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Davis, California

Friday, July 19, 2024

Column: Faith and doubt

Perhaps it’s appropriate that we’re in Old Town Sacramento when the conversation of ghosts and demons comes up. It’s Paul, Jerrel and I eating hot dogs after the clever owner of a hot dog joint just cheated us into buying sodas.

Old Town Sacramento’s something out of a movie – with its old Western houses, saloons with wooden panels – and the three of us are wearing oxfords with the sleeves rolled up to our elbows to play the part. We’re here for a friend’s graduation from the Sacramento Entrepreneurship Academy, but because we were hungry and found out there wouldn’t be any food at the graduation, we sleazed out and got some hot dogs next door.

Jerrel’s telling us a story his father told him about a demon-possessed woman who walked into the church once when his father was a kid. He and his brother were sitting near the back row. At first, they couldn’t see. It was a black church in San Bernardino. This was the ’70s.

She was a crackhead prostitute, Jerrel said. It was at the end of the sermon when the pastor called all who were tired and weary to come to the alter and to seek refuge in God. She came up to the altar, but instead a voice came out of her in two tones to curse the Lord. I’m guessing this is when she caught the attention of Jerrel’s father.

“She started moving uncontrollably,” Jerrel says, and when he imitates the movements she made, his arms and his neck move like a dance, all controlled by different minds and different spirits, but in a terrible rhythm that made you feel guilty if you thought it made sense.

Jerrel says she started to shake, and the members sitting near the front came around to hold her down. She screamed, and the pastor repeated “I rebuke you, Satan” over and over again until she fell to the floor. Soon, the rest of the church came to pray over her as the pastor commanded the demon to come out of her.

Finally, after some time, the pastor said one last prayer and she fell silent. Everyone else then turned silent, and the congregation heard footsteps run down the hallway in the back of the sanctuary. They turned, and the doors burst open. Not one person had left the building.

They looked at the door, saw a giant crack through six-inch thick wood and they prayed and prayed and prayed.

Jerrel asked his uncle if that really happened, and he said, “Oh, yes. We couldn’t sleep for days afterward. But you know, it was a blessing in disguise because after that, we all knew Satan was real.”

“Damn. Maybe that’s what I need,” Paul says. He’s been an atheist for years, though he’s studied everything from Taoism to Christianity to find something he can call real. So far, it hasn’t happened.

If you’d asked me why I believed in God, I couldn’t give you a straight answer. Especially when the reasons to the contrary are piling up. The molestation scandals are sweeping the Catholic Church all over the Western hemisphere. The Christian Right is embarrassing America for supporting Neoliberalism and the war on terror. So much of the language I hear in church is so antiquated and medieval that I even have a hard time buying into it.

I was in the seventh grade when my father got laid off from the engineering job at Erickson that he worked at since before I was born. My mother had to work extra hours as my father tried fruitlessly to find another job. This continued for a few years until he decided to go into seminary to become a pastor.

It was only two years into his job at a new Chinese megachurch that certain members of his congregation had started a petition, though unsuccessful, to get him fired. I was infuriated, but my mother told me that these things “always happen” and you have to trust in God.

She told me that when she was a girl, the church she went to in Kowloon was worse. The pastor was caught in a scandal stealing money from the church’s offering. Every Sunday morning, eight bald men would sit in the front pew and yell at him during the sermon. Afterwards, they would roll out three-foot scrolls of indictments at the entryway to yell at everyone who walked out, and women would put stones in their purses to swing at them as they exited.

I asked my father why he thought the Bible was real once when I was kid. What was worth all this trouble? Only in retrospect do I realize all the different things he could have told me, but chose not to.

My father was one who thought silence spoke louder than words, as often times my whole family would be engaged in a conversation at the dinner table while he’d be aloof the entire time, not saying a word. There are stories that he’s never told me, that I’ve only heard from my mother – like when he saw an angel come beside an old friend’s deathbed in the last moments of his life, or when he began speaking in an unknown language he says the Holy Spirit gave him.

When I asked my dad, the answer he gave me was “Because your Father in Heaven loves you and He wouldn’t lie to you.”

This was before I learned about the canonization of the Bible. Before I learned about the Council of Jamnia, and the copying of the LXX. But even then, as a kid, the faith alone that my father loved me was enough to believe that he would never lie to me.

GEOFF MAK sincerely apologizes to all who were offended by last week’s column, especially his brothers and sisters in his fellowship. Some things are meant to be private and dealt with directly. E-mail him at gemak@ucdavis.edu.


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