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Exactly one year ago, when I visited my parents, my mum called me into her bedroom. “There’s something I want us to discuss,” she said.

My mum and I are close in a manner of speaking; I’m not the quintessential mama’s boy, having shed every trace of emotional dependence or palpable attachment I could exhibit towards people very early in life. So, although I hang around her a lot (especially when helping out in house chores) the relationship we share is largely sympathetic: I understand her struggles as a woman, a wife, and parent; and feel I should be there for her as much I can, even when I’d rather just be by myself in my room, or up to some other lonesome activity. Our “closeness” is seldom about me, my issues as a person, deepest hurts that seize my breath…

There’s something I want us to discuss.

The words swayed in my consciousness as we entered my mum’s room and sat on the bed.

She had just been on the phone with her sister in Uyo, my Aunt Jola, she said.

I work in Uyo and, for the past year, have been living with my Aunt Jola and her family pending when I save up enough money to get a place of my own.

My mum was saying she’d been thanking Aunt Jola for her kindness and that aunty had said mum shouldn’t mention; I was a good young man and she was only glad to be of help. But there was a problem.

“Your aunty says you don’t join the family for morning prayers. Why?”

Aunt Jola and her family are Pentecostals, fervent in their faith. It’s easy to see how my lukewarmness towards faith (something she had wondered about twice or thrice) would worry her – enough to call my mother’s attention to it.

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“Why don’t you join your aunt’s family to pray?” my mother asked again when I wasn’t saying anything.

“Nothing,” I mumbled. I was not ready for this conversation yet. I resented my aunt for not liaising with me first before talking to my mum. Or better still, mind her business. I already made excuses to her about how I had to prepare for work at the exact same time morning devotion was going on and even grabbed the lifeline she unwittingly offered – Or do you pray privately? – with a clipped Yes so she could get off my case. Why was she still pursuing the matter?

 “Are you sure there’s no problem?” my mother went on. “Whatever it is, you can talk to me. I’m your mother. Are you not comfortable with their way of praying?” she offered, referring to my Catholic upbringing vis-à-vis Aunt Jola’s Pentecostal home – perhaps that was the problem? “It’s the same god we’re praying to,” she smiled, “it doesn’t matter…”

I sighed. She was so off track. Difference in church denomination practices? I wished that was the problem! I wished she would deduce the point without my saying it. But that was wishing for a miracle. So I decided on the spur of the moment to grab the thorn bush. Maybe, just maybe, I could confide in her, unburden myself. You can talk to me, I’m your mother.

“I’m not comfortable with Christianity,” I said tentatively. And met her eyes.

Her expression changed from caring to near-sorrowful. “What do you mean?” she whispered, the tremor in her voice betraying her fear that what she’d just heard couldn’t be true.

I was quiet.

I had misfired.

Spurred on by one second of stupid trust I had imagined I could blurt out something as serious as an abandonment of faith and have my hand held in understanding.

My mum burst into tears.

She asked me if there was some other “group” I had joined – since I am no longer Christian.

I didn’t know how to explain myself. I needed one or two sentences that’d somehow make my point yet not jar. But what could be softer than the roundabout statement: I’m not comfortable with Christianity? How else could I say I no longer cared about god, faith, church? Some difficult paths have no shortcuts.

Tears continued to stream down my mum’s face as she asked god why this had to happen to her.

I had to recant. My mum is hypertensive. I was afraid for her health. I had an ugly vision of waking up the next morning to find she’d died of a heart attack.

So I took my words back.

And burned with a thrumming sadness.

Burned that she thought I might be up to some suspicious activity simply because I wanted to leave religion; that she wouldn’t listen when I asked her to consider that there was just as much chance I’d have been born Moslem as I was born Christian; that she pegged my unbelief down to exposure to dangerous books; that she said she was glad I made known my stand now, so she would know how to give me some space henceforth; that whatever good name I had as a person faded for her and Aunt Jola simply because I did not have religion; that she wept as if I had done something that brought shame on her – Don’t let your father hear this.

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Back in Aunt Jola’s house, there’s this family that visits sometimes for holidays – Uncle Nicholas, his wife Aunt Lydia and their three energetic brats. In January this year, while I was dressing up for work, Aunt Lydia said there was something she’d been meaning to ask me about.

“I notice you don’t pray with us in the morning.” She was respectful, careful.

Tendrils of irritation curled up my stomach to my throat. Again? This prayer thing again? Is it so unimaginable to live under the same roof with an irreligious person, albeit a closeted one? Did it matter this much?

I gave her my usual excuse: Work preparations coinciding with morning prayers.

“What kind of preparations?” she scoffed. “Are you a woman?”

It was meant to be a mild rebuke, a reminder that what I thought was so important wasn’t quite so if I would open my eyes. Although I wasn’t going to lash out, I was officially angry. That she would dismiss my own priorities just to set  her own religious agenda; that she would stereotype my gender on top of it all; that she would arbitrarily declare to me that “it is good to pray” without telling me why or how so. It seemed all that mattered was that I conform, regardless of my feelings and personal choices. What good am I at morning devotion if the entire exercise is lost on me? What use is it dragging myself to church on Sundays to avoid incident when all it does is bore me and make me feel imprisoned?  In times like this, do Aunts Lydia and Jola and my mother remember that at the core of belief or unbelief is conviction? (Strangely, Aunt Jola uses that word a lot when talking faith.) If I am not convinced, how am I supposed to believe?

Why do religious people try to control choice and suffocate it altogether?

What is this dishonest rhetoric about irreligious persons being too in-your-face about our stance? Seriously? Have we been guilty of making assumptions that fail to acknowledge diversity beyond our favoured positions? In most conversations around religion in Nigeria, there are only two classes of people: Christians and Moslems; little thought is spared for people whose outlook on life falls outside the realities of these two groups. With the zeal our political leaders state that “Nigeria is a religious country”, are we going to wake up one day to see irreligiousity criminalized, like was done with homosexuality? Religious people think unbelievers are too noisy? They should try being us for a day.

They should try being me when a man in my office tried to include me in my workplace weekly Christian fellowship. I was not interested.

“My schedule is kind of tight,” I said.

He pressed. “You can try and make time…”

I said I’d think about it.

He asked for my phone number.

I told him not to trouble himself; if I was going to come to the fellowship, I would, and if I wasn’t, well… Like I said, my schedule was quite tight. I was getting impatient.

The man smiled. “What church do you attend?”

 “I was raised Catholic,” I said, almost certain he’d fail to catch the subtle way I avoided answering his question and offered instead the message I wanted him to take away: religion is my past.

As I predicted he did miss the point, and understood what he understood: that my reluctance to be at the (Pentecostal) fellowship was born out of concern for differences in denomination practices.

I shrugged. At least he left me alone after that.

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I am 26. I imagine some people snorting: You’re an adult, my friend! Better man up. Why should anybody dictate to you how to live your life?

True. Partly.

Because people who talk like this either have enough rebellion in them to reject conformity, or don’t know the first thing about pressure to make choices that disregard your own needs. This latter group does not know what it’s like to be different, to be with others yet not be like them.

To the religious, I’m begging you to realize that I live my life without god, the bible, Jesus, prayers. In my world these things mean nothing.  But I respect you for whom these things/persons mean something.  We may never compromise on our opposite positions but we can live in peace. And this is a good place to start: Stop assuming I’m also religious. Ask first, keep an open mind. Don’t come at me with the arrogant certainty that I cannot NOT know god. Don’t treat me like I’m somehow “deficient” because of this. Don’t preach to me without my permission. Stop saying Nigeria is a religious nation. Don’t try to use religious tenets to influence law and politics. Stop trying to manipulate hapless citizens by touting the idea that religion is one of our problems. Start caring about the feelings of non-religious people just as you care about the feelings of adherents of religions different from yours.  Stop thinking it is okay to obstruct traffic when conducting religious activities. Stop thinking it’s no big deal when I can follow your service from my home thanks to loudspeakers. Stop thinking it is your right to go on pilgrimages using public funds. These are some of the selfish attitudes we non-religious persons find disturbing, stifling, and just plain unjust. If you religious people know how difficult it is holding an unpopular position, you’d realize that the “rage” burning from the atheist camp is just our hurt and frustration letting you know that our unbelief is not about you or your beliefs but about what works for us. Please – please – excuse us from morning prayers. ■

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