1997. Trinidad was hot, swelteringly so. The lot of us, snow-pale and dark-haired, looked like tropical birds on the wrong shore; we should have headed East, should have gone to China or Korea or Japan. But we were in Trinidad instead. I doubt that even half of us knew where Trinidad was on the map, even if we were given a color-coded and labeled 3D globe to look at. We knew we went south of New York City, but south where? Were we in South America? Were we in Central America? Where the hell was Trinidad and why were we the ones to go there?
We were your classic New York teenagers; anything outside of New York City was None of Our Concern, aka, Bumfuck County. On further reflection, though, I realize that it's a thought endemic to all of American society.
At that moment in time, though, I wasn't thinking about that. By the time I stepped off the plane and was hit by the heat on the black tar pavement of the runway in Port au Prince, I was furious. Most mothers would send their kids to summer camp, yes. The brainy ones went to math camp or attended science programs at NASA, funded by money my parents just didn't have. I could have - would have - happily settled for camping, or even spending my days quietly in the air-conditioned vaults of the public library for my summer vacation. Hell, I would have taken Bible camp over this. No, my mother, in her infinite wisdom, decided that I needed to help the poor people of Trinidad out, and volunteered me six months ago into the arms of the church I unwillingly attended to be a missionary.
I protested. She replied that she already paid for my flight ($500; the church heavily subsidized the whole trip), and there were no refunds. I was defeated before I even had a chance.
I was 16 at the time. I was in a specialized high school where it was fashionable, trendy even, to be agnostic or atheist; I was 16 and forced to spend my Sundays in the company of people that I hated. Teenagers, even religious teenagers, form cliques, and church is the ultimate social nightmare if you don't quite fit in. I was gawky and a little too smart for my own good; I was the only one who read the Bible in its entirety among those who went to Trinidad and had an actual opinion about it. I decided, after some thought, that the Bible was awfully contradictory and that God, in His infinite wisdom, should be a lot less confusing if He wanted his message to be passed around. I subscribed to the thought that it was all very well to be religious, but only if you chose it for yourself and it wasn't forced onto you.
My religion was half-hearted, stymied by affected intellectualism and science (though that, too, is indeed a religion of another sort); I didn't care one way or another if it was the Christian God I was supposedly worshipping. And yet, I was the one who ended up being a missionary.
They told us, before we left the United States, that they had built a church in Trinidad.
They told us to read the pamphlets about being a missionary. These featured glossy photographs of smiling Christians standing in front of a picturesque jungle or desert or snowy mountaintop; they had articles that talked about the wonderful things that these smiling Christians were doing in the Amazon or the Sahara Desert or other foreign outlandish places to spread the word of God. But all I could think of was, don't they have malaria in the Amazon? And the Sahara, it's kind of hot there...
They told us, before we left, that must never, ever use the word black to describe the inhabitants of Trinidad and Tobago, it was an insult. Then what do we call them? we asked.
Negro, they said.
I thought, er, why not just fellow Christians? We were all going to convert them over anyway.
The church was a half-built ghost, cement drooling between the cracks of the mortar. It lacked windows and doorways and hot water. But it did, indeed, have running water, and oddly enough, a swimming pool in the back. It was situated in the middle of a dirt road, and surrounded by sparsely cultivated land. Long, spindly palm trees could be seen in the distance thrusting themselves upward from the ground, like mushrooms in a field of grass after heavy rain.
There were moths in our sleeping rooms the size of my palms; there was no hot water in the shower stalls and the walls were matted with crushed insects. A spiderweb that spanned over three feet housed a dragonfly the size of my head, hovering eternally and silently. I slept next to the dragonfly every night.
We were supposed to be there for two weeks. I stared at the one paper calendar hung up on the wall, and thought, this is going to be the longest two weeks of my life.
They told us that we were going to hold a Christian summer camp for the kids that lived around here. They told me that I was assigned to take care of the kids in kindergarten. We had preprinted booklets given to us, elaborate teaching guides for summer camp, punctuated by unapologetic, enthusiastic exclamation points and cartoon characters of smiling, Bible-toting kids:
- Make a paper ark and draw animals!
- Cut out stand-up figures of Jonah and the whale!
- Show God's miracles with Jesus and the fishes!
I stopped, arrested by the bizarreness of the last activity. The activity presentation was for me to cut out a construction paper fish for every student involved (plus one more) and to put it in a basket (or paper bag, or plastic bag, or whatever handy receptacle you might find if you were in the Amazon or the Sahara Desert). It just had to be an opaque container. If you had the time and materials, you could decorate them all (except one) with sparkly glitter, Bible quotations, or magic marker swirls. Either way, you were supposed to keep those sparkly fish hidden in the bag while you showed a plain one to the children. Then, putting the plain fish into the bag, you were to pull out the sparkly ones and distribute them out to the awed audience while you talked about Jesus and how he made many fish out of one fish to give to the poor starving people of Wherever:
But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat. And they say unto him, We have here but five loaves, and two fishes. He said, Bring them hither to me. And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full.
And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children.
If you really felt like going all the way, you could even give them a small bread roll. It was a parlor trick, a bribe; look at the shiny thing, and it's yours (and more!) if you only say you believe in God and Jesus and heaven and hell. Call 1-800-LOVE-GOD in the next thirty minutes and we'll even throw in a free Bible and lecture! I believe the lesson plan for that particular activity was to show what miraculous things God could do if He wanted to, which, I suppose, would be really neat trick to have on hand when crops died from a bad year and you had a loaf of bread left to divide between several thousand people.
By the time I arrived in Trinidad, I was reassigned to babysit the kids younger than the kindergarten kids. Evidently, the others sensed my lack of enthusiasm for the whole Show God's Love Unto Others and decided that teaching others my particular view on Christianity and God would be a Very Bad Idea.
I had a partner for the class, if you could call it a class: a gangly Korean boy who was from nameless college. I can't for the life of me remember his name; I don't think I knew his name at all during the trip, actually. He spoke English so terribly (and I, Korean so terribly) that we ended up communicating with nods and vague hand-wavings. We babysat kids under the age of five, perched on a balcony that led to a steep staircase; this balcony and staircase lacked railings and was a two story drop down. My two weeks was spent rescuing kids, bribing them with sweets and candy so that they would not linger at the edge.
During the quiet times, though, I could settle down and enjoy the view, filtering out the sounds of children shouting and dancing into the background. The view was beautiful from that spot. You could see the land for miles around, and a crisp breeze always blew. I could even see a cow in the distance, grazing peacefully in a field.
And for the entire two weeks, I spoke not once about Jesus or God.
A trip to the "town" led us to a small square with four stores. Soda pop was thirty cents. A steel drum was ten dollars. The sounds of a steel drum could be heard in the church playing every night during our trip, tinkling out church tunes that were playable in one octave.
There were other things. The sand on a beach, as black as coal, with gleaming twelve foot high waves washing against it. The stars, speckling the sky like diamonds; I never understood that phrase until I saw it in a sky free of everyday pollution: hundreds upon thousands of stars in a field of deep blue. The clarity of - everything - after a heavy rain.
I remember the last day before I left. It was twilight. The kids on the balcony - my balcony - were asleep, their faces smeared orange from the powder from cheese doodles. There was a single kid awake, though, alert and messing around with the color paper streamers. He had been quieter than the rest in the afternoon, drawing in the coloring books with all the gravity of a university student.
Fingering a blue and pink paper streamer, the kid, out of the blue, asked the killer, one million dollar question.
"What's God?" the kid asked.
I think I was supposed to say a nice man. I don't think the kid would understand if I said a nice man whose son got killed for your sake, John 3:16. So I gestured vaguely out: at the fields, the palm trees, the sky, the clouds, the breeze, the sleeping children circled around me like a sea of fish. "This is," I said.
Right when I said it, I realized something right then and there.
The miracle of Jesus and the fish? They got it all wrong, I think. It was indeed a miracle that he produced a billion fish for a billion people, but that was the parlor trick, the sparkly thing to catch our attention. But the important thing, the most important thing was the fact that there was a fish in the first place.
After Trinidad, I stopped going to church.