The Sunday Magazine

One woman's journey between atheism and belief

It turns out there are evangelicals on both sides of the God divide: those who thunder about the absolute truth of God's existence, and those who find religious belief incomprehensible and are absolute in their atheism. Candice Debi has lived her life between the poles. And then something happened that made her think about it all in a new way.
Candice Debi with her father, Lake Debi. (Provided by Candice Debi)

When my dad found out that my brother's grade eight graduation ceremony was taking place in a church, he refused to go. 

"Nope, I'm not going," he said. "Do you know why there are wars? One answer: religion. I'm not sitting in no bloody church. I won't do it."

Mom said nothing, but gave us all a look that said, "let me work on this." She eventually got him to come around. Except for some eye rolling—when we had to kneel during the mass—he made it through. 

My parents came from Guyana. Like most other Caribbean countries, it's a mash-up of cultures and religions. So mixed marriages were common. My father, who was raised Hindu, married my Catholic mother.

But he was a skeptic from a young age, and abandoned Hinduism early. My mother claimed she had no idea how far gone he was when she married him. By the time we kids were old enough to understand, we knew that Dad was a sworn atheist.

Whenever my father's extended family would host a Hindu prayer service our family would be the only one to arrive after the religious ceremony was completed—just in time for the food and gathering. It annoyed just about everyone.

Surprisingly, Dad had no problem with the bibles and crucifixes my mother had all over the house. He didn't object when my grandmother would take my brother, my sister or me to church with her. And somehow, my mother even convinced my dad to let all the kids attend a Catholic school. 

Half our family atheist, half Christian, and a small part of usHindu-ish. We moved through Christian traditions without question and attended the odd Hindu function with both interest and confusion.

Mom worked hard to keep all of us interested in faith. But by the time I was in high school, I began listening more closely to my Dad. I started to have my own struggle with Catholicism. Questions I had about sexuality and equality in the church went unanswered. I stopped going to mass. And, soon after, to my Mom's dismay, I too declared myself to be an atheist.

And so it went for years. Half our family Atheist, half Christian, and a small part of us "Hindu-ish". We moved through Christian traditions without question and attended the odd Hindu function with both interest and confusion.

Then mom got cancer, and everything we thought we believed changed.

As mom's illness progressed, she adorned her bedroom with images of Jesus. It started first with a rosary blessed by a priest, a bottle of holy water here or there, a bible by her pillow. But by the end of her seven year battle, there was a small  shrine above her desk with pictures, postcards, calendars, figurines, all bearing the same image of a white man, shoulder brown hair, in a red and blue robe with a radiating diamond on his chest. 

As my mother's shrine grew, my Dad spoke less of his views about religion. He didn't object when our friends and family organized a special healing mass for my mom. He even consented to a special Hindu pooja in my mom's honour during her final months.

I was strangely comforted when people would tell me that they would keep my mom in their "prayers." It sounded like we had a plan, and there was someone or something out there that could fix things. 

The thought that a prayer might actually help to cure my mom gave her and all of us courage to keep fighting. 

In the end, my mom succumbed to cancer, bitterly fighting until she took her last breath. 

My dad has spent the past two-and-a-half years searching, begging for answers. When I see him now, we no longer speak as skeptics, or cynics through our atheist lens. We talk about recent events that remind us of mom. We tell each other about the dreams we've had of her that make it feel like she is still in our lives. And my father is even trying to communicate with her again.

"Did you know that there is a way I can still talk to your mother?" he said a few days ago. "The Buddhist monks have been doing it for centuries."

"Your mother visited me again last night.. She's trying to tell me she's okay where she is now."

Two years ago I would have thought he was crazy. Yet somehow it all seems to make sense. My mother's death has given me a strange permission—to explore spirituality without commitment to any one religion. And more importantly, it has given our family one common faith: the belief that she is still with us. 

Last fall, to everyone's surprise, my dad and I organized a traditional mass to mark the one year anniversary of my mother's death.

On the day of the service, my mom's sometimes Christian family and my dad's staunch Hindu family, poured into a Catholic church with a mix of shock and reverence. My Dad, dressed up in a suit, was there to greet them and chatted with the priest as if they were old friends.

My mother's death has given me a strange permission—to explore spirituality without commitment to any one religion.

It didn't matter that we had a family friend call in a favor to get this church to perform a special mass for us.

And it didn't seem to matter that the entire room full of Hindus and part-time Christians clumsily fumbled through the mass and took the Eucharist by accident.

Looking around at everyone, I couldn't help but feel that my mom finally got her wish: my dad and I finally believed in something bigger than ourselves.

I watched my dad with pride that evening as he walked up to the pulpit to speak. As he read his remarks, I wept. I felt something that evening. It wasn't God, or Jesus. There were no signs or visions. But somehow I knew, my mom was looking down, and smiling.

Click 'Listen' above to hear Candice Debi's essay.

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