erik kirkland memorial prize finalist
Our townhouse in Maryland in 2012 was a pastel blue in a fairytale-like neighborhood. Pillar Lane, our street was called, and though the sweet lick of spring brought the croon of cicadas and the gentle rustling wind, I was livid.
I half-heartedly thrusted the remote at the television and switched from Netflix to the Wii menu.
“But I like VeggieTales,” I grumbled under my breath.
My mother, due with my sister soon, folded laundry in the doorway. “I know, bébé, but I don’t want you watching the Bible ones.”
I whined in a tone that somewhat resembled a question.
“It’s blasphemous,” Mamãe said. “I don’t want you to think of God as an asparagus.”
I jutted out my jaw and harrumphed, but perhaps she had a point; ten years later, I still taste slushies when I think of Jericho.
But I was freshly ten then, attending a private school with built-in worship, where my dad was a religion teacher and a pastor. It was not enough, apparently, to have a Heavenly Father, but an ordained one too.
A pastor’s daughter, my childhood was spotted with the occasional parable.
I was seven and teetering back and forth in my crisscross-applesauce during church, completely distracted as a minister spoke of Jesus’ entrance in Jerusalem. In the musty open school gymnasium, serving as a chapel to accommodate the townspeople of Bryn Athyn, we could have been on opposite ends of the Tower of Babel; I understood nothing.
Beside me was Caden, several years my junior but equally as bored. A lovely girl my parents often babysat, she and I found a kinship in the mutual disinterest of our eternal souls. It was Palm Sunday, and the aisles were lined with fronds and button-up shirts. To my surprise, there was Daddy in his white pastor’s robe, leading a donkey through the aisles of folding chairs. Caden and I perked as we watched the animal bray over the minister’s speech. To us, the jarring sound was just as incomprehensible as the sermon, but quite more entertaining.
Caden leaned into me suddenly. In a hushed excitement, she whispered, “I didn’t know your dad was the Lord!”
He may not have been an asparagus, but I doubt my father was the image of God Caden’s parents had in mind.
Daddy told me stories of his growing up—or, more accurately, of my grandmother yanking him up by his Sunday tie. How he autographed every Bible at his youth group with his scrawly RYAN, how in his adolescence he had pissed on the side of the church, how, years later, he was told to dispose of a carton of eggs and splattered a good number of them on that same wall before my grandmother was the wiser. Indeed, not the best Samaritan.
But an accomplished dad. When I was four in the honey haze of the late summer afternoon, Daddy would take me and my brother out to play. There was a neatly mowed field out behind the gothic cathedral in town, and underneath its looming silhouette, Lucas and I would tumble in the smell of walnut fruits and fountain water. We would wrench up handfuls of grass and plate them nicely on a Frisbee, offering Daddy the most delicious meal. He would fling the grass over his shoulder and pretend to chew. He would compliment our cooking. That sent us into hysterics.
The fourth commandment: honor your father and mother. That’s how you honor Him.
If I was a child of God, He was behind on His child support payments. I haven’t seen That Guy since I could remember.
Who was I to picture during our daily morning prayer? I knelt on the carpet of the classroom, bowing my head as the rest of my second-grade classmates upheld the silence of our prayer. Now was our allotted time to speak to Him, to build our relationship with someone who already knew your every thought and would never respond. The yoke of a relationship with the ethereal should not fall on an eight-year-old who doesn’t even know what He looks like.
Every day, someone in the class was chosen to strike the long matches and light the candles around the Bible. The woody, sulfuric smell from the cylindrical matchboxes was the only aspect of classroom worship that I looked forward to; I would pour my heart out to my invisible Father until my knees felt raw on the carpet, and I was unconditionally neglected. I slowly chose to stop wasting my time seeking love from absence.
I dreamt of Him once, when I was five; I was running and laughing on playground equipment and as I downed a red plastic slide, He was there to scoop me up into His arms. A sweet dream. A warm dream. It felt like those summer romps in the park with Daddy.
If God were that openly paternal, I would reconsider visitation with Him. But one good memory does not make the man.
Grampy tells us jokes, tells us riddles, brings us popsicles. At every holiday family meal, after our pre-dinner blessing, he sneaks in an entirely too-long tangent on how God’s love “germinates all life immediately.” Every time, I flick my eyes to Daddy, who is good at hiding when he rolls his. It shocks me to think that my father, with that touch of Bible-vandalizing deviousness, grew up in such a clinical household.
Grampy knows what happens when you die; he has a PhD in it. He knows you awake in the World of Spirits, meet your conjugal partner, enter Heaven as one. He knows that the sun in Heaven bears God’s face, that those you knew in life look like their personalities and not their physical selves. He knows all of history through the lens of religious symbolism, the spiritual significance of every war and every artistic movement in human history. Grampy knows why God created man and what God thinks during earthly devastation. He has a framed diploma for knowing God.
He didn’t know, however, until last December that Daddy’s favorite band was Van Halen. It took forty-two years for him to figure that one out.
How is one so supposedly filled with the knowing of, the substance that is wisdom, and yet live so empty? So detached from their own children?
Daddy knows my favorite band is The Crane Wives. When their music rolls up on queue, he asks me about their shows, speculates how they look, says he could imagine them in a coffeehouse.
Is God like Grampy? Or is he like Daddy?
I am not selfish. I am not a spoiled child upset that my Father has work to do. Grampy may find it unrealistic to expect Him to listen in on a silly song when there’s a whole board of the ordained debating the limits of His eternal love—seriously, He’s on stained-glass windows—but a child needs their parent.
I’d like to think God is the kind of father who knows my favorite band, not the spiritual justification for the bombing of Nagasaki.
There’s a story I was told—men of caliber and knowledge followed God in Heaven, asking Him for His wisdom. A man’s daughter ran up to God and interrupted Him, and when the men chastised her, God shushed them and held her in His arms. He listened to her talk about children’s things, and when she was through, He turned to the men and reminded them that they’re all His children as well.
Grampy, I think, forgets he’s God’s child. If you pretend to know anything about Him, you’re promoting yourself to a demigod of sorts. And thinking so highly of yourself is dangerously close to putting another before Him. You’re worshipping yourself as an idol.
In the Sandstrom family, Grampy takes precedence. We quiet when he speaks, all twelve cousins and six aunts and uncles and even Grammy. Nobody disagrees with any of his religious theses. He heads our prayers before each meal during our family reunions.
Two summers ago, at one such reunion, Lucas and I stood with our cousin Ari out on the docking ledge of our lake house rental. We toed the water of Lake Huron and shuffled on the bar. Ari told us then that he was quite certain that God didn’t exist, or at least that the concept of God being both omnipotent and loving couldn’t hold true. I awed at him, initially: here is a family member who grew up with the same lessons and community as I did and landed in the opposite direction. My awe turned to fear because, for a split second, I had felt relief.
I am often perplexed by how I wound up so sinful, so “disorderly,” when I was raised with the influence of Swedenborgian Christianity suffocating all aspects of my life. All my family is Swedenborgian, and yet from my infancy, I was destined to oppose.
Like Grampy, Vovô is a man of God. Same religion, same job, different language. He translated volumes upon volumes of religious texts into Portuguese, commuted four hours every Sunday to preach at two different churches, hosted a homemade sermon every weekend after retiring.
It was when we lived back in Brazil, during one of these family worships, that my mother learned I would be a godless child.
Vovô had lit the tealights on the coffee table and opened the Bible to welcome God in the sala. For an hour leading up to worship, the house is solemn, quiet.
Mamãe, Tio Calebe, and their mom listened grimly as Vovô opened with a prayer. They nodded along, revered his words, and bowed their heads. I was only two then, and sitting on Mamãe’s lap, I was having none of it.
“Pais Nosso, que estais no céus,” he started, reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
“Ne ne ne, ne ne ne ne,” I blathered, mimicking his tone.
Mamãe blanched. Calebe whipped his head to me and I was grinning, grinning at my mortal sin.
“Bébé, isso é sério,” Vovô warned. Rebeca, this is serious.
“Ne ne ne ne ne,” I mouthed back.
Mamãe tells me, when she recounts this story, that she knew at that moment Vovô would be a different man as a grandfather than he was as a father. Because, when I had mocked him to his face and to God, he simply blinked, hid a smile, and carried on.
Perhaps it was because I grew up without the fear of hatred that I grew up without God.
Evidently, I never saw the appeal in church. Wearing stuffy clothing in a stuffy room stuffed with menthol-smelling elders who all ask you the same questions about school, about your siblings, and the speeches go on and on and I cringe in my seat every time I hear something sexist, homophobic, racist—not from Daddy, ever, but by those elders with the wispy ear hair and the knobby fingers that touch all the crackers in the community room…there really is no appeal.
If I were to be convinced of what happens when you die, I wouldn’t take it from someone with one foot already out the door. Who knows where their heads have been, especially after reading the kinds of Facebook posts they shared in the summer of 2020? No, I noticed most of the value I got from church was from discussing religion with kids my age in our Sunday School. There, I’ve had the most honest confessions about our fears of eternal life, our doubts of the religion’s validity, and our concern that we could be harming others.
I began attending public school in 2013. It was through interacting with people my age that I began allowing myself to doubt. To question. To disagree. And it was freeing. I had friends with different backgrounds, and I loved them, so they couldn’t possibly be wrong. I started developing my own morals outside of the home, a composite of the bits and pieces I encountered that I found myself agreeing with. For a thirteen-year-old just starting to adopt an identity and an ethical compass, the 2016 election jumpstarted an atheistic awakening in me.
When I think of an idol, I think of Donald Trump, Aaron’s golden calf. And Mr. Nezzer’s chocolate bunnies from that one episode of VeggieTales. But perhaps idolization can come in different forms.
For the Swedenborgians, the Bible is holy. It is never wrong; if something in there is unfavorable, it’s because you misinterpreted it. No, the gays are sinning, for sure, but when Mary was non-consensually impregnated at age twelve, that’s just symbolic of her mothering nature.
That was a hypocrisy that broke the unconditional faith I was raised to uphold. I hedged the topic to Daddy. It had been swimming around in my mind since eighth grade, not quite ready to come out, but I gingerly laid it at his feet last year.
“Bear with me,” I had said. “The Bible is made in God’s image.”
“And it’s physical.”
“And it’s perfect?”
“Okay, so we—humans—we were made in God’s image. We are physical. Are we perfect?”
“Of course not.”
“So why is the Bible?”
The blood was rushing in my ears and my heart was rattling in its cage. Daddy would never love me any less or treat me any differently for my beliefs, he encourages curiosity and has a Master’s in religion. So why was I breathing so loud I couldn’t hear his response?
My logic followed that either the Bible is not perfect, or that humans are. After 2016, I learned Grampy definitely isn’t perfect. And by letting Mitch McConnell and Dick Cheney walk around on the same soil I do, I know God votes red too. I hold Him the same way I hold Grampy: at arm’s length.
I recently followed former Bryn Athyn classmates on Instagram. I was delighted to see that every one of them is gay now. That we had wound up on the same path. We were shattering what was holy and realizing that our upbringing ruined us in ways we never imagined.
Despite my doubts and my desire to break away from what I was raised in, to explore what else this world and any worlds after it could offer, I am always stuck. My church livestreams Daddy’s sermon every Sunday. I have not logged in once since I’ve left home. Daddy speaks well, his lessons are kindly and thoughtful. But I cannot bring myself to sit through them. And I cannot fall asleep without praying first.
I worship in other ways than a Sunday mass. When the car window is rolled down on a summer day and the wind blasts my hair from my face, I pray. When it’s frozen solid outside and the moon is rocking crescent-shaped in the night sky, I pray. When I’ve successfully released a spider back out the window, I pray.
My prayers are short. Thank you for that pretty cloud. Thank you for letting me catch that before it hit the floor. Thank you for Elias’ smile. Thank you for the last pack of peanut M&M’s. They’re short, they’re sweet, and they sting.
But when I’m ten years old, I have bigger things to worry about than my relationship with God—I’m finally getting a little sister in a few days, I have to learn cursive by the end of the month, and the neighbors still haven’t tossed the Beanie Baby back over the fence.
Through the spring of my life, I was raised around the presence of someone who was never there. Religion has been bored into me since the day of my baptism, rooted in every side of my family, and I haven’t even the advantage of starting over with a blank slate. My mind has been so coded from day one to consider my soul that a simple lazy afternoon in my childhood would have traces of God all over it. And now, I’m still feeling the effect.
I am slowly substituting my concept of god and his power with something concrete, something I can unapologetically love. Last week, I wrote a prayer to Myself. But for now, my faith is muddled.
God exists. I just don’t believe in him.