My parents separated when I was an infant. I grew up with my mother, and I visited my father during vacations. It was just as you might imagine: a stable and wholesome environment in a dull French town most of the time, punctuated by a few exciting days in Paris once in a while. In retrospect the contrast was not all that strong, but at the time my father’s lifestyle seemed like night and day when compared to my mother’s and stepfather’s. My father in Paris swore freely, for example, but he would be gravely offended by the word vulgaire (vulgar) when used in judgment of a person with a little more money than taste.
A defining event, if that is what it is, occurred in 1969. I can date it precisely because that is the year the movie Easy Rider came out, and my father took me – at age 9 – to see it. Easy Rider was rated R, or more accurately Interdit aux moins de dix-huit ans. This caused me considerable anxiety, and I was afraid to watch the screen. There was a scene with naked people swimming in a lake, and the film ended in violence and death. I knew something awful was going to happen as a result of me seeing such goings on.
On the way back to my father’s apartment, I remember being relieved that it was over, happy, even thrilled in the darkened streets. Suddenly my father, as he sometimes did, gave my shoulder a strong shove. This particular time, I lost my balance. I tripped sideways, fell through a dark velvet curtain, and landed on the floor inside a small Chinese restaurant. All eyes were on me as I got back on my feet and scampered out. But once I was back outside I could not find my father anywhere. I was dumbfounded. My father finally emerged from behind a car where he was hiding, roaring with laughter.
I worshiped my father, so I unquestioningly adopted his version of the evening, and I laughed even harder than he did. We talked about my spill for days and then I sort of forgot it. Thirty years later, that evening came back to my mind and I described it to my wife and my children as a prized memory of childhood. To my surprise, they were aghast, as if I had remembered an instance of abuse. Their reaction made me uneasy and I came to my father’s defense. Although my father and I were never truly close (especially not the way fathers and sons can be close today), I never doubted his love for me. Without his influence – some of which I absorbed, and some of which I molded myself against – I would not be who I am today.
Having reached middle age without any religious conviction, I progressively became aware of a spiritual void in my life. My career had taken me to a Christian ministry in the field of services for older adults. There, meetings often started with a prayer during which I felt left out and unworthy. But I must be honest and confess that I also felt superior and clear-sighted now and then. Furthermore, having roots in the Jewish civilization, I only had a superficial knowledge and understanding of Jesus.
So I minded my own business, worked hard, never arrived late, seldom missed a deadline or a benchmark, never drank, never smoked… I became of one of those people who think they are with God when they take a hike in a beautiful forest while listening to some soul-stirring Schubert music on their iPod. At work, I managed regularly to enter into deep conversations with believers: my best friend was the chaplain, who assured me that God loved me. If only, I thought. The arguments of individual believers (as distinct from the arguments of large groups of Christians sensationalized by the media) made more and more sense to me in maturity.
I started paying attention to local churches and church signs, and I became aware of the distinction between this church and that. I felt no great affinity for the historic and prosperous churches that occupy whole blocks in our town, nor for the newer family-oriented suburban churches, not even for the small country churches that look so beautiful under the changing sky. But my heart – for whatever reason – kept circling back to two black churches, out of four that exist fairly close to each other. It became a running gag (only it wasn’t a bit funny), and it lasted for for years. Every Saturday I would think “tomorrow, I’m going.” And I never did, although at 10:30, I would think “I could be there now.” I was endlessly questioning my motivation and lumping it with unwholesome examples of American folly like the Rachel Dolezal story.
On June 21, 4 days after the attack on Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, I walked up the steps leading to the red door of Bethel AME Church in Carlisle, PA. This was (or at least I could claim so if questioned as I entered the sanctuary), a gesture of solidarity and healing. But just as my father had shoved me in that Paris street, I know today that my Father had gently shoved me inside Bethel after working on me for a long time. And it happened on Father’s Day too! My life started turning around on that day, and within two weeks I was a changed man with a new operating system and a new best friend and master in Jesus. Emboldened, I will attempt to write more about my experience, especially if I can help other latecomers at the beginning of their journey with God.