Saturday, December 8, 2012
STRANGE ENCOUNTERS WITH RELIGION, CULTURE AND GENETICS
by James Craig Green
In 1957, when I was 12 years old growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I raised my hand in response to a preacher's question in the Baptist Church I attended. I don't remember how long I had been going to church regularly, but it was probably no more than a couple of years.
At the end of the preacher's sermon, he said something like, "Now, all of you who raised your hands, please come up here in front of the congregation." I walked up, and the next thing I knew was that my baptism was scheduled for a couple of weeks later.
I went home to my mother - the finest Christian woman I ever knew - and told her that I did not understand what happened and did not want to commit to the baptism. She said she would talk to the preacher. The next thing I knew, the preacher was in my living room, trying to convince my mother and me that I should go through with it.
I was a naive, fun-loving kid in the sixth grade, who once asked a girl at school to dance on a rock n' roll music day. She said, "No, it's against my religion."
She went to my church.
My father never talked about religion while I was around. So, with an agnostic father and Christian mother, my first ever crisis of consciousness was a manipulative Baptist preacher. I was poorly equipped to explain why I didn't want to be baptized, so I finally said "yes."
At the front of the main hall of my church, there was a curtain behind the podium where the preacher spoke. I didn't know what was behind the curtain. On the day of my baptism, the curtain was open, revealing a large tank of chest-high water behind a glass front, with steps down into the water on each side. So, those of us who were to be baptized walked down the steps into the tank one at a time. The preacher gently leaned me back until my head was underwater - said some words, then brought me back upright. After my immersion, I walked up the steps out of the water tank, and the preacher was ready for his next soul.
Although the preacher was polite and physically gentle, I was so turned off by the whole experience - especially the manipulative way he led me into his baptism trap without knowing what was going on - that I left the church - and it's god - that day and never went back. I have now lived 55 of my 67 years without god, and haven't missed him one bit. In fact, I thank my lucky stars that my mother did not make me go back to church or to embrace god, because she loved me, respected my intelligence and saw in me the inherent goodness she taught me.
As I grew up, my mother often praised her god and favorite preacher Billy Graham, as both had a wonderful, positive impact on her life. But, unlike the preacher who baptized me, she never pushed me into something I firmly rejected. She allowed me to develop into my own person, for which I will be forever grateful.
Growing up in Albuquerque on the Rio Grande - a 300 year-old-city where even Texans like us were welcome - I flourished with new friends of different races, religions and cultures. Once I entered college in 1963, I became more aware of this diversity and the growing civil rights movement in the mid sixties.
I grew up with Christian, Jewish, Hispanic and other friends, including a delightful Japanese-American co-worker at Orange Julius, who invited me to my first beer kegger. I was surprised when a black girl was elected homecoming queen at the University of New Mexico in the late sixties, but I was also glad to live in a city - predominantly white and hispanic - where that could happen. Spending four years in the Air Force after college (1969-1973) further broadened my cultural base, including a year in Diyarbakir, Turkey, west of the Ural Mountains that separated the Soviet Union from Turkey.
Diyarbakir is an ancient walled city with origins in the Bronze Age (about 2400 BC), long before Jesus Christ was born. It is on the Tigris River in what used to be called Mesopotamia, about 300 miles upstream of Baghdad, Iraq. Some sections of ancient Roman aqueducts still exist - or at least they did 40 years ago when I was there. I will never forget walking down narrow streets in the oldest sections of Diyarbakir, where I could almost touch the walls on both sides of the street at the same time. It was like old pictures in bibles and movies about Ali Baba, ancient Jerusalem and the Arabian Nights. The walls around the older part of the city are second in size and extent only to the Great Wall of China.
Walls of Diyarbakir
My Soccer Ball
Since I had a brand-new, leather soccer ball and our radar site had the only green grass athletic field within hundreds (maybe thousands) of square miles, I attracted the attention of the Turkish soldiers who guarded the outside perimeter of the base. Turkish "insult" laws - particularly harsh against non-Turks - meant the outside perimeter of our based was guarded by a detachment of Turkish soldiers under the command of a Turkish Lieutenant. If an American soldier shot a Turk - even one sneaking into the base to steal something - it would cause an international incident. All our vehicle drivers were Turks also, for the same reason.
So, I had a chance to know some Turkish soldiers, who were great soccer players - including their English-speaking, well-educated Lieutenant. At that time, many Turkish enlisted men were forced into military service by a draft, and few spoke English. However, one of the guards was one of the best soccer players I had ever played against. This was saying something, since the University of New Mexico where I went to college had two South American teams, one African team, one Asian team AND two American teams, who played in the intramural leagues. Although I played soccer at the time, I was no match for these guys, who had played soccer all their lives. This was a kind of diversity-training I had not anticipated, both at home and abroad.
Playing soccer with the Turks was a great experience. They even invited me to go into Diyarbakir and see the local team play... on bare dirt, of course. My base commander let the local soccer team in town use our grass baseball field to practice for the regional championships in some distant city where they had grass fields. Some of the local players had never played on grass before.
Back to Work
At the US Air Force Spacetrack Radar station near Diyarbakir, I worked 12 hours midnight to noon for several days, took a break, and then worked noon to midnight. Late night shifts, when none of the "day weenies" were around to harass us, I developed a particularly close bond with my crewmates - a racially and culturally diverse lot. One of my friends, another second lieutenant like me, was from Puerto Rico. I didn't know Puerto Rican citizens could serve in the U.S. military, until then. My favorite chess-playing partner was a very intelligent black staff sergeant from Georgia, with a degree in mortuary science - the first person with whom I ever had serious philosophical discussions. Little did I know then that my great-grandfather, John Robert Green, was born on a farm near Atlanta in 1844, and fought in the Civil War, losing his two brothers. I was surprised to find many enlisted men in the Air Force with college degrees.
Billy, a young black airman from Detroit, was like a kid brother to me, because we both had the same weird sense of humor, and both liked the song "Bill" sung by Marilyn McCoo of the Fifth Dimension, famous for "The Age of Aquarius." Billy looked a lot like Billy Davis, Jr., another member of the group and Marilyn's husband. Billy and I both thought Marilyn was gorgeous.
On Christmas day, when we had to work our normal 12-hour shift, all but one of the crew decided to wear civilian clothes that day, instead of our uniforms. We showed up at the mess hall together for Christmas dinner in slacks, coats and ties, and dined as a group for the first time; then walked over to the satellite control building together for work. It was a small way of rebelling against conformity. None of us were ever criticized, much less disciplined, for this - probably because the top brass didn't have to work that day and had no idea what we had done.
I probably would have never served in the military, missing out on opportunities to make such diverse friendships - strengthened by the stress of geographic isolation - had it not been for the Vietnam war and its draft. It encouraged me to join ROTC in college, become an officer, and choose a military career field that 1) had no jobs in Southeast Asia, 2) made use of my engineering degree, and 3) prepared me for a career in the aerospace industry after the Air Force. Though I switched from mechanical to civil engineering later, two out of three was great... and no one ever took a shot at me.
Although the church and its god have not been part of my life for 55 years now, I have friends of many religions, races and nationalities, including many divergent political and other views. I don't consider myself an atheist - someone who denies the existence of god - but prefer the term "agnostic," since I have no need to criticize other people's beliefs that are different than mine. More importantly - it is futile to try to prove that something DOESN'T exist - a fool's errand at best. I tend to shy away from some Christians and/or Republicans who think "agnostic" means wishy-washy, or confused.
There is nothing "confused" about rejecting a belief system without having to "prove" it wrong. I don't like people who constantly push their religion, morality, or politics down my throat, and I do not do this to others. Life is too short to hate - or reject - people just because they are different, or don't entertain all my beliefs.
However, I do enjoy healthy discussions - even heated arguments - among people with different points of view and beliefs - as long as discussions are polite and respectful. The two most liberating things in my life were my rejections of god (age 12) and government (about age 30) as dieties. I don't need to cram my beliefs down other people's throats, so I don't hang around people who would inflict their dogma on me, without having the courtesy to ask my permission first. One of my crewmates in Diyarbakir was a non-practicing Catholic, with whom I compared and contrasted our similar, but also different, experiences growing up. Although Catholics tend to be more open-minded and tolerant than Baptists, they are expected to take part in a lot of boring rituals that always seemed silly to me.
My late wife Kay had a very close friend, Taz, at Metro State College who was a Muslim. She had her own business, and often traveled from Denver to Vancouver, Canada for her work. Her husband, also Muslim, was a professor at Metro State. After Kay died, I went to Taz for a while for facial treatments and haircuts, mostly because she and Kay were such good friends. I enjoyed reminiscing about our different experiences with Kay, and it was a good way to relieve the stress of Kay's death.
Despite my agnosticism, I treasure my Judeo-Christian roots, including hundreds of years of Southern Baptists in the U.S. descended from British pilgrims, to my DNA-tested genetic past from hundreds, or thousands, of years ago.
Only within the last few years have I become interested in genealogy, so I joined Ancestry.com. Below is a link to my pedigree, which to my surprise, includes more than two dozen lines going back to the 1600's in America (look for red "1600 club" on yellow flag, beginning 7 or more generations back). But, my more recent British-Scots-Irish stock was probably hundreds of years - maybe a millenium or two - removed from the Middle East.
I was delighted to receive an email from a Canadian woman whose father had almost identical DNA blood markers to mine. He was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia (where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 to start World War I). I also received an email from a Franklin Green in Kentucky with similar DNA markers to mine. It was fascinating - and surprising - to find that a Canadian woman's dead father from Sarajevo was more closely related to me (genetically) than a still-living man in Kentucky with my same last name.
To me, it is interesting stuff like this that makes life worth living...
Pedigree of James Craig Green