“Christianity is a dying religion.”
The words came from the guy sitting across the table from me at Panera’s Restaurant. The comment came from out of the blue. We’d been chatting about the sorry way the Atlanta Braves were playing for the past ten minutes.
I had been looking for an empty table when he invited me to share his table with me. It was the white Atlanta Braves cap I wore that got Ernest Wilkinson’s attention. As I neared him he said in a friendly voice, “What’s happened to our team?”
Stopping, I pretended not to understand the question. “Do you mean the University of Alabama Football Team?”
“Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about,” he said, grinning as he pushed the empty chair toward me with his foot. “Have a seat.”
I dropped down in the chair. Then we got to talking about what ails the Braves. We finally gave up on the Braves and were observing the mid-morning human traffic coming through the front door. That’s when he blurted out the remark, “Christianity is a dying religion.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
During the next few minutes Ernest told me that he was a retired professor of Philosophy at the University of Georgia. He had given up on religion when he was a sophomore in college. “To be candid with you,” he said, “I wish I could believe in religion. But none of them make sense to me. Especially Christianity.”
“Sounds to me that philosophy is your religion.”
He thought about that. “It makes more sense than Christianity.”
I made a tent with my hands and leaned on the table. “I used to think that way years ago. Then one night, after I had endured a number of setbacks, both professionally and personally, I awoke at two in the morning—crying.” He was about to interrupt me, so I held up a hand. “Please let me finish.”
He leaned back in the chair. “Okay.”
“That night I tried calling on the great thinkers: Spinoza, Hobbs, and other great philosophers. But you know what?”
“They were all dead.”
“So I called on God. He was there that night. He has always been there for me since then. And …”
“Oh, please,” he blurted out. You’re not going to tell me that God answered your prayers, are you?”
“He did, Ernest. He didn’t just help me once. Over the years there have been times when I turned my back on God. Forgot about Him. But He has never forgotten about me.”
I briefly considered filling that space with more words. But something told me to wait for Ernest to speak. He coughed. “Well … uh …”
“I’ll give it some thought.”
I took out my wallet and gave him one of my personal cards with my email address on it. “If you ever need to talk to me about anything, please don’t hesitate to contact me.”
He took the card. “Gotta go.” He stood, shook my hand and headed for the door. As he disappeared into the parking lot, I thought: I don’t think I’ve heard the last from Ernest.
I’m sitting under the canvas canopy of the Dawn On The Amazon restaurant here in Iquitos when an old friend plops down in the chair across from me. Brian Adams is a middle-aged guy from Minnesota. He has been living in various towns in the Peruvian jungle for the past decade or so. As thin as a broomstick, he has a head of thick white hair and a face brown enough to pass for a local.
I reached across the table and shook his hand. “I haven’t seen you for years. Where have you been?”
He laughs. “Looking for God?” he says.
Was that a note of sarcasm in his voice? “Good for you,” I reply.
“Why is it good for me?” he asks. Not waiting for my reply, he adds, “It was a waste of time.”
His answer reminds me that Brian is an atheist. “You must have been looking in the wrong places, Brian.”
Another burst of laughter. “Yeah, that must be it. I was looking in the wrong places.”
This time there is no doubt that he was being sarcastic. We sit in silence for a minute or two, both of us taking in the fiery red sun as it slips past some trees in the distance, sending a pink glow hoovering over the backwater of the Amazon River. I can tell by the smile on Brian’s face that he’s enjoying the view as much as me.
“Beautiful, isn’t it,” I say.
He nods his head in agreement.
“God is a wonderful artist, isn’t He?
He shakes his head. “You know as well as I do, Leo, there is no such thing as God.”
I chuckle. “You mean you don’t believe you’ve found a god worthy of your intellect.”
He laughs. Fixing a thoughtful gaze on me, he asks, “I suppose you still believe in God?”
“Brian, I’m not smart enough not to believe in God.” I sit back and wait for a reply. When I notice he’s waiting for me to elaborate, I say, “I can’t imagine a world without God. Do you know the first thing I do when I awake every morning?”
“I know what you’re going to say, you’re going to tell me that your God,” he replies, emphasizing the word ‘your, “is responsible for each day.”
I lean across the table. “I do, Brian.”
“There is no god, Leo.” To drive home his point he adds, “That’s just something you’ve made up to lean on when things go wrong. Like a crutch.”
“You’re darn tootin’,” I reply in my best southern accent, adding a syllable to every word. “And yes … like you say … a crutch I lean on every day.”
He shakes his head. “If you need a crutch, that’s okay for you. But for me—” He stops. After a pregnant pause, he says in an earnest voice, “I wish I had your simple faith.”
That’s when I invite him to attend with me the small church on the outskirts of town the girls and I attend every Sunday. To my surprise, he accepts the offer. “Are you sure I’ll be welcome there?”
“I guarantee it, buddy.”
We chat a few minutes longer before he says he has to go. As I watch him stroll down the street, I think: That wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.
I was raised on gospel music.
When I was fifteen my family moved to the cotton mill town of Hogansville, Georgia, a hamlet of three thousand people that had only two traffic lights, and only one of them worked. Most residents either worked at or depended on the mill for their livelihood.
Back then my father was experiencing one of the ‘down” sides of his life. Translation: he’d gone back to taking refuge in the bottle again. Something he did every decade or so.
One day as my father lay drunk in his bed, I heard my mother praying in their room. “Lord, God,” she prayed in a Georgia twang that is indelibly etched in my heart, “please help this good man fight the Devil that’s got hold of him.”
(I’ve always thought that the Baptist definition of ‘back-sliding’ was an apt description of what happened to my father now and then.)
You’re probably thinking: “Get back to the subject of gospel music, Leon.”
Somebody had to put food on the table. So mother got a job working on the first shift at the cotton mill. Every morning at six the living room radio would wake us up. Gospel music was played from six to six-thirty. As mother prepared breakfast before she would walk the dozen blocks to the cotton mill, I’d lay in bed listening to gospel music. I loved just about all of the gospel singers: The Lefevre Trio, Three Blind Brothers From Alabama, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and my favorite, the Chuck Wagon Gang.
As I pen this blog, in my mind’s eye I can still see and hear the unique melodious harmony of this group. (If you’re never heard them, you can check them out on You Tube).
In my house here in Iquitos, Peru, at seven each morning I’m treated to the Peruvian version of gospel music. Though the songs I hear each morning sound much different than the Chuck Wagon Gang, in their own way they capture the joy of praising the Lord. It’s a more pleading sound, as if the singers are clinging tightly to their faith in God. I find it both enjoyable and reassuring.
When I make my transition—hopefully not soon, for I’ve got plenty more work to do down here—I’m looking forward to hearing the Chuck Wagon Gang greeting me at the Pearly Gates as they belt out my favorite gospel song:
“Oh, come to the church in the wildwood,
Come to the church in the vale,
No spot is so dear to my childhood,
As the little brown church in the vale,
Oh, come …”
Have you ever had a day when you fell into a deep funk? And almost nothing you said or did allowed you to snap out of it? I know I have. Yesterday was such a day for me.
Nothing in particular caused it.
Just a combination of several things.
For one thing—though it’s so hot here even the Devil would be soaked in sweat—dark clouds hung over Iquitos like a wet blanket. Also, a friend I’ve known for years claimed he didn’t owe me fifty soles ($16). He’d borrowed it from me before I left for Atlanta last year. It wasn’t so much the money I’d lost that bothered me.
What upset me was that someone I’ve known for years would do this to me.
So I wasn’t in a good mood when I began the half mile trek from my house to the Dawn On The Amazon Restaurant my friend, Bill Grimes, operates. A Hoosier from Indiana, Bill is probably the most respected expat in this town located smack-dab in the middle of the Amazon rain forest. I didn’t want to be in a sour mood by the time I arrived at Bill’s place. So I did something that never fails to lift my spirit when I’m feeling low.
I thought about one of my deceased father’s favorite hymns: Count Your Blessings. One day when I was a boy he sat me down and said, “Whenever you’re feeling blue, son, just count your blessings.”
Recalling this sage advice, I said aloud. “Thank you for my good health, Lord.”
For the next fifteen minutes I verbally thanked God for the many ways He continually blesses me. A half dozen blocks from Bill’s restaurant a small group of retired Peruvians were congregated under the shade of a mamey tree. Drinking coffee while reminiscing about their younger days.
As I passed them, a leather-faced, white-haired guy I’ve known for years nodded his head at me and said to his friends in a playful voice, “There goes that crazy old gringo.”
Smiling, I glanced over at my fellow senior citizens.
Returning my smile, they raised their cups in a friendly salute.
I continued making my way to Bill’s place. Glancing up at a bright ray of sunshine that had broken through the clouds and was bathing me with a long finger of light , I said aloud, “Thanks for bringing me up the right way, Dad.”
The other day sixteen year old Iveli, one of the four girls I’ve been taking care in my house here in Iquitos for years, asked me if I would give her more money for her lunch.
Schools here in Iquitos are divided into two shifts. The first shift, the one that Iveli attends, begins at seven in the morning and ends at one in the afternoon. The second shift begins at one in the afternoon and ends at seven.
At four-thirty the students have a half hour to eat.
Most students bring food from home. Usually a couple of egg sandwiches or something left over from the previous night’s supper. The families who can afford it give the child a sole or a sole and a half to buy a glass of Kool-Aid and a small sandwich from a middle-aged woman who sells them just outside the school
I usually give Iveli two soles—seventy cents in American money. Giving her a puzzled look, I said, “I don’t understand why you need more money.”
Standing next to Iveli is her best friend. Carol is a skinny girl sixteen year old girl with an olive colored angular-shaped face and long black hair that falls all the way to her waist. She lives with her unemployed single mother and a seven year old brother and ten year old sister in a run-down shack of a house with a dirt floor several blocks from us. Her mother has a tough times clothing and feeding her children since the husband skipped out on them several years ago.
Slow to understand why Iveli has asked me to give her more money for her lunch, I’m about to ask her why she wants more money for lunch. That’s when I notice the look of despair on Carol’s face.
Turning to Iveli, I said, “You’ve been sharing your lunch with Carol, right?”
She said nothing. But her eyes told me, “Yes.”
I thought about my reason for coming down to this remote jungle town years ago. My goal was to do God’s work. Has my mental condition deteriorated that much in 18 years? I ask ed myself.
I felt so thick-headed.
I reached into my pocket, took out three soles and placed them in Iveli’s hand. “I’m sorry I haven’t been giving you enough money for lunch, Iveli. From now on you’ll get three soles for lunch every day.”
As I watched them half-walk, half-skip down the street toward their school, I glanced up toward the heavens. Smiling, I said aloud, “Better late than never, Lord.”
I was sitting in front of my house in Iquitos when a motorcar flew past me. It screeched to a halt in front of a neighbor’s house. I was about to turn my attention back to the street in front of me when a scream pierced the air.
I looked to my right to where the noise came from. Climbing out of a motorcar was seventeen year old Priscilla Ramiriz. A brand new baby cradled in her arms.
(I’ve known Priscilla since she was just twelve years old. A petite child with a pageboy haircut and a shy smile, she’d always been an obedient girl who was in the top ten percent of her classes. The day after her sixteenth birthday, though, she met a twenty year old guy who convinced her to run off with him to Lima.)
The scream didn’t come from the young mother.
It came from Priscilla’s mother streaking from her house toward her. Her stubby arms open wide in greeting. A look of sheer pleasure plastered on her brown face.
Senora Luci, the middle-aged woman who operates my house for abandoned children here in Iquitos, stuck her head out of the doorway. “What’s the commotion about, Senor Leo?”
I pointed up the street to where Senora Ramiriz was hugging her youngest daughter and the grandbaby. “Looks like Senora Ramiriz’s runaway daughter has come back home.”
Senora Luci came out and hurried up the sidewalk. She stood by, along with about a dozen or so other neighborhood women, all smiling as they took in the celebration of the return of the Prodigal Daughter.
As I observed this joyous event, my thoughts flew back to the day when my older brother, Bob, left home when I was about twelve years ago.
I don’t recall exactly why Bob had left home.
Or where he had gone.
Bob was an adventurous guy back then. Always wanted to experience what was on the other side of the horizon. So his motive for leaving could have been anything. Anyway, when he returned home after a three day journey, our whole family rejoiced.
Senor Luci heading toward me interrupted my reverie. A wide smile on her face, she said, “Great news, Senor Leo. Don’t you think so?”
I returned the smile. “Absolutely.”
You know, dear reader, God feels the same way about His children when we stray from His teachings. And I’m glad He does.
John Williams and I sat under the shade of a canvas canopy outside the Dawn On The Amazons Restaurant in Iquitos. We’d been sitting there for about an hour or so. Sipping coffee as the jungle sun bore down on the town with a vengeance. We’d been discussing life in general when the words “I don’t believe in fairy tales” erupted from his mouth.
The remark surprised me.
We hadn’t said anything about religion. The past few minutes I’d told him how the heat had been affecting me since I’d arrived back in town after a prolonged stay in Atlanta. (Normally, I stay at my sister’s house outside Atlanta just a month or so during my periodic trips back to The States, but minor health problems forced this old geezer to remain longer this time)
Normally, he’s an easy going guy. Not one to get excited easily. So, as I studied his face, I tried to figure out why he had suddenly blurted out, “I don’t believe in fairy tales.” Not a hint of a smile on his ruddy face.
“Where did that come from, John?” I asked.
He opened up to me. Saying that religion was force-fed to him by an intolerant father when he was a small boy in rural Arkansas. And that he vowed back then that once he left home he would stay clear of anything religious.
“I don’t consider myself a religious person, John,” I said.
He gave me a puzzled look. “You’re always talking about how much you depend on God, Leo.”
“I can’t imagine a day without Him.”
I went on to explain that the first thing I do when my feet hit the floor every morning is to thank God for the gift of another day. And as I shave and prepare for another day, I sing songs such as This Little Light Of Mine, Little Brown Church In The Wildwood, and If You’re Happy And You Know It Then Your face Will Surely Show It.
“Sounds to me that you’re religious, Leo.”
I didn’t want to get into a discussion with him about semantics. I’ve known John for several years. And this was the first time he’d allowed the topic of my faith to come up. I knew he admired the charity work I’ve done down here for some time. And I wanted to carry our talk about the difference between being religious and having a relationship with God and His Son to the next level.
I also knew that insisting that we do it now might be a mistake.
So, when the bell of the nearby Catholic Church struck twelve, I bid farewell to my friend and began making my way toward my house some twenty blocks away. The next time we met I’d share with him my take on the Good News. That it is without a doubt this troubled world’s only hope.
I’ve been imprisoned since I arrived back here in Iquitos last week. No, I’m not in jail. I have experienced a jail cell before.But that’s another blog.
“So why am I imprisoned here in this jungle town in Peru?” you may ask.
When I arrived back here in Iquitos the seventh of January from a prolonged stay in Atlanta the heat didn’t affect me much. At least not for the first couple of days. The third morning, though, I awoke to find my arms and legs painted with red dots. Heat rash. So I’ve been avoiding the sun since then. While stuck in my house I’ve been reading a lot and watching the telly.
Yesterday I saw an old movie that wasn’t dubbed in Spanish. In this flick a tall, gaunt-face old man decked out in a black suit was brandishing a huge black Bible as a weapon at a neighbor he was having trouble with.Striking the smaller man on the chest and shoulders with the book.
The scene reminded me of an incident that happened in Atlanta when I drove a city bus during the day while attending night classes at Georgia State University. Since I was new on the job and had little seniority, I had to work Sundays. One Sunday morning I was driving a group of young nurses I’d picked up from the Georgia Baptist Hospital to the Atlanta First Baptist Church on Peachtree Street.
I was to drop the nurses off at the rear entrance of the church. I wheeled the old bus into a narrow driveway I should not have entered. Suddenly, a shiny new Buick entered from the opposite direction and headed for the bus. A portly, middle-aged man hopped out of the Buick and shouted for me to back up. I tried to put the bus in reverse. But the gears became stuck. I motioned to the man that the bus would not move. I didn’t know if he misunderstood me or he just wanted to take out some frustration on me.
“Would one of you ladies please explain to him that I can’t move the bus?” I asked.
A slender red-headed nurse sitting in the side seat across from me replied, “Oh, don’t worry about him. Being upset is just his nature.Everybody calls him Righteous Ralph.”
The man’s face turned a bloody red. Shouting at the top of his lungs—I could only conclude that he was speaking in his version of the “Unknown Tongue”—he thrust the huge Bible at me like a heavyweight boxer trying to knock out his opponent. The nurses found this amusing. They came to my defense by playfully jabbing their own Bibles at him.
I believe, dear reader, that the Bible is the greatest book ever written. Regardless if one views it as a historical document, a book about theology, or, as I believe, a daily guide as to how to live one’s life—I’m confident the author didn’t intend it to be used as a weapon.
There are so many examples of good old fashioned determination here in Peru. Of course, there are some deadbeats here. But—based on my decade and a half here—they are few and far between. Especially in Iquitos. There is very little assistance from the government. So if you want to eat you’ve got to get out and hustle.
Niki Gonzalez is a good example.
I met him my first year in Iquitos. Back then I used to go to the Boulevard most nights to watch the street comics ply their trade. The Boulevard is where the locals come to hang out. It’s about a hundred feet wide at its widest point and the length of a football field. It is sandwiched between a half dozen bar restaurants and the muddy backwater of the Amazon River.
Street vendors peddling anything from cigarettes to popcorn wander through the crowd.
At the far end of the Boulevard—near an ancient Catholic Church—is where I first met Freddie. He was born with deformed legs. So the doctor amputated both of them below the knees. Freddie would be a small man even if he had two good legs. Now he was about the size of an average midget. A cassette player blasting out rock music from the eighties, Freddie hopped around to the beat of the music, flailing his arms like he was about to take flight. Sometimes he would get on his skateboard and zip through the crowd. He never drew much of a crowd. But those of us who did watch him enjoyed the show and would toss coins at him. Regardless of the accuracy of the toss, Freddie would snatch it out of the air. Of the dozens of times I watched his show, I never saw coin hit the pavement.
I haven’t seen Freddie in years. Some say he passed away. Others insist that he he’s living with a sister in Lima. I think about him now and then. It never fails to bring a smile to my lips. Freddie never asked for a handout. He considered himself an entertainer. He had too much pride to ask for money.
“So what’s the point of this post?” you may ask.
I suppose it’s to say how much I respect the hundreds of people here who are too proud to ask for handouts. But bust their butts every day—rain or shine—to provide a meager living for their families.
Singing awoke me Saturday morning. It came from the small patio outside my window.
I checked the wall clock.
I’d stayed up late last night watching a classic movie on television—The Wizard of Oz. I bet I’ve seen this movie a dozen times over the years. Listening to the dialogue dubbed in Spanish, though, adds some flavor to it.
Back to the singing.
It was clearly the voice of an older woman.
She was singing a hymn. I couldn’t remember the name of it. Though the voice cracked now and then, it was obvious that she must have had a beautiful singing voice when she was young. In between singing, she carried on a conversation with Iveli. Curious, I got up and stepped over to the window. Parting the curtain just enough to peek outside.
The source of the singing came from a stoop-shouldered woman with silver gray hair that fell to her shoulders. She wore a dirty gray dress that hung loosely over her thin shoulders. A radiant smile creased her face. After I’d showered and shaved, the old woman was till outside chatting with Iveli.
I stepped outside.
“Buenas dias, Senor,” the old woman greeted me in a cheerful voice.
Buenas dias, Senora, I replied.
She and I chatted for a while. I loved listening to her voice. People in the jungle part of Peru speak differently than people in other parts of Peru. Sort of like comparing people of the rural south to the mid-west of the United States. Here in the jungle they speak in a sing song voice. Like people in the rural parts of Georgia and Alabama, they tend to add an extra syllable to each word. I learned that her name was Maria Renaldo.
As I was about to head back inside, she said to me, “Chou, jovnecito (Bye, young man)
I haven’t been called a young man for some time. Smiling, I said, “Chou jovencita.” (Bye, young woman)
She giggled. “Is it okay if I come back Saturday?”
“Senora Renaldo has invited me to go to her church with her Saturday, Senor Leo,” Iveli said.
“Saturday?” I said. “She wants you to go to church with her Saturday?”
“My church is a Seventh Day Adventist church,” the woman said. “I hope that’s not a problem with you, Senor.”
“Of course not,” I replied. We chatted for a few more minutes. Then I excused myself and went back inside.
I turned on the television to listen to the local news. Nothing but bad news. As usual, nothing good. An unemployed young father killed in a bar fight at midnight last night. A local politician indicted for misuse of public funds. The mayor accused of demanding kickbacks from three businessmen.
As the announce paused to comment on the weather, I could hear the old woman singing again. I’d thought she had left. But she was sitting on the curb, singing at the top of her lungs. Switching off the television, I leaned back in my chair and enjoyed the singing of one of my deceased mother’s favorite hymns—“That Old Time Religion.”It brought a smile to my lips.
Starting the day off with a smile is always nice.
Starting off the day with a smile is always nice.