The first real test of my break from the religion of my childhood occurred on a flight from Guam back to Vietnam, when I was a 25-year-old U.S. Army captain. An explosion rocked the overloaded jetliner minutes after takeoff—a rumble so violent, one of the stewardesses dropped her tray and dashed through the aisle up front. Nervously, the pilot announced the plane had blown an engine, and quickly he began steering low over the Pacific to dump fuel.
With the sea rushing interminably beneath us, my mind slammed involuntarily into reverse, flashing back through my childhood days in Alabama—past the cowboy movies, the cotton fields, the marble-shooting. Never once through the grim ride did I reach for my King James Bible, a family gift I lugged on trips, out of habit. Rather, I thumbed through my dog-eared copies of Letters From the Earth and The Way of Zen, skimming passages in a reach for calm. It was as if, instead of the Scriptures, the writings of heathen Mark Twain and Alan Watts, a lapsed Christian, held the keys to the kingdom. During this close encounter with bliss eternal, I felt utterly alone, worried, but somehow relieved of the fear of death.
My mother would have been disappointed that I did not resort to calling upon Jesus as the Captain of the sweet chariot “coming for to carry me home.” But the Christian faith of my childhood no longer seemed to hold sway. Before I could ponder the vacuum, the wheels of the Boeing 707 screeched down on the tarmac of the Guam runway, lined with fire trucks.
Since that harrowing episode some four decades ago, I’ve been on a spiritual quest to replace the blind faith of my childhood with something of value. Originally imbued with the certainty that every word of religious dogma is true, my outlook has gone through halting stages of doubt and tinkering, to a point where nearly all my beliefs have been in question. It is as if the rocket that launched me as a Christian in my childhood fell away, freeing me up to finally achieve orbit, a circuitous journey that only recently has been consummated.
In my Tuscaloosa home of the 1940s it was my grandmother, Ma Mae, who taught me the Ten Commandments and instilled, mainly through fear, a belief in the infallibility of Jesus Christ. We kept the Devil at bay with all-day Sunday prayer and Bible study throughout the week. The mere reading of King James poetry inspired me with its biblical beauty, but it was my early discovery of Rev. C.L. Franklin’s mail-order sermons, with their powerful moral lessons, that made Christianity more accessible.
At age 12, I confessed my sins, such as they were, during a “revival meeting,” professed a belief that a resurrected Christ had died to redeem me from them—and thus saw myself escaping an eternity of hellfire reserved for nonbelievers. Two weeks later the frail pastor of our church, Rev. J.R. Dixon, baptized me in a creek where dairy cattle drank downstream.
The next year my family moved to Hartford, where I entered high school and joined a local church. Teaching a Baptist training class and singing solos in the choir nourished my faith through graduation. During my freshman year at the University of Connecticut, however, my horse-and-buggy fundamentalism collided headlong with a philosophy course. Reading European thinkers on religion raised questions about tenets of my accepted Baptist dogma. By the end of my sophomore year the freight train of Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre had splintered my wooden wagon at the crossing, and the wreckage was dragged miles down the track by Feuerbach, Kant, and even Kierkegaard, who was supposed to have been one of us Christians.
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.
Upon my return to New York City, my wife and I and our three children began an aggressive sampling of several churches. While the kids delighted in the singing, giggled at the occasional Holy Ghost shouting, and timed all sermons, the services did not engage me initially, and I begged off joining.
With my mother’s death in 2003, though, I began to have a change of heart. At the funeral, while speaking of her pious days, I realized she would have been disappointed, even shamed, were I to remain only an occasional interloper in the church. Besides, those two Sunday hours away from worldly distractions had increasingly brought on a sense of calm for me. And there was the rekindled joy of fellowship with church members who, I came to discover, could be hard-core, secular careerists, favoring the rational over the emotional.
Such associations and my stepped-up attendance softened my antipathy toward church membership. My doubts, I came to believe, did not constitute cognitive dissonance of the sort that would disqualify me from service in the church. I may have had considerable questions about where facts tail off in the Bible and where fable and fiction kick in, but I could not deny that Christianity, despite all my hesitancy, had allowed me to live a better, more disciplined life of value and sharing.
After wandering decades as a nomad adrift from his spiritual tribe, I settled on New York City’s Abyssinian Baptist Church as a fortress of piety for that collective support and sharing missing in my life. The Gothic church in Harlem, known globally for its historic involvement in social activism, was founded in 1808 after a group of free blacks and Ethiopians bolted from a white New York City church that segregated nonwhites in the balcony.
Though the church attracts hundreds of tourists each Sunday, Abyssinian maintains the hospitality of a smaller congregation, and Rev. Calvin O. Butts III makes sure that the shakers of the city, as well as the shaken, feel welcomed there.
So on the last Sunday of December 2006, to the strains of “It’s a Highway to Heaven,” I gathered myself at the call for new members and marched down the aisle. The joyous handclapping unsettled me as I approached the altar, the choir continuing, “None can walk up there/But the pure in heart.” My peripatetic journey now ended, I halted at the altar with the resigned contentment of a man at peace “coming in from the cold.” I extended my right hand to Reverend Butts, who sandwiched it firmly between his, much as Reverend Dixon had done in Tuscaloosa all those many years ago.
Finally, I had achieved a spiritual mooring. I was home again.
Les Payne is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Newsday columnist.