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Jesus Land is about my close relationship with my adopted brother David. It covers our Calvinist upbringing in Indiana and our stint at a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic as teens.
David, an African American, was adopted by my family in 1970, when he was 3. We were the same age.
The book begins with our move to rural Indiana and our transition from a tiny Christian school to a large, public school where David and my other adopted black brother were the only minority students. It ends with David and me on a beach in the Dominican Republic. It’s a pretty wild ride between these two events.
The central theme of Jesus Land is how race and religion tested our relationship. It’s a book about a couple of misfit kids learning to survive in a hostile environment, and the transcendence of sibling love.
And here’s something new I hope you enjoy, especially if you’re part of a reading group. It’s a Q&A and Reading Group Guide to use for discussions about the book and to answer some frequently asked questions.
Here's an excerpt from the second half of Jesus Land. The setting is the reform school in the Dominican Republic, when a new girl came to live in the girl's house.
What freedom means to a teenage girl
A new girl arrives from eastern Kentucky. This means I'm no longer the lowest ranker in the girls' house. This means that I'll no longer scrub toilets. This means I have a better shot at a second helping of dessert. I welcome her arrival.
Her name is Amanda, and she's 15. She's got bleached, permed hair that cascades to her skinny butt in straw-colored coils. At night, she sits in her bunk and combs it out with a special rubber-tipped pick, one coil at a time. It is her pride and joy.
Amanda's taken hard to the loss of freedom and often plunges her face into her hands with a small moan, as if all this were a thing too ghastly to behold.
When Bob gives her push-ups, she'll chew on her bottom lip for several seconds before lowering herself to the ground, and all his tomato-faced shrieking won't speed her along. Sometimes I catch her staring at me with confused eyes, as if she were waiting for an explanation. I turn away; she'll soon enough learn that there's none to be had.
On a Sunday before vespers we learn why Amanda is here. Bob picks me to fetch his water, and then we circle the metal chairs in the living room and sit down to confess our sins.
I now know my lines by heart, as I am called to repeat them whenever a staffer asks what brought me to the Program. "I was a fornicator and an alcoholic," I say in a loud voice while gazing at my shoes, striving to appear humbled. I am a magnificent actress. I consistently get high scores in the box on the daily point chart called Being Totally Truthful and Honest, Facing Reality.
When it's Amanda's turn to confess, she looks around the circle blankly.
"Honestly, Ah don't know what Ah was sent down here for," she says in her drawl, which is so hillbilly that Indiana rednecks seem positively citified in comparison.
Bob narrows his eyes and the girls around me shift uneasily in their metal seats.
"You do too know," Bob says in a tight voice. His voice always rises several octaves, into the soprano range, when he's upset. It's a scary sound. "You know perfectly well."
"Well, Ah do know that Momma married herself a borned again man, and that's when my troubles began," she says, flipping a long corkscrew of hair over her shoulder. "Ah shoulda known they was storyin' me about this place. That rich old Briggity Britches was up to no good, no how."
'NEED NO FORGIVIN'
I stuff my fist in my mouth to keep from laughing, and a couple of girls cough into their hands to do the same. Ellen, sitting beside Amanda, turns to her.
"Amanda, Jesus forgives his children," she says in an earnest voice. "Jesus loves you. He'll forgive you. And the first step toward receiving His love and forgiveness is admitting our mistakes."
Amanda sucks in her cheeks as if she were preparing to spit.
"Ah don't need no forgivin, cuz Ah ain't done nothing wrong," she says, her black eyes flashing. "And I cain't say I care much for this Jesus character neither."
Bob bolts to his feet.
"Would you like me to tell everyone why your parents sent you here?"
"That would be my momma, cuz my daddy died when I was —"
"Amanda here had a game she played with the boys in her town, called 'Health Clinic' —"
"Nah, we called it 'House Call.' Wasn't no clinic —"
"This ritual of sexual abuse took place in her bedroom while her poor mother was working as a maid in a local motel, toiling away in order —"
"Wasn't no motel, she worked at —"
"Quiet!" Bob roars. Amanda crosses her arms and hunkers down in her chair, glaring at him.
"These boys would take turns having intimate, carnal knowledge of Amanda. Right there under her poor mother's roof."
Bob sits down, and the room falls silent. Ellen puts a hand on Amanda's shoulder, and Amanda shrugs it off with a jerk. I stare at her baggy Kentucky Wildcats T-shirt and wonder what's so special about the stick figure underneath that all these boys would crave it. She lifts her chin and stares back at me defiantly.
"Well, what do you have to say for yourself?" Bob asks her.
"That all happened 'fore Momma found that rich old Bapdist and decided to become a fancy lady. 'Fore that, she didn't pay no mind at all."
Bob raises his index finger with an ah-ha expression on his face.
"So you confess you are a fornicator."
"You had sex before marriage."
"Yeah, I suppose. So?"
"Fornication is an abomination in the eyes of our Lord!"
"A sin! Evil! Wrong!"
"Wasn't like we was harming no one," Amanda says with a giggle. "Actually, it was real fun."
Bob jumps up and orders the rest of us out of the house, so he can talk private with Amanda. We all know what this means: a session. Calisthenics, threats, tears. Big fat O's in the Being Totally Truthful and Honest, Facing Reality and the Courtesy and Respect Toward Authority Figures boxes.
Ellen leads us into the darkening field beside the house, where we sit on the machete-hewn grass and sing "Seek Ye First" and "Humble Thyself" and "Sandy Land."
But no matter how high we raise our voices, we can still hear Bob bellowing inside the concrete house. We slap no-see-ums from our bare arms and shout out the lyrics and fix our eyes on the fading horizon. We sing until night wraps itself around each one of us like a shroud, and the raging stops.
At Vespers, Amanda bends her head to pray and doesn't raise it up again.
The chaplain, a young preacher-in-training from Kansas, asks us if Jesus will find our hearts 100 percent pure and hate-free when He returns to Earth, and I wonder how such a thing is possible.
There's a special church function in the courtyard after the service. We're given grape Kool-Aid and stale chocolate chip cookies that were tied up in Customs for two months after being sent by someone's parents.
No one notices that Amanda is gone until we've lined up to march back up the hill—high ranker to low—and there's an empty space behind me.
Bob and Ellen run back through the courtyard wailing Amanda's name and are soon joined by other staffers, who poke flashlights into the dark classrooms and toilets calling, "Amanda! Time to go, Amanda!" as if she'd simply misplaced herself. Kris and I exchange a wide-eyed look; we know better.
John struts around with his hands on his hips, barking out orders. The Dominican guard trots up with his German shepherd and machete, consults with Jeff, then lopes off into the darkness again, shouting in Spanish.
She's gone. Vanished onto the Dominican side of the barbed wire.
Bob and the other men pile into the school's two vans. The vehicles careen through the front gate, tires spitting gravel, and shoot down the narrow road to Jarabacoa.
Ellen turns to us with a face as pale as a mushroom.
"Let's go," she says, her voice barely a whisper.
We walk up to the girls' house under the moon's unblinking gaze in a heavy silence, no one daring to give voice to the thought swirling through every girl's head. She's free.