Birthdays and summer breaks kept us in touch, occasionally. I always showed up on the dot for her son's birthdays, in my way too literal, prompt, Anglo fashion, while the rest of her Latino guests would arrive about an hour or two later. She would joke that she should send me a different invitation with the "real" time listed so that I wouldn't always be so early.
She had called me the day before to say "hi" and to see if I'd like to get together to talk about the summer and what we could do with the kids that would be fun. After chatting for a few minutes, she asked if I had half an hour to spare the next day. Having just finished my last day of work for the school year, I gladly made time for her.
As she sat down on the couch next to me, I noticed she wasn't wearing her normal make-up and her eyes seemed a little puffy and tired. She works two part-time jobs, so I dismissed it as fatigue.
As we talked, I realized that the thirty minutes she had asked about was going to be spent on a sales pitch. She moved quickly from general conversation, with a purposeful side discussion about the church she was now attending and the Bible Institute she was taking classes from which was strict, but according to the Bible, to a DVD presentation about the company she was working for and their products.
I covered over my swirling anxiety with a fake smile and nodded while she talked, simultaneously thinking of ways that I could disentangle myself gracefully from the situation and not hurt her feelings.
Sadness began to well up inside of me as I listened, half of my mind attempting to stay engaged while the other half began to contemplate what had happened to my friend Leila. I realized that the black, curly hair, which tumbled down her shoulders, was different than the orange-y, blond streaks that she used to like. I noticed that she was dressed more conservatively, in a high necked shirt and wearing a skirt, instead of her normal shorts and showy blouses, bare ears instead of her usual dangling, sparkly earrings
I slowly began to piece things together and was left inwardly conflicted.
Leila and her husband, Angel, had just started attending a very conservative church the last time I had seen her. She had been excited and interested in sharing things with me. I was happy for her, but also uncertain in what to say, if anything, to her. My own spiritual mess kept me from being crazily enthusiastic, but I also didn't want to discourage her or challenge any of her new-found excitement.
I kept silent as I so often choose to do when someone I care about believes something in a way that I personally don't care for. I restrain my emotions. I tighten my tongue into lock-down mode. I carefully guard what I'm thinking, trying make sure nothing slips through to pour water on someone else's lit fire.
Doing this makes me feel lonely.....as if I have some terrible secret that I can't share without it destroying everything in its whirlwind path. It sections me off from people I care about but can't be fully honest with, not just for my sake, but for their own sake. I wind up living with these segmented relationships that can go only go so far, and then no farther.
All of these emotions bubbled up in me as I listened to Leila's accented English, which she always apologizes for but which is actually quite excellent.
What would I say to her? How would I turn her down without crushing her hope of growing her business through signing me up? Could I turn her down when I knew that the money would be very helpful to her family?
When she finished her presentation, I asked her how she had gotten into this particular business and was unsurprised when she said it was through a "brother" at her new church. I had been expecting that answer and would have been shocked if she said she had gotten into it any other way.
Conservative, evangelical/fundamentalist(?) church culture and direct marketing, or multi-level marketing, seem to be common bedfellows at times. I still remember the time DH and I started attending a large Baptist church in Ohio and had someone try to set up an appointment for his direct marketing business during the greeting/hand-shaking portion of the service. His handshake ended with a business card being placed adeptly in DH's hand.
Completely dissonant with what we thought we were at church for.
I told Leila that I would think about her offer...which was a lie because I already knew what I thought of her offer...though technically I am writing and thinking about it now...so maybe I can skate by with the rationalization that it wasn't a lie.
We ended the conversation discussing the summer and our kids again, and whether we were busy on Sunday. I wished her a good day and she left.
A few years earlier I would have been thrilled at Leila's involvement in church, any church. I had the sense that there was turbulence in her relationship with her partner and sometimes with her mother. I would have wanted her to know God as a grounding presence in her life.
In a way, I think she has found that. She certainly seems more focused on working on her family and doing things the "right" way. Those are all good things.....and those are some of the things that keep me from feeling as if I have completely fallen over the edge of Christian faith.
I wouldn't be who I am now without my conversion at the age of almost seventeen. I wouldn't have the family I have now. I wouldn't have the marriage I have now. I wouldn't have had the strength to move through so many of the problems that have come my way in life.
Without that faith.....I'm not certain what path my life would have followed.
On the other hand, I have had a lot to work through in that same faith. It hasn't come without its share of hurt, disappointment and disillusionment.
When I see Leila, I see myself and the bone-headed enthusiasm that led me to say and do a lot of things that I wish I hadn't said and done in the name of my faith.
It's hard not to make my story be her story. It's hard to separate myself and my fears for her if things go south at this particular church she's attending. I want to protect her.
It's ludicrous and condescending to think that way....I know it is. We must each find our own way.
Watching other people do it is simply hard for me.