Thursday, March 12, 2009

Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres

This review was previously published on April 5, 2008.

When I returned to Lake City, I visited the former music minister. This was back in early '83.

He no longer attended the church we used to share.

Actually, he was 'between churches'.

"The last church asked us to leave because we brought a black child on the bus."

When he told me this, I thought I saw a new side to this man.

Our former church had severe racial ideas, so I took this to mean he now supported newly acquired progressive values.

How wrong I was!

"If we can't bring black children to church, where are they gonna go? A liberal church that tells 'em nothing's wrong with black and white's dating? Whose goin' tell them they can't date each other? Whose gonna tell them they are a cursed race? But still blessed?"

My former music director wasn't the only person who did the right thing for the wrong reason.

Jesus Land, published in 2005, and gaining popularity around the world, is a book about such people.

When I first saw the book at Border's, I thought it was a warm hearted memoir of growing up as an evangelical Christian. I stayed away for that reason. The last thing I desired was nostalgia for Sandi Patti or Pat Boone. Or worse, smarmy ex-fundamentalists throwing sarcastic barbs at the faults of their former handlers, but refusing to acknowledge any weaknesses in themselves.

That was a mistake.

'Ex-Fundamentalist' is not the proper term for Julia.

She appears to have avoided the koolaide.

Her B.S. detector serves her well while growing up with an abusive father, who is a doctor and sometimes medical missionary, and a stern mother. Mother and father adopted children, including two African Americans named David and Jerome.

If this sounds like a Christian family void of racial prejudice, that is the illusion the family meant to project.

Jerome is beaten by the father.

Literally: a rod.

The skin breaks and blood is shed. He stops being 'father' and becomes a slave driver.

The brother takes it out on Julia.

He forces himself on her after each beating.

She does not say anything. If she does, the father will beat him again.

The cycle will continue.

Behavioral problems ensue (surprise! surprise!) with David after Jerome is beaten.

David is shipped to Escuela Caribe, a boys and girls home operated by New Horizons ministry, in the Dominican Republic.

Julia finds herself in some legal problems of her own. Her mother calls the police on her and forces her to spend a night in jail.

You know, might do her some good!

She is now given a choice:

a) Become an emancipated minor.

b) New Horizon's Escuela Caribe.

She chooses Escuela Caribe to be closer to David.

Julia misses her brother. In spite of the one unkind comment, they were close and dreamed of rooming together in Florida.

She is shown an advertisement for New Horizons in the fundamentalist glossy, Christianity Today.

The tropics? Beach every night?

The abuse she encounters at New Horizons is harrowing. Tropical diseases, watching her brother get punched in the gut by staff, betrayal by 'friends', and a culture that rewards snitching, awaits her. Teens are beaten. Treated like prisoners. One is impregnated by a staff member.

When the pregnant girl, and pastor who made her so, is sent home, Julia creates the fantasy only a teenage girl, imprisoned with hormones blazing, can have. To paraphrase: Seduce a staff member! Get laid and go home!

Julia does not give in to this idea. It would take her away from David, and that's why she's here in the first place.

It certainly would not have been impossible. The founder of New Horizons, in a scene rivaling any 70's era women's prison flick, threatens Julia.

He tells of a 'fornicating' girl he stripped naked and beat black and blue.

The implication: Julia better tow the line or it's bondage time.

Contemporary Christian Music provides the soundtrack to this tragedy. Punishment meted out while Sandi Patti and Pat Boone serenade.

"He who endures to the end shall be saved.", says the scripture.

Julia endures.

There is no maternal/paternal love in this book. Julia is the biological daughter of her mother, but there has never been any closeness. Same with her father.

David and Julia are not of the same blood, yet share a bond that goes deeper than blood.

This is not simply an expose. It is a story of survival.

Jesus Land is no mere memoir. It is a classic. It takes it's rightful place in the expanding genre of memoirs inspired by growing up in fundamentalist christianity. Jesus Land belongs on your self, right beside Barbara Harrison's Visions of Glory, and Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

Julia Scheeres, a journalist, graduated from Calvin College and currently reviews books for the New York Times.

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