Philadelphia Metropolis


No Heaven, No Hell

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By O.K. Pham

"Your children are lovely," the old stranger lady remarked at a community festival we attended last fall, her compliment a mere preface to this next question, "Do you take them to church?" Sensing an unsolicited sermon on the horizon, I gathered my brood for a swift but polite retreat: "No, but it's nice meeting you." Her unwelcome insistence beckoned as we meandered through the crowd, "It's not too late to teach the kids about our Savior!"

For most of my adult life I've stayed clear of religious conversations, reluctant to debate a subject matter that I think is too personal. My own parents' marriage was compromised by their different religious backgrounds: my father was raised Christian, and my mother, Buddhist. My mother defied her in-laws' request to convert to Christianity before the wedding and was consequently accused of plotting to dissolve her husband's faith. This unfair accusation discounted the fact that my father had already relinquished most of his Christian beliefs at the threshold of his teenage years. After all, this was the man who was sent to a seminary as a child for clerical training, only to be expelled less than two years later on account of "incorrigible" behavior. He admitted to being "reformed" only after becoming a husband and father, when other lives came to rely so much on his accountability.

I was born in Viet Nam in March of 1975, a month before the war ended with the Communist takeover. Before the war, my mother was the vice president of a relief agency that was funded by the old republican government. This connection immediately placed us on the blacklist of the new regime. My mom was sent to a reeducation camp for a year, but the government remained vigilant over our family's activities and whereabouts long after her release.

 This paranoia-fueled persecution denied my parents access to job opportunities, particularly those that offered decent pay or some measure of stability. A similar injustice seeped into the elementary school I was attending. For four consecutive years I had achieved the highest grades in my class, yet the first rank honor consistently went to the kid whose family were vocal Communist supporters. Everybody knew what was happening, but none dared to challenge the authority. The constant patrol of gun-wielding guards had silenced our entire village. Most people resigned their lives to the state of communal poverty. A brave few sought to escape the oppression in search of a viable future for themselves and their families.

Heaven.jpgMy father was among those few who secretly stowed their lives away on a small fishing boat heading across the South China Sea, bound for international waters beyond the Communists' jurisdiction. His perilous journey was rewarded with our family's reunion four long years later, in June 1984. Both my parents found work at a sports equipments reconditioning factory so that we could live, albeit very modestly. Bound by the need to maintain a living, they continued to embrace a secular approach to life. Only the annual feast offerings to honor our late ancestors-- a symbolic Buddhist ritual-- and a small gold cross hanging on my father's neck, survived as remnants of my parents' faith. For us kids, the emphasis remained on education, both academic and moral. Religion played a minute part in my own upbringing, and there was no profound discourse on God. I was simply taught to distinguish between right and wrong, without the promise of heaven or threat of hell to sway my decision.

Having endured poverty and discrimination through my formative years, I've learned to take very little for granted. Everything I've experienced up to this point in my life has been a testimony to choice and consequence, with a bit of fate thrown in for good measure. I am content to attribute what I cannot explain to my limited human comprehension; others can have their miracles

Still, every now and then, I encounter religious types who insist on bestowing their belief on me, because my godless soul is in urgent need of salvation. I would really like to discuss with them my views on the idea of repentance, on the dangerous interplay of religion and politics, and perhaps to convince them that the lack of religious faith does not equal immorality. But usually I end up keeping these thoughts to myself and quietly go about my way, reluctant to offend... Besides, my main obligation is to properly guide and care for my own children, so that they may some day leave positive marks on the world. This moral obligation to humanity is my spiritual faith-- my scarlet letter. And I can't honestly think of anything more redemptive than a child's love.






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