Wednesday, November 14, 2012

In memoriam: My grandmother

This past Friday, my grandmother had passed away. She was 84 years old. On Monday, the family gathered at the Condon Memorial Home in Harrison, where practically everybody in the Agudo family goes to after they pass on. Of course, there were a lot of tears and sadness, but also a lot of discussions, and even some smiles and laughter. Even when death is in the room, life goes on.

During the second wake session, the pastor of the Pentecostal church that Grandma went to in her later years(She was previously Catholic, then Mormon, then a Jehovah's Witness, until she settled on a Pentecostal faith) came by to deliver a sermon for. Even I appreciated this because Rev. Cruz has known our family for at least a decade now, and his sermons are very family-oriented. While my Spanish is very rusty, he gave a very comforting sermon, stressing that she had a long life, had many children and even more grandchildren. Her legacy lives on in our memories, and literally within us.

Abuelita and me on her 84th birthday
Of course, he is a priest, so at the end of the sermon it came time to pray. I should note that while some of my relatives know I'm an atheist, my grandmother was not one of them(Though I suspect now that this is published, word might get out pretty quick and I might catch some hell for a while). However, when everybody bowed their heads, closed their eyes and prayed along, I did something slightly different. I bowed my head, but instead of praying, I let my mind drift into my fondest memory of Abuelita(as we affectionately call her): When I was a kid, Abuelita lived in an apartment above a small grocery store with a big comic book section. Every time I came over, I asked "Abuelita, dame un peso, por favor?"(Grandma, can you give me a dollar, please?). She happily always said yes, and I always used it either towards a comic book, or a soda, or a pack of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards(C'mon, they were hilarious). I thanked her for spoiling me so much then, and thank her again now.

Yesterday morning, we said our last goodbyes and buried her in the cemetery where my grandfather, her husband, is buried as well. Before we embarked to the cemetery, Rev. Cruz gave another sermon. While still stressing the family bonds, it was a bit more heavy with religious language. Even more so when a chaplain came up afterwards and delivered a sermon in English, saying that "Jesus is with us" and whatnot. So I did what I did the night before and drowned out the religious talk with memories of Grandma, because that's who it's really all about, not a 2,000 year old carpenter or a religion.

After we buried her, we all went to a Spanish Pavilion(literally named "Spanish Pavilion") at the edge of town, ate a ton of food, talked more, and then went back to our normal life routines. Normal, except when the holidays hit us soon. While we'll be okay in years to come, this year things will be quite different without Grandma at the Thanksgiving table or handing out the presents on Christmas Eve. But, we'll still manage to have a good time and enjoy life, because that's what Abuelita wanted us to do.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Faith Healing: A dangerous scam

Quite a while back, the A-News Discussions Facebook group got spammed by a Christianity-addicted evangelist. Upon perusing this young man's timeline(before he blocked me), I came across a video of the African "faith healer" Dag Heward-Mills, where his spokesperson in the video claims he healed a "hunchback" through prayer.

I immediately decided to take a look at Mr. Heward-Mills' other videos supposedly showcasing "healing miracles" he performed. Unfortunately, all the other videos suffer the same fatal flaw as the hunchback video: They provide absolutely no real evidence a healing actually occurred, just mere assertions. The best, and most laughable videos are the ones where they bring up a boy who was supposedly born with only one visible testicle, where they claim to heal a man who is deaf in one ear, and to complete the trifecta, a man who was blind in one eye. On each of those videos I left an appropriate comment(they've long since removed them) calling out the obvious(and quite frankly, very poor) deceptions being played out.

What dismayed me in watching these videos, is that virtually all the people in the audience cheered the obvious scam with extreme gullibility. They, like the Christian spammer I encountered on Facebook, truly believe that faith can heal any illness, while never stopping to think that they're getting fleeced.
Unfortunately, faith healing isn't a scam confined to third world countries. Particularly in the Pentecostal, Evangelical and fundamentalist communities, faith healing scams happen every day in the United States, as magician and skeptic Derren Brown investigated and exposed a few years ago. These "faith healers" justify their scams with what is labelled the "prosperity gospel", which is basically "give me your money and God will make you several times richer in wealth and/or health". Of course, when that doesn't happen, the person is accused of not having enough faith. The worst cases are when a person's health declines because they stop taking medications or treatment because they are convinced that their session with a faith healer cured him/her. Death can even occur as a result of this delusion.

But there's an even worse situation when children are conscripted into it by their believing parents. And the worst part of it, when these children suffer serious physical harm and even die from their parents' refusal to get proper medical treatment in favor of "prayer", is that in many states the parents are legally protected from prosecution(even after a death is the result of the faith healing act), citing "religious exemptions". And when folks challenge these exemptions to bring about reasonable protections for the children of faith healing parents, resistance from misguided politicians and unmerited charges of "You're just here to bash religion" invariably comes up as attempts to derail and slime what is really just a sober, rational discussion about the dangers of faith healing to children.

So until the law finally catches up with reality, the best things we can do are to raise awareness, speak out, lobby for opposition against faith healing exemptions(such as through the Secular Coalition of America and Americans United), and just say no to faith healing(or alternatively insist on having it in conjunction with proper medical care).

Friday, November 2, 2012

Post-Sandy Recovery

In my previous post, I blogged about my experience enduring Hurricane Sandy as it was clobbering the Northeastern United States. It's been almost three days now since then, and there's a hell of a lot to talk about.

First, what surprised many of us(particularly folks in places safe from flooding like myself) was just how badly we underestimated Sandy's destructive power. This was due primarily from the Northeast's relative inexperience with hurricanes compared with states around and below the Mason-Dixon line, and basing our expectations of Sandy against what we experienced last year with Hurricane Irene. Even I had thought Sandy wouldn't be a serious problem. As you'll read just below, I had no clue how dead wrong I was.

On Tuesday, I was expecting a jump in business at the store, due to people from downtown and Hoboken suffering from flood damage. But then I went to go grab something to eat over on Central Avenue. Nearly every building in Central Avenue was closed because there was no power at all. The only two food places open besides Stop & Shop were the Chinese fast food joint(they had a generator) across the street and Dunkin Donuts(which was quite a few blocks up the Avenue). Also, I was floored when I seen that one of the mainstays of Central Avenue had literally collapsed under Sandy's fury.
Kennedy Department Store is just smashed.

I decided to go to my workplace to grab a microwavable meal, since it was the only place with stable power. That's when I was greeted with a scene straight out of a nightmare: There were virtually no shopping carts in the corral, hordes of people were charging their cell phones(and laptops!) everywhere they could find an outlet on the sales floor(they even used power strips), every line to the registers were all the way down the aisles constantly and we were getting customers not only from Jersey City, but folks from Hoboken, North Bergen, Nutley, Union City, and possibly other places. As it turns out, the Stop & Shop on Central Avenue was the only major supermarket store for miles that wasn't flooded and had power. There were widespread utility outages everywhere. It was the most serious state of emergency I had ever seen. After work, Central Avenue was literally pitch black.

And to make matters worse, no grocery or perishable deliveries could get to us until Wednesday and Thursday, thereby stripping the store of essential supplies to offer to customers. Also, we're actually a very small store(just nine aisles), with no full deli, seafood, pharmacy, bakery or even florist departments. And we have the only working ATM on the Avenue(that I know of). So we were the most ill-equipped to meet our customers' basic needs during the extreme crisis, thanks to a combination of horrific damages and really bad luck. To our credit though, we've been sticking it out like real troopers and we're still doing our damn best to help speed up local recovery.

On Wednesday, I had found out that the city government had initiated a 7pm curfew for the whole city. However, I was beginning to see signs of slow but actual recovery. We were still getting chaotic business, but I noticed a significant decrease in register line length as the day passed. We finally got a grocery delivery, bringing in much needed water, canned food, juices and other essential foodstuffs.

On Thursday, some businesses on the Avenue opened up, albeit sans power or running off generators. I managed to get a BLT sandwich at a deli across the street, and after subsisting on relatively little amounts of food the past two days, eating something with bacon in it really helped get me through the day. We're also finally getting perishable and ice deliveries, which helps even further.

Tomorrow, the curfew will be lifted(*), as at least some sort of power will be restored to the Avenue and there's news of two supermarkets finally opening back up, helping put a lot of pressure off us. But we've still got a long ways to go before full recovery. For example, I was speaking to the driver of the perishable delivery that finally came in, and he said that his next stop is in Connecticut. Yup, that is how seriously extensive Sandy's damage is: His next stop is in another state!

So that's what's happening so far where I'm at, and I've been hearing rumors that we may be getting a snowstorm next week(Seems very unlikely though). But snowstorms are something New Jerseyans know quite well and can get through fairly easy.

*Correction: I found out that the curfew won't be lifted for at least another 2-3 days, as it is estimated that that is how long it will take to restore power to the Heights area at least.