A practicing Jew sits in an Evangelist church and cries violently because Jesus Christ was crucified. This scene is typical to the life of Hugo Moya – a Mexican pastor and quasi-grandfather to most of our group. Four short weeks after we met Hugo, he left the house to help build a church and never returned.
Hugo said that Gd constructed the world carefully. So carefully, it turns out, that just one misstep on a chapel roof could leave 7 children fatherless, an entire congregation without a pastor, and hundreds of immigrants in South Texas without their weekly source of food. Hugo’s death was the type of impossibly unfair tragedy that feels custom-made for the “denial” stage of grief; it was impossible that the Gd who Hugo knew, loved, and revered would ever do this to a family that spent their entire lives serving him. It was impossible that, with all those who impose evil on the US-Mexico border – from wealthy politicians to murderous cartels – that Hugo would be taken; someone who lost sleep to spread love to drug addicts and care packages to refugees. When my instructor informed me of Hugo’s death, I was positive that she had received false information. That her entire personality rapidly shifted into one that would invent such a cruel joke. That every other moment in my life was true, and this one was inexplicably – but inevitably – false. It had to be. There was no other conceivable explanation.
It turns out that Hugo was right when he said that “dios siempre nos soprende de maneras nuevas,” that Gd always finds new ways to surprise us; when I woke up the next morning, he was still dead.
If such a thing as “atheist crusaders” existed, the death of Hugo would make a great foundational text for them. Nothing is more challenging to the notion that Gd exists, loves us, and protects us than the image of Hugo dying as he built a church. Like most kids raised in an Abrahamic tradition – even those of us on the more faithful side – I let years of my life slip away to the misguided question “why does Gd do bad things to good people?” Hugo’s death felt like a climax to this question, but the awe-inspiring faith of his family was the thing that finally put it to rest.
When I think about it, it should have made sense that the same Gd who killed all of human love and joy with one flood, who refused to save Sodom and Gomorrah, and who commanded Abraham to murder his own son was the same Gd that would be dark enough to let Hugo die so tragically. It also should have made sense that this was no Gd worth believing in.
When Eunice, Hugo’s wife, sung passionate songs of praise at her husband’s funeral to the Gd that widowed her, I was inspired to ask myself why. Eunice and Hugo’s love can be summarized by one moment: Eunice blushing like a 7th grader (through her 55 year old face) as she told us Hugo’s favorite thing to remind her: desde el momento en que te vi, sabía que eras tú. “From the moment I first saw you, I knew that it was you.” At Hugo’s funeral, Eunice’s glass-breaking singing voice was weakened to a faint quiver and I inevitably started sobbing. As my tears began to slow, I was left with a story I hadn’t thought about in years: The Buddhist Parable of the Mustard Seed.
The story (horribly abbreviated) goes like this: a mother loses her son. She carries him around her village asking if anyone knows how to revive him. When she takes his corpse to the Buddha, he instructs her to return to her village, knock on the door of each house, and procure a mustard seed from every family that has not been touched by death. The Buddha promises her that he will conjure the mustard seeds into an elixir that will revive her son. Relieved, the mother sets out on her mission. She arrives to the village to find that most of her neighbors were happy to give her mustard seeds, but that all of them had been touched by death. Suddenly, she rapidly understands the universality of death. It calms her grief and she finally buries her son.
The universality of suffering does not rid us of our pain, but it does lift much of pain’s weight off our shoulders. When we view our pain in a self-centered way – assuming that we are among a rare few so horribly treated by the universe – self-centered questions like “why me?” weigh us down.
Seeing Hugo’s grieving family at his funeral felt, in many ways, like a mirror. Watching the darkest moment of their lives naturally reminded me of my own. Holding these pieces of darkness next to each other, I experienced a similar moment of revelation to the mother in The Parable of The Mustard Seed. Gd let such a horrible thing happen to the Moya family because Gd lets horrible things happen to everyone. Even in Hugo’s death, he continued to be right- Gd designed the universe carefully. So carefully, in fact, that no one suffers alone. Even those most deserving of Gd’s mercy know his darkest inflictions of pain. If everyone suffers, then no one most suffer alone.
Eunice Moya was the only person who ever gave me a remotely satisfactory answer to the question: “why does Gd let bad things happen to good people?” La pregunta mas freceuente que la gente tiene para dios es: donde esta? “The most popular question that people ask of Gd is: where is he?” She says. La respuesta: él está en el mismo lugar que estaba cuando su hijo murió en la cruz. “The answer: Gd is in the same place that he was when his son died on the cross.” I stared at Eunice in confusion. She smiled softly. Esto es algo que toma muchos años para entender. “This is something that takes people many years to understand.” That day, I went to the Moya’s church and cried. I did not understand, but I finally believed that there was an answer to my question. This is where the practicing Jew cries about Jesus. Knowing Hugo, I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened in his church once a month.
Only a few weeks later, Hugo’s kids would embark on the impossible task of summarizing his essence in a minutes-long funeral speech. Most of them, religious like Hugo himself, found themselves comparing their dad to Jesus Christ. In Hugo’s death, his kids realized that the image upon which they built their conception of Christ was their father. It made a tremendous amount of sense. When I think of the darkest moments in my own life, I ask myself “where is Gd?” My answer: “in the same place that he was when Hugo fell from the roof.”