God and soccer

Can a suburban Sacramento-area family survive without either?

Illustration By Leela Corman

Alison Rood is a writer and parent living in El Dorado Hills

When you’re 40-ish and unexpectedly find yourself living in outer suburbia with an elementary-school-age child, you quickly realize that there are two indomitable forces at work in that world: church and soccer. If you don’t attend the one and your offspring has no desire to participate in the other, you might feel like a FedEx-plane-crash survivor stranded on a deserted island. I moved into a modest housing tract just outside Sacramento several years ago, and as a non-religious formerly urban dweller with a 5-year-old who shunned organized sports, I was suddenly a suburban castaway. In terms of social survival, I discovered that my best shot at community contact was a volunteer shift in the classroom, teaching kindergarteners how to add and subtract with M&M’s.

The fact that my son chose not to get involved in soccer wasn’t a huge deal—unless it was sports day at school, and everyone showed up in soccer uniforms; or it was show and tell, and the other kids brought in their soccer trophies; or the class had to write an essay about personal achievement, and 99 percent of the students described their exploits in a soccer match. He eventually caved in to peer pressure and tried peewee baseball, but that experiment fizzled. I was glad my child was a free thinker and not easily swayed by the masses, but I still would have enrolled him in a soccer program and driven him to a field where he could kick a ball around with other kids if that’s what he had wanted. Privately, however, I had to admit I couldn’t relate to such a specialized form of outdoor recreation. When I was growing up, I played kickball with the neighborhood kids until dark and then collapsed in the grass and waited my turn to greedily suck water from a garden hose that was passed around. I don’t know if a bottle of Crystal Geyser at the end of a soccer game is as satisfying as the warm, metallic-tasting water I drank when I was 10 years old, but I do know it wasn’t just sweat, exhaustion and thirst that exhilarated me. It was the fact that my parents were nowhere in sight—or, if they were outside, they were sitting on lawn chairs down the street, drinking beer with the neighbors.

My friends and I weren’t raised and processed within the confines of structured activities, like factory chickens living in a controlled habitat under the watchful eye of technicians. We were free-range children, experiencing the wild pleasure of spontaneous, unsupervised competition. We chose the teams and figured out the rules all by ourselves, even if our heated debates cost us valuable playtime. In the end, it didn’t matter, because we—not the adults—were the bosses.

I knew those same unfettered games with a ball—or even a bat and a glove and a ball—must be a reality somewhere in contemporary suburban America still; they just weren’t happening on our street or anywhere nearby. Instead, the kids all seemed to have a uniform, a schedule and a coach. The only time the children in our neighborhood ever played a game in the street involving teams and a ball was when my husband went out front and showed them how to do it.

Our failure to become a soccer family was an aberration that could be overlooked, but our failure to attend church was not so easily ignored. My older son was the first to suspect we were misfits, when a 6-year-old classmate discovered he wasn’t affiliated with organized religion and called him a psychotic demon freak from hell. Naturally, she made sure that at least a dozen other kids heard the news. This was my child’s first clue that freedom of religious belief doesn’t necessarily include freedom of non-belief. The incident also raised certain bothersome questions in his mind: for instance, “Why don’t we go to church like everyone else?” Later, when both of my kids studied American Indian theology in social studies, they learned that tribes like the Chinook believed in a spiritual force that is present in all things. This was a cool bit of knowledge for them because it coincided with opinions they were hearing at home. But they also learned that white missionaries blasted those beliefs and warned the American Indians they’d better jump on the Jesus bandwagon or go straight to hell, which brought the whole issue of religion right back to the 6-year-old girl who’d taunted my son.

I personally feel that proper care of the planet, our sacred home, represents reverence in its purest form. Nevertheless, I don’t routinely allude to my support of organizations like The Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife or The Wilderness Society, figuring it’s arrogant to assume people would be interested in my allegiance to the natural world. But my acquaintances aren’t nearly as reticent about their religious convictions. They drop the G and J words as casually as they mention trips to Wal-Mart, The Home Depot and McDonald’s. A mom at school told me that vigilant prayer was the reason her husband’s garage-door-repair business succeeded, another said God had helped her get pregnant, and still another claimed her daughter was born handicapped because it was the only way Satan could get past Jesus and hurt her. I’ve yet to hear God credited with a soccer win, but then again, I don’t hang out with that crowd.

Divine guidance was even involved in our hairdresser’s quest for a mate. Apparently, the Lord was helping her browse through the personals to find Mr. Right, although she admitted that “safe sex” with every suitable prospect was a big part of her holy search. Listening to her was like reading a religious advice column for teenagers: “Dear God, I’m crazy about a guy who’s afraid of commitments. Should I play hard to get or let my true feelings show? Signed, Devout But Desperate.”

I’m particularly bewildered by the idea that financial matters such as salary increases, job promotions and tax breaks come under the jurisdiction of heavenly influence. I would have guessed that war, famine, pestilence and the occasional pedophile or serial killer would be enough to keep any supreme being occupied, but I’ve heard a lot of stories about prayer resulting in monetary gain, from people who live comfortable, middle-class lives. One individual I know confided that he’d coincidentally received a surprise windfall from the IRS at the same time as he needed pricey dental work, and he attributed it to his belief that God was watching over him. I got the distinct feeling he thought my life could use a little scrutiny, too. I knew this guy had a boat, a home theater and a six-figure income, but maybe it’s true that deities work in mysterious ways. No wonder George W. Bush’s band of white evangelical advisers wields so much power.

In the essay “Toward the End of the Road,” writer Alison Baker describes her life on 35 acres in Oregon, where she’s chosen to live apart from the mainstream of humanity. She says the ad for the property she and her husband bought promised “end-of-the-road privacy,” but they still have to contend with periodic intrusions from outsiders such as hunters, bikers and Christian zealots. Every Sunday the zealots stream past Baker’s property in their gas-guzzling four-wheel-drive vehicles and gather to worship in a nearby meadow, but Baker is philosophical about these noisy, frenetic pilgrimages. She knows she can step into her front yard with a cup of coffee any weekday and calmly practice her own form of piety as she revels in the beauty of the Siskiyou Mountain Range.

My situation is a little different. I’ve observed enough soccer fields jammed to full capacity and minivans sporting “Praise the Lord” bumper stickers to know that my husband and kids and I are the outsiders in our community, even though we’re not actually intruding. My salvation is in my backyard. I don’t own acreage, but I’m working to create a wildlife-friendly environment with the ground I’ve got. It’s a personal mission: I don’t need to advertise my commitment to nature any more than my 5-year-old son needed to put on a uniform and join a sports team. In the land of church and soccer, I know how to keep quiet.