A letter came in the mail today. It was a plain white envelope that had been repurposed from its former role as a greeting card sheath. Well, maybe it was whiter once. Because it was a faded sort of white, with slight little stains that came from insect pee, guinea pig pee, coffee, whatever. The way my name was written,“Mrs. Uriel Zacarias”, I knew who had sent it right away.
When I was ten, I met Mrs. Doyle at the Boys and Girls Club of Imperial Beach after I had begged my parents to let me have piano lessons. I had been listening to classical music on a CD that my mom had received in the mail for free and wanted to replay or even create that sort of beauty on my own. The beginning piano class had about seven to ten people in there, some teenagers, some younger than me at around seven. She was a woman around her fifties, with curly brown hair and bright green eyes. She liked me because I was quiet and practiced a lot, but after a couple of years she moved away from the Imperial Beach area so she stopped teaching at the Boys and Girls Club. But I still had her information, so in middle school, I wrote her a letter, and she wrote back. Soon enough, private lessons were arranged at her house.
She lived with her husband and her parents, and quoted Bible passages every few sentences she spoke. I had been fairly religious myself before, but she inspired me to be more religious in my Christian beliefs. Naturally, I was shy and usually avoided doing such things. But own passion for God was contagious for me at a time when I was curious about religion. She would bash the public school system for banning praying, the reading of the Bible, etc. She subscribed to fundamentalist Christian magazines and shared them with me. My parents weren’t very religious themselves, but they approved of my interest because it kept me away from drugs and promiscuity and the Bible preached obedience to parents, which was also a Confucian value.
She was a lot gentler on Judaism than the “pagan” religions, probably because her family was Jewish. She prayed for her elderly parents a lot. She told me that the Jews would have a place in heaven as well, and cited some Bible passages to back up her claim.
Even at my most religious phase, I wondered why Mrs. Doyle was so devout. She told me and my mother about how her family had “warned” her against marrying her Vietnam-vet husband (she was his fourth wife), sometimes when he was well within earshot. She had gone through a phase when she wasn’t religious, but didn’t reveal much about that time. All I knew from her unreligious period was that she admired Hemingway as an author, and was disillusioned when she realized he had committed suicide later on in his life. And she probably married John during this period.
I had joined a Lutheran church, but she recommended that I go to a Church of Christ. She drove me there one day. It was a small little church on 10th Street in Imperial Beach. We went in. The pastor was a woman, which surprised me because fundamentalist Christians tended to be wary of female leaders within the Church. She looked like Rosie O’Donnell.
The service was what I expected from a church, until I realized I couldn’t understand the prayers that people were uttering. It sounded foreign and strange, but beautiful. Mrs. Doyle was also engaged in such a manner of prayers. A member of the church noticed the stunned look on my face and sat next to me.
“What is this language, Hebrew?” I asked.
“They are speaking in tongues,” replied the church member. She was plump, and her blond hair was cropped short. “It is the Holy Spirit speaking through them. Would you like to speak in tongues? We can teach you if you like.” Her pale blue eyes were piercing.
“Maybe later,” I said, looking around. Most of the people, like Mrs. Doyle, had their eyes closed and were raising their arms to the sky while speaking in tongues. One guy had his eyes rolled back in his head and was screeching the Holy Spirit like a megaphone. The blond church member told me that I needed to relax and let go in order to speak in tongues, but I couldn’t relax. The clashing voices of the Holy Spirit blended to produce this discordant melody that disconnected with my own spirit, which felt like it had been pulled out from me in front of everyone and torn into shreds. I crossed my hands in my lap and sat very still, watching and listening.
After the tongues speaking, the pastor went on with her sermon about homosexuality and the sinfulness of modern society. She told a story of when she went to Britain and saw a muscular, broad-shouldered black man prancing out of a clothing shop in a dainty, pink dress and mocked his voice with its intonations that we normally associate with female speech patterns.
After that day, I spoke little about religion, as Christianity and its many derisagreeing denominations cast doubt in my mind. Taking AP World History in tenth grade also helped me see the history of humankind from a more distant, less Eurocentric perspective, as I learned about civilizations that formed and bloomed for hundreds, thousands of years without contact with Judaism or Christianity.
I did humor Mrs. Doyle though, when she would talk about her faith. When she asked me about why I stopped going to the Church of Christ, I blamed the fact that the pastor was female, and Mrs. Doyle would nod sympathetically, but offer to recommend a different church. I declined.
In time, she caught on. When I returned from a volunteering trip in Taiwan, she asked, “Did you tell your new friends about Christ?”
“Mmm, no,” I replied.
“Did you tell anyone about Christ?”
I shook my head.
There was a pause.
Then, “Are you still a believer?”
I hesitated before saying no.
The enthusiastic gleam in her eyes faded. Her voice was cold and hard. “So, they finally brainwashed you, huh?” She meant the school system. I chose to stay quiet at the time, but sometimes I silently chide myself for not saying anything, for not turning the tables on her and her fundamentalist magazines and 7000-year old Earth. But arguing with her would have solved nothing. She had clung onto her faith despite several hardships for decades, possibly even a quarter of a century. Having a petty fight with a teenager would not have shaken her religious faith. She was a molded and baked piece of clay that had stood for decades, and I was an ugly, little chunk of raw clay that had been thrown into a bucket of water. Both of us had made up our minds, but pitting my newly found unfaith against her long-held faith would have been like blowing on a brick house.
I opened the envelope. Inside was a pretty bookmark of a flower photo, a little piece of stationery, and a yellowed religious tract. I tossed the religious tract in the recycling bin and opened the stationery, which showed a short note written in blue-inked cursive that flowed and sprawled wide.
Dear Mrs. Zacarias, Wishing you blessings from God on your birthday! Love in Christ, Mrs. Doyle
Holding the bookmark and envelope in my hand, I went over to my desk and began to write a thank-you letter. The tract remained in the recycling bin.