www.kurttrue.net

Reflections on the known universe...About Jonathon Conte
by Kurt True

Jonathon Conte and reporter
Jonathon Conte and Reporter, Washington, DC, 2013

I grew up with very little formal religious instruction. One of the first religious concepts that I can remember being exposed to was this idea that, when you die, you meet Saint Peter up in heaven.

I don't think I learned that from my parents or any particular spiritual authority. I think I just figured it out from the funny pages in the newspaper and Saturday morning cartoons, and maybe the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

It's kind of a classic gag, I guess. You go to heaven, and you share an awkward moment with Saint Peter.

Then I got a little older, and I found out who Saint Peter was, and I thought what a rotten deal that was, that you live your whole life, and that's the first person you see when you die, Saint Peter.

Ask a dozen New Testament scholars who's the crankiest guy in early Christianity, and they'll all give you the same response, "Saint Peter, of course." The man was a total curmudgeon.

Saint Peter is the guy who said "Faith without works is dead." That's like something your dad would say.

I always thought when you go to heaven, you should see God. That's Who you want to see, right? You want to see the Guy Who's All Forgiving and All Merciful, not the guy who's going to get on your case about how you're always slacking off.

Then I went to a Catholic university, and I took Religion 101 or something like that, and I found out that you do meet God when you go to heaven, but you don't get to ask Him any questions.

No, God doesn't talk to you. You just look at Him. Forever. That's what heaven is. You just sit there looking at God.

And what does God look like? Well, He doesn't really look like anything. He's not a material reality. So you stare at Him for all eternity, and you don't see anything.

So when I was about nineteen, I started thinking "Well, I can do a lot better than that. Maybe I should start my own religion."

And I would be up front with everybody from the outset that I'd made it all up, because naturally I don't want anybody making war on the infidel over some religion I made up in my dorm room while I was eating Cheetos.

And it doesn't really matter that I made it all up, right? What's important is that it provides a useful narrative. That's what I would want my religion to do for you. I would want it to tell you a story that helps you cope.

So in my religion, when you die and you go to heaven, you meet God, and you get to ask God any question you want.

And God looks like whatever you want God to look like. Whatever works for you, that's what God looks like. If you want God to look like Ella Fitzgerald, God looks like Ella Fitzgerald. If you want God to look like Willie Nelson, God looks like Willie Nelson.

Which gets me to my friend Jonathon. Jonathon Conte.

Jonathon with leaflets
Jonathon with leaflets, San Francisco.

I don't mean that Jonathon liked Willie Nelson. Well, maybe he did. I didn't know him well enough to know what kind of music he listened to. Jonathon was more of an Internet friend than an in-person friend. I only met him in person two or three times. What I mean is I find myself wondering what Jonathon's God looks like.

I think Jonathon's God looks like someone patient and kind who speaks slowly and wears a cardigan sweater and leans way back in his chair like he's not in a hurry to go anywhere, and he has all day to talk to you.

I think Jonathon's God looks like Noam Chomsky. I think that when you ask Jonathon's God questions, He gives you lengthy, complicated answers that go on for hours and include recommendations for further reading.

I wonder what Jonathon would ask his God. I think he'd ask the same question so many of us ask.

I think he'd ask "Why did You put me there?"

I think that would be Jonathon's first question. I think Jonathon would say "Hey, God, why did You put me down there and make me live in that world where there's so much pain and so much brutality and superstition and ignorance and greed and hatred and so little caring and so little compassion? Why did you put me there when You knew that I was just one little person with so little power to fix anything?"

And I picture Jonathon's God saying to Jonathon "Well, I'm God, you know, so I knew who you were going to be before I created you. I knew you were going to be smart, for example. I knew you were going to have a remarkable ability to retain information, marshal facts and think on your feet. And I knew you were going to be kind and caring. I knew that you were so full of compassion that you would want to make a difference in that brutal, ignorant, superstitious world, even if it meant that you had to spend your life in pain, in a body disfigured by an act of senseless violence. I knew that you would think that the difference you made in that world was worth the pain that you had to endure for so long. And you know what Jonathon, you did make a difference in that world. More than you could ever know. A big, big difference. You were one of my saints. You were one of my angels. Your life was one of my miracles. I'm sorry it had to hurt so much."

Jonathon Conte, bike, trailer
Jonathon Conte and his famous bike trailer

Somewhere along the way, nobody knows exactly when, my friend, Jonathon Conte, who spent much of his life working to protect children from genital mutilation, decided that he couldn't endure any more pain. On May 9th of this year, just a little more than two weeks ago, he took his own life.

I think for many of us who knew Jonathon, that loss has been such a shock that it has made us ask ourselves whether we're doing enough to advance the goals that he believed in and that we, his friends, believe in.

And for me, it's not the first time I've asked that question. For years I've asked myself "Am I doing enough? Am I speaking out enough for the rights of children?"

And then I ask myself "How much is enough? What does enough look like?"

And then when I met Jonathon, I started asking myself "How can I ever do enough when even Jonathon doesn't feel like he's doing enough, and he's out there every day wearing a shirt that says 'INTACT GENITALS are a human RIGHT' and riding all over San Francisco pulling a bicycle trailer plastered with intactivist slogans?"

So I guess I should be asking myself what kind of conversation do I want to have with my God? When I'm all done here on this earth, what would I like that conversation with my God to look like?

I think I'd like to be able to say to my God, "Hey, remember when my friend Jonathon committed suicide, and I decided that I was going to make more of an effort to speak out for the rights of children, to speak out against genital mutilation? How did that work out? Did I make a difference?"

And I picture my God, who looks like the folk singer Odetta at about age 75, saying to me, "Well, honey, you're no Jonathon Conte, but you did alright. Welcome to heaven."

I hope I see you up there, Jonathon. I miss you. We all do.

Kurt True
27 May 2016

kurttrue at kurttrue dot com

© kurttrue.net