At 22, I left for the South Pacific, an island city called Fotuna in the small island nation of Tonga. I arrived, bible in hand, for a three year stay as a Peace Corps volunteer. I was bringing untarnished drinking water to a small village - with a firm chaser of the word of God.
Haight and Ashbury had combined genetically to create an artist, my sister, a writer, my brother… Me? well... My parents were so proud to see me take an expensive degree in engineering and put it to work in the Peace Corps. The rest of who I had become truly confounded them.
An atheist and an agnostic had created, a Christian. When I told my parents that I’d found Jesus Christ - it played out a little bit like the stereotypical coming out conversation might have.
“Jesus…. Really?” My mother asked like she hadn’t cared for me enough as a child, and somehow now I needed Jesus.
My pop remained very quiet about it for a while, and told me quietly that I was entitled to my own choices but he wouldn’t tolerate evangelism and discussions of hellfire or damnation, because all that was stuff he’d escaped and become smarter about as a man himself. He’d escaped Jesus - but part of him, he understood Jesus as well.
To go from city life to South Pacific life was surely described as isolating. I was such a blithering stereotype of whiteness, lets just be clear and say I knew nothing and everything at the same time.
Energized by faith, I just let each day roll out before me. If you’d ever read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms, she often composes little poems and songs to express her feelings or to amuse her siblings. I was completely blind to how ridiculous, naive and infuriating my learned hyper-happiness could be. Nobody had questioned my buoyant, weaponized happiness until Tobias arrived.
He arrived about three months into my stay, and came from the complete opposite world of affluence and white privilege I'd been soaking in before leaving the States. He was a big thick built, curly haired hispanic. He looked like he belonged on the offensive line of a football team than planning well digs for the Peace Corps.
His arms and neck were covered in tattoos. Myself and the other volunteers had suspected were gang related. And on his neck, a christian cross had been both tattooed and dutifully shaved out of his hair and beard. Describing Tobias as intimidating is an understatement.
I started noticing he’d spend meal times by himself and that when services happened he was absent. So one day I took it upon myself to sit with him at mealtime. I learned he’d come from south Los Angeles, and this was his way of escaping some of the problems his siblings had experienced. Completely oblivious to any of the real power of what he’d just told me I started in on my San Francisco childhood and almost immediately complimented him on his cross tattoo, and jumped into meeting Jesus.
He almost hit me out of my chair within a few seconds. He was not amused being so blithely introduced and kindly suggested that if I didn’t temper my faith - that someone was liable to smack it back down throat so hard that I wouldn’t eat, but from a straw, for a few months.
“I know Jesus too - but perhaps a different Jesus.” He said leaning at me over the table, “I’ve seen your little black book used to punish and keep entire nations and whole communities controlled. I’ve seen poverty reasserted while gold lined vestments walk the cathedrals in its midst. Jesus was probably an amazing man, but his world was thousands of years ago - and now his church uses the cross to dehumanize and hold once proud cultures under its thumb. I wear this cross on my neck for a sister that was gun downed in drug violence at six years old, playing in our front yard.
I think it's clear from that look on your face, that you actually don't know Jesus as well as you claim, because if you didn't know any of that, then you don’t really understand the faith you so blindly wave around. You keep making assumptions about people based on only that, and you are going to a lonely, friendless man.”
He left me there alone.
There are few life pivots that you can so clearly remember. I remember touching my cheek, as if in an alternate reality his fist had destroyed all the teeth in the side of my jaw. I remember becoming very emotional, almost crying, from the intensity of the moment. His words hit me almost harder than a fist would have, and that was one of his first lessons for me.
Tobias and I finally saw our way through our stumbling first meeting to become friends. We both stared out at the ocean as it raced away from the small islands shore, bonded together by the time both of us dreaming of people we’d left behind to be there.
One morning, I found a neatly wrapped package on my doorstep. I opened it to find a tattered book of poems by a Sufi from Afghanistan named Rumi. Tobias wrote on the card very simply, “Not all prophets walk on water. Learn from all of them….”