The Church (09.21.2002)
As a child, I was always afraid to go inside a church. The huge Mount Mary church stood majestically in the middle of the Bandra-Mahim corridor in the suburbs of Bombay. I was fascinated by its architecture, its grandeur — The stone steeples that stood erect and almost touched the sky. As a young boy, while traveling on the bus, I would raise myself up towards the window and look out as it passed by, trying to peer inside, looking at the people who entered those majestic doors. What did they look like? How was it on the inside?
To be honest, I was afraid. I was afraid to go inside a church. As young kids, my mother used to preach — Respect all religions but follow your own. As a young boy, I was afraid that if I ever entered those doors that I would be unfollowing my own religion. What if they converted me? What would happen if my parents found out? A Parsi priest’s son converted to Christianity — I could see the headlines glaring in the weekly Parsi rag Jame-Jamshed that chronicled the high’s and low’s of the Parsi community.
When I came down to the USA in my mid-twenties, I finally got over my church paranoia. I ended up volunteering and spending several hours a week at a church in Des Moines, Iowa — The middle of nowhere. I watched slacked backed people sit in metal chairs in smoke-filled rooms and heard their tales. I watched the lost, sad, lonely crowd — The young and the old who drank to excess — who did everything to excess — and watching them in those church basements I felt safe and cozy, like a wayfarer coming in out of the cold.
Observing the people at Alcoholics Anonymous as I was sweeping the floor on the side, during those years, I found my first forage into the voyeurism of the human misery. People came from every walk of life. They were rich, poor, young, middle-aged, elderly. They were Christian, Jewish, Catholic. (You didn’t see many Muslims.) The only requirement for membership was a desire to stop drinking — and I saw some who had a desire to stop their path of disaster. I on the other had a desire to stop a lot of things. I had spent so much of my life adhering to a strict set of rules and then rebelling against them. I had no idea who I really was — but I wanted to find out. And in order to do that, I needed to understand myself through this crowd.
I had a little problem, though. I wasn’t sure I could deal with the whole God and Christianity stuff. That word — God — was everywhere in the program literature. It was invoked four times in the twelve steps alone. The third step read: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” What could God possibly have meant by doing that?
There was also the small matter of the Lord’s Prayer. Most AA meetings began or ended with everyone shuffling to their feet, clasping hands, closing eyes, and reciting the most popular of all Christian prayers: Our father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…I always wondered — What if they wanted to get rid of their excess without walking into the arms of this Christian God?
Despite these incongruities, I stayed, standing on the side or working as close as possible so I could watch those people sitting on those metal folding chairs, day after day, week after week. I was a witness to those meetings in that high-ceilinged room in the Episcopal church every weekend. Even though I never had an addiction issue (I was too much of a control freak for that), I felt the way people with strong religious affiliations must, with these people: at home anywhere in the world.
The people out there, some of them stared at me as if trying to understand what I was there for. If pressed, I would have said that I was just a volunteer helping out and organizing things. After attending some of those meetings, I even stopped drinking that single glass of occasional liquor, lest I lapse into that slippery slope, to be sure. Occasionally I shared this sneaking suspicion as a fellow member would look at me, who would smile at me kindly and suggest that I keep coming back. The implication was that if I was at an AA meeting, I de facto was an alcoholic and belonged there. And it was true — despite all my self-doubts and guilt about the God stuff — I was comforted by a sense of belonging that I had never experienced before. The fear as a boy that going inside a church would convert me to someone that I am not, never had left me. It was just buried deeper, denied, away from view.
Many of the twelve steps made sense to me. Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. You couldn’t go wrong with that, really. Make a list of all persons we had harmed, and be willing to make amends to them all. Seemed like a pretty good idea. Living life based on a series of instructions — felt more relevant, more applicable to my daily life, than the accumulated knowledge from all my visits all these years to the Parsi temple.
That entire summer, each weekend I tuned in, mesmerized by the stories people told. Those meetings taught me, for the first time in my life, that people’s outsides didn’t always match their insides. A beautifully turned-out, poised woman broke down weeping over how her drinking had ruined her relationship with her now-grown children. A hip-looking man with a trimmed beard talked about ending up in a state mental institution, destitute and friendless. The stories were often harsh and painful, but there was redemption in the very fact that the teller had lived to tell the story. It was never too late to begin again. The human heart was resilient and slightly more forgiving than this world is. It could withstand untold grief and still keep going.
At times, standing on the side, I would pull a chair way behind, just near the door and sit down because I was tired. I didn’t belong there — I didn’t have any right to be there, really — but still, I still came. I stayed for hours. Sometimes AA felt like a fellowship. Other times, like a cult — with its own language, its own set of rules. But either way, something was happening in those meetings as I listened to these stories — Something I had longed for, but couldn’t have named. I now know it was a kind of grace. A feeling of gratitude that my life was still a semblance of better than what I saw in those rooms. That I still had a bit of control over this chaos. As much as I had tried to leave God out of it, once in a while, as I looked around in that dingy church basement, it would occur to me that perhaps there was indeed God inside that room, not in the steeple above, but in this basement below. Not the Parsi prophet that I was supposed to pray to, nor the Christian God that I was supposed to respect. But right here, in the eloquence arising out of despair, the laughter out of the darkness.
The nodding heads, the clasping hands. The kindness extended to a brown stranger miles away from home, standing on the side with a broom in his hand. The sense — each and every time — of Me too, I’ve been there too.
Never before had I listened so carefully or learned so much.