Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father's Day

Today in Nicaragua, as in so many places around the world, we take time to celebrate fathers. At church, we sang a rousing chorus of "Father Abraham," and gave out gifts to fathers in the church. My invitation to preach was happily preempted by little children singing "Daddy loves me, this I know," and "Happy Father's Day to You," with a few going up one by one to proclaim their love for their fathers. We ended the service with my very first Moravian love-feast, consisting of muffins and soda.

After church, I went to the house of our friend Susannah for lunch. As we were eating, she pointed to a man who passed by on a bike, talked with her brother-in-law for a moment, then continued on. "That man is my father," she said. "My biological father, anyway. He had no part in raising us." The national newspaper La Prensa published an article today that said 31% of Nicaraguan families are headed by a single mother. I don't believe this statistic, at least not here in Puerto. As Susannah, herself a single mother, said: "I think it's the other way around. Sixty-nine percent of families are run by single mothers, and thirty-one percent are two-parent." And I imagine there are a handful of single-father households, as well. Susannah calls her mother to congratulate her on both Mother's Day and Father's Day, since her mother fulfilled both roles.

Father's Day is a decidedly staid and anticlimatic observance after Mother's Day celebrations, with their cakes, adornments, and a day off school for a pageant featuring song, dance, and various odes extolling maternal virtues. The third-grade teacher asked her class if they wanted to celebrate Father's Day. Their reaction was a bit ambivalent: "Let's do something, but just among ourselves." (To which she responded, "I don't think any of you are fathers.") At a parents' meeting on Friday, a couple male teachers complained about this. I wanted to respond, "Do you live with your children? Do you even see them every week?" Not because I was judging them based on statistics, but because I know for a fact that they don't.

The overwhelming absence of fathers in the lives of children is apparent in a variety of ways. No one ever asks me how is my father, is he coming to visit, does he miss me, etc. They are always inquiring after my mother. One of my tutees, Diedrich, drew a picture of his family for me, a neat row of stick figures. His mother was first, followed by about ten siblings, aunts, grandmother, cousins. His father was second to last in the row.

La Prensa attributes high rates of absentee fathers to machismo, that men are taught that it's manly to have babies by a variety of women. There is some truth to that. Taking the way one of the teachers at Maureen Courtney in particular is viewed, fathering children by various women is looked upon with a weird combination of reproval and respect. My Spanish teacher in Granada, Sergio, said the absence of fathers is because women don't know how to live with men. I have certainly found it to be true that many young women here are quite cynical about men and reticent to pledge their lives to a man that may turn out to not be what they expected after marriage. They are less reluctant about having babies. And it is true that for whatever reason women do sometimes discourage the participation of the fathers in the lives of their children. My friend Simon has trouble visiting his son, because the child's mother doesn't want to have anything to do with Simon. Maybe absentee fatherism has become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy both for women and for men.

The church, I'm afraid, is so focused on extolling its ideal of marriage before babies that it's actually rather unhelpful. I came to the convent one day to find Sister Zorelia, bless her heart, railing against patriarchy in general and in particular against one local priest. When a single mother came to him asking him to urge her child's father to pay child support. The priest simply admonished her for not being married, and pointing to her situation as the logical consequence. As with so many of its virtues, it has succeeded in constructing the moral framework of the people here. Maybe that's why no one wants to get married; it's so idealized that they think they can never do it right. That's certainly why many people choose not to become Christian.

We had a discussion about this in the Creole Moravian young adult group, the majority of whom are unmarried with children. This is a large part of the reason they're not members of the church. To become members, they can't be unwed mothers. The one man I know in the group might be able to get away with it. His son lives in another city, so his unwed parenthood isn't as glaringly obvious. Two women were going back and forth; one of them really wanted to get married someday, the other didn't. Either way, neither felt ready to be married just yet. The members of the young adult group are there because they find spiritual nourishment in faith and in religion. The moral strictures of the church, however, prevent them from fully integrating into the community.

Marriage is one of the topics that comes up in my religion textbook, and I was thinking of teaching it next week. In a place where marriage is so rare, how do I make the subject accessible, and not just the unreachable ideal it seems to be?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Day in the Life of Ecumenism

On Monday, the thing I had most feared upon beginning to teach religion in a Catholic school came to pass. It shouldn't really have come as a surprise; it's more or less why so many people furrow their brow in bewilderment when they hear about my gig. I was handed a lesson plan that took off from the sixth commandment (ironically, "sexto" in Spanish): "You shall not commit adultery." Which is all well and good, but the teacher was taking advantage of the topic to summarize the Catholic Church's teaching on sexuality. That is, sexual pleasure separated from procreation is "gravely and intrinsically disordered," as are extramarital sex, masturbation, and homosexuality.

My first reaction was "Dammit, why couldn't I have stayed on vacation just one more day?" My second was "This is precisely why I don't want to work in a church." I reviewed my options: teaching the lesson as it was presented to me was out of the question. That left as my options:
1) recusing myself
2) refashioning the lesson plan so that I felt I could teach it and maintain my integrity, while
a) contradicting what the Catholic Church taught, or
b) avoiding those points I found detestable, while teaching something that was more or less in keeping with the spirit of the lesson.

Options 1 and 2a seemed the most heroic, but also seemed to solicit conflict that probably wouldn't come to anything good. I opted for 2b. It may be overly conciliatory, but I saw no fruit in being deliberately contentious in this situation, even for a cause I think is just.

So I focused closely on the theme of adultery. I explained that not commiting adultery means being faithful to the promises you make to those you love. The teacher had put the quote from Jesus that "He who looks on a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." I took advantage of that to link back to an earlier theme we had expounded, that sin comes from the heart; intention matters just like action does, and if you don't want to reap adulterous actions than you shouldn't sow and nurture adulterous intentions. This brought us to the point of "pirropos" or cat calls, which are really common here. Does this constitute sinning, according to what Jesus says? A fair number of the kids said, "No, pirropos come from cariƱo (affection), they´re not morboso (lewd)." Incidentally, this observation has led me to consider more carefully the tone of the shout outs I get on the street, and I have to admit that most, though not all, of them do seem more friendly than lewd.

In what time reminded, I left it up to them to reflect about masturbation, sexual pleasure, and homosexuality. I had them answer the questions "What is it?" and "Can it be holy?" (Always/Sometimes/Never). I haven't checked their answers, but I decided that if they wanted to lecture themselves about the evils of homosexuality, I was not in a position to instruct them otherwise, even if they would have believed me.

And so I got through the class, discovering my first major effort at finding a religious middle road wasn't as bad as I had expected. Really, it is only because of my incredible fortune to be in supportive churches that I haven't been in this situation before. I've been lucky that the school has given me such free reign in my lessons, and that the book they gave me to teach from is so justice-oriented. Even so, it was inevitable that this day would come. I hope, as they arise in the future, I will be able to face them with courage and grace.