My father married my mother in the 1940’s. He had never been married before and my mother was a divorcee. He was a first generation Sicilian-American, and she was of Scottish-Irish descent. They were not only ethnically different but also did not share the same faith doctrine within the Christian tradition. My father (Papa we called him), was asked to leave the church of his upbringing because he selected a marriage partner who was divorced and not of the same religious denomination. Furthermore, she had no intention of converting to his denomination. My mother continued to practice within her own faith base but not on a regular basis because she believed organized religion to be harsh and unfair. She saw herself and Papa as victims of that harsh unfairness.
Still, Papa was concerned for the spiritual welfare of his three little daughters. He wanted us instructed in the faith of his upbringing. The day Papa decided to present his request, is a day I will never forget. He insisted we all wear our very best, frilly dresses with polished little black shoes, white hats with pink netting and gloves. He himself was scrubbed from head to toe and impeccably attired in his only suit, complete with white dress shirt and tie. Outside of a family picture taken when I was a baby and this occasion, my father never wore this suit again until the day we buried him in 1968.
We went before the administrators of the church. They asked him if he was a member in good standing. He told them he was not but would like his children instructed in this particular faith base. He was nervous, apologetic and submissive. These are postures few of us wear well, but were particularly foreign to this proud Sicilian man who had weathered the prejudice of America, against Italians in the 20’s and 30’s, and yet fought in a war that pitted him against Italy – the land of his fathers. His petition was not for his own spiritual welfare, but for that of his three little girls ages 8, 10 and 12. The reply was swift and to the point.
He was told, in front of us, “We will not send your children away Mr. Carvallo. But we think it best that you reconsider their religious education. Because of your sins and poor standing in the church, we are not allowed to invite them to participate in the benefits of being in God’s family. There really is no place for them, and they do not belong.”
Papa did not argue but turned to look at his three wide-eyed, beautiful, hopeful little children holding gloved hands. With tears in his eyes he replied, “Thank you for your time. We will take no more of it.” We left that building and Papa muttered to me, “Your mother may just be right about organized religion.” On the way home, no one said anything. But I kept looking at my Papa and wishing I could do something to stop the streaks of tears that today I realize were authored by rejection, humiliation, anger and the worst hurt for any parent – injustice against his children.
When we got home, Papa put his suit away. I changed into my play clothes and went to sit on the fence that separated our yard from our neighbors’ yard. They went to church on Sunday and apparently were better suited to be with God than we were. I remember looking up into a sky I thought represented Heaven and asking someone up there why we could not be in His house too.
As a ten-year-old child, I had no way of knowing what the words of the church officials would cost me in terms of self-worth as I grew into an adult. It was not accessible to my child’s mind that this statement of not belonging and being tolerated but not invited would affect the way I viewed God, church, relationships and society in general for many years to come. It did not occur to me then that I would spend a lifetime trying to belong, be loved and accepted by everyone I met (even those who mistreated me), until God used maturity and wisdom to teach me what a futile endeavor this really is and that I need earn no person’s approval. And I had no avenue for understanding and embracing the spiritual truths I know now.
The access to God is not dependent upon a dogma that is man-made. It was granted to all the day the curtain in the temple tore and the Savior gave up His life. It is not up to any person or organization to grant us audience with God or benefit of the love He has for each and every little human package He designs. And I have also learned that church leaders, like other humans, are flawed. True, the child’s heart could not know this. But the adult’s freedom rests in realizing we are all imperfect, no matter what our title or position, and we must learn to forgive those who have hurt us whether they meant to or not.
These are beliefs I live by now and call myself into accountability on when I ride my human high horse and resist inclusion, compassion and understanding of others; and especially when I get on my righteous pony and carry a grudge. God brings this memory back to me from time to time, never to cause pain, but to remind me what unfairness, judgment and/or exclusion feel like. And I am sobered by the memory when I am tempted to reject others or react to unkindness with retaliation.
Today in my quiet, listening times with my Lord Jesus, I feel the love, acceptance and yes, invitation to be with Him forever despite the sins of myself or anyone else. This truth was a long time in coming. Through many years and several saints God sent into my life these things were revealed by the greatest assembly worker in the universe when He looked at me, rolled up His sleeves and began to work on a broken little soul that was screaming, “Some assembly required!”
Copyright December 2011
Lakewood, CO 80401