Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Children's Spirituality

Pic: Two dads on Joshua's collection day from the Princess Alice Adoption Home. Leon is holding Gabriel

It was our Muslim social worker who asked us a question which was to set back the adoption process of our first child, Gabriel, by a good couple of weeks. She asked what religion we were intending to bring our child up in.

We both balked and the matter required intensive discussion and thought. At the time, I had not seen the inside of a church for a good 12 years –( well I suppose I had, dragged kicking and screaming into one or two weddings, or sneaking into the back row of a funeral or two – but nothing more). Leon, my partner, on the other hand, was so damaged by his experience of the church, growing up as a gay person in a church environment - which hated, despised and rejected what he knew he was - that he wanted to stay as far away from anything even sounding like the “C” word, for the rest of his life.
So we discussed the matter. We debated the matter. We pondered. For weeks! And finally, we decided that the issue which the social worker was asking us about, was actually that of culture. We are two white men. The child which we were getting, was black. We are a same-sex couple. Then, it was fairly uncommon for people like us to be adopting children. What “culture” would we be bringing this child up in?

I said to Leon, “Look, I know what my culture is. It is High Church Anglicanism. That’s what I have grown up in. That is what I know. That is where I learned my values, and those values are what I continue to value”. The debate went on. I had, after all, shaken the dust of the church off my feet and was not missing it in the least. But I knew, without any doubt that I wanted the church to be part of my raising of my children. I wanted them to know faith. I wanted them to experience mystery. I wanted them to become acquainted with the long traditions of Anglican experience. I wanted them to know what had shaped me and moulded me and what had established the value system I held. Leon agreed and further agreed to support me in enabling this to happen – which meant that – without much relish, but with no disapproval, he would also come regularly to church and be with the family.

An atheist friend of mine was talking to me about this issue one day and said this. She said that she had brought up her children as atheists and it was a decision she deeply regretted. She regretted it, because, she said, when they were frightened, or alone, or worried, or distraught, they had nowhere to go. They had nowhere to go for comfort. They had to face what they were facing alone. They had to face the void all on their own. She said if she had the chance to do it over again, she would not have brought them up as atheists. For me, that discussion was determinative.

The immediate difficulty would be finding a church. We were living outside Pretoria at the time, so I did some research on likely candidates, and found Christ Church Arcadia, with its priest Fr David Swanepoel. I phoned him and we had a very long conversation. I explained to him that I was a priest who hadn’t been to church for many years and hadn’t really missed it. I said I was in a same-sex relationship and that we had two trans-racially adopted sons. He paused briefly and then said this – He said, “Michael, I have no idea what my parish is going to make of two gay white boys with adopted black children, but why don’t you come along and see if you like us?
I found that extraordinarily enlightened. We went and we did like it. The congregation was fairly white, but not entirely. The theology seemed accommodating and reasonable and the music was spectacular – so we decided to join. Returning to church, for me, was like getting into a warm bath. The words rolled off my tongue. I could go back to that place in my being, which for me speaks of my essence – that place where I can find my language, my grammar, my words. That place from where the rest of me can be interpreted. As I said, my partner, Leon, finds it all rather less exalted in every way, but our agreement is that he will come with to support the decision. And that is what he does.

Fr David and his wife Margie are remarkable people. Initially, every Sunday they would both wait outside the front door, to welcome us at the church. In that way, they made it plain to the congregation, what we were welcome there. And consequently, the rest of the parish did welcome us warmly. Both our boys were baptised there and on their baptism certificates, the word “mother” is replaced by another “father” – so we both appear as the children’s parents and were both referred to as such during the service. All it took, was leadership. We worshipped regularly there for a number of years.

We moved to Cape Town to be close to Leon’s family. I have looked around for a church which is well mixed racially and which is accepting of gay people generally and would be of us in particular. The Cathedral was always an option, with its long and proud history of struggle and human rights but I was looking more for a parish church setting. I am happy to have found a home in St Michael’s and All Angels, Observatory. It is a parish with a bit of a history, but it has been extremely welcoming to us as a family and the boys feel very at home there now. In fact, to my mind, they are a bit too enthusiastic about going to Sunday School!

But I found this church after a lot of dithering and dathering. I visited many churches in the area, trying to make a good choice. One day Gabriel came home and asked me “Daddy, is God’s name Allah?” I paused for a moment and said “Well, yes, it is! God’s name is also - (and now I thought very hard indeed, and came up with...) God!” It was then that I decided that it was well nigh time for the children get back to church.

So, in a strange and roundabout way, my two children have also brought me back into the church. And I can see them more and more getting the point of it all – so very quickly. Soon, Gabriel will be making his first communion, because he has asked for it. And before I blink, they will be rebellious teenagers, and then they will make their own decisions. But I have no doubt, the groundwork will have been done. They will know faith, even if they want to reject it. And I hope in their life’s journey, that when they are frightened or lonely, they will, at the very least, have somewhere to go for comfort.

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