Getting to Here

Sign at Dulles Airport chapel inviting all faith traditions to use it for prayer, reflection and meditation

Anthony Barbagallo

November 15, 2015

“Are all my Jewish friends going to hell?” I asked my parish priest in Suffern, NY, where I grew up.

Although Suffern was a predominantly Christian village, with Sacred Heart Catholic church and school facing the small town square at the intersection of Lafayette Avenue and Washington Street, my family had moved to a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on the very border of Spring Valley, the next town over, which seemed much more Jewish. Spring Valley had Pakula’s Bakery – our favorite – on Main Street, which was clearly a Jewish bakery. And our neighborhood was tucked in between the Conservative Hebrew Institute of Rockland County and the Orthodox/Hassidic, Chaufus Chaim schools. And I had the Cullens next door, who were Lutheran, and the Banyens down the block who were, I don’t even know what, I mean they were from Canada. Many of my friends in the neighborhood were Jewish and attended the Hebrew Institute. And at 8, I was concerned for their souls.

I mean, here I was sharing Sukkot meals with them and making sure we were “kosher” when I invited them over for dinner. We played baseball and football and bicycled together. Really? God was going to condemn them to hell because they wore a yarmulke instead of a crucifix? Really? I didn’t know the phrase then, but I was thinking, “What would Jesus do?”

The answer to my question really started me on my personal religious journey. Because at 8 years old, all you know is what you are told in church and learn at home. So when Father Joyce said to me, “No. God is merciful to all who worship and keep faith in the way of their fathers, the way that they are taught,” it opened a whole new horizon to me. It affirmed my belief in an all merciful God, and the teachings of Jesus to love one another as he loved us and as we love ourselves. It also made me start to think about how all religions shared, but did not own, those universal truths.

In all fairness, I have to say that growing up in such a mixed neighborhood and in my own family was really an incubator for my religious awakening. My closest friends were the Cullens next door and they were Lutheran. Instead of going to CYO (the catholic youth group), I went to Lutheran League with them. Ironically it was my mother – who let me go to Lutheran League in the first place – who brought me to our parish priest, now Father Zamit, to ask if my plans to participate in the League’s youth-led service at their church was okay. It was not, according to Father Z. I say ironically, because my mother was the product of a “mixed marriage.” Her mother was Lutheran and her father Catholic. Later in life my mother would convert or return – I am not clear which – to the Lutheran Church of her mother. Go figure.

Over the years, I questioned more and more about religion and its fundamental tenets. Unlike my favorite philosopher, Rene’ Descartes, who said, “I think, therefore I am,” I did not resign in the struggle to reconcile my intellectual understanding of the world with the classical understanding of God. His solution was to say, “I can’t do any better so I’ll go along.” I, instead, have said, “I doubt that I can ever understand this, so I’ll affirm in all honesty that I don’t know what and who God is and if he/she/it exists. I’m open to a meeting if they choose to appear, but I’m not holding my breath.” My theology is built on what I perceive to be those universal truths of religions the world over: love each other, care for the world we have been entrusted with, be fair with one another and try to do no harm. Try to find joy, happiness and share love along the way. Show respect for those past and for the possibility of the divine.

I affirm the value of religious practice and inquiry. I believe in the interconnected web of the universe – after all we are all made of the same stuff from the big bang so long ago. And the nature of that connection? Is that God? It is spiritual. It is divine. I can almost feel it at times.

I like the way that the pagans describe the fall – Sowin  – as when the veil between this world and the next is thin. I am not sure about the seasonality, but I feel that I have brushed up against some very thin places in that veil over my life. I call those spiritual moments. Moments when I “see God.” They don’t happen often. But they are worth the quest.

Poor Father Joyce. If he knew what he started, perhaps he’d have to confess and even be ex-communicated for losing my immortal soul.

But, in all fairness to my Catholic education and educators, I have to say that it prepared me well for who I am today. At my high school reunion 15 years ago, I told my high school biology teacher, Father Jeffcoat, whom I revered, that I was no longer Catholic, but going to a Protestant church.

“Which one?” he asked with some trepidation.

“Unitarian Universalist,” I responded.

“Oh, thank goodness,” he said. “I was afraid you went over to one of those whacko fundamentalist religions. The UUs are good people. Thinkers. Open. Alright.”

I like to think so.


(Photo credit: Irina Slutsky‘s catholic islamic protestant jewish)