“Today, you’re marrying Jesus.” Spoken to me in Kreyol by Granny, my caregiver, those words could only mean one thing: a Haitian First Holy Communion was about to commence. Most Haitian Catholics make a big deal of Communions, and my mother was no exception. On the day of the Sacrament, I wore a brilliant hand-made white dress so intricately detailed with lace, white beads, and chiffon, that it could only appropriately be described as a mini wedding dress. Topped off with a white veil, attached to a crown of flowers, I was the most ornately dressed girl in my Communion class. After the ceremony, my mother threw a party for me at our house. So large was the crowd that preparation of the traditional Haitian dishes that would be served to our guests—lanbi, griyo, diri kole, banan peze, pen patat—began several days in advance. I ran around the yard with the other children, while my parents and their guests talked, laughed, and danced the night away. And because no Haitian Communion celebration is complete without First Holy Communion party favors, the hand-made white-chocolate lollipops (in the shape of the Eucharist, and of praying hands), candy-covered almonds wrapped in squares of white lace, and white lapel pins, all bore a ribbon with my name on it—“My First Holy Communion.” Marrying Jesus, indeed.
Years later, my marriage to Jesus went the way of many American marriages: we separated. The day a Catholic priest advised me, and the congregation of mostly working-class Blacks, that John Kerry’s stem-cell research platform transformed a vote for him into a sin that must be confessed was the last time I set foot in a Catholic church. The day a Baptist pastor running a “New Members” class suggested to the participants (also made up, primarily, of working-class Blacks) that we weren’t meant to enjoy work was the last day I set foot in a Baptist church. The hypocrisy of the former (so, Bush’s death-penalty stance did not similarly convey a disregard for life?), and the classism of the latter (what, only wealthy Whites got to pursue fulfilling careers?) have led me to avoid organized religion in general. I am now, however, the mother of a 7-month old baby; and not to be too cliché, but the development of her spirituality weighs heavily on my soul.
My mother didn’t stop with a First Holy Communion; she enrolled me in religion classes that ultimately led to my making the sacrament of Confirmation. Her persistence ensured not only that I understood the tenets of Christianity, but also that I have a store of beautiful memories associated with Christianity, no matter how estranged I am from the religion today. I remember releasing into an Easter Sunday sky helium balloons, stuffed with scrolls bearing the message: “He Is Risen.” I remember playing hand bells at Christmas; I remember attending midnight mass.
Today, I do not believe in the things that human beings, in our limitations, make God out to be—racist; sexist; homophobic; classist. But I do believe in God, and so it’s important to me that my daughter also develops an understanding of something that is bigger than her; that she cultivates faith in a Higher Power that is guiding her life. The academic in me wants her to have an understanding of the doctrinal underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian religions. The mother in me wants her to develop her own cache of warm memories, reminding her of her special relationship with God. But memories are not reason enough to expose her to those teachings I find so unacceptable in most religious institutions. And so, I find myself unsure of how to proceed. Is it time to join a church, if only for her sake? Will I be cheating my daughter out of important cultural experiences if we don’t return to organized religion? Are there other ways for us to teach her to be grateful for the gift of her life, a gift that surely comes from a Higher Being?
I don’t know how we will answer these questions, or what lies in store for my relationship with Jesus, but like many marriages going through a separation, it’s often the children that provide the motivation for reconciliation.