By the Grace of God

This image is the closest thing
to my recollections of a Beji-nite
service, although it was taken in
Jamaica. Image thanks to our
friends over at The Photoyard
Digital Photography Club.

Being Black, Westindian and Christian had become as confusing as it was trying to figuring out my people at home. In the meantime I began feeling that the independent nature of Christian Protestantism would become an integral part of my religious life, which was the life of most Panamanian Westindians in Panama. The Beji-Nite Churches I had started to visit with my grandmother, in particular, had become the eye opening experience I needed to understand what I had come to accept as the truth about my people on the Canal Zone Silver Roll.

The kindly nuns at Cristo Rey Catholic Church in Bella Vista, however, would be instrumental in feeding the initial love I felt for Spanish Catholicism. The yearning for the nurturing mother I had never known got transferred, I suppose, to idealizing that adoring image of the Virgin Mary, the “Mother of God,” so that Catholicism for me was embodied in the Virgin Mary and the gentle, benevolent black veiled nuns who could not even imagine the story behind a black kid who used to show up at the back patio door of the rectory searching for “Catechism.”

Somehow I saw independence in those nuns who reached out with compassion to me, becoming a balm to my very soul. Undetected by even myself, I was growing up independent from my Westindianess, waiting until I was of age to simply flee in the other direction. In the meantime I looked forward to the days when some of the barrio kids and I would get together to just show up in the back of the church rectory announcing that we were there for catechism class. The delighted nuns would then patiently come out to serve us all with a smile on their faces, rewarding our pious inclinations with beautifully printed religious cards with the images of Christ, the Virgin and other Catholic Saints.

I viewed the priests differently, however, and it was not until I was about to end primary school that I still maintained a safe distance between myself and the Catholic priests who I noticed somehow harboured a cruel streak towards us Westindian kids.

The Virgin Mary, the Nuns and the Westindian Beji-Nite Church “Mothers” were the people I dreamed of admitting into my heaven since I, in my adolescent estimation, had forged an emotional distance between myself and the male servants of Christianity since my first encounter with young priests.

It must have been during my initial encounters at the Catholic Church’s sponsored movies that were attended by mostly the barrio kids like me. It seemed to me that the attitude of those prelates was rather stiff, uncaring and joyless, as if they found no joy in their heaven. The authority that their black robes demanded they, in turn, used for abusing me and other kids.

They were as cold, racist, brutal and cruel as any of the bully-boys in any of the barrio neighborhoods I’d learned to adapt to only they were wrapped in the vestment of their church. They enjoyed, for example, torturing us little black boys by grabbing us in a virtual choke hold and jamming their closed knuckles into our heads, especially if we could not afford the nickel or dime they charged for entry into the makeshift cinema the church had provided. Then they would wear a totally benign expression on their faces, as if they hadn’t caused us great pain and humiliation.

These were my fleeting first encounters with Catholic priests and they left me with no desire to expand my dealings with them. However, probably due to the redeeming qualities in the female members of the clergy I still laid claim to a fuzzy Catholicism. In fact my claim went as far back as when I remembered that my mother had told me that I had been baptised in Santa Ana Catholic Cathedral. I was henceforward a “Catholic by the Grace of God,” as we were taught in catechism.

This story continues.

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