The other day I caught this NPR interview with Yale Professor Carlos Eire, who was discussing his new book Learning to Die in Miami. I realized immediately it was a book I wanted to read, and thanks to the electronic wizardry of the Kindle was beginning the first chapter less than a minute later.
Professor Eire was one of 14,000 Cuban children airlifted from Havana fifty years ago in the Peter Pan operation, a Kennedy era pre-Bay of Pigs historical event about which I had almost forgotten. The book is his memoir of arriving in Miami and his first years in America. One sentence that grabbed my attention was this description of the Jewish couple who were his first foster parents in America, "I've said it before, and I'll say it again and again until the day I die: such good people, such brave people, such transparent proofs for the existence of God. Little did they know what was in store for them, entangling their lives with ours."
It probably goes back to my own insecurities, but there was something reassuring about reading a distinguished professor from Yale University say his reason for believing in God is simply the good things that have happened to him. At this post, I noted that my reason for belief is not much different. And reading the Professor's statement reminded me of the day my daughters and I went whale watching in Baja California.
It was one of those spur of the moment trips. I was back in California from working overseas, and we decided to jump in the car and head south. A few days later we were on the southern tip of Baja California (for overseas readers this is not the state of California, but an 800 mile strip on the Western coast of Mexico). We enjoyed the beach and art colonies for a few days, and then headed back home. We stopped in a small coastal hotel for the night, where my daughter noticed a sign advertising Grey Whale watching and suggested we do that the following day. Having learned at least one important lesson in 25 years as a parent, which is never to say No to your children unless necessary, I agreed.
I was sceptical, however. I'd seen the tourists lined up on Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey California to lay down their money for a "whale watching trip" that involved going out into the bay for an hour or so and if they were really lucky seeing something at a distance their guide told them was a whale. But I was willing to give it a chance, and at seven the next morning we were waiting for the van to take us down to the boat.
My first surprise when we arrived and saw the old motorboat waiting for us offshore was that we were not alone. It was a local holiday, described by our guide as Mexico Family Day, and he had brought his extended family to go with us. Little children were dressed up in their Sunday best, with the girls wearing ribbons in their hair, all excited about the trip out in the water. We all piled in the boat, he started the engine, and off we went.
It was about an hour later that we noticed the huge grey lump on the surface we had come to see. The guide cut the engine until it was barely purring and we moved slowly towards the whale. To our surprise, rather than submerge itself and swim away, the gigantic grey whale moved towards us until it was parallel to our boat, rubbing itself against the side.
And that's when it all began. From out of nowhere - well, actually, from underneath the surface of the ocean - another whale emerged and then another. Soon there were half a dozen surrounding our small boat, engulfing it from all sides, pushing against it and spouting all over us. We reached over the sides pushing our hands into their rubbery skin, and the children went wild. The whales remained for what seemed like hours, swimming around us, spouting on us, pushing against us, having as much fun with us as we were with them. Then it ended as quickly as it had begun, with the whales giving one last push against the boat and then submerging themselves once again into the ocean to swim away.
That evening we stopped to fill up the car at a gas station. I recounted the adventure to an American couple who was there, and their jaws dropped open. "We've been coming here whale watching for the past 30 years," they said to me. "We've never seen anything like that."
Well - and here is where I know the atheists, agnostics, and sceptics will all have a field day - I think God gave my daughters and me that special experience just because he likes us. It was simply an unexpected gift from a friend.
Would I still believe in God had I been born a cripple, a refugee, homeless, or unloved, or all four at the same time? I don't know. Would I still believe in God if, at this stage in my life, I became an unloved, crippled, homeless refugee? Absolutely.
In her book Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes the moment she first dared to utter aloud the words, "I don't believe in God." The sentence came after months of struggling with the fact that the 9/ll suicide bombers had carried out their operation in the name of Allah.
I often wonder if Ayaan hasn't thrown out the baby with the bathwater. In one fell swoop, she went from "Allah is not God" to "There is no God". She seemed to dismiss the possibility that God does exist but he is not Allah. What is interesting to me is that as I follow the course of Ayaan's life from being an oppressed Muslim girl in Somalia to becoming a voice for the oppressed in America, I visualize the hand of God guiding her just as clearly as that wonderful day he brought those grey whales to our little boat in Baja California.