Sometime in the mid- to late-80s, I wrote a letter to my father’s younger brother, who was at that time doing missionary work with his family in Kenya. I had only met R in person once, perhaps twice; I did not know his children (whom I thought of as “the African cousins”) at all. I did not know the workings of his faith, except that it seemed unimaginable to me and my Unitarian Universalist sensibilities. A high point of my own religious education had been the day in third grade when I led a mass exodus from Sunday School after a substitute teacher attempted to make us read the story of Noah and the flood. “We are Unitarians,” I told my friends during a private moment when the substitute stepped into the hall; “we do NOT read the Bible.” (Some time later, when a flustered group of parents finally located me and my fellow rebels in the field behind the church, popping the heads off dandelions and blowing seeds from the matured blooms into one another’s hair, I remained defiant in the face of my mother’s insistence that–Bible or no–I was required to first tell an adult where I was going, the next time I led a religious revolt.)
But that time was long behind me, when I wrote my sincere plea to my uncle R: Can you explain your faith to me? I was less after the particulars of beliefs and more hungry to understand how those particulars informed the choices he made, guided the way he made sense of the world. If I could understand R, I thought, perhaps I could make sense of my father’s own recent turn to an evangelical, born-again form of Christianity. My house felt in chaos that year–my brother newly away at college, my parents’ marriage threatening to break apart, my own self attempting to assert itself in outraged adolescent confusion. My father’s conversion seemed to lay at the nexus of it all. The only fight I can remember in which I screamed back at him as good as I got pivoted on questions of faith and choice. His insistence that his life was so much better now…and mine could be too, if I would only follow his decision. My insistence that I wanted nothing to do with his Christ or his salvation…and would he just get the hell outta my room RIGHT NOW. (It was not our finest father-daughter moment.)
Can you explain your faith to me?
I never got the reply R wrote me, though he later communicated to me that he had written one. A long, fat letter–the kind that required many postage stamps to mail to the US from East Africa, and thus the kind that tempted people to pocket an envelope for its stamps. While I have occasionally wondered over the years what words that fat letter contained, I have more often thought of it and been moved by the fact that it existed at all. That an uncle who barely knew me had made that effort to share how the world looked through his eyes. That he had been willing and gracious to make that part of himself known to me, known so deeply that his revelation tempted even those who only touched it from the outside.
I have still only met R a handful of times, and I’m still unsure if I’ve ever met all of his sons in person. But he and I have become “Facebook friends” in recent years and formed, I think, an affectionate regard for the slivers of self that we each reveal through the gestured intimacy of social media. Yesterday R reached out to me with a link to this post by Christian blogger Jen Hatmaker detailing her “position on homosexuality.” In it she addresses the challenges, as she sees them, of reconciling compassion for all people, including gays and lesbians, with her Biblical faith in “traditional marriage.” My uncle respectfully asked if I would be willing to share my thoughts with him.
Can you explain your faith to me?
Yes, R–I can. I’m happy to share. I’m happy you asked. Continue reading “Dear Uncle R.”