My Conversion Story: Part II — Hitchhiking to God

(Read Part I here.)

I didn’t really hitchhike. But I did intentionally hop from Saturday night sleepover to Saturday night sleepover to anywhere I knew would take me to a church of any kind on Sunday morning. Seeing my stubborn determination to learn about God, my parents shifted gears from denying a deity to simply belittling the dependence on religion. During our time together they began talking more about their ideas of a higher power, reincarnation, karma and patchouli oil.

Ok, so my parents didn’t directly talk about patchouli oil. But suffice it to say, they might as well have been the Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan for new-age, hippie child-rearing philosophies mixed with a hefty dose of anti-establishment promotion. They explained they wanted me to feel free to explore and choose whatever spiritual life felt right to me. My heart would tell me what felt good, and if it felt good it was good.  

However, after a few months of my Sunday School crashing, my mom joined our classroom one winter day to teach me and my peers about how our family celebrated Hanukkah. We did enjoy the extra gifts for Hanukkah during Christmas time and my mom often said Jesus wasn’t real, but I never made the connection that any of those principles were part of a greater ideology or faith. Only looking back as an adult can I see how she was trying to teach me that our family did have religious roots. I was Jewish. Although the time, I think I understood our Judaism as a cultural identifier.

My mom was born and raised in Argentina and fled with her family to The States under grave persecution in the late 1970s for being Jewish. My grandfather was a journalist and ambassador for the South American Jewish Community, and apparently was making a few waves. She certainly wasn’t religious and neither she or my grandparents attended any sort of church or service. To my 8 year old mind I speculated that being Jewish was possibly some type of Argentinian that went against other types of Argentinians, so during the civil war maybe one side kicked out the other. I had no idea. And like many things, my questions were danced around with unrelated and elaborate distractions.

Another subconscious approach my parents took to form my spiritual views manifested in the form of mockery and disrespect for anybody outwardly religious including close family members and friends. My dad and his siblings were raised by protestants from the Midwest whose rare church attendance sadly didn’t mirror the depth of their Christian moral foundation. Had that not been true I’m sure much of this story would have been different. Like my own parents, my grandparents didn’t teach or explain their beliefs to their four children growing up in the 1960s. Instead they taught them how to indulge in the luxuries afforded by the abundant new money my grandfather earned when he moved West as a young physician.

With almost no supervision or direction and nearly unlimited access to money, my dad and his siblings ran wild. In the early 1980s my aunt discovered Billy Graham and dramatically turned her life around as an overly-zealous, born-again Christian. Whether he could realize it or not, my dad felt betrayed and left behind. He would mock and berate her to tears at most family gatherings. As kids, we were encouraged with rare smiles indicating their even rarer approval if we were to poke fun of things like her “tiny brain” or somehow disrespect her “supposed friend, Jesus.” My dad would throw her past in her face and refuse to release her character to anything more than the spoiled, misguided, lost, hurting young adult she had been a lifetime before.   

The enlightened thinkers (like my parents) were freer, more intelligent and happier. So it seemed.

Until the day they undeniably weren’t.

One day my dad told us he decided to take an interim job on the East Coast and my mom was to stay behind in California with me and my 2 younger siblings. The turds couldn’t be sugar coated any longer. My parents were miserable. They fought constantly and violently. My dad was in the depths of alcoholism and my mom hit a debilitating depression and didn’t leave her bed very often. This would be their 3rd marital separation since I was conceived, but the first time my dad would move so far away from us.

If you had asked me, I would’ve said I thought I did pretty well taking care of myself and my siblings for my mom. But no one asked me, and so against my greatest desires my dad’s youngest brother moved in with us. My uncle had also followed someone like Billy Graham and was volunteering as a Sunday school teacher for his non-denominational church. He, however, most certainly did not share my parent’s vision of child-rearing. The change of rules, structure and expectations hit me a like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t stand him. I suddenly wanted very little to do with Sunday school.

The week before my eleventh birthday my dad returned and my mom left her bed. I made sure not to ask about God any more. I was done with all that.

Jessica Schaefer