The studio picture of my father taken in the 1930s shows a "squeaky clean" little boy with his hair combed, wearing immaculate white clothes--the very image of innocence for a kid known otherwise as a "bad boy." What is most striking to me about this photograph is the sincere and wide-eyed expression on my dad's face. To me those childhood eyes are full of the wonder of faith.
Immigrant families tend to treasure the few items that link them directly to their mother country. I grew up with a wealth of stories about life in Cuba, but with few images of that place--a dire predicament for an art historian who believes that a picture is worth more than a thousand words.
Recently, my grandmother gave me one of her treasured photographs of my father's confirmation, and it has made me think of the nature of his spiritual journey and my own. The studio picture of my father taken in the 1930s shows a "squeaky clean" little boy with his hair combed, wearing immaculate white clothes--the very image of innocence for a kid known otherwise as a "bad boy." The trappings of his Roman Catholic faith are also visible: the catechism and rosary in his hands, the confirmation ribbon around his upper arm, and the painted flat of a sweet Jesus in the background.
What is most striking to me about this photograph is the sincere and wide-eyed expression on my dad's face. To me those childhood eyes are full of the wonder of faith.
My father's spiritual journey has been complex; he was raised Catholic, but became an anticlerical Mason as a young man. At times, he became a skeptic and even fought the church. After coming to America, he and my mother became fundamentalist Christians, leaving Catholicism, Communism, and Cuba behind. My siblings and I were raised in a Hispanic Baptist church in northwest Indiana that became our extended family and our direct link to mainstream Protestant America.
The church gave my family structure and meaning. All of our major dramas were played out in it and through it. Unlike my father, who made dramatic transitions in order to find his place, I grew up in the church. However, in the religious system of my youth one is not born saved; one must repent of one's sin and make a decision for Jesus. I answered the altar call at the age of nine and was baptized at eleven. I can still hear the whispers that I was too young to be baptized. From what sins was an eleven-year-old expected to repent? Perhaps they were right, but no one can deny that, as a kid, I loved God.
What I didn't know then was that I was a gay person and that I would eventually have to decide if my sexual identity and faith were compatible. It took me some 15 years to fully accept that I was a child of God and a gay person, no better and no worse than the next, and that that did not disqualify me from being a Christian. It took 20 years and an almost fatal medical condition in my father for me to realize that nothing was more important than truth between us. My greatest fear, of course, was complete rejection from my dad the deacon and Sunday school teacher, a man I loved and admired.
His response to my coming out was an act of pure grace. He said to me, "Son, I've known you were different from the cradle, but that has never prevented me from loving you."
"But what about the church and its teachings?" I practically protested.
He responded, "I've always taught you kids that we all stand before God's throne on our own and we all have to find our own way there; I trust you'll find yours. I'm sorry you've had to grow up listening to the idea that there's something wrong with you."
I literally had to hold onto something for fear of falling. It was such a simple yet profound response, an example of love conquering fear.
What strikes me about that experience was not that my father saw things my way or capitulated to some rational argument, but rather that his love for me as a person and his respect for my spiritual independence trumped even my expectations. Somehow, in and out of church and denomination, through many years of hardship and skepticism, my father revealed his childhood faith to me and continues to demonstrate the sustaining power of love. That sense of trust is what I see in those boyhood eyes in that old photograph.