Commentary
By Amy Fallas 9-21-2018

I lost my way in Beirut without a reliable navigation system. As I wandered the streets, a familiar landmark came into view. In the Christian quarter of Ashrafieh, makeshift shrines to Maronite and Orthodox saints permeate the urban landscape next to businesses and homes. I recognized this particular shrine of Mar Elias — St. Elijah — by its collection of handwritten prayers and melted candles. I knew home was near.

As Mar Maroun, Mar Charbel, and a Virgin Mary helped me find my way back, I thought of my father who made a far more daring journey with the help of a saint more than 30 years ago.

In the 1980s, a Catholic Cathedral in San Jose, Costa Rica housed a saint known to help immigrants travel to the United States. While my now evangelical father doesn’t recall the name of this saint, he facetiously recounts praying to him before leaving for America. He likes to underscore the irony since he conoció a el Señor, or found God, when he met my mother and became an evangelical shortly after arriving in Washington, D.C., in 1984.

I was born to Central American immigrants who sought solace in the evangelical church after they left their respective countries. While my mother came fleeing civil conflict and my father seeking better opportunities, they both sought salvation from more than just their terrestrial afflictions. They hungered for spiritual liberation.

My mother became an evangelical during the wave of public and often controversial Protestant campaigns in El Salvador. In a deeply Roman Catholic country, many perceived the decision to become an evangélico as a threat to the integrity of this national religious identity. Abandoning Catholicism often caused tensions within families, as many considered the move a rejection of the dominant culture and a betrayal of country.

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My parents dedicating me before the church.

Despite these pressures, my mother recalls her conversion as a decision to become more connected to God and move away from a faith she felt “left you spiritually empty.” My father echoes these sentiments, describing an empathetic, relational draw in deciding to leave the church. “We don’t have a pope, we have Paul—who was a man, just like us,” he says.

For my parents, building a new life in America meant more than just a better material future for their children. It also meant endowing this newfound spiritual inheritance to the next generation.

As their firstborn, they were eager to usher me into heavenly belonging. To proclaim this calling on my life, my parents dedicated me before the church, sent me to Sunday School, and even named me after Amy Grant, the Queen of Christian Pop music.

My most vivid childhood memories are from church — primarily in a Latino evangelical congregation, Iglesia Menonita Evangelica in D.C. I recall the endless hours of worship music and the thundering voices of preachers, resilient spiritual stamina of its congregants, and the spectacle of the gifts of Pentecost — speaking in tongues, slaying in the spirit, and prophesying. But these stirring experiences would soon become obsolete from my weekly routine as we moved to a nondenominational American church.

I remember the culture shock of first attending a predominantly white Protestant church with themed sermons and timed worship sessions. Sermons even included notes suggesting how to follow along and complete the sentences. The predictability was assuring but also steeped worship in a kind of spiritual neutrality.

As years passed, I struggled to find meaningful connection in this expression of Christianity. I attribute this difficulty to a number of factors, including the increasing commercialization of the nondenominational American church and a marked cultural inflexibility that compelled my immigrant family to conform to white, middle class, American norms. While I participated in various rites within this subculture — from being homeschooled to attending a Christian college — disenchantment defined much of my experience in the church.

In an ironic twist, venturing into Catholic and Orthodox traditions later helped me address this feeling of spiritual alienation. Despite having parents who were raised Roman Catholic, I grew up without a connection to that world. I attended my first Catholic Mass in college and the experience was truly transformative.

One Sunday, I reluctantly attended Mass after seeking guidance from my friends who showed me how to properly participate. As I joined in the service, I found myself discovering something beautiful in the corporate movement. While I was in a parish pew in western Pennsylvania, I found comfort in the knowledge that millions around the world were uttering the same words.

My fascination with theology and church history only grew from this experience and later that year, in a history course, I learned about the Byzantine iconoclastic crisis of the 8th and 9th centuries. Eastern Orthodox leadership struggled with the issue of how icons should be used in an ecclesiastical context. Concerns that a renewed specter of idolatry was plaguing the church led to the destruction of religious iconography across the Byzantine Empire. Eventually, icons were restored to their religious use.

One interpretation of why the church reinstated icons was that it reminded parishioners of the historical reality of Christ. At a time when an infusion of Neo-Platonism in Christian thought advanced the notion that Jesus was only an idea, figures and images reinforced the belief that he physically came to die for the sins of the world. Essentially, icons were used to remind people that Jesus was real.

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Me inside of a Coptic Orthodox church in Cairo, Egypt in 2017. 

My parents worry about my Catholic and Orthodox sympathies. My mother is wary of my growing icon collection and warns against idolatry just like the Byzantine iconoclasts.

I realize that for them, divine citizenship is the best gift you could give your children. It validates the challenges they faced in fighting for the freedom to practice their beliefs and establishing a new life in the United States. Because I now embrace an expression of Christianity that they deliberately left behind, they might wonder why their daughter turns away from what they fought to celebrate.

I constantly ask myself if I’m betraying my family by responding to the rituals and traditions they so earnestly sought to escape. But then I think about their conversion stories and how they made these decisions to become closer to Jesus.

Traveling in the Middle East and reflecting on the traditions its Christians have held for centuries enriches my relationship with Jesus. When I listen to liturgy in languages close to Jesus’ own, I connect with God. Like the restoration of iconography in the 9th century, these practices remind me that Jesus is real.

What if by embracing this form of worship, I’m really honoring the impulse that drew my parents to America? What if, just like in Lebanon, these symbols are guiding my way home?

Amy Fallas is a PhD student in History at the University of California, Santa Barbara and specializes in Modern Middle East History.

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