“Where I grew up there weren’t many trees. Where there was we’d tear them down and use them on our enemies.” ~Peace On Earth, U2
I grew up in 2 different places: the chaos of Southwest Philadelphia, and the insular bubble of the Adventist church. While these distinct places warred with each other for possession of my eternal soul, they still somehow existed in beautiful tandem with each other. I went to a small Adventist school in a good part of Philly, so most of my days were spent isolated from the drugs, violence, and strong language rated R-ness of my own neighborhood. But then I would come home and the switch was flipped.
There was a drug den at the end of my block. Everyone knew it was there but we all simply kept our distance on our way to the 7-Eleven on the other corner. We would play tag in the water from the fire hydrant in the summer while strange types went in and out of the dilapidated house (that has since been torn down). And it didn’t seem odd at all, as if every kid had a drug den at the end of their block, as if Narnia were real after all.
But Narnia wasn’t real, except when my mother read it to me at night, and the closest I ever got to that kind of magic was at church every Saturday. Even though the Adventist church we went to was in North Philly it might as well have been in Shangri-La because of how shut off it was from the world. When I passed through those doors it was like time stopped and I was transported back to the world of those 1950s’ television shows, when everyone was safe, and when everywhere was your backyard.
Things weren’t real on Saturdays, when god reigned from on high in the form of black men behind a pulpit shouting olden words to adoring crowds who knew they could do no wrong. It was the epitome of a caste system where everyone within those doors was sanctified, a la Henry VIII, by virtue of being there, and by validating the system itself. Which of course meant that everyone outside in the cold was doomed to the depths of hell itself. It was Judgement Day wrapped up in rhetoric and a supposed missionary message that was less than sincere.
It was far away, both theoretically and geographically, from the drug den on my block, but both places shared the ideology that life was to be shut off from experience. And no more was that evident than in how I was expected to react to these two realities of life. While I was supposed to ignore the drug den, to pretend that it didn’t exist and that those who occupied the space were invisible, it was necessary in church to pretend that we were the chosen ones, that others should look to us as examples, that we were all going to heaven just by nature of being there every Saturday.
And while neither way of looking at the world was healthy, I took it all in and spit it back out just like they taught me. I was the dutiful robot who spent most of his formative years pretending that things were the way the adults around me said they were. I was the boy who saw the cracks in “perfection” and was supposed to gloss over them because everyone else did. But I didn’t. I just pushed it down, and I mulled it over deep inside, and I recognized that the crack addicts were people too, that they were worthy of being seen just as I was. I mulled it over deep inside, and I realized the church goers weren’t pillars of divinity.
I realized that no matter where we come from there are elements that draw us all together as human beings, and that the more we embrace those elements the less we judge. And the less we judge the more likely we are to understand where we come from, where we truly come from, is the sum of all those places rolled into one, that the story we have to tell is more than just form but content as well.