Last week, I took my seven-year-old daughter to a local elementary school play about John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed. We arrived late and slipped into the last seats in the back of the auditorium. Eugenia climbed up on my knees so she could see over the sea of grown-up heads.
At one point in the play a third-grader, playing the part of female settler, sang longingly of her home in Boston: a “home so far away.”
“I have a home so far away,” Eugenia whispered. The words were precise, matter-of-fact: “I have two homes: Russia and here.” Though my husband and I adopted Eugenia when she was almost four, she claims to remember very little about it — but still brings up her old life, once or twice a year.
I nodded, waiting.
“I have two moms,” my daughter continued.
I tilted my chin again, and she snuggled up close. “Mama? I love you more than anything in the whole wide world.” I drew a long breath: feeling badly for Eugenia’s first mother, because she wasn’t overtly included in this statement, and relieved for myself, because I was.
I gave Eugenia a squeeze. “And I love you more than anything in the whole wide world.”
She twisted in my lap and peered at my face, demanding: “Even more than Will and Mac?”
“Well . . . I guess I could say the same thing about all three of you kids. But right now, we’re talking about you.”
I grew up attending fundamentalist, evangelical churches, where people spoke of a home far away (heaven) and were fond of claiming: “We’re not of this world.” The faithful quoted Bible passages that called believers “ambassadors.” The pastors told us we were citizens of heaven, not of earth.
As a teenager, this logic fueled my feelings of existential angst. My belief that no one understood me was a source of tremendous pain — and tremendous pride. Spirituality was something that separated me from, not connected me with, the rest of the humanity and the rest of the world.
That was two decades ago. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about being human and about being a citizen of this planet. I discovered long ago that considering myself “set apart” was no way to make friends — or to make people feel loved. I’ve traveled and have seen how people live in less wealthy cultures. For more than a decade, I worked in the religious publishing industry; but after abandoning the music, books, and magazines of Christian culture I became infinitely more receptive to the raw truth around me. I found that truth in stories shared with friends over a beer; in another friend’s tales about post-Katrina volunteer work in Mississippi; in my neighbors’ decision to live a low-impact life.
I know I’m not the only one whose eyes have been opened. Unfortunately, many of the religious community’s self-appointed spokesmen are still missing the point. I once believed the world’s problems had little to do with me. After all, if the world isn’t my home, then I have no reason to take care of it: It isn’t my responsibility! Such reasoning seems to echo behind the words in a recent letter to the National Association of Evangelicals, signed by 25 prominent church leaders, including Dr. James Dobson:
“We have observed that [NAE Policy Director Richard] Cizik and others are using the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time, notably the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children . . .”
Of course! Why worry about war, destruction of the planet, and genocide when the more pressing issues are gay marriage and teen sex? And forget about protecting the lives of the five million children who die of hunger each year. Life is only important as long as it’s within the womb.
Or is it? And if not — what am I going to do about it?
Late in the Johnny Appleseed play, Eugenia and I watched as the third-grade lead, still pining for her “home so far away,” threatened to return to Boston if the trees that John Chapman planted didn’t thrive. It reminded me how much easier it was, back in my old religious days, to think about heaven than it is to do the hard work of trying to make the world a better place.
Our home isn’t my daughter’s first — or only — home. But she has embraced this world as wholeheartedly as if it’s exactly what she was put on this earth to do. Perhaps she was. I can’t help but wonder how things would be different if the rest of us — churchgoers and non-churchgoers, alike — believed that we were put in this world to love it, too.