My Life’s Soundtrack – Part Five
New Jersey, new direction, new beginnings.
Dying autumn leaves dallied to the ground, making way for fresh growth on the New England trees. I knew that my old existence too had died, making way for brand new Life.
Walking through a New Jersey park under November blue skies, in 1987, at the end of a 3,000-mile hitch-hike from California…
Along the way I’d slept under the stars at the base of the Grand Canyon and trekked the 8 miles back up the following day. This was probably the last (and one of the more touristy) of many rich experiences of magical, wild America.
Almost at my destination: Newark Airport, to return to the UK, for the start of a new life.
I watched the trees succumbing to fall’s firework colours. My life too was turning from shades of grey to… who knew what new colours. All I knew was that nothing was going to be the same again.
Casting my mind back to events of recent weeks, the words of The Mamas and The Papas’ California Dreamin’ sprang to mind.
All the leaves are brown
And the sky is gray.
I’ve been for a walk
On a winter’s day.
I’d be safe and warm
if I was in LA
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.
Several of the song’s themes had converged on my life:
– The autumn / winter background (although the skies weren’t grey or even the US ‘gray’!).
– Nostalgic thoughts of Los Angeles – which would always hold a special place in my heart.
– The reference to church and prayer…
After that initial first-ever-prayer-in-my-life in Portland, Oregon (see Like a Rolling Stone), I knew it was time to move on, to follow the call back to England. But first I was to stop again at my friend Nancy’s house in East LA.
For one thing, I needed to apply to the British Consulate in Los Angeles for a temporary passport, since my full passport had been stolen – a fact that the Consulate seemed to disbelieve. Perhaps they were too used to British travellers selling their passports for a meal or a bag of weed. I was guilty of many crimes and misdemeanours, but not this one! However, they reluctantly agreed to issue me with the temporary passport, so I could travel back to the UK.
Nancy was living with her Aunt Eva, Uncle Danny and cousins Tony, Alfred and Terry. This welcoming Mexican-American family, for the second time on my travels round the States, embraced me as one of their own. In fact, I’d been treated to the family’s hospitality on both sides of the Atlantic: in my teenage years, when my home was not a home, and Nancy was living in Lewes, her house would often be a haven (so I didn’t have to cycle the 11 miles back to Buxted at the end of a beery night out), I’d play Manic Miner and Monopoly with her brother David in the morning, and her mother Martha would feed me. My first taste of chilli con carne was at this amazing house – I’ve been hooked ever since!
I’m forever indebted to Nancy’s family, who showed me such kindness, showed me what real family is.
I don’t know a great deal about Mexican-American East LA, but in a recent interview with The Big Issue, singer/artist Will I Am described his upbringing in “the ghettos of East LA, where young lives are ruined, still, by drugs, gangs and jail”.
My impression, from my limited experience of the neighbourhood, was that of a safe, gracious, close-knit community, woven together by tangible love and genuine faith.
I tasted the delights of the local Catholic community, in the form of a Mexican charity breakfast that included a combination of eggs, chillies and rice – beats a full English any day, in my book!
So central was the local Catholic church, Saint Alphonsus, to this neighbourhood, that it held 5 services each Sunday, some in English, some in Spanish, to accommodate all its congregants. Here was a spiritual community, it seemed, with faith at its heart.
Although I’d taken my initial step into faith in Oregon, when I told God, “I think I believe in you and I’m going to give this Christianity a try!”, I’d taken the step alone – I hadn’t gone to church. In fact, I had never once willingly gone to church in my entire life.
But during the week or two that I stayed in East LA, I attended this Catholic church because I wanted to. The service was modern, upbeat, with guitars and gusto. I’d never experienced church like this before.
In the New Jersey park a few weeks later I reminisced on my time in LA, already with fondness, recalling what I thought were the words from California Dreamin’:
Stopped in to a church I passed along the way.
Well I got down on my knees
And I began to pray.
The verse mirrored my actions in the LA church, where at the end of the service, I knelt in the pew and prayed at length, in silence. A sincere, more definite act of handing over my life to Jesus than the previous, vague prayer in Portland, Oregon. Another quiet but momentous spiritual milestone. It felt good – very good.
Was this, rather than that moment in Oregon, when I really gave my life to Jesus? Or was it eighteen months later, when I was baptised at Clarendon Church in Hove, and made a definite act of leaving behind some of my old ways? Or two years later when I was tangibly filled with the Holy Spirit’s love and joy?
The truth is, our devotion to God – giving our lives to Jesus – tends to happen in stages. Being born again, like any labour, may happen in an instant or gradually, but all children grow in spurts. And whatever steps we think we take are initiated by our loving Father, who causes the growth.
Every step I’ve taken towards God has been because of his moving within me.
It’s only while preparing this blog, that I discovered that that line in California Dreamin’ is not in fact:
And I began to pray
And I pretend to pray
The real words are a million miles from the authenticity of my act of faith in the LA church. There was no pretence.
Even as an atheist I was genuine – I never pretended to pray. When, in my teens, I refused to participate in saying grace at my grandmother’s house in Holland, she was somewhat shocked.
(Later, my grandmother was one of the first people I told about having come to faith. I received a beautiful, emotional letter in response about how she’d prayed for me with tears. I’ve treasured that letter to this day).
At primary school, when reciting the Lord’s Prayer in assembly, I confess I did acquiesce, even though the words meant nothing to me. One morning, though, my friend Justin and I decided to make it more interesting. When we got to “Give us this day our daily bread”, we continued “…and butter and Marmite and jam and cheese spread…etc”!
A snotty prefect noticed us ‘talking’ during the Lord’s Prayer and we were sent to the headmaster’s office, where we were reprimanded. It wasn’t treated as a caneable offence, but I reckon it was one of those childhood incidents that helped to put me off ‘religion’, and even now I recoil against reciting the Lord’s Prayer by rote (although I’ve come to love using it as a set of themes, a basis for bringing real, personal requests to my Father).
I recount that episode, partly to illustrate my genuineness as an atheist prior to believing, but also to observe the irony: although Justin and I made this amendment to the Lord’s Prayer in fun, to liven up a boring assembly – this ‘prayer’ that got us into trouble, if genuine, would have been a perfectly commendable prayer to the Father who loves to hear our requests and thanks for the everyday things of life!
But back to the New Jersey park, reminiscing over California:
I’d be safe and warm
if I was in LA
To stay in the USA, perhaps California, would in many ways have been the safe option, my comfort zone. In ensuing years, people would sometimes ask me whether I would like to return to live in the States. But I was convinced of God’s calling back to my home country.
Although I had no idea what the future held, I had a new-found, irresistible urge to put the things I’d been given to good use. The first two years back in England were somewhat rocky in places, as I worked out how to live my life as this new person. Some old habits died hard. But die they did and the course of my life was soon set on training to be a nurse. I also never lost sight of my roots or my affinity with the marginalised and downtrodden: it wasn’t long before I found myself volunteering with homeless people in Eastbourne, while doing my nurse training. The call to homeless people continues to this day.
The initial return to England, to Lewes, and letting people know of my new faith, was interesting! I soon found out who my real friends were, as some seemed to distance themselves from me. But there was a funny and poignant comment that sticks in my mind. After word had got round that “Roger had got religious”, my friend Scoby joked with me that he’d expected to see me with a shaven head and orange robe!
Eastern ideas had appealed along the way, but if I’d been searching for anything, I’d searched for truth and Jesus is what I’d found. Nothing else added up.
You don’t have to agree with this, but I believe that people who search for healing or peace may embrace any number of religions or philosophies that provide merely superficial psychological balm. But that those who seek truth will find the one thing, the one person, who will transform them on the inside, bringing outward change like ever-expanding ripples. It’s an inside out job.
Let me balance that bold statement by confessing that I’m not immune to doubts and struggles, and my healing after 25 years with Jesus has not finished.
And yet, in a sense, I’ve already arrived. He cried out on the cross – and in his grace he announces over me – “It is finished”. In his perspective, it’s a done deal. Job done.
Hence, in Jesus, we are set free from the endless striving for self-vindication demanded by the cruel taskmasters of karma and religion.
Do I still dream of California? Well, no – but East LA, Saint Alphonsus Church and the Tellez family forever live in my heart. And who knows, maybe I’ll return for a visit one day, to this incredible community that supported my first faltering steps into my new spiritual family as a child of the Father. And maybe I’ll stop into that church again and once again begin to pray…