It was November 2003, and my two sisters and I were headed to Paris on a red-eye from Newark. Our plane hit a rough patch, and the three of us reacted to the heavy turbulence in ways that were as diverse as our personalities. Shelly, a year younger than I at 30, shot me an angry look for having planned this trip, while I, in my typical reaction to all things that make me nervous, laughed hysterically. Kristen, the youngest at 16, appeared totally cool, reading her book, seemingly oblivious to the plane's stomach-turning dips. When we finally settled into our hotel, relieved, I asked Kristen how she had stayed so calm. She responded simply, "I just prayed."
Being significantly younger than Shelly and I, Kristen had a somewhat different upbringing than we did. I was in college when my mother decided to pull Kristen out of the public elementary school and to home-school her. Shelly and I had attended public school in our central New Jersey town, and I was completely opposed to my mother's decision, expressing this whenever I could. My arguments: This will isolate her from her peers. She'll grow up to be awkward and antisocial. She will lack the education needed to go on to college. I was even more adamantly opposed when my mother placed her in a Christian private school four years later. Shelly and I were considered Roman Catholic growing up, but I can't remember going to church more than five or six times in my life. I was afraid Kristen wouldn't learn about other cultures and religious faiths and would become intolerant; the fundamentalism of evangelicals seemed so extreme, so exclusive, to me.
To compensate, I tried to be a positive influence without being preachy. Once when Kristen was a high-school senior, she e-mailed me about a class assignment that involved presenting one side of an issue. Not being very political yet, she didn't know which issues she should explore. I offered several, including the death penalty. A few weeks later, I noticed some books on the topic in her room. "So what's your opinion of the death penalty?" I asked her. She responded, "You know, I was completely for it, but as I started reading more about it, I'm totally against it now." Score! Soon, I hoped, she'll be reading The New Yorker and listening to NPR!
I was slow to accept Kristen's strong faith in God, believing it was just a phase. When she told me she wanted to go to a Christian college, I realized I had been kidding myself. And again I was filled with concern. I was certain prospective employers would label her a religious fanatic and not see the intelligent and talented person I proudly call my sister.
By the time she decided to go to Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, I had learned to keep my opinions to myself. It became more apparent that I needed to trust her decisions and let her make mistakes, if that was what this indeed was; after all, she had proved me wrong in the past. My concerns about her being home-schooled turned out to be totally ill founded. She's the most well adjusted and self-assured person I know, and she has been able to build many great friendships. At her Sweet 16 party, I was surprised at how Kristen, shaking her hips and waving her arms over her tiara like a teenage queen, jumped on the DJ stage with such confidence that Shelly and I looked at each other in amazement. Who was this kid? The generation gap was clear. Even the boys hit the dance floor with enthusiasm. I'd gone to a school where boys were too cool to get excited about anything and I acted more as observer than active participant at school dances.
I had always thought of Kristen as an angel who brought our family closer. Growing up in the '80s, when being different wasn't cool, I did little to draw attention to my ethnicity. But Kristen has embraced our father's Puerto Rican heritage with pride. Her friends seem open to other types of people and hardly seem to notice their differences.
Kristen is now a junior at Liberty. While we don't see eye to eye on religion, it's nice to know that she still calls me for advice about the practical things. When it comes to faith, she's private and doesn't preach, and really, she's the expert, not me. For her, religion is a personal thing, and I don't judge (anymore). In fact, I greatly respect her for having such a strong faith in something. I wish I could believe so fervently in anything so abstract. All I can say now is that I believe in her.