Sunday, August 16, 2009

How do you handle a fundamentalist in the family?

I've just made my first visit to the US west coast. My cousins live just outside LA and it has been ten years since I saw them last.

It was really good to see them, but I left heart sore. R is actually my mom's cousin and a strictly practicing Seventh Day Adventist. Basically that means they follow the bible really strictly including the laws applying to Judaism. They are also vegetarians (an even more strict requirement of Adventism).

R married D, one of the nicest woman you'd ever meet. She has the kindest nature imaginable, and has passed this on to her three beautiful boys.

Heart sore

I was heart sore for a few reasons. R emigrated from South Africa in a hurry. He'd had the most horrific run-ins with crime, culminating in shooting dead an intruder in his bedroom and then having the rest of the gang come back for him and shoot at him a few weeks later. As much as I am optimistic about South Africa's future, I advised him to leave for his own sanity.
But R has just got some weird ideas. He had them before his run instead with crime. He believes in the existence of the New World Order, a powerful controlling group of wealthy who control the world. He is bigoted, including being racist and anti-gay. He is fundamentalist and totally against abortion. And then he has strange views on medicine.

With all of this, the boys have been home schooled and brought up in a manner reminiscent of the Quakers. Although they have technology, they do not have TV and R has some strange views on the media. His kids, M (21) L (17) and J (7) are quiet and less forthright in their views and it is difficult to understand how much of their father's views they share. They have contact with other kids through church and neighbors, and I hope this gives them the perspective they so desperately need.

To make the nightmare worse, the family are still in the immigration process after ten years in the US. The lack of green cards mean they are unable to get drivers licenses, study or do many other things we take for granted. R drives anyway, but the boys lack even this escape.

I sense the boys’ views may be more liberal than their father's, but I have limited means of telling. They're the sweetest kids though and I wish I could offer them a way to see the world and gain perspective.


It is easy to disapprove of R and his views. His brand of Christian fundamentalism that includes believing we are in the final days of the world is easy to rebel against and even hate. But if you met him, you’d find him to be the nicest guy. And the way his kids have turned out speak volumes for the upbringing he and his wife have provided. His life has been complicated by violence no one should endure.

It is obvious R has suspicions I might be gay. 35, eligible and single is almost a diagnosis these days. He joked about me headed towards San Francisco. And while he likes Palm Springs, he is unhappy it is full of gays flaunting their lifestyle... (I saw from the corner of my eye that he glanced at me as he said this and as I drove through the town). To his credit, he did say it was up to them but he didn’t like the way they foisted their lifestyle on other people. His kids also played me a song by D’s step-brother. Ray remarked that he had been on “Elton John’s ticket but had a conversion experience.”

I’m one who believes you state your views but you don’t have to attack the other person’s. This applies more so when the other person is family. In many senses, I believe the best way to state your views is to live them and thus make them known to others around you. R is well aware of my “liberal” views on politics. He has asked my thoughts, particularly with respect to South Africa. I have told him about my world where I am friends with (black) politicians’ family members, that I think it a person’s choice whether they wish to tattoo and pierce their bodies, that despite my concerns about Zuma, his choices have been largely positive thus far in his short presidency. We joke with one another. But one day I will have time alone with him and challenge his views. Of course, if I end up with another guy there will be the coming out discussion too.

I am not religious. I was brought up in a practicing Christian family, and now describe myself as spiritual. The God I grew up with is different to R’s. Jesus went out of his way to be with the outcasts and socially undesirables. Not because they were less worthy or more special – because they were also God’s children. Jesus spared judgment, warning that it was dangerous to judge others with a log in your own eye, i.e. that it is impossible to judge fairly and without imposing our own perceptions and experience. I cannot understand how fundamentalists miss this: that bigotry and judgment is in itself a sin. I vividly remember being in New York on my first visit to the US. I woke up and turned on the hotel room TV to watch CNN news. Matt Shepard, a beautiful gay kid had been murdered in Laramie. As the story became clear, it emerged he had accepted a lift with two guys from a pub in the small town. They had taken him to a remote farm fence, tied him up and beaten him to a pulp. He had spent his dying hours naked, in pain and utterly alone in the freezing night air. I cried tears of horror and compassion as I listened to the emerging facts. I felt cold and estranged from the US. Later I would see the reaction as Matt’s killers went to trial. Christian fundamentalist protesters standing outside the court bearing signs saying, “God hates fags.” I watched the debates on Larry King Live, with fundamentalists spewing hatred and nonsense about the health and other dangers gay people posed to society. I later watched Matt’s story in “The Laramie Project,” a movie about Matt’s life and death. Not only had he been beaten to death for being gay, he'd previously been raped and beaten on a trip to Morocco because of his sexuality. As a closeted, confused bi guy, I could relate to Matt. I can imagine how black people must feel about the countless stories of racist abuse of their Matts. See Matthew's place - dedicated to Matt's memory.

Matt Shepard

I can understand how fundamentalists might oppose abortion. Frankly, I oppose abortion, although I can only imagine how torn I might feel in a situation where I faced my child being born into a hostile environment such as poverty, a hateful relationship, a disabling condition or worse.
I don’t for a minute think R would be holding up a sign outside a courthouse. He did tell me about how US hospital’s were aborting full-term babies and an incident involving the death of an investor’s children (divine retribution?) But one morning, he asked me how I felt about the political situation of the world. I responded that I worked really hard and was probably unqualified to offer an opinion on some of the things he had told me (including an apparent example of Obama’s racism). Perhaps it was a cop out. Sometimes I believe you need to step away to get someone to come towards you. R responded, “No, I think we just have different experiences.” I nodded and said sadly, “Exactly. I believe we are fundamentally products of our experiences.” We agreed on that.

We’re products of our experiences

I contrast our lives. I live a wonderful life. I work hard but enjoy what I do. I am phenomenally privileged – something I contemplate almost every day. I recently took my parents to one of the most exclusive game lodges in South Africa. Yesterday I played Pebble Beach – the number one public golf course in the USA and one of the top in the world. My father worked as hard as he knew how to provide for us. We could not afford a game of golf, let alone a trip to California to play Pebble Beach. Sure I work harder than almost anybody. But I was put in a position to go to university, think independently, make my own choices. I could more easily have been born into a shack in a township and though my father might have worked his heart out, never made it to university, never been impressed with the values to contemplate self improvement. As I have I have travelled through the richest neighbourhoods in the world over the past weeks, spent more money on holidaying in a short time than I have ever contemplated before, wondered at the scale of US infrastructure and wealth, I have thought that no matter the scale of this wealth, it represents no more than a few percent of the billions of people around the world who live hoping just to put food on the table. I am loved by my family and have a huge network of friends. I am truly blessed.

R grew up in a very strict, Seventh Day Adventist family. He was sent to a Seventh Day Adventist College. He did national service in the airforce during South Africa’s bush war. Shortly after leaving the airforce, his elder brother was killed in a car accident, leaving a widow and two young boys. He left South Africa scarred by his experience with crime, his family jittery wrecks. He left a brother behind with his aging parents. Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, his passport, driver’s licence, et al were stolen out of his supermarket trolley. Without paperwork and fraud on his bank cards, his immigration process and credit record was seriously damaged. He is bitter about his experience and conflicted by his beliefs and God’s reasons for the difficulties he faces. His brother also left South Africa for Australia, leaving his parents behind. He is wracked with guilt for this. He believes he made the wrong choice about moving to the US – Australia would have been better - and that it is a country in moral danger. He believes we are in the final days.

In all of this, R’s children are the most vulnerable. Of course all children must survive their parent’s experiences, views and their upbringing. Equally, I am sure R worries about me and the lack of religion in my life.

I think the difference in my life is that my parents imbued me with a set of values and gave me choices. I was never forced to go to Sunday school or church. I was set free in a world where my parents worried about drugs, sex and rock and roll. But although they vociferously made their concerns (particularly regarding my varsity drinking), they let me make my own mistakes.

Impact on the boys

M, L and J are all home schooled. They do not have TV. They do not listen to modern music. They cannot take drivers’ tests due to their immigration status. They have grown up as their father’s friends. They can complete his stories. They all want to be doctors, but cannot study until their immigration status is sorted out. M is 21, and despite stellar SATs is unable to study. He is serious beyond his years and has begun work on a family business upon which their hopes rest. He seems haunted by memories of the first half of his life in South Africa.

When I remarked on L’s serving efforts, he remarked that his brothers called him “mommy” when his mom’s away. I’ve loved this kid since he was an angelic 4 year old. He is still angelic. He recently carved a boat from a Christmas tree and sent it to his grandparents in South Africa. It is a work of art with turning ship’s wheel, sails, the works. He made the county softball team before the county canned that due to the legal risk. He is considered and polite. He should be exploring the world and himself. He should be on the sports fields with friends.

J is a typical seven year old. He wants to be friends with the new neighbourhood kids who have a motorised go-kart. He was so happy to have family stay and remarked that instead of returning a borrowed item via mail, I should bring it back personally. He never knew his family’s past and suffers less from its memory.

I've been wracked with thoughts since leaving the kids. I wish I could offer them an escape, an alternative view of the world. Imagine if one of them turned out gay? It would be the end of the world.

I've encouraged M to study through UNISA. All the boys want to be doctors, and M has delayed studies for 3 years due to visa restrictions. He would be able to study via UNISA and correspondence though. It would also be an additional way out.

I worry that a 21 year old boy now has the weight of his family's expectations on him. He should be well advanced in his studies by now.

But mostly I worry about L. I've never met anyone quite like him. I arrived in Johannesburg when he was a little boy. He bonded with me instantly. As we drove from the airport in his father's car, he sat next to me and played gently with the hairs on my leg. He radiates love and kindness to this day. But as 17 year old he should be exploring life. Instead, he shares a room with his 7 year old brother and studies at home. And yet, he's grown up so early he's hardly had a childhood.

The family is a world away. Hopefully the boys will feel they can reach out across Facebook and continue to explore the world through Youtube and the Internet more broadly. Hopefully they have church friends more moderate in their views.

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