Love that can’t be earned

By Andy Christian Castillo

As a child, I faithfully attended the Patch the Pirate Club at Bible Baptist Church each week. Regardless of baseball games or birthday parties, every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., my seven brothers and I would cram into our family’s 15 passenger van and, either willingly or unwillingly, trek to Bible Baptist Church on Florence Road, a hyper-legalistic fundamentalist Christian institution.

The club, founded in the early 1980’s by Ron “Patch” Hamilton, sprouted from a national Christian radio adventure show for kids. Hamilton lost an eye to cancer in 1978 and started the organization soon after. The ministry’s website advertises the program, “recognized by the National Religious Broadcasters, as being the third largest children’s religious programming outreach.”

We’d meet in the church’s basement, a white cinderblock room with about 20 school desks crammed on one side, the other, a keyboard, a small pulpit, and rows of grey fold up chairs. Generally speaking, we’d be the only family in attendance, but occasionally, others would join.

It was here, at a young age, my brothers and I learned about God’s mercies and love. In that basement, heated by a loud furnace in wintertime and cooled with box fans in summer, we were bombarded by King James Version scripture and character-building lessons.

Today, memory rushes back like a flood. Without fail, the meeting started out with a prayer, a recitation of Colossians 3:16, then a pledge, and the official Patch the Pirate song: “we sail with patch the pirate, across the ocean blue; we want to please our savior, in all we say and do. We serve the king of heaven, and proudly bear his sword; we sail with patch the pirate, for the glory of the Lord.”

The meetings were the same every week, with little variance. A biblical lesson by a lovely, sweet white-haired woman who we called grandma, was followed by a chance to color, game such as ‘fishy fishy cross my ocean,’ and then a snack. After, we’d race outside into the fading light and run until dark or the adults finished prayer meeting upstairs, whichever came first. If it was warm enough, we’d squish mosquitoes against the van’s interior windows on the way home, keeping tally. Sometimes, we’d go out to dinner at Red Rock Pizza in Easthampton, and eat pizza while listening to Joe Castiglione and Jerry Trupiano call play-by-play on Boston Red Sox radio.

That church, with its ugly green carpet, light pink curtains and 1980’s era hard pews, was my entire existence. Further, I was homeschooled, and didn’t get much other social contact. Thus, it played a huge role during some of the most formative years of my life.

In retrospect, the church was cultish: us beautiful, innocent children were warned against the dangers of things like gambling and going to the movies. And if we happened to stumble into such sin, we were assured by elder congregation members that a righteous God would hold us accountable one day at the throne of judgement. It was a contractual relationship.

1 John 3:16, 17 The Message (MSG)

16-17 This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves.

Today, I see God differently. We humans don’t reach Him through a dogmatic set of rules; rather, He’s with us no matter what.

God, Creator of the air we breathe first thing in the morning and the evening’s sunset, wants to encounter us; wants to encounter you. We’re drawn to Him through Grace, His compassion, because He first loved us, not through religiosity.

We’re not tied to rules set by the church; nor are we required to follow rules to earn God’s favor. That’s the gospel, the good news. That’s why He became human; that’s why He died, because we couldn’t be good enough.

God is everything to me, because He’s jealous, gracious, and eternally, incomprehensibly compassionate toward me. I love Him because He loves me, and there’s nothing I can do to escape that love.

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