My experience was so disruptive that, in church that summer, I begged off singing my solo, “Rise Up and Walk,” and later quit the choir. I still found my way to church, but the social movements of the ’60s touched me. After hearing Malcolm X, the Muslim minister, skewer Baptist preachers as little more than high-living pimps for a Europeanized Christianity, I found it difficult to sit through a Holy Roller sermon without chuckling. Here were men in robes, I thought, routinely mounting the pulpit with rote Scriptures, scant preparation, and no answers for the cerebral challenges of the agnostics—all in service of a supposedly blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus, who, after being born in the sun-baked, Middle Eastern town of Bethlehem, was hidden among the people of Egypt in North Africa.
Heading off to the Army after college graduation, I yearned for spiritual answers and no longer appeased my family by attending church. As a restless lieutenant at Fort Bliss, Texas, I read heavily about Zen Buddhism; married a lapsed Episcopalian in El Paso; took to visiting the local Unitarian church; and briefly considered, then rejected, Islam.
Floundering, I began to measure my outlook against that of celebrated nonbelievers such as writers H.L. Mencken and Zora Neale Hurston—and came up short. An agnostic, I decided, I could never be; my irreversible belief in a power greater than mankind and his science would make sure of that. Still, I found myself agreeing with Hurston that the Baptist approach to prayer, with its spirited begging and pleading, was “a cry of weakness.” So, throughout the early ’70s, I avoided such petitioning and, except for weddings and funerals, generally avoided the church.
This changed not once during some six crises I clocked as a foreign correspondent while on assignment for the New York City-area paperNewsday. I was chased off or banned from Corsica, Turkey, South Africa, Uganda, Rhodesia, and Haiti, and through it all, I kept to my high-risk practice of secular journalism—and my backward religious slide.
The seventh crisis would be different.
Investigating a bloody, 1980 tribal conflict in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, I was arrested by guerrillas loyal to newly elected president Robert Mugabe. After a three-hour interrogation within a barbed wire camp, I was judged guilty of spying—and prepared to be put to death.
Sitting on a low bench in a closed room with a small window, rattled, and stripped of all possessions, I submitted to Hurston’s “cry of weakness,” and prayed.
I knew I could never return to the purely emotional track of blind acceptance of the religion of my childhood. I knew reasoning must have a place. Yet I promised myself—and whoever else might have been listening—that should I survive this ordeal, I would address my suppressed spiritual yearning, which, despite my existential wanderings, had never really left me.
My prayer was not a petition for God to intercede directly on my behalf in that dungeon. Instead, in the clutches of a desperate terror not unlike the crisis aboard that airliner over the Pacific, I pledged to alter my behavior and seek a coming to terms with my drift away from Christian worship. I felt warmed by Kierkegaard’s religious notion that “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.”
A last-minute stay, secured by a government negotiating team, cinched my release—and my determination to reconsider my inattention to spiritual matters.