UNEXPECTED - Samantha González-Block
In the beginning…there was a Presbyterian Puerto Rican woman from Brooklyn and an Ashkenazi Jewish man from Chicago. They met in 1974 at a YMCA camp in upstate New York. She was sporting bellbottom jeans and ironed-straight long hair that ran down her back. He had an afro and was wearing short-shorts. He made a bet with his friends that he could get her out on a date—which consisted of a long walk around the lake. And five years later, beside that same lake, they got married.
They became the parents of three children. I was born right in the middle.
I grew up in a lively intercultural, interfaith house. It was a mixture of sounds, spices, languages, and traditions that seemed to harmonize beautifully together: Christmas trees and Hanukkah menorahs, plantains and latkes, church on Sundays and synagogue on Fridays, Salsa music and show tunes. It was certainly a stimulating place to call home.
It was also a place where questions about faith were always welcome (and I certainly had a lot of questions). I wanted to know: “Did Moses put guava jelly on matzah – just like us?” “Is God Jewish?” “If Jesus is the son of God, who is the daughter?” My parents would listen intently to my many queries. Dad would say things like, “Sama, I am so glad that you are asking all of these questions. That’s what being Jewish is all about.” Mom would say, “Good questions, Samantita. Why don’t you pray to God and ask God to give you the answer?”
Speaking of prayer, my parents definitely had different ideas when it came to the subject. Mom taught us that it was important to pray nearly all of the time and for just about everything. She would always say this phrase: “Si Dios quiere,” which roughly translates to “God willing.” She felt that you needed to latch this phrase onto the end of sentences in order to keep everything safely in God’s hands: “I’m heading to the store, be back soon, si Dios quiere.” “See you tomorrow, si Dios quiere.”
Dad, on the other hand, treated prayer as something far more exclusive. The only times he felt especially motivated to pray was when something was deeply troubling him or on a plane just before take-off. My experience with prayer in our house was a wild blend of these two philosophies; but prayer was also alive in the joy-filled dancing in the living room, in the affection shown by hundreds of relatives (and honorary relatives) who came through our door, in the roaring laughter at the dinner table, and in the moments of quiet late at night.
Growing up in an intercultural, interfaith home had its fair share of difficult moments too. The most heartbreaking of these were people from outside of my immediate family who questioned the worth of my unconventional religious upbringing and challenged my ability to feel like I could fit in to any of my given religions. A friend told me that I wasn’t really Jewish because my father was Jewish instead of my mother. A cousin insisted that my dad would never go to heaven because he was not a Christian. Pushback from those around me—from those I loved dearly—caused me to wonder where my family and I existed in the greater landscape of faith and culture. Could an interfaith person ever really fully belong anywhere?
This question was one that I carried with me from childhood into adulthood— and one that I prayed that I would one day be able to answer. At the of age thirteen, I had a Confirmation in the Presbyterian Church. When I went to college, I majored in religion with a special focus in Judaism. Both of these experiences were essential steps in helping me feel more connected to the theologies and histories of both of these traditions.
I longed to be able to better articulate my faith. Perhaps, deep down inside, I wished that by doing so, I might be recognized as “an insider” in both of these cherished religions. I began to wear a single thin chain around my neck with a silver cross and Star of David. I joined Hillel and church-hopped. When asked, I proclaimed, “I am half-Jewish and half-Christian.” (To which people would respond in a variety of ways.) I wondered if my many formidable efforts were bringing me any closer to feeling like I fully belonged in both Judaism and Christianity. Would this ever be possible?
After I graduated from college, I had the opportunity to travel to Israel for ten days through a program called Taglit Birthright. This program sends people of Jewish ancestry on a trip to Israel for free. I jumped on the chance to participate because I thought that this would be an opportunity to immerse myself in one half of my identity. Perhaps now, I would at least feel fully accepted as a Jewish woman.
About fifty twenty-somethings arrived to Tel Aviv in the early morning and we boarded our tour bus. The first thing we did was pass by the Sea of Galilee or the Sea of Kinneret. I remember thinking, “Wow, the Sea of Galilee! This is the powerful water that was spoken about in much of Torah.” And a second later thought, “Wow, this is where Jesus walked on water.” We got out at the old city of Jerusalem and I said, “This is the place where David looked out from his balcony at all of his people below.” And then whispered under my breath, “And this is where Jesus washed his feet with his disciples before entering the temple.” It seemed that wherever I went, every time I tried to hold up one piece of my identity, my whole self came bursting to the surface.
In Jerusalem, there is a high wall known as the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall (because people praying move their bodies back and forth and it looks like they are weeping). Our guides explained that it was a typical practice to write a prayer on paper and stuff it into the crevices of this wall. With that, I quickly scribbled a long three-page prayer and included the names of everyone I knew. I figured, when am I ever again going to be at one of the holiest places on earth?
After my prayer was securely embedded in the wall, I prepared to pray to God. I noticed that the woman next to me was lost in prayer. Her eyes were closed, she was clutching her holy book, speaking softly in Hebrew, and moving her body back and forth. I wished that I could be her. I thought to myself, I am going to pray just like that—with such focus, such faithfulness, that people around will surely see me and be impressed. They will know that I belong.
So, I squeezed my eyes shut, clenched my fists at my sides and began swaying my body back and forth with such intensity that I thought I might fall over. “Dear God….” I wondered if anyone was watching me? Could they see? Were they moved by my outward expression of faith? I began listing names of loved ones, speaking words of adoration to God. I was sure this was my best prayer yet.
And then, out of nowhere, I felt something gently kiss the top of my head. I wondered is it you, God? Is this an angel? I paused my movements just for a moment. I wanted to feel the spot where I had received that unexpected heavenly kiss.
I slowly lifted my hand to the top of my head. And the spot felt...surprisingly moist, and kind of gunky. Oh, my—it suddenly dawned on me: what I was feeling was none other than fresh bird poop.
Well, I was completely disgusted and annoyed. I halted my prayer. My eyes shot open. And I began to desperately pull the white-black feces out from my curly locks. People were definitely watching now! I began to feel myself getting angry. Here I was, trying to have this emotional, transformative experience and a bird had literally crapped on the moment. I felt tears building up as I removed the last bit of goo.
And then, something wholly unexpected happened. I started to laugh and laugh. Uncontrollably. And through this laughter, I could suddenly hear my parents’ voices. My mom saying, “You know what mija, maybe this is a sign from God.” My dad saying, “Yeah, maybe this is God telling you to cool it. Stop trying so hard and just be yourself.” They were right. I had to stop working so hard to pray the way that I thought I should, and instead pray the way that I knew how.
So, I took a deep breath. Relaxed my body. And I began to pray the way that my father had taught me and the way my mother had taught me. And it was the most meaningful prayer of my life—because it was authentically me. Maybe no one saw it, and that was OK. This one was just for God and me.
After that day in Jerusalem, something changed inside. I came to realize that I had been asking the wrong question from the very beginning. It didn’t matter if I belonged in the eyes of others, what mattered was learning to accept and love myself: to recognize that God had made me in all of my complexity. And it was good.
In the years that followed, I began to study religion just for myself, just for my own exploration, just for fun. I took more classes in Judaism and Christianity. I even had a Bat-mitzah at the age of twenty-three. And it was through that process that I eventually came to feel that I was not half-Jewish and half-Christian, but I was wholly both. I was Spanish Aguinaldo Christmas carols and ancient Hebrew melodies. I was Sunday morning Communion tables and late night Passover Seder plates. I was my mother’s infectious laugh and my father’s curious soul. Like the blood that ran through my veins, these religious traditions had always been a part of me from the beginning: they needed each other, they brought me closer to God and to the ancestors, and they inspired me to want to be a bridge-builder in a world so broken and divided.
My hunger for religion to be used as a means to unite instead of divide, is what eventually led me to seminary. I graduated and became a Presbyterian minister, with a special passion for working with interfaith families and helping them navigate the unmarked road ahead.
When I reflect on my journey, I realize that none of us (no matter our family backgrounds or experiences) are meant to belong in boxes. God is way bigger than that. Instead, we are meant to celebrate and embrace our full, crazy-quilt selves and to recognize our identities as holy. Furthermore, we are meant to see that holiness in one another, and then to reach across the divide and welcome each other in.
In the beginning…two people from two very different walks of life found each other. And what transpired was indeed the richest of blessings. This is true any time difference meets in loving eyes. It is also true that sometimes it takes a little bird poop from heaven to remind us.
Samantha González-Block is an Associate Pastor at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina. She is a graduate of Barnard College and Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York.