Ask my cousin Gabriel about his ’56 Chevy sometime. He’ll tell you all kinds of stories about that car – stories that never end up quite the same way, but always share the same basic formula: cruising around town, running into pretty girls, picking them up and going to the movies. The story tastes like pure Americana; I almost expect Veronica and Jughead to show up.
Gabriel has never had a ’56 Chevy; he’s never driven a car. When he was a child, he fell from a second-story porch at my grandparents’ home on Cherokee Street in south St. Louis, and it left him with brain damage. He has never been able to live on his own. But Gabriel is a vigorous storyteller, and even if you’ve heard his stories a dozen times before, you’ll ask him again, listening for the quirks of the telling, the details whose source you can’t imagine. My father gets wistful when he tells me about Gabriel’s stories: “They’re like fantasies of the life he never had.”
Gabriel was born in 1950, six years before my dad. During his childhood, my dad spent nearly every weekend with Gabriel at his family’s house in Cahokia, Illinois. My grandparents would play cards with Gabriel’s parents, while dad spent time with the boys – for Gabriel, along with his brothers Jerome and Sid, both born with developmental disabilities, were always thought of “the boys,” no matter how old they were. Dad especially liked spending time with Gabriel, because of their shared propensity for wild lies.
Dad and Gabriel would ride their bikes around Cahokia, usually without incident. But Cahokia wasn’t a big place in the 60′s, and everybody knew their family. Occasionally some older kid would decide to pick on the retarded boys, and my dad would be the one around to defend them – usually by yelling to hustle back home. Even though he was younger than Gabriel, my father always felt protective towards him – paternalistic, even. He had to. Gabriel couldn’t do it for himself. He wasn’t equipped for it.
It’s strange to think how a child’s instincts could shape my own life – how I, almost fifty years later, could be defined by one question asked by someone so young.
* * *
“Your aunt and I went to Sunday school at the Assembly of God Church on Sidney, between 12th and 13th streets,” my father tells me. That building still exists, though it now houses a different Assembly of God congregation. My grandparents never went to church themselves, but they sent their children, saying it would be good for their souls. “I think they mostly just wanted a couple of hours to themselves on Sunday morning,” dad says.
The children never went into the main church building. Instead they spent their time in another building, where they were broken up into groups led by youth pastors. They almost never saw the preacher himself, who spent all of his time attending to the congregation’s adults – the “paying customers,” as dad puts it. He was ten years old or so at the time of this story – “old enough to be larcenous,” as he puts it. “My mom would give me a dollar to put in the till. I would sneak off to the corner store and buy fifty cents worth of penny candy with the Lord’s money.”
The youth pastors had liked my dad ever since he’d won a contest for reciting the Ten Commandments from memory. He won a silver-colored ring from the contest, square-faced with an indented cross in the center. He remembers being so proud of the ring that he wanted to wear it all the time, but it turned his skin a greenish gray and smell strange. He was, apparently, allergic to the cross.
The youth pastors called the preacher in shortly after that. Every now and then, the preacher came by the Sunday school and trawled teenagers and promising children about getting saved. They had taken dad’s victory in the contest as proof of his loyalty to God, and thought he was a prime candidate. So the pastors put a chair before him, had him kneel down, and had him place his elbows on the seat, ready to pray.
“Are you ready to get saved, son?” they asked him.
“I wasn’t really clear on what that meant,” says dad. “People had talked about getting saved, had said they were so glad they had done it, but I didn’t know what it was. To be honest, I wasn’t really concerned with religion at that point. I was more concerned about comic books.” He pauses. “They played me winning that contest as a sign of devotion, but I just wanted to win the prize.”
So he asked what it meant.
The preacher straightened up and said being saved meant you understood and accepted a handful of things – things you had to say out loud, things you had to mean:
You had to understand that you were a sinner.
You had to understand that, as a sinner, you were bound for Hell.
You had to understand that only Jesus could save you from that fate.
You had to confess to the Lord that you were a sinner, and that only He could save you.
And you had to accept Jesus as your personal savior.
“They made their case on an emotional level,” my dad says. “‘Be afraid of this awful fate. You’re in danger. You need the Lord’s protection.” But their message relied on fear, and dad wasn’t afraid. “Maybe I didn’t know enough to be scared,” he says. “I wasn’t afraid of the devil. I was afraid of my father.” This became an intellectual proposition to him – an invitation to debate. And so he made a counter-proposal.
“What about my cousin Gabriel?” he asked.
Dad doesn’t know why Gabriel came to mind, though he guesses, it having been a Sunday, he had probably visited Gabriel the day before. He explained to the preacher about his cousin, about his fall from the porch before he could have possibly understood any of those questions, before he could have understood what it meant to sin or that he needed to be saved. It wasn’t his fault; he couldn’t do it for himself. He wasn’t equipped for it.
So what happens to Gabriel?
“The preacher gave me a look like they give you when your dog has to be put down,” dad says. “And he looked down at the ground, shook his head, and said, ‘Well, he’s going to hell, son.’”
“Then I’m going with him.”
The preacher tried to talk him out of it, tried to tell him that he needed to look out for his own soul, not to worry about the fate of other people. (This seems like strange advice from a person whose professional duty is to save other people’s souls.) But dad stood up and walked out, waited at the bus stop for his sister to come out. When he got home, he told my grandfather that he didn’t want to go to Sunday school anymore.
And he didn’t. That moment in the Assembly of God on Sidney had ruined him for Christianity. And although he could not know it – indeed, could not know the road it would lead him down himself – he set the course of my life in motion that day. I owe the strange chance of my religion to a ten-year-old’s question and a preacher’s abominable answer. I feel both horrified and grateful.