She doesn’t look her age. At 48, Carol Cook could easily pass for a woman ten years younger. She sits on the edge of the narrow wooden catwalk that runs the circumference of the Kensington public library. Her tennis shoes tap the dirt. She calls and waves to a little blond boy as he clambers up a nearby slide.
She is well spoken but shy. And as she talks, her eyes wander from the listener’s. She rubs her legs through the soft cotton of her turquoise jogging suit. When a memory is painful, she pauses, clears her throat, and approaches her past from a different angle.
“In grade school, religion is what sustained me. There are so many traumas that are common to childhood, and coming out of that particular generation, my father had been away in the war. I experienced that particular kind of loss — deprivation, I guess, would be a better word. I was raised in the Seventh Day Adventist Church and went to the church’s school until junior high. When I went to religious school, in the mornings we had hymns and prayer and Bible study for an hour before we started school. And that kept me sane.
“I remember as early as the third grade, taking comfort in hymns and believing that, well, ‘At least Jesus loves me. When Christ comes in, I’m going to be known and understood and loved.’ I especially enjoyed the hymn ‘In the Garden.’ Anybody who’s had any contact with Protestantism would remember that hymn: ‘I come to garden alone, while the dew still clings to the roses... ’ I used to weep over that when I was a little kid. To me the song was about a private, intimate time to be ... loved. A child is so open to God, the ‘Creator of the Universe’ seems very personal. He did to me at that time. It’s easier to live in that in a child’s world. It seems that idea — of a very personal God — always came crashing through to me when I was small and helped ease the pain of what was going on at home. My parents were not getting along.
“I remember having certain spiritual experiences as a child. In the third grade, I remember realizing the sense of peace that comes from knowing Jesus. And a lot of that came through singing those hymns, the ones that gave me the strength to get through the day. I learned to play the piano so I could play them. One day, when I was in the third grade, I must have been about eight, I remember walking out of the door of the classroom and looking out across the playground and seeing the sky and thinking of Jesus. I thought, ‘When Jesus comes, then I will be loved.’
“In sixth grade, at Easter time, the teacher explained to us the crucifixion, what it meant. How moving that was. That was the first time I felt religion had to something do with me personally. I could identify with the accusations, the unfairness of the trial, the physical cruelty — not that I was physically abused at home, but I identified with the emotional cruelty of it. And when he says, ‘God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ I understood that. Being separated from comfort. That sense of despair. Hearing the teacher made a profound impact on me. I realized, I guess, as a child might, that ‘I don’t have to be separated from God forever because I’ve been naughty.’ That was probably my first experience of being moved by religion. Understanding God’s compassion. And being moved by the suffering of someone other than myself.
“Later on, when I was in the eighth grade, I was in public school then, I remember one night. It was open house. I walked out and saw the night sky and began thinking about eternity and infinity, in terms of time and space. I remember having this realization of how small we are, how finite. And how logical it was that the universe should be eternal and infinite. What a comfort that was to me — the mystery of it. It really hit me. That was right about the time that I was baptized in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. I had stage fright. My parents were divorcing at that time, and the full meaning of the ceremony was probably overshadowed by the general turmoil at home. There were four or five other girls being baptized that day. But I don’t remember the baptism as well as I remember looking up at the night sky that time and what it meant to me.
“In ninth grade, I had a crush on the son of a Baptist minister. We went to church together, then, in Downey. I sang in the choir. It was very joyful. After that, I sort of drifted away. My mother remarried. We moved back east. To Delaware. My life was more or less devoid of any spiritual experience. I didn’t go to church. Nobody in my family went to church. When my mother remarried, it was difficult — two new stepbrothers to get used to, a stepfather. I was pretty depressed and miserable.
“One night in Delaware, when I was in the 11th grade, I woke up suddenly. I was probably having some kind of anxiety attack — my father was coming to visit, and I was very nervous about that. I woke up sweaty with my heart pounding. I was scared. So frightened. Then I started remembering things, psalms, I had memorized as a child. The Lord’s Prayer. I sort of whispered them to myself. I prayed. I whispered psalms to myself until I fell asleep. After that, I would whisper myself to sleep — hymns, ‘Blessed Assurance,’ ‘He Lives,’ ‘His Name Is Wonderful.’ And the 23rd Psalm.
“I came back to California. Entered UC Santa Barbara when I was 17. Met my husband when I was 18 at the third dance I went to and was married when I was 18. He was 20. We didn’t really go to church. We were pretty typical of young people at that age attending college. We were both studying elementary education. Church was not germane.
“At the time my first daughter, Laura, was born, that was a great spiritual experience. And again with my second daughter, Elizabeth. This tiny body is laid against your chest and you’re overcome with these tremendous feelings of peace and joy — and those two emotions would be the hallmark of the sort of spiritual experience I would look for during the rest of my adult life. This opening up of myself to something outside — to give. To care.
“The kids started to grow. Jim, my husband, and I tried going to church when we lived in Bakersfield. By the time we moved to Fresno, we had completely gotten away from religion altogether. It wasn’t something that we decided. It happened. And by that time, certain childhood problems of mine, ones that hadn’t gone away, were starting to cause emotional problems in my marriage. By then, I had come to identify the anger and hurt of my childhood with the church, with Christianity. ‘They taught me the wrong things. They made me feel guilty.’ That, coupled with my intellectual searching at that time — I had started reading a great deal of lay literature on psychology, had started taking psychology classes — made religion the furthest thing from my mind. I was interested in child development. I read no theology. I read English literature. I immersed myself in the great atheistic tradition.
“That whole time was a slide into despair. In 1967, when I was about 27, I started seeing a psychiatrist. It was a desire to confront the pain in my childhood that drew me to see a psychiatrist. In the late Sixties, it was the beginning of it being acceptable to openly seek psychological counseling. My therapy, however, pretty much destroyed my marriage. The doctor was not so much interested in helping me make my marriage work as he was in ‘helping me become the person I was meant to be.’ More precisely, becoming the person he felt I was meant to be — even if that meant the end of my marriage. Looking back, much of the psychological literature of that time reflected that view. I saw him for two years. Once a week. He had quite an agenda. During the course of my therapy, I often felt guilty. I could tell something was wrong, that it was somehow putting a distance between myself and my husband, between me and my family. I was heavily into transference, and he used that. He took advantage of me. It ended disastrously.
“During that whole period, I was in so much incredible pain, I would drive to class at Fresno State and I would scream all the way. And cry. Just to be in reasonable shape to attend class. In 1970 I filed for divorce, and my husband moved out that same year. In August of 1970 I was at my lowest. I didn’t know where I was going. I would walk through the house crying. Some friends of mine introduced me to yoga, and it seemed a good way of at least relieving some of the physical stress. One weekend, my husband had taken the kids to visit their grandparents, and I was pretty depressed. I was emotionally wild — pounding the walls. The kids were coming home, and I wanted to be calm by the time they arrived. I went to the living room and started running through some of the yoga positions I had learned and had one of those experiences that are very common to yoga. I was concentrating very hard and felt my ‘consciousness’ separate from my body. Physically, I calmed down, but it was a very isolating experience. That, if I could pinpoint one, was my hour farthest from God. The yoga didn’t help me talk with Jim when he came back from the kids. It didn't help me reach out to them. It was, if you could call it that, an evil religious experience.
“In 1972 I moved to San Diego to finish my degree at State. I experimented with a lot of things that were common at that time: marijuana, mysticism, massage, the whole flaky graduate school gamut. Tantric yoga. It’s embarrassing now to talk about it. There was a lot of rationalization, lay psychology, vague sorts of philosophical explanations for the things we did. We all talked about how ‘spiritual’ this was. But there was nothing spiritual about it. Nothing that made me more loving. More generous. Nothing that anchored me, was a source of joy in my life.
“I became involved in metaphysics. The Teaching of the Inner Christ, a church on 42nd Street in East San Diego. I was going out with someone who belonged. They did channeling. Affirmations — ‘I am a perfect child of a perfect god.’ Meditation. Science of Mind. They would quote scripture from the Bible. Reinterpret it. But scripture was something that I was familiar with, and that was comforting, it was something from my childhood. At the time, I thought, ‘Well, now I understand it. Now I’m not hung up on that old King James language.'
“Gradually, though, I became dissatisfied with their teachings. I got tired of all of the positive affirmations about ‘self.’ You simply couldn’t be human. You had to deny anything that wasn’t ‘positive,’ anything that might make you angry, anything that might make you depressed. You were supposed to wipe them out somehow. And yet, through your own efforts, you could become perfect. It began to disgust me. I thought, ‘This is a hoax. This is a lie.’ God was simply ‘Universal Consciousness.’ Jesus was simply ‘a teacher.’ I came to their world view looking for comfort. I didn’t find it. Their teachings didn't have any ‘blood and guts.’ I remember thinking, ‘At least Christ bled on the cross.’ And they said he didn’t suffer. I needed something else.
“After I left Teaching of the Inner Christ, in about 1974, I started looking for solace in relationships with men. Romance was going to be the thing that would set me on the right track. And, once again, it’s embarrassing to look back on that part of my life. People are, I guess, forever trying to find answers in their passions, in their lusts. To lose themselves in something greater. I was miserable, I think.
“Somewhere between 1977 and 1979, a friend introduced me to CREDO — it was a retreat program sponsored by the navy chaplaincy corps. They sponsored three-day retreats in a place near Julian, conducted by a Protestant chaplain and a Catholic priest who was a chaplain for the Marine Corps. During one of these retreats, one Sunday morning, they played a recording of Gregorian chants. I listened to them, and suddenly I felt a tremendous rush of emotion, or spiritual strength. I was together. My feet were solidly on the ground. My heart was light. My mind was at peace. I sort of fell in love with Gregorian chants.
“In 1980, my daughter Elizabeth was graduated from high school, and we moved to Point Loma. One day, at work, I thought, ‘I need to be around people who want to be good. People who are at least trying, in a conscious fashion, to be good. To be kind.’ I started thinking about my childhood, my memories of church, and it seemed to me that in a Christian environment — a church — I could find some people who were trying to lead moral, compassionate lives. I started going to Westminster Presbyterian Church in Point Loma. I didn’t find it intellectually offensive. The congregants were literate, well-spoken people. What struck me most was that people, people who didn’t necessarily believe, were encouraged to come to the church. And once again, it was the experiences of singing and of hearing scripture being read that touched me. Through my attending, I started to feel strengthened and comforted. Something to get me through.
“The entire time I went to Westminster, though, I only prayed at church. It wasn’t something I did on my own. That didn’t start until 1984. I was seeing someone at that time, a gentleman, and our relationship was at a sort of crossroads. I began to get really anxious about it — the usual pattern that women go through. We were either going to get married or break up. One Sunday, I was speaking about this with a woman at church and she told me, quite simply, ‘You don’t need a man, Carol. You need Jesus Christ. You need an anchor.’ I was a little taken aback. She asked me, ‘Have you ever accepted Christ as your personal savior?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean? I go to church. I believe that Jesus was the Son of God.’ And she countered by saying, ‘Have you ever accepted him as your personal savior? Do you have a personal relationship with the Son of God?’
“The question had never really been put to me that way. I had never really worked it over in my mind.
“She invited me over to her house and we talked. She gave me a little pamphlet to read. I took it home and read it. This was the spring of 1984. In the back of the pamphlet was ‘The Sinner’s Prayer.’ I read it and accepted Jesus as my savior. It was, initially, no big emotional thing. I was just sitting there in my living room. Within the next few hours, I realized, ‘Something’s different.’ What happened was that this sense of abandonment and loneliness, this despair I had lived with my whole life, was suddenly lifted. It wasn’t dramatic. The pain had ceased. It was a very subtle thing.
“I began to realize that something had changed. A friend of mine at work was going to Mount Soledad Presbyterian Church. She had just been baptized. She said, ‘You’ve got to come on Sunday nights.’ I started going. They had wonderful music and songs. And from that time on, God’s presence in my life has been very tangible. The reality of his being here, with me, has grown. I don’t want to degrade my church in Point Loma — it provided my initial step towards what would be considered a more ‘fundamental’ Christianity. I don’t like the word ‘fundamentalist’ because to many people it has come to imply a kind of public self-righteousness — and I don’t think Christianity has anything to do with feeling or saying
Christians are innately superior to unbelievers. But when I say ‘fundamental,’ I mean a certain approach to seeing the world vis à vis the Biblical text. More liberal Christians might believe God inspired written works other than the Bible. I don’t. Another difference is in how the Bible itself is used. At Point Loma, the minister would often use Biblical stories as metaphors for explaining what happened in the ‘real world.’ At my church now, the Bible itself is the standard, the world outside is the metaphor. The Bible, not the world, is unchanging.
“My praying has changed. I pray often, if not most of the time. Recently, in September, I was on a women’s retreat in the Palomar mountains, we were praying as a group, and I felt compelled to kneel. I lifted my arms in a position of reception, of receiving what God is offering. It’s also a posture of supplication. It helped me, in a way, to open up — to offer my mind, my heart, my strength to God.
“When I knelt like that, as I prayed, I felt as though even more pain was being lifted from me. I remembered that day in August in 1970, when I was walking down the hall crying — all of that mental anguish was lifted from me, taken from me. This pain ... it was an idolatry that I didn’t even know I had. It was just one more thing that had separated me from God. The Lord took that. I was so grateful. I am so grateful for this change in my life. Finding at last a place for myself, knowing that there are such things as ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Knowing that there are some unchanging truths.”
Breathless, pigtailed Dorothy has just had a bad run-in with the Wicked Witch of the East. Two of Reuven Green’s children sit watching her, transfixed, in his College Area home. Shmuel, his two-year-old son, backs slowly away from the television screen.
“She’s just a pretend witch, Shmuel," Green advises. “Dorothy’s gonna be okay. Watch for a while — you’ll see.”
In the homes of many Orthodox Jews, television is never watched. Parents might have an old portable stashed in their bedroom (for late-night news, Ted Koppel discussing Israeli politics), but the kids reach maturity without learning a single Burger King jingle. Green explains that the VCR his kids are watching — “Mickey Mouse, Dumbo, Cinderella” — is a fairly safe way of keeping the kids entertained when his wife’s away and he has work to do.
For a native San Diegan, Green looks fairly out of place. His graying beard reaches his chest. A black yarmulke covers his head, and on errands outside, he wears a black fedora. Tucked neatly under his belt, long braided threads dangle against the pockets of his gray slacks; these tzit-zit are knotted reminders of one’s constant obligations to God.
From his appearance, it would be impossible to know that during his childhood and most of his adulthood his Jewishness had been invisible. He was, he says, a typical “assimilated Jew,” a Jew for whom Jewishness means little more than a vague ethnic affiliation. He was a Jew in the way many Americans are “German” or “Scotch-Irish.” As he was growing up, Jewishness was an ephemeral thing of dire and concrete implications. His mother alluded to but never spoke in detail of bloody pogroms in Russia. In World War II, Green’s father, an American G.I., was a prisoner of war whose Jewishness was a life-or-death secret.
Being a Jew was, in Green’s life, always there, he says. Distant. Cloudlike. “I never knew this identity that seemed almost foreign and so abstract to me could have such profound meaning. This realization, of course, didn’t happen overnight....
“Even in high school I tended to be drawn to the underdog, to oppressed people. The civil rights movement was something I thought a great deal about. I felt I would like to do something for humanity. I was not particularly social in high school. I was more interested in animals, in nature. I considered becoming a veterinarian. As I matured, I became more concerned with people and planned on going into medicine. When I was 17, in 1966, I entered UCLA. I entered as a pre-med student.
“I was very naive, very impressionable. College had always been a dream for me, and I felt that if I could just get there, I could study all the things I’d ever wanted to learn — philosophy, literature, history. I expected it to be very rewarding.
“Los Angeles, at that time, was the big city. San Diego was very small by comparison — Mission Valley was farmland. UCLA was so large, I felt lonely. I was living in a dorm. The classes were not what I had expected. I was taking pre-med courses. Chemistry. It was all very dry. So much that went on in class was boring. For the first time in my life, I started to become interested in other people.
“Out of my loneliness, my boredom with classes, I started to become gregarious. In my freshman year, I became social chairman and then president of my dormitory. It was an amazing change. I started to become involved in social movements as well. I spearheaded a project to raise money for the poor. I became involved in the UCLA ‘Amigos Project.’ We helped build the first school for the deaf in Tijuana. Then I headed a project to gather Christmas presents for needy families in Los Angeles. Here I was, this Jewish kid getting involved in Christmas, and the project was a great success. We raised so many toys, so much food and clothing, that another group of students at Cal State North-ridge heard of me. They were planning on going to the Mississippi Delta to take needed items to a very poor black community there. They were very involved politically and asked me if I would like to go.
“Civil rights were not foremost in my mind at that time, but I knew an injustice was being done. So — this was during Christmas break of my freshman year — going down south seemed like a very interesting thing to do. We took all the seats out of a bus and loaded it with supplies. The night we rolled into Mayflower, Mississippi, it was freezing. It was too late to find a motel or anything, so a friend and I ended up sleeping in a laundromat. I was woken up by someone poking me in my side. I looked up and I was staring down the barrel of a shotgun; beyond the shotgun was a shiny sheriffs star. Grizzled face. Cowboy hat. Next to my neck was a snarling German shepherd. We spent that night in the jail, which happened to be just across the street. It turns out the ‘law’ knew we were coming. Blacks in the area were being mobilized politically, and the whites were afraid we had come to stir up trouble ... more northerners who had come down to incite blacks. They ended up letting us out. We spent a few days there getting to know blacks in the area.
“The people were very generous. Let us into their homes. It was my first contact with black rural poverty. I went into one woman’s farmhouse, we were taking her food. The inside of her home was covered with soot, her legs were swollen with infection. To see the way she lived affected me deeply. To see children dressed in rags. Going into a black store and seeing the shelves — almost bare, almost empty. Spending time with the young people, walking with them through town. These people seemed so kind and so oppressed.
“When I went back to UCLA, I was no longer interested in medicine. I switched to studying political science and international relations. I started reading about Marxism, writings by Marx himself. I read books about Vietnam, about the country’s history. I attended a philosophy class taught by Angela Davis. I was part of the speaker’s bureau at UCLA; I brought Herbert Marcuse to speak on campus. I traveled around California with a friend, and we met with Cesar Chavez. You could say I was well on my way to being radicalized.
“I joined a fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, and found more of a group, a community sort of living situation. In my junior year I became president of the fraternity. But as I was getting more politicized, the fraternity brothers were more interested in having parties.
“At the end of my junior year, I met my first wife, Cathy. I remember I was walking across campus, barefoot, and I passed this one black girl sitting on the lawn and I said, ‘Hi.' And she said ‘Hi’ back in a very pleasant voice, which I didn’t really expect — relations between blacks and whites were not so friendly at UCLA then. She responded warmly, and I stopped and talked with her.
“We liked each other. She was so pretty. She was a sociology major on scholarship. She grew up in the worst projects in Watts. She had two children, a boy and a girl, and was in a marriage that wasn’t working out well. Her husband was a USC football player who had been cut from the team, and when he was cut, their marriage started to fall apart. He started drinking and couldn’t really bear her success at UCLA. He was interested in history and had hoped to someday teach. But the only way he could afford school was through a football scholarship. When he lost that, his life pretty much ended. Cathy was very ambitious. Loved literature, history, sociology.
“It was love at first sight. After talking to her, I remember going back to my fraternity, turning a flip, landing on my bed, and saying to a friend, ‘Bill, I’m in love.’ I later learned from Cathy that she had been terribly depressed on the day we met; she had been considering suicide. She told me the only thing that kept her going was the date we made to see each other, to have lunch together a couple of days later.
“After she divorced, when we finally got together, Cathy faced ostracism from the black community on campus. She had been involved with the Black Student Union. Angela Davis’s roommate, a woman who was president of the Black Student Union, hated Cathy with a passion. She felt Cathy’s involvement with me was the antithesis of what blacks were trying to accomplish.
“Cathy didn’t even know I was Jewish when we were first together. One day she made a derogatory remark about Jews, and I told her I was a Jew. She immediately became flustered and embarrassed and apologized. Other blacks on campus didn’t even know I was Jewish.
“We were together for about a year before we were married, living together on and off. I became very close with her son Eddie. I would take care of him while she was in class. Kenya, her daughter, was already in nursery school. There’s a full-page picture of Eddie and Cathy and I in the 1970 yearbook, my senior year. That picture — white father, black son, the integrated family — in a way symbolized the aspirations of that era.
“In my senior year, Cathy and I decided to marry, so I went to San Diego to talk with my parents. When Cathy and I were simply living together, there didn’t seem to be any reason to address the issue. Marriage was another matter. I said to my mother, ‘Listen, I’ve found someone who’s really wonderful. She’s really great. She’s bright, she’s smart, she’s fun, she’s witty, she’s everything. And she reminds me of you and, ya know, also, she’s black.’
“I hadn't anticipated the reaction I got. We had been raised liberally. Some of our best friends down the street were black. We had been best friends with their kids when I was growing up.
“My mother said, ‘No. You can’t do this. Don’t tell your father. He’ll kill you.’ She went to pieces.
“I know them. They didn’t hate blacks. But it basically came down to my parents saying, ‘You will always be welcome here, but not your wife.’ I didn’t speak to them again for seven years.
“Cathy and I married. We tried living on the white west side of Los Angeles, but it simply didn’t work. We had constant encounters with racism. If we went to a movie, I would have to enter the row of seats first and step hard on toes on the way to make sure they’d let Cathy get to her seat. There was the constant coldness from other people — not saying hello, the scowling. We experienced a lot of that. We finally moved to Compton, on the edge of Watts, to live in a house in front of her parents’ home. The Black Panthers’ headquarters was right around the corner from us. In the year we were there, I lost count of the number of fights I was in — fist fights, shouting matches — just to make a niche for myself in the community. Years passed. Our daughter Tamu was born. Her name means ‘sweet’ in Swahili.
The torah being read
“Cathy and I were together for eight years, and what can you say of something that was so much a part of your life and seems to be so far in the past? We moved, at last, to Irvine. We were doing better financially. She was working in public health. I was in the probation department. We had our home. We had our kids. We were making friends. We were never totally accepted. And the black community never fully accepted Cathy. And after so many years of struggling so hard to simply be together, when things finally got a little easier for us, our marriage started to fall apart. In 1978 we separated. When we were fighting together against the world, it kept us together. But when we weren’t fighting against the world anymore, we couldn’t make it work; we turned on each other. We fought. But before the end, we did achieve a kind of reconciliation with my family. One weekend we all drove down to San Diego, and my parents met Cathy and they loved her and they loved the kids. After all those years.
“After we separated, I wanted to get back together. Cathy did not. I took all of the memorabilia that I had of our years together — pictures, ticket stubs, love letters, all of it — put it in a big bag with a rock, and dropped it off the pier in Huntington Beach.
I watched it sink out of sight.
“I returned to San Diego. Started a new life. Tamu and I remained very close, and she visited often. I started to reacquaint myself with my family, to find activities I could share with my brothers and sisters. One sister liked to dance, and we’d go to discos. I went to movies with another sister and went to humanistic psychology classes with another. With one brother I studied karate. And with Alan, he had become religious, so I started to go to Chabad House near San Diego State. I met the rabbis there, and we talked a little bit. I asked Rabbi Leider questions about religion, about my objections, my doubts. He was very adept with his answers. That intrigued me.
“I gradually started spending more time there talking with the rabbis. I liked much of what I saw — people together on Friday nights, shabbos dinner, people being brought together, a common cause. I guess it reminded me some of what I had strived for in my youth. But it was something that I sensed belonged to me in a fundamental way.
“Although I was born Jewish, I was hesitant about getting involved. It is one thing to be involved in social groups, to espouse certain causes, but religion was something I felt had to be proven to me. I had to know that this Torah was something that God had given to us, rather than someone having made it up.
“My job as a probation officer provided me with a lot of free time. I’d work for two and a half days straight, and then I’d be off for the next four and a half days. I filled my free time reading books about Judaism. Then I’d go and argue with the rabbis at Chabad House. Rabbi Leider was very patient. This went on for quite some time, until he ultimately suggested I take some time off work, this was in 1982, and go to Los Angeles to learn in a yeshiva — a religious school — for a two-month summer program. As it turned out, right after he suggested I go study Judaism, I injured my back at work and had to take some time off. So I went to Los Angeles.
“When I walked into the yeshiva there in Fairfax, I thought I’d stepped into another world, another planet. People with beards, yarmulkes, long black coats, walls and walls filled with books. It all seemed so foreign. In San Diego, Rabbi Leider wore a baseball cap. He wore slacks, plaid shirts — he even rolled up his beard. I never associated him with these people that I saw in the yeshiva. I thought, ‘If this is what Judaism is, then this is the wrong world for me. I’m getting out of this place.’ I ended up staying for a year.
“What drew me in was the wealth of knowledge — I had questions and more questions — about God, about the soul, about how we should live our lives. All of this after living my entire life hardly thinking about being Jewish. The wealth of the tradition struck me. I was also impressed by the rabbis and by the other religious Jews in the community. I scrutinized them and their behavior. They were so extraordinarily kind and generous. Many of these rabbis had exceedingly fine minds, great minds — they could have done very well in the business world. Yet, they lived meager lives. They were dedicated.
“After a year of learning — Talmud, Hebrew, Aramaic, mysticism — I reached a juncture. I had to decide what to do with my life. I was very concerned about Tamu. I wanted to marry again. Before leaving San Diego for Los Angeles, I had been dating three non-Jewish girls. So, there I stood one Saturday morning, Shabbos, and everyone around me was praying. I was praying. I was asking God to help me make this decision — should this way of life be something I should embrace forever, should I turn and walk away? I asked that he give me some sort of sign, some sort of indication — I don’t believe people should base their lives on this sort of thing or should even ask God for such things, but I was desperate. I needed to know.
“Something happened. I don’t feel comfortable disclosing what it was. It was something simple. Not the sky opening up, not a voice from heaven, not a sea parting, not a pillar of Fire. It was, however, enough of an indication — or enough for me to belive it was an indication — that, for me, the matter was settled. I had finally returned home.
“I went to New Jersey to study at a Chabad yeshiva there. I visited Crown Heights, the neighborhood in Brooklyn that is the spiritual center for Chabad — where the Rebbe lives. I met my wife Tamar in New Jersey. We went to Israel, and I spent an additional year there studying. We returned to San Diego. We have three children. I work full time for the Chabad Center on Montezuma Road. I fundraise for the Chabad school, which is nearby, and work at finding support for Jewish families in the community that need help — clothes, furniture, cars, finding jobs for them.
“Tamu comes to visit and seems comfortable with me in this life and with my family. Of course, she’s partial to me as her father. She has considered converting to Judaism. She’s only 17 and admits that much of Jewish religious life attracts her, but she feels daunted by all the obligations.
“Cathy, her mother, is doing well. She lives in Sacramento and has a job in public health. She writes about the kids and what they’re doing. Kenya holds a world track record and Eddie can be seen on television any Saturday playing football for Arizona State.
“I am filled, quite often, with a great feeling of gratitude that things have worked out so well. I have examined my life, tried to find patterns, the single thread that leads to this point. It is, after all, impossible to say that if I had not met Cathy, if had not read Marx, gone to Mississippi, that I never would have come to God or returned to Judaism. Certain things, although unforeseen, are always waiting. In Yiddish we say beshayrt — something that was meant to be.”
It’s 12:30 and the kids are scheduled to go to a birthday party at one o’clock. On the way to the front door, Green tells Shmuel and Sasha that it’s time to get ready. The movie is almost over.
He steps outside and into the sun. From behind him, from the living room, music swells. Dorothy chatters excitedly, and Green starts to laugh. As one might expect, Dorothy had returned to Kansas.
The previous day’s storm had ended. Behind Jim Towey, the people of the shantytown were going about their business. Chickens scratched the mud. Skinny dogs growled and gnawed their tails. Women washed clothes in plastic buckets. Men hammered sheets of plywood and pieces of old board onto wooden frames resting on the bare ground. Barefoot children, faces smeared with mud, scrambled over spare lumber.
As Jim walked through the mud, he explained he was 32 years old and had come to the Missionaries of Charity Fathers in Tijuana only two weeks ago. He had resigned from his $40,000-a-year job as legislative director for Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield and had come to the stark plaster buildings near the Otay Mesa to live with and observe the missionaries’ religious order.
“I got to Capitol Hill quite by chance. In August ’81, after I was graduated from law school at Florida State, I went to D.C. to take a job at the Catholic University of America. The job vanished. I had no money, so I went knocking on doors. There was a lot of competition — a lot of guys who had political science degrees were looking as well. I was your average American kid. I didn’t even know where the Panama Canal was. I only read the sports page. But these other guys wanted more money, and I was offered a job in Senator Hatfield’s office starting at $20,000 a year. I took it.
“Mark Hatfield, it turned out, was a pretty interesting guy. A liberal antinuke Republican and a born-again Southern Baptist of profound religious convictions. I myself was born and raised Catholic. Attended Mass every Sunday, all the Holy Days of Obligation. Religion was something I was raised with — it was almost unconscious.
“I had flirted with the idea of becoming a priest. I had even spent time in prayer — concerted prayer — at the Holy Spirit Trappist Monastery in 1978. I liked the idea of praying as you work — they baked bread. But I left the monastery after my retreat still undecided.
“In college I thought of leaving the church. There was so much freedom. I went to Mass to see the girls. There were some very, very beautiful girls at Mass. I even dated a girl who wasn’t Catholic. Still, I kept going to Mass. I think God has always pursued me.
“In Washington, the senator impressed me. The work was demanding. I oversaw his whole legislative division. I started to make more money, get raises. As I started making more money, though, I at some point decided not to keep any more than what I needed. I figured a guy needed about $28,000 a year to live in D.C., have an apartment, eat, and make car payments. Everything I made over $28,000 I sent to my mother. I wanted to live simply.
“In 1982 I went with the senator to Cambodia to tour the refugee camps along the Thai border. And the boat peoples’ camps in Hong Kong. The poverty was overwhelming. I remember thinking, ‘My God, my dog in Florida lives better than these people.’ Their drinking water was filthy. Dozens of them crammed into single rooms, sleeping on boards. Rainwater rushing across the floor. I know it sounds corny and naive, but I thought, ‘My God, these are human beings. ’ The stories — the recent case of cannibalism on the boat in the South China Sea — things like that happen all the time! These images, the suffering, were hammered into my mind. I returned to my job in Washington.
“In August of 1985, I returned again to the camps to do research for sine legislative issue. That spring I had read Malcolm Muggeridge’s book on Mother Teresa, Something Beautiful for God, and was determined to meet her in Calcutta on my way back from
Cambodia. Everyone warned me, ‘The refugee camps are pretty bad, but Calcutta is hell. There’s nothing worse.’ At the time, I didn’t believe them. Right before I left, I got a cable from the American Embassy in Calcutta saying Mother Teresa had left for Africa and wouldn’t be back in time for my visit. I was very let down. I told myself, ‘Go ahead and go to Calcutta to see what it’s like, to see a little of how she must live. Then, as a reward, if it’s so bad, you can have four days in Hawaii to recuperate.’
“Calcutta was every bit as bad as everyone had promised. I had written to Mother Teresa, telling her I was coming — I reminded her that my boss, Senator Hatfield, had once met her. Sort of full of pride, you might say. I didn’t expect to see her. When I went to her center, there she was! In the chapel praying. She had gotten sick in Africa and had returned early. I introduced myself, ‘Hi, I’m Jim Towey. I work for Senator Mark Hatfield, blah, blah, blah.’ She didn’t care who I was or where I was from. She just smiled and listened patiently and, when I was done, asked, ‘Do you know my sisters in Washington, D.C.?’ “I hadn’t even known that there were Missionaries of Charity in Washington — that’s how out of it I was. I said, ‘Uh, well, no. I don’t know them really.’ And she suggested I go and see them when I returned to the States. Then she told me to go and visit her Home for the Dying Destitute there in Calcutta. I will never forget her face. I knew I loved her then and would always love her.
“I got to the Home for the Dying Destitute, took a cab, walked in, and this Indian sister came to greet me. I launched into my routine, ‘Hi. I’m Jim Towey from Senator Hatfield’s office....’ She smiled. Listened. When I was through, she held up this bottle of solution with one hand and a large wad of cotton with the other. ‘Go to the man in bed number 28 and scrub the scabies off his body with this solution.’
“She said it very sweetly, but I was shocked. I mean, I had been to the refugee camps. I knew what scabies were, but I’d never really touched anyone who had them, let alone scrub them from the body of a dying man. I was pretty shocked, and one part of me said, ‘Are you sure this is something you really want to do?’ I was there for the tour: ‘This is where we store our food. This is where we make our clothes. This is where we keep the dying men. This is where we keep the dying women,’ that sort of thing. One part of me really resisted. But I was too proud to say no. I took the cotton and solution and walked to the man’s bed.
“He was so frail, so thin that I sat on his leg without knowing it. He was so weak he couldn’t even cry out for me to get off. He sort of gasped, then I realized what I was doing and I moved. I scrubbed him. Every part of him. I hated it. I had never done anything like it before. I knew the Sisters believed that that man was Jesus, that his suffering was Jesus’ suffering. It was very difficult for me. When I finished, the sister asked that I feed another dying man and then that I help care for another. I stayed for three hours that afternoon. It was actually a very small amount of time that it took to change my life.
“I left Calcutta and went to Hawaii, at my own expense — I had accumulated plenty of back vacation time. So there I was on Waikiki Beach. Gorgeous. Warm wind. White sand. Beautiful tanned bodies. Luscious fruit everywhere. Probably the closest thing to paradise there is on earth. It’s almost impossible to not enjoy a place like that. I realized I wasn’t comfortable. I’d have thought it would have been a tremendous relief to be there after Calcutta. I was very uncomfortable. Something had happened.
“When I got back to D.C., I went to visit the Missionaries of Charity there at their home for AIDS patients and homeless men. Within a month, I was spending all my free time there. They had a soup kitchen as well. For the next two years, I was deeply involved with their work. I did it all — changing diapers, talking with guys who were dying. I ultimately started training other volunteers. In June of 1987 I knew I had reached a point where a decision of some kind had to be made. I went on a six-week retreat at a hermitage one hour outside of Paris. For the entire time I didn’t talk. I prayed. I wanted to know what to do with my life. I returned to D.C. A year later, I resigned from my job. I told the senator I was going to spend some time with the Missionaries of Charity in Tijuana. He told me he thought I could do the Lord’s work just as well, if not better, if I stayed in Washington and worked in politics. My parents were concerned as well.”
Statue of the Virgin Mary
We arrive at the door of a small shack with a blue plastic roof. “The blue tarpaulins are everywhere the poor are,” Towey said. “All over the world. I remember them in Cambodia.” A young woman stands at a bucket rinsing a small baby bottle.
“How’s Lupita?” Towey asks.
“Not so well. I’m trying to give her some water. I just boiled some, and I’m cooling a little for her now. Why don’t you come inside?”
The two-month-old lay on a towel on an old gray couch. Her mother touches her back and she begins to wail, high-pitched. Her mother lifts her into a shaft of light falling through a space in the bare room’s wall. The child’s mongoloid head lolls to one side. Her face is red. She continues to shriek.
“I’ve been trying to feed her. To give her rice water. She’s so hot. She won’t drink anything. She’s had diarrhea. I don’t know what to do. A woman doctor came yesterday. She gave us some medicine for her stomach and told me to make sure she drinks,’’ the mother says, rocking the baby back and forth in her arms.
“Well, come by our house if you need any water. We’ll have plenty of drinking water later this afternoon,’’ Towey says as we leave.
“I found out last week that there was a woman living here who had a baby with Down’s syndrome,” he tells me. “I’ve been trying to come by as often as I can.”
On the road back to the mission, we meet a little boy who immediately recognizes Towey. He runs up to us waving a small toy gorilla in his hands. Towey scoops him up in his arms and holds him as he walks.
“This month-long stay I’m on is called a ‘come and see,’” Towey explains. “Normally it’s only for two weeks, but Father Joseph, who runs the mission, who actually worked with Mother Teresa to establish a men’s branch of the Sisters, is allowing me to stay longer. I’m trying to keep an open mind about things. I’m praying God will help me make this decision. A religious vocation isn’t something you take on lightly.”
The little boy in his arms, Towey says, is named Luís. On Sunday he had inadvertently lead Towey and another young missionary to a woman ]who needed help. Luís had been running around without shoes, it was getting cold, and clouds were gathering in the sky west of downtown Tijuana. Towey and the other missionary took Luís back to the shack where he, his mother, and six brothers and sisters live, to try to Find his shoes. When they got lost, when Luís didn’t seem to know where they were, Towey asked a woman, Maria Luísa, sitting outside the three-walled structure she called home, if she didn’t know where Luís lived. She did. As Towey was leaving, she asked if he and the other missionary wouldn’t mind hammering up some more plywood on the side of her home to create an additional wall. It looked like rain. She explained she had just given birth the day before — the baby was three months premature — and didn’t have the strength to put up the wall herself.
As Towey and the other young man hammered away, Maria Luisa told him her baby wasn’t doing well and had been taken to the hospital. She thanked them for their help.
“Luís got his shoes and we were able to help her at the same time. It was nice the way it worked out, that we could help her. I know it sounds so corny to say you enjoy helping the poor — it’s almost cliché. A lot of people, volunteers, have been attracted to Mother Teresa’s work now that she’s more or less a celebrity. For a lot of people, it’s kind of trendy to volunteer at a soup kitchen. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with helping people — more people should be doing it. I just don’t like talking about my enjoying it because it sounds so cliché. I’m not anywhere near making a decision. I can’t say where I’ll be a year from now. I only know I felt drawn to come here.
“Tomorrow, we’re saying a requiem mass for Maria Luisa’s baby.”
We walk. It’s quiet, save for the constant sound of people hammering nails into plywood. Dozens of hammers pounding away across a Field of tarpaulin-topped shacks.
Luís lifts his head from Towey’s shoulder and stares at his face.
“Give me a kiss,” Towey asks.
Luís presses his lips to Towey’s, places his hands on both sides of his face. The child says nothing as he drops his arms back around Towey’s neck, and as we continue walking toward the Field of shacks and the incessant pounding, the boy’s grasp around the young man’s neck noticeably tightens.