomed escape attempt on the first week of school, and a car slammed into him as he ran across the street. The nuns told the students that the accident was a divine consequence of his disobedience.
Their first-ever assignment was to color in the outline of a butterfly. My dad worked for hours, sitting on the floor with his crayons. A week later, when the nun returned the pictures, his was marked with an F, cardinal red and slicing through the butterfly’s wing. Imagining that F — so defiantly cruel — cracks my heart in half. I can see my dad, at 6 years old, little nose still sunburned from the summer, his confidence and pride seeping away.
What began as the crumbling of belief in himself, faith permanently suspended, became anger at the nuns who’d repressed and belittled him. Doubt hardened into resentment. In his schools, no one was allowed to question or challenge. He saw priests smacking kids’ skulls against the painted cinderblock walls. Boys were tossed into closets by their collars, girls shouted at for uncovered hair in the chapel. He was sure, at 17, that college was no place for him, because the only teaching he’d ever known was rote, dictated, fearful, spooned out in classrooms smoky with chalk dust.
Evidence of my dad’s anger at the Catholic church was scattered throughout my childhood. In between our Bibles were books about the men who wrote the scriptures, about a Jesus who took real steps on Roman stones, about the litany of sins committed by the Popes. I went to mass and Sunday school for 10 years at my mom’s insistence, but her nighttime prayers dueled with my dad’s words about the Church’s black past.
My mom’s faith was harder to understand than the absence of my dad’s. In her girlhood, she had daydreamed…