Jessica Joseph, also known as AlienInTheCaribbean, a gay copywriter living in St. Lucia who regularly engages on-site about race, social justice, religion and gender.
This interview is part of a series with HuffPost Religion community members who frequent spirited debates and discussions on the site. What experiences have shaped your beliefs? We'd love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What were your spiritual beliefs in your youth?
Looking back at it, I never truly had fervent beliefs. When I was a kid, my father was not prepared to raise me. I was handed over to my strict Jehovah's Witness grandparents where children were seen and not heard. There was no television, no popular music, just an extensive library of religious books. So, I read and I imagined. I complied on the outside because not doing so meant the belt. When my mother picked me up for her share of the school vacation there was FREEDOM! Christmas, birthdays, cinema shows, all the music and television I could consume.
My mother was also seeking her spiritual center, so I was also being taken to different churches, worship groups and I even remember going for some blessing ritual at this old lady's house in the country, I think it was Orisha. I do not think there is anything she has not tried. She's exploring Mormonism at the moment. I was too young but what was happening to me was inculcation in some basic human truths, foremost among them was: People are people.
When I started high school at 12 years of age, I was a chubby tomboy who hated her new breasts. My father had remarried and was ready to get serious about parenting. He had returned to the fold of the Jehovah's Witnesses with all the fervor of a redeemed prodigal son. Perhaps it was that fevor to gain re-entry that made him treat the fact that I was being sexually abused by his new wife's brother the way he did. I watched as the elders talked my father out of pressing charges. My truth was treated like it was a lie. Another little truth joined my collection: Authority or age does not mean someone is right.
Nothing happened to me (until later) to make me believe anything I was being taught. But what I was, was a good and passionate student, eager to please my father.
Did your educational background help to sculpt your belief system?
I went to the top girls school on the island, Naparima Girls' High School (Naps). Although Presbytarian, the school realized to woo Hindu and Muslim families to send their daughters there, they had to embrace the multi-culturalism of Trinidad. So while we had Christian worship every morning with our Chaplain (oh, we had the first female Reverend in Trinidad as well) during Divali, the Hindu Club would put on a performance of the story of Ram & Sita, there would traditional dancing, lighting deeyas. For Eid, the Muslim students would conduct worship. During Emancipation, the teachers would wear traditional African garb.
You see, try as I might, I could not actually fathom my wonderful Roman Catholic, Hindu and Muslim schoolmates destroyed just because they were in a different religion. It seemed not right. Not loving. Still, since their fate was in my hands, I would preach fanatically to them, often driven to tears when my urgency was met with their cool confidence in their own beliefs. I tried to believe that somehow they were bad or blind.
The truth was, they were neither. In fact, they possessed admirable moral qualities I was still struggling to live up to. Being in the "true religion" did not make me automatically happier, brighter or more self-confident than they were. More glaring to me, however was that their families were happier than mine as I would discover sneaking off to spend time with them. Their parents were not abusing them as my father was, often sending me to school covered in welts under my shirt and skirt. They were not plagued by nightmares of Armageddon and all their friends being destroyed by God.
In ever increasing increments the doubt grew until it was impossible to rationalize being, "specially favored" by God. Really? God certainly did not seem to be answering my prayers for the abuse to end or to like boys the way my schoolmates liked them instead of crushing on that girl in my class.
But it was the year of my O'Levels that truly demonstrated to me what true Christianity was vs. false and demonstrated the power of the Naps' sisterhood. For it was the year I came out to my father as a lesbian. My friends already knew and to this day, are great champions of my partner and I. But my declaration began what I can only describe as HELL at home. Beatings, constant harassment by the elders asking all kinds of inappropriate sexual questions, constant monitoring of every single thing I did. Running away to my mother was not an option. She was struggling with both bi-polar illness and she had picked up a very bad man. I was stuck and by my 16th birthday, my heart and soul gave out. Over the dismal summer vacation, trapped at home I attempted suicide twice. My life was spared twice.
I was not supposed to be so intrigued by the other beliefs, but I was. There seemed to be so much joy, tangible ecstasy, expression and color in other faiths compared to my staid, death and destruction one. When I returned to school, medicated on Prozac, My English Literature Teacher and my friends were like a life raft in stormy seas. I still cannot believe it but I passed my O'Levels with distinctions.
Can you tell us how you rediscovered your spirituality in your 20s?
After I left home and abandoned my shot at a paid-for education, I spent a whirlwind eight months with my first girlfriend and we quickly became an "item". I was entirely dependent on her. The sun rose and set with her. In my naïve baby-lezzie dream, we conquered homophobia in Trinidad and Tobago, got anti-discrimination laws passed and retired and opened a little B&B on the beach. Then I found out she was having an affair.
I was 20, unemployed, penniless, no way to afford rent in the apartment she left me in or even food and even worse, was going through my first real tabanca (A Trini-Hindi word for severe heartbreak).
This would be the time when I imagine, I was supposed to go running back to my father, begging forgiveness and returning to the fold, like he had done. His predictions certainly seemed to be coming true. "Those zamies and faggots are users and abusers! They will hurt you!" or "When you amputate a leg, the body misses it but still lives. It is the leg that rots and dies. That is what will happen to you if you leave!"
Instead, I had a knock down, screaming match with "Whoever the hell is up there!" I laid out my case, my fears, my doubts and I demanded an answer!
This was the first ever, real spiritual experience I ever had. In all my years of Bible reading, preaching, studying and praying, I never felt anything like this! To this day, I cannot fully describe it but as soon as I completed my tear-filled tirade, everything went silent, not even the crickets outside seemed to be chirping. In that space two things happened. One was physical- a warm, very visceral presence hugged me, comforted me. Two, my own internal voice spoke with a consciousness wiser than my own and said, "You are loved."
I kid you not, the very next day, Gerard Besson from Lonsdale Saatchi & Saatchi called and said they would like me to intern for him. I had forgotten taking a creative workshop with him. I started the internship. I earned $1,500.00 a month. It was just enough to cover rent, food and basic expenses. So, I did not have to run home, tail between my legs.
Encouraged by the first ever spiritual experience I ever had, I kept seeking answers, I wanted to know what was that presence I felt that night. I wanted to feel more of it! I began reading Joseph Campbell and off my journey went again into new territory that would later also include Buddhism, Hinduism and reconnecting with my African spiritual roots.
What has been your favorite discussion in the Huff Post Religion section and why?
I once had a lengthy, protracted conversation with a poster called (blessed) on homosexuality and the bible. This person was always showing up in the Gay Voices section with barbs and condemnations and finally when there was an article in the Religion section on Gay Christians, I decided to engage this person. I would call it my favorite not because I convinced him but because for the first time ever, I managed to engage in this kind of debate and keep my smile the entire time, through their hostility. It was no longer personal.
What does it mean for you to have a universal perspective when it comes to religion?
I can argue theology and philosophy until the cows come home, at the end of the day, I must respect an atheist's personal experience when they say they have never encountered any such thing. Real experiences are sacred. Beliefs are not. Real actions are the measuring tape. Beliefs are not. My universal perspective is listening and gleaning fundamental truths from every single source of observation and perception that I possibly can. I want to know for sure. I want to feel for sure. And when I find something that works just as tangibly as that night when I had it out with God, I keep it. In my home there is Mother Mary, Isis, Lakshmi, the dancing Shiva, Buddha, Ganesh and Christ. The One is much bigger than all of these representations. When Christ said, "Narrow is the way," I believe he meant it was wide enough just for you to walk, no one else. It's you, your past, your intellect, your hopes, dreams, fears, perceptions and the trajectory they send you on as you explore your share of the sky.