O Ye of Little Faith
When you grow up a missionary, what happens if you stop believing?
My first memory is set in my old front yard in Kingston, Ontario. My parents moved to Kingston after I was born, drawn there for a particular reason: it was the city with highest concentration of federal prisons in Canada. My parents were full-time volunteers, mailing correspondence Bible courses to prisoners and often visiting their students to project movies or share holidays. That childhood picture of myself sitting on Santa’s lap—Santa was a convicted murderer serving a life sentence. I don’t, even now, find this odd or unsettling, because it was my experience, but I have learned that other people may.
We lived in a block of low-income housing on Oakview Avenue. Two-storey townhouses lined both sides of the street, with front doors tightly bookending strips of driveway wide enough for two cars. On the patches of grass, there was barely enough room for one tree. On summer nights, as I got older, I’d lie in bed waiting out hours of sunshine, listening to crowds of kids with later bedtimes than me playing ball hockey on the street.
In my earliest memory, I am climbing our front-yard tree with one of the neighbourhood kids. Slipping from the lowest branch, I fall, and, in a moment of pain, exclaim what sounds like “Jesus!”
To my friend, it was probably a common expletive. But not in our house, and, bad luck for me, one of my parents was within earshot. I was still learning about something my parents expected of me. I should be embedded among, but always different from, my peers. Better. By using the Lord’s name in vain so publicly, I had betrayed the mission.
I was escorted down the unfinished wooden stairs to our basement to sit in solitary and think about the bad deed I had done. I remember the sting of the injustice, as what I’d meant to say had been “geez,” which was allowed, but for emphasis, I had improvised a plural.
I also remember thinking something else: is this my first big sin? If so, how easy to slip up it was!
Before my parents were married and made me and my siblings, they made each other a promise: to follow Jesus, but not only that, to transplant their family overseas, taking a missionary journey like ones that early Christians took. Their intention was to settle somewhere abroad for as long as it took to make a difference there; that was as far as the plan went.
The Bible describes the deeds of missionaries who never met Jesus of Nazareth themselves, like Paul, Titus and Timothy. But it never says that these missionaries raised children, so a lot of what my parents did to follow in their footsteps would be improvised.
There’s one important tenet of my parents’ that must be understood before anything else—they don’t believe one can fall from grace. Like most Reformed Christians, they believe instead that everyone is fallen all along, and that surrendering to salvation is the only thing that can erase the slate, releasing a soul from eternal darkness. Children are not exempted; babies get only a couple of years and then, sometime after learning object permanence, comes deciding to sin. If you pick for yourself the best fruit in the fruit basket, for example, that might mean leaving one of your friends with the worst snack. It’s so easy to give in to this inherited darkness, and the most fundamental part of any parent’s job—according to my parents—is teaching their children how to repent.
Still, my parents’ own childhoods had been more traditional than the one they imagined for me. Both came from “cultural” Christian households, each a child of immigrant settlers to Ontario, each disillusioned by the limits of those respective families’ beliefs. Mom left a Pentecostal, Argentinian home in Scarborough, fleeing an abusive uncle and choosing for herself a less performative form of religion than her family’s. (One of my teachers once described Pentecostals as “swinging from the chandeliers,” alluding to their raucous speaking of tongues.) My father, as a teenager in Guelph, rebelled against his parents’ Church of God brethren, which had become a closed patriarchal cult where women had to sit at the back and refrain from speaking.
Unlike my mom, my dad spent years away from any church. He hitch-hiked, hippie-style, around Europe and the States. Then, in 1979, he was in a car accident in Ontario, driving drunk after closing out a bar with a high-school friend. The car spun out of control on a patch of black ice, flipped onto its side and ended wrapped around a telephone pole in a ditch. Dad’s legs went through the windshield and came to rest in a pool of icy water outside. Unable to move, his body hanging from the seatbelt, he remembers praying: “God, if you are there, I don’t want to die right now.”
He didn’t. A few months later, when talking to some students at a Catholic seminary, he was asked if he believed in God and answered “no”; the nagging memory of that moment in the car came back to him, he always told me. He started reading the Bible.
He met my mom at the University of Western Ontario, where both had joined a Christian discipleship group called the Navigators. It had started in 1933, when civilian evangelist Dawson Trotman saved a sailor aboard the USS West Virginia. Later, more than a hundred other sailors on the same ship converted. The USS West Virginia was sunk by the Japanese at Pearl Harbour and most of its sailors died, but Trotman thought of the souls he believed he’d helped expedite to Heaven. He appropriated the naval imagery and started a foundation.
As a child, I imagined hell as people confined together in a lake of fire, an image that came from the book of Revelation. They were people who had never heard about Jesus’s sacrifice, who had never had the chance to repent. It wasn’t really their fault, I knew; if they’d heard of the son of God, of course they would have accepted salvation.
On Earth, my parents’ version of Jesus’s message separates his followers into a special place, divided from everyday hustle and bustle by an invisible membrane. It’s an annex shared only with the world’s other Christ-followers, and with God. People can be there from any umbrella of Christianity. But it’s not quite as simple as just belonging to a church. The decision to follow Jesus must be chosen freely, and an exchange must occur: the old ways must also be sacrificed, in prayer.
For as far back as I could remember, this created a problem for me. How could someone who grew up inside that faith express the pivot of total transformation needed to be redeemed?
To another kid—a kid growing up in Kingston—these questions may not have been so crucial. But questions like these plagued me. Sociologists have a name for children who grow up in a foreign country their family intends to leave: “third culture kids.” Third culture kids, such as military or diplomat brats, grow up with no cultural identity tied to any one place. They fail to bond with their own countryfolk, they internalize their differences with others, and, eventually, they can find themselves inhabiting a “third” in-between culture. They are permanent outsiders, only truly comfortable with discomfort.
My parents felt destined for this. For my two siblings and me, it was simply who we became as a result of our parents’ choices. We were a tight-knit society of five—at least until later, when I left the church. Then I became a population of one. My father wrote to me once: “You are addicted to the internet, to news, to information, to a false world that slowly has been separating you from real people and real life.” I did listen for the “still, small voice” that spoke inwardly to me, as to Old Testament prophets, and I removed myself from every single thing I once knew—a country, a language, even a family. Isn’t that, anyway, what Jesus would have wanted?
My parents made decisions with their own unique recipe of total randomness—letting the universe show the way—and deep intentions. After the birth of their third and final baby in Ontario, they started writing letters to missionaries, full of questions about the different possible lives our family might lead. The only response came from a couple that had retired to Toronto after decades in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
Ecuador’s capital, Quito, has a friendlier climate, high in the Andes mountains. As a gateway to the Amazon, where Indigenous tribes cohabitate uncomfortably with the oil industry, Quito had attracted generations of foreign missionaries for a hundred years. By the fifties, Quito’s missionary population had grown large enough to build and staff a hospital, a radio station and a distinct Christian missionary school. For my parents, moving to Quito would be too wide a road, too easy.
The narrow path was in Guayaquil, a larger city on the equator, at sea level. Temperatures rarely fall below thirty degrees, and the humidity hovers between 60 and 80 percent. Mom, dad and the baby—my brother—visited the city first on a short, prospecting trip in 1992. Guayaquil was in the middle of a garbage worker strike. I imagine that the tropical heaps of trash impregnating the air must have sealed the deal for my parents. What a perfect place to try to reach.
By halfway through my grade one year, we’d sold or given away everything that didn’t fit into ten boxes. We moved in with relatives, the house and life in Kingston forever gone. During the last Christmas we spent in the snow, in 1992, my grandmother crushed bitter malaria prevention pills into jams and dispensed spoonfuls from her steady hand.
Our layover in Chicago was so short that we sprinted with all our earthly belongings stacked on two carts, pushed by my parents. The baby was strapped somewhere, and I pulled my little sister by the hand. As the plane descended towards Guayaquil, the city was blanketed in lights. I remember thinking that we were going to land in the sea; just before sinking into a marsh, the lights of an airstrip showed up and the wheels touched down. Stepping through the plane’s oval door, past midnight, the slap of the thick hot air struck hotter than any Canadian midday sun. The tropical heat seemed spun into something solid, almost felted, in the darkness of the night.
In a way, my parents’ plan in the southern hemisphere was exactly the same as it had been in Ontario. For years, my parents had lived without regular paycheques, deciding to fund their three kids’ formative years with nothing but the faith that tomorrow, their God would provide. I’m not sure if they consciously acknowledged that in Canada, God had a bigger social safety net, including two sets of grandparents. After we moved, though, my parents proved right: dozens of churchgoers from all over North America and the UK began to send donations, tax-deductible and earmarked to us.
In return, we mailed regular prayer letters with updates and yearly photos of our family. The first house we moved into was in a neighbourhood called Alborada, which means “breaking dawn.” Half of Guayaquil was built on a swamp, so houses are made without basements, and none of the houses we lived in had second stories, either.
Our front yard, just big enough for dad’s Suzuki motorcycle, ended at a cement wall with a metal door. Windows set with decorative metal bars looked out onto a narrow cement sidewalk, then a sharp curb and a street of loosely set cement cobblestones that slowed the traffic. There was no green space on the block, only two dusty soccer fields at both corners next to small parks with hibiscus and ficus bushes.
We were poor, of course, but that wasn’t just because we relied on donations. My parents believed in living as minimally as possible, and, beyond that, their concept of missionary Christianity included mimicking the financial conditions of the host culture. They didn’t buy a home or take on debt; we rented in neighbourhoods considered middle-class by Guayaquil standards. Those first years, we lived without a telephone, car or medical insurance. We did acquire a television, and we had brought a piano keyboard and the full set of Encyclopædia Britannicas from Canada. Our one major luxury was registering for a post office box an hour away, while most Ecuadorians had never received mail.
People in Guayaquil are known for their forwardness, a pushy joviality. My siblings and I were constantly questioned with “Where are you from?” and “What are you doing here?” “From Canada,” I answered, a place I idealized but stopped remembering, and which meant little to me except an easy escape from the conversation.
The first year, we had a rule that we weren’t allowed to speak English while any visitors were around. And visitors were at the house often. In one of the first groups that gathered with mom and dad—they offered to read the Bible with anyone who had an interest in it—one of the young couples explained how they were facing a pressing choice to buy food for their table or toilet paper to send to their kids’ school. My parents were shocked, but they had also, intentionally, created this moment. It was why we were there.
To meet people, my parents were spending time in the squatter neighbourhoods that developed around Guayaquil, on the northern outskirts outside the loop highway built to encircle the city and connect the fertile agricultural lands more directly to the major port in the south. In the poorest neighbourhoods on these outskirts, residents came from families who emigrated to the city for economic reasons, often leaving behind subsistence farming. They had to pirate electricity and steal water, waiting years before their open-air sewers were buried by the city, which considered the settlements land invasions. These neighbourhoods were not served by the public school or health systems, as meagre as those were. Their streets were unpaved, becoming rivers of mud in the rainy season.
There are a thousand indignities that poverty exacts from its victims. My parents had inserted themselves into that panorama of need. They hadn’t specifically set out to start a school, but after a few months of prayer meetings, they decided that as they were schooling their own kids, it would be criminal to ignore the needs of the people they met with for church. After our school was launched, and as I met more of the Ecuadorian pupils, who were only a couple years younger than my siblings, I was proud of it. Students who hadn’t had toilet paper now had breakfast, a library, English lessons taught by Canadians, even a computer. Over the years, the first kindergarten class of twenty students grew into a full primary school, junior high, community library, child sponsorship scheme, three churches and a beachside event site-slash-campground.
At the same time, our own assimilation into Ecuador—that embedding-of-peers that my parents stressed so much—was never really as perfect as they’d envisioned. I was a tomboy, while my brother was too young to join me and my sister preferred to be inside. With neighbourhood boys, I’d climb mango trees, shoot marbles, fly kites and play football with anything vaguely round that could be kicked between two goals. In the cobbled streets, curbs would act as natural barriers for the ball. But my siblings and I spoke English to each other, even outside, to communicate on that special frequency if need be. It was hard to forget that our poverty was a choice, and that it was meant to make a point of some sort, a point that superseded us.
One day, when I was six or seven, we were playing on one of the dusty fields when I fell and my left knee split open on a piece of glass. I ran the two blocks home with blood streaming down my leg. Fresh to the city, my parents didn’t yet know any nearby doctors, so they decided to clean the cut themselves as best they could. Without stitches, the scar stayed fresh for years, my mom looking guilty each time it reopened. Later I got a similar injury at my grandparents’ house in Ontario; this time, the split was on my right knee and my grandma rushed to the hospital for four stitches. The scars were a similar length. As I grew, the Canadian knee healed perfectly and barely showed. The one I hurt in Ecuador still felt weak, like it might break open at any time.
Ecuador juts out into the Pacific Ocean at almost the westernmost point of the planet’s southernmost continent. Arriving by sea, aiming for the port of Guayaquil, you will encounter a brownish sand or a mangrove tangle, followed by dry lands that sprout abundantly only during the rains. Travelling a few hours on the highway, you’ll pass banana plantations as far as the eye can see. As the parrot flies, it would be not long before the shadow of the Andes appears: green giants leaking abundant water via cloud forests and falling rivers.
Our new country included the Galápagos Islands, the archipelago that inspired Charles Darwin’s departures from the concept of intelligent design. Like most Ecuadorians, I have never been to the Galápagos. Unlike most Ecuadorians, Creation magazine, published in Australia, was delivered faithfully to our mailbox in Guayaquil every quarter.
I’m still not sure exactly how or why I started thinking differently from my dad. Like him, I loved Ecuador. Like him, I believed passionately in what our family did. I even look like him; we share the same blue eyes, a trait that only I, among my siblings, inherited. Ecuadorians make a big deal over blue eyes, and traffic cops and bureaucrats seemed to respond more positively to my dad’s baby blues than to my mom, who could pass for a local with her dark eyes and hair. I learned how to play this card as well. People who loved my father first easily learned to love me as well.
Starting when I was eleven, I volunteered to guide groups of short-term workers and Canadian missionaries through the squatted lands, acting as interpreter and fixer, helping them feel useful and connected. Dad was the leader, and I was his lieutenant. My family helped found libraries, schools and other buildings in faraway villages—Afro-Ecuadorian enclaves, on the Pacific ocean side but cut off from the road network, as remote as the Indigenous villages on the other side of the Andes. We arrived by motorized canoe after a six-hour river journey; we saw the first airstrip razed into a mountain top, and watched a plane fly over and drop candies, when it was still too muddy to land.
It seemed to me that, as firstborn, I had to be the bravest. My sister wasn’t as enthusiastic about missionary work, or as comfortable in our new home; epically, she held in her bowel movements during one multi-day trip when she didn’t like the toilet facilities, a hole in the ground where spiders lurked. I ate and drank most everything I was offered, including the saliva-fermented corn beverage that would be verboten to reject, on the one trip dad and I took with Quito missionaries to an Indigenous community in the Amazon.
Bravery aside, I simply blossomed the more we worked. My diary from that Amazon trip is a bullet-point list of enthusiasms: washing plates in the river with sand acting as both sponge and detergent; standing in a storm of yellow butterflies; projecting a Christian movie while a rainstorm thundered onto the tin roof, making it a silent flick. As I grew out of childhood, I was happiest riding shotgun for my dad in a van full of youth from one neighbourhood or another, taking the highway to the beach, spending time at our camp or on a mission trip. I had zeal for communion. I found myself spending more time at, and loving more, the dirt-road urban settlement where the school was built called Bastion Popular.
Here, twenty minutes from home, was where my parents explicitly taught their reasons for doing what we were doing. Jesus, I learned, had eliminated ritual and turned every preconceived notion on its head. He was hated by the religious and political leaders. He sided with tax collectors and sex workers.
I was a prodigy at proselytizing. My prayers didn’t anticipate an answer, so the day-to-day task was discerning how to “do unto others.” Searching for Jesus in the faces of others, I found him. As the eldest child, I received the most mentorship, absorbing many years’ worth of experience in a certain skill: how to come alongside people in emotional turmoil, how to recognize suffering and how to listen to pain. As a teenager, my friends were the outcasts, the drug dealers and teen parents shunned by the pious, or at least those who could bring themselves to sit through a full service at church.
My family also brought churches to Guayaquil. Sometime after we arrived, Dad’s parents left the Church of God brethren and founded a new church in their home city of Burlington, Ontario. They met in empty school gymnasiums, a nondenominational trend in Canada at the time. That group, without its own building, was the first to send people down to build church walls in Ecuador. I thrived, mixing cement, fluent in Spanish, bossing around gringos, raising houses of worship.
My failure at praying was never for lack of trying. It was the opposite: I tried too hard. I remember one particular Bible class, one of the thousands I attended led by my dad. Sitting with young teens, in one of the small chairs in the school’s empty classrooms, the reading was from Genesis, and the lesson was the story of Noah and the flood. The story ends, as my dad described in Spanish before the spellbound kids, with a rainbow painted across the sky. In the Bible, the rainbow symbolises Yahweh’s promise to the Israelites—to never destroy the planet again.
In the question-and-answer part of the lesson, I had a sudden sensation of bravery, deciding to ask Dad in front of the others about a truly honest doubt that had occurred to me. If this was the first recorded sighting of a rainbow, I asked, and we now know the scientific explanation for why rainbows appear in times of clearing skies, are there equivalents for other stuff like that in the Bible? Are there also scientific reasons for the resurrections of Lazarus and Jesus after prolonged comas?
In my fifth year of school, quinto grado, our parents had made another tough decision about our assimilation and our privilege. My mother has a BSc in physics; she despaired when our math teachers would assign homework like “write out all the even numbers from one to ten thousand.” My brother was losing his English. Finally, our family invested more than we paid in rent for three tuitions at the American School, where we would study much harder.
I don’t remember dad’s answer when I asked about the rainbow, but I began to learn that nothing I could dare to ask would shake his beliefs. On top of his rock-solid conviction in the divine nature of the Bible, the Creation magazines that flowed into our mailbox offered alternative theories to carbon dating that permitted a Young Earth, and how to interpret geology, for example, as evidence for a global flood.
As I grew older, another dilemma appeared. I knew I had been saved by grace, and I don’t remember ever being afraid of ending up in hell. On behalf of those missing from the pews, though, I was terrified—my friends, subsistence drug dealers or discotheque dancers, possible sinners, people I had grown close to in Bastion Popular.
Hell was still something remote and foreign, like the other side of the ocean, the frozen tundras. I hadn’t known anyone who had crossed over yet. The notion of a final punishment so extreme—condemning souls to eternal torture—brought out a rebellious spirit in me. My training, after all, was to champion the underdog. True solidarity, it seemed, would require occupying hell with the sufferers, comforting the afflicted. To my mind, that was my parents’ core lesson: love thy neighbour.
The school year coincided with Guayaquil’s long dry season, months without a lick of rain. Then, at the cusp of the dryness, right before the wet season breaks, paradoxically, the mangos sprout their fruits, and the ceibos—strange leafless beings that do photosynthesis on the bark of their green potbellied trunks—suddenly blossom with tiny white flowers. Folk wisdom held that the ground would shake at the bi-annual changes of the season: a slight tremor, barely a blip on the Richter scale, marking when the southern cold ocean current gives way to the warm northern Niño current and vice versa. By the wet season of 2001, I felt about to burst, without a clue what my blossoms might resemble.
In high school, my philosophy teacher assigned a novel called Sophie’s World, about an eager Norwegian teenager who begins a correspondence with a mysterious teacher whose lessons cover the Western canon, from Socrates through to Darwin. I was especially engaged by the twist in the story, when the characters begin to question their confinement to the pages of the novel, and existentially, they escape.
It was hard to name exactly what I was struggling to escape from. Unlike my peers, I could access the escape of the passport. At my school, the United States was fetishized, and at Monday assemblies, Ecuadorian kids sang a pidgin “Star-Spangled Banner.” My siblings and I were the only native anglophone students. But I still felt my classmates reflected the concerns of a wealthy class, in gated communities to keep out the real world, while I spent my weekends translating for teams of, say, US doctors delivering free clinics for the desperately poor, or playing football for free in the park that was a block away from my sparsely furnished home. After a conflict with a teacher—I was listening to my Walkman instead of her class—I was sent away from the American School of Guayaquil to live with my cousins in suburban Waterloo, Ontario.
Maybe I stopped being able to call myself Christian when I stopped praying. I already knew that I had stopped placing my faith in Bible stories. In high school in Ontario, I again picked up philosophy classes and, studying math-like logical notation, learned how to challenge fallacies. I realized that my parents’ beliefs weren’t formulated as arguments: they cited a relationship to the divine. How do you out-argue a relationship? But there was an equally powerful counter-argument: how could I fake something that I wasn’t feeling?
When I’d first arrived in Canada, I’d wished I could believe only in Christianity, the way I had as a child. Now, I wished I could believe in anything else. I sought out the silent meditations, more than the messages, of any tradition. I found nothing to replace my old conviction. The next year, during a visit home, I decided to bounce back to Ecuador, switching to correspondence high school courses and house-sitting at another missionary’s apartment.
By the time of that trip to the Amazon, in my late teens, I knew that I was uncomfortable with the work of evangelizing. I loved the trip, yes; but I preferred time outside the improvised church halls, hearing about how oil work was affecting the families. Huao kids told me they grew up not knowing the plants the same way their parents did, but their dads brought home fridges bought in oil wages—home to villages without consistent electricity.
Despite my childhood zeal, I always knew there was one thing I was missing. To renounce the mortal sins of the flesh, a follower of Jesus has to experience a moment of spiritual redemption. For a child raised in the faith, that process of reversing fate can take some creativity. There’s a stereotype of ministers’ children as rebellious and self-destructive—I think we must have to make an effort to search for the sin that we are told comes naturally, that is at the root of us all along.
Before my parents had uprooted us from Canada, their own parents had been uprooted, too—a family tradition, skipping a generation. Three out of four of my grandparents had been British, with one of my grandfathers raised as a missionary kid himself. He ended up considered, including by us, more Argentine than Brit.
When I finally graduated from high school, the understanding within our family was that I would attend a Bible school; I could pick anywhere in the world. My parents would help pay for university education if I first did a gap-year studying the literature they believed to be the word of God. I picked a school in northern England called Capernwray Hall. I would live out fantasies of British boarding-school stories by Enid Blyton and J.K. Rowling, books that had often been sent to us by British cousins I wanted to meet.
Britain didn’t feel particularly homey. In my six-month course, students would have to go to the front of the classroom and tell their personal testimonies—the stories of how they’d come to Jesus. An RA, Andy, went to the front: as a Bible student, he had been searching for a sign of God. One night, he walked out of the manor, past the sheep pens and familiar paths, and climbed to the top of the tallest hill he could find. There he sat, drew an imaginary circle around himself on the wet grass and made an ultimatum. He prayed that he would not leave that place until he received knowledge from God.
Twenty-year-old Andy, testifying at the mic, reflected with fond and loving patience on eighteen-year-old Andy who had sat on the grass all night. He sat until dawn, and of course, eventually, saw or knew something that lifted him to his feet and set him back on the path back to school. If he hadn’t, I thought, there would have been a short blurb in the Lancashire broadsheet a week later—fool Yankee corpse found nibbled by sheep.
Again, I found myself wishing for Andy’s clear experience of God. At the end of my semester, I had my own moment of revelation, a crystallization of everything I’d felt. Our final project was to make a tract, and I wrote mine in the plainest text possible. “The only thing worse than Christians,” I wrote, “are Christians with tracts.” It was an existential take on evangelism, though in its own way, true to my parents—Jesus can’t be represented by people who would fit their life’s thrust on a postcard. Although popular with some of my classmates, who asked me for copies to take home, it was deemed disrespectful and given a grade of zero percent.
Reeling through an unknown, I craved the rhythms of the dry and wet seasons in my hometown, the cellular feel of southern air. Bible school had meant to be a gateway to university in a new country, but instead I did the opposite, returning to Ecuador, becoming a solo missionary in a way even my parents hadn’t.
I lived in a new neighbourhood built across the highway from Bastion Popular, working in the school my parents had set up and living closer to it than they ever did. I attended almost daily church gatherings, taking the leadership roles I was allowed as female, in youth group and kids-oriented ministries. I shared a two-room house with a rotating cast of volunteer Canadian teachers, spending whole days in the school and the surrounding neighbourhood.
The last year before my family left Ecuador, two events defined our paths. First, my mom and little brother were in a car accident that totalled our family van. I was on a holiday in the Andean hamlet of Baños, in the shadow of a volcano, when I received the phone call; I sat on the sidewalk, out on the street past dark, to focus on hearing my mom better. She had been driving my brother to school, early in the pre-dawn darkness, leaving the beach camp. After another driver’s unsafe manœuvre, our Kia flipped over into a ditch and the insurance company wrote it off. She was calling to say everyone was okay, but also that she had decided, after surviving the crash, that the time had come to leave Ecuador.
I was twenty, and didn’t want to leave yet. Then came the second event: a visit from a Canadian friend I’d met when she came to Guayaquil on a short-term mission trip. This time she arrived with her boyfriend, the two sharing a bed without being married. She saw my reaction, flat, compared to the other missionaries who made the couple room in separate houses. She invited me join them on a backpacking trip to Peru, a country Ecuador had been at war with during my childhood. And after that, she said, I should go to live in Canada with them and to enroll in their university. “I think deep down you’re not sorry for who you are,” she later emailed to me. “You can try forever, but you will always fail in sincerely finding this guilt that isn’t there.” In January 2007, I was on a plane to Halifax, around the same time my parents left. But our paths had split.
Losing faith meant losing my father, at least in some sense. Less so my mother, as she would say her full-time job was to be a parent. But for my father, it was faith that sent us driving together to and from the neighbourhood where the church and school were, in permanent conversation about the family dynamics and spiritual journeys of characters in our shared world. We would never do that again.
I tried to understand what my parents felt about me, but maybe I had already lost the ability to see through their eyes. Mom and dad had crossed a quarter-width of a planet to get strangers to see their beliefs as real, carrying me with them. Now their own child had rejected that belief. More urgently, I wondered something else: if I didn’t claim a personal faith in their version of Jesus, could they see me as anything other than fallen?
It wasn’t just my relationship with my father that changed. Five years later, after university, I went back to Ecuador on my own. I searched for a local job that would earn me a work visa. Throughout all our years there, my parents had never decided to apply for residency, which one can qualify for after five years in the country. It never occurred to them that their kids’ passports might one day fail to reflect the places where their bodies most belong.
When I did negotiate the visa, I was happier than I expected: I held my own place in the country where I grew up without the support of church networks from outside. As a reporter for a state-funded newspaper, I began covering a human rights case in the Amazon—deaths on a new oil frontier that was still inhabited by Indigenous peoples who reject contact with outsiders. At the time, I felt like I was serving the public, and had found a way to fit in to Ecuador that didn’t involve mission work. But now I think that to write from a removed perspective for as long as I did must have taken a great effort of dissociation. The colonization of the Amazon in Ecuador was initiated not by oil companies, after all, but by Christian missionaries.
The last time I was with my dad in Ecuador, while I was working for the newspaper, he told me he didn’t understand what I was doing there. I didn’t, either.
It’s not that I can’t spend time with my family. In the house I now inhabit with my sister in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, she has a triptych on the wall, a larger version of which hung at my grandparents’ church in Burlington. It depicts the Garden of Eden, a ram tangled in the branches, and the story of Jesus, a human babe with divine promise. Granddad had the paintings framed to hang behind his bed, and my sister kept them when he died. At family dinners, we talk about my parents’ garden and Champions League Football.
I realize that some things have stayed with me from missionary life, too: the urge to tell stories, the desire to commune with people all day—and even, on Sundays, to preach. Like most ministers’ children, Saturday nights meant watching a parent disappear into their own thoughts for long swaths of time. On Sunday mornings, breathing the salt breeze in my apartment, I find myself craving structured alone time for contemplation, and even a regular pulpit from which to express myself. Like my parents, I haven’t bought property or accumulated wealth. Demographically, I suppose that makes me your average millennial. Maybe my parents were just ahead of their time.
But I’ve become at home with not belonging. I’ve returned to Quito, the place too perfect to satisfy my parents, and I found its Garden of Eden vibe speaks to me. Sometimes I wonder why so many of my ancestors left their genetic kin and crossed great distances. Then I wonder if our personalities became too big to commune with each other, and we found it easier to commune with foreign people, each parent growing a brood of strangers, raised in an unfamiliar culture right under their noses.
I’m grateful, on my parents’ behalf, for one thing: they don’t believe a soul can lose salvation if it has experienced true redemption once before. I was baptized under my own volition, in a backyard pool in Guayaquil, and I knew I meant it at the time. I try to imagine how they see death—their souls going to be with their loved ones in a second, more dignified act than life on Earth.
Still, my parents and I are caught in two different places here on Earth. I attended the funerals of two of my grandparents in that church auditorium in Burlington. The first, my granny’s, came near the end of my first semester in the Maritimes. Different parts of my belief disappeared at different times, and I had recently lost my clarity on heaven and hell. In the church, while several hundred people sang about their visions of heaven, I wept openly, while keeping the depth of my disbelief, and my grief, secret.
Surely it’s painful on my parents’ side of the invisible membrane, too. I was happy driving around Ecuador with my father. I know this was also a happy place for him; he must miss it. “We spoke to you in the womb, we played music for you, we read book after book about how to make your life positive and whole,” he wrote to me once when I was living in Berlin, exiling myself during a time when Canada and Ecuador both felt too constraining.
“Yes, maybe decisions we have taken as your parents may have complicated your upbringing, but you never experienced abuse, you never experienced abandonment, you never went without a cuddle or kind word of encouragement,” he wrote. “Maybe we should have said more and been firmer when we saw you take steps away from God that were going to hurt you. We have always wanted to trust you and God’s work in you though. Or maybe we should have denied who we are and what we live for and approved of everything you, or your brother and sister have ever done—only ever being supportive and positive, even though decisions taken have violated everything we believe. Forgive me. Love Dad.”
I still pray one thing: that they forgive me, too.