Over the last decade the slogan “What Would Jesus Do?” has become a motto of many Christians. Sadly, it preceded the time period covered in Jesus Land, a harrowing memoir by Julie Scheeres. But, then again, maybe it would have made no difference.
Jesus Land is a story of racism, religion and dysfunction in a family that had all the right appearances. In fact, most people probably thought the Scheeres family was a typical “good Christian family.” They attended a Calvinist church every Sunday. Dad was a surgeon. Mom was active with church and supported church missionaries. Many in the church are impressed that Mom and Dad adopted some black children into their white bread home to give them a better life.
Yet as Scheeres makes plain, the surface was merely a veneer over spiritual and emotional rot. This was, in fact, a family whose children were swallowed up by dysfunction. Granted, there was plenty of the Bible, Christian music and religion in the house. What was missing was parental love and nurturing.
Roughly the first half of Jesus Land focuses on Julia and her adopted brother, David, as they go from a Christian school to a public high school in Lafayette, Indiana. Julia is white. David is one of the adopted black children, joining the family when both he and Julia were three. (Much of the back story is told in snippets at the end of each chapter). Yet there is even something malefic in the decision to adopt David and another black child, Jerome.
When the Scheeres went to adopt, there were basically black children available. From their standpoint, “God was testing them.” Adopting David was merely a chance “to show the world that God was not prejudiced and neither were they.” The rationale for later adopting Jerome undercuts that theory. Even though Julia truly saw David as her brother, Jerome is adopted because her parents believe David needed “one of his own kind.”
Thus, at one level, the tale explores both overt and latent racism. The overt racism followed Julia and David throughout their lives in stares and racist comments. The situation worsens with high school as David and Jerome are the only minority students in the school. Julia also begins to realize the latent racism in the home. It finally dawns on her that she is treated differently than David and Jerome. They live in the basement, she upstairs with the parents. She avoids the whippings and beatings her father inflicts on the boys when they are perceived to misbehave. The difference also surfaces as all three children rebel against their situation.
Jerome runs away from home and ends up in the court system. As far as Julia’s parents are concerned, he is no longer part of the family and, in fact, he spends Thanksgiving shivering in a barn on their property. After Jerome leaves, David attempts suicide. Mom’s response is, “Why can’t I just have one day of peace?” As a result, David is shipped off to Escuela Caribe, a Christian school in the Dominican Republic run by New Horizons Youth Ministries. As soon as both boys are gone, Julia’s mother scrubs and cleans their room, essentially trying to eliminate any trace they existed.
Julia, meanwhile, drinks Southern Comfort to start and get through the day and ends up in a sexual relationship with one of the high school’s popular boys. She leaves home when her parents discover the affair. After being arrested for supposedly breaking into a car, she is offered a chance to return home. She refuses and ends up in juvenile court. There she is given another choice: declare herself an emancipated minor or go to Escuela Caribe. Her desire for family drives her to be reunited with David so she opts to join him there.
The second half of the book focuses on the duo’s experience at Escuela Caribe. It is a combination boot camp/prison camp with a Christian cloak. The “students” are essentially held prisoner and subject to all forms of mental and physical abuse. Thus, this part of the book more closely focuses on its other central theme — that religious fervor may often mask wholly unchristian behavior. The children at Escuela Caribe literally start as at level zero. They not only must ask permission to walk, stand, sit or eat, they are under 24-hour observation. Yet even students who rise above that level are faced with corporal punishment, forced exercise at odd hours, emotional abuse, and forced but often meaningless hard labor.
To a certain extent, Escuela Caribe is like the home Julia and David left. Here, the ill treatment is on a systemic and institutional basis. In both, Christian “love” includes having the power to exploit, intimidate and literally attempt to beat the devil out of a child. In both, young minds face a horrible irony. As Julia asks herself at one point, “If God is in control, why does He allow so many bad things to happen?”
Scheeres keeps the story moving with relatively crisp writing and language. At times, you feel like the person drawn to the scene of an accident or at a horror movie. You want to avert your eyes but can’t. Still, the tenor of the book causes the objective part of the mind to wonder about its veracity. That makes it more surprising the book lacks visuals other than a undated cover photo of Julia and David outside a camper as young children. In contrast, the author’s website has a variety of photos from her life and some documents from her time at Escuela Caribe. Although some of the documents are used in the book’s narrative, none are actually reproduced in the book.
Jesus Land certainly is not a picture of all fundamentalist Christian families. At the same time, it is a painful exposition of how being Christian does not make a person, a family or even an institution act like a Christian. It is troubling to think that those responsible for and to Julia and David never really asked, “What would Jesus do?” It is frightening to realize that even if they had, Julia’s and David’s life might not changed one whit.