Where real moms tell it like it is.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Book Review: Jesus Land

Julia Scheeres and I first met when we worked as reporters for Wired News. In 2001 she reported on a devastating earthquake in El Salvador and I, a Latina, was amazed that this stringy-blond-haired, midwestern girl could conduct an entire interview in impeccable Spanish.

"Where did you learn to speak Spanish?" I marveled. "Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic," she answered nonchalantly.

My initial reaction was "ah, okay." But over the years, I have had the privilege to get to know Julia and listen to her engrossing tales about Christian fundamentalism, and yes, good reasons I would never want to go to Christian reform school. She captures her experiences there and other timely, hot button issues in her first memoir Jesus Land (Counterpoint, October 2005).

Set in the 1980s in rural Indiana and, later on, the Dominican Republic, Jesus Land is a true story about a white fundamentalist Christian family who adopts two orphaned black boys. (It's what Jesus would do, her parents reason.) This painful memoir, which is peppered with laugh out-loud anecdotes about "commies" and Rapture, is Julia's earliest memories of her black brother, David, who is the same age as Julia, and how their relationship is strained by racism in their Indiana town. (Julia admits to ignoring David, the only black kid in school, so that she can fit in with her white peers.)

However, they end up sticking together to overcome the extreme dogma and punishing tactics of "Escuela Caribe" in the Dominican Republic. Sitting down without asking for permission or humming a secular tune are grounds for punishment at Escuela Caribe, literally meaning "Caribbean School" in Spanish. The severest punishments meted out include a teacher putting on boxing gloves and beating a student while quoting biblical passages.

David, who received his fair share of beatings at home and at school, is a sympathetic figure. All he wants is a family like the Brady Brunch. Instead, Julia's parents make him and his brother Jerome sleep in the basement apart from the rest of the family. Their father beats them. Their mother tells the boys to "turn the other cheek" in the face of racist bullying in school.

The aloofness and cold detachment of the parents will shock and make readers shake their heads at the hypocrisy of the Christian right. Julia's mother never expresses love for Julia or her brothers. Yet, she displays an insatiable appetite to convert loin-clothed Africans to her church and help elect Christians like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to the White House.

Warning: The end of the story is a real downer. Nonetheless, this is a memorable and chilling profile of the Christian right.


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