The December issue of the Journal of Family Psychology contains no fewer than five research papers documenting religion’s positive impact on family relationships. Reading them reminds me of why I take my Christian faith seriously and the single reason I celebrate Christmas.
What’s that reason?
It’s not the wonderful lights, decorations, and music – all of which surely do help brighten our spirits and the short days of winter.
It’s not watching kids’ faces when they lay eyes on Santa or receive the toys they wanted.
It’s not even the seeming overall increase in generosity and loving-kindness in the public square at this time of year.
All those aspects of Christmas are precious to me. But the reason I celebrate the holiday is this: Jesus’s ministry not only changed the world 2,000 years ago, it’s transforming lives to this very day.
The essential Christian message of a loving, forgiving God is, at this very moment, healing broken people and families all over the world in ways that deserve to be called miraculous.
I could detail many true accounts of such glorious makeovers, but I’ll settle for telling you just one. It’s the story of how I myself wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the positive impact of Christianity on my family.
It begins with my maternal grandmother, Michaela Batallan (pronounced bah-tah-YAN), who defined “liberated woman” long before the political movement of the Sixties. We grandkids called her “Titi.”
Titi was born in 1896 into a well-to-do Catholic family in Ciego de Avila, Camaguey, Cuba. When she was a young woman, she and her sisters emigrated to the United States all by themselves. They ended up living in Southern California.
High-spirited, Titi liked to party and, one day at a dance, she met a tall, handsome ladies’ man named Guadalupe Armendariz. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, he himself liked to drink and have fun. He didn’t go to church. He didn’t believe in God.
When Titi was 28, she married Guadalupe, who by then owned a shoe repair shop in Saticoy, California. When they had children – starting with Betty (my mom), Carlos, and Yolanda – Titi gave up partying and began attending a Pentecostal church. It infuriated my grandfather, who demanded that she stop indulging in such religious mumbo-jumbo.
She didn’t obey.
When Carlos was seven, he was stricken with polio and eventually couldn’t walk. One day, out of desperation, Titi invited the minister and people from her church to come to the house and pray for healing. My grandfather was not happy; he wanted my grandmother to take Carlos to the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles for treatment. But that day, he witnessed something he couldn’t believe nor explain.
After the praying was done, Carlos immediately stood straight up and from that day onward was no longer paralyzed. My grandfather, seeing it happen with his own eyes, fell to his knees. He was never the same man again.
My grandfather stopped drinking and partying and began attending church. In 1932, the entire family – my grandpa included – were baptized.
Not long afterwards, the family moved to Azusa, California, where my grandfather felt called to become a minister. With the help of his young sons – Titi and he ended up having eight children: four boys, four girls – he built a church with his own hands, using materials he collected from around the neighborhood. It’s still standing. Years later, Grandpa Lupe’s ministry was so successful his sermons were broadcast on the radio.
By and by, he accepted an invitation from my paternal grandfather – Dr. Miguel Guillén, after whom I’m named – to join the Latin American Council of Christian Churches (LACCC), of which Grandpa Guillén was president. Later, Titi stepped up and founded a sister organization – the Pro-Seminario – to raise funds for the LACCC’s fledgling seminary.
Just two weeks ago, in Galveston, Texas, I had the honor of preaching at the biennial convention of the LACCC. At ninety-one, it’s the oldest, independent, Spanish-speaking Pentecostal organization in the country, with hundreds of churches in the United States, Mexico, and Central America. I and the many others who attended the convention also had the joy of celebrating the 60th anniversary of LACCC’s seminary, which Grandma Titi helped to build.
Clearly, I don’t need the Journal of Family Psychology to tell me that religion has a significantly positive impact on family relationships. But in a day and age when religion is being bashed on a regular basis by pop culture, finding validation of my family’s life-changing experience in a well-respected scientific publication makes for a— well, nice Christmas gift.
Yes, Jesus – Christianity – is able to dramatically improve lives. And not always just our own. When Grandma Titi had the courage and conviction to stand up to Grandpa Lupe and embrace the faith, she ended up catalyzing a miraculous change not just in her own life, but in the life of her entire family … of the LACCC’s seminary … of my own life.
If Grandma Titi hadn’t invited those Elders to lay hands on my uncle Carlos. If Grandpa Lupe hadn’t become a minister. If the Armendariz family hadn’t joined the LACCC and met the Guillén family. Then my mother Betty wouldn’t have met my father Mariano …and I wouldn’t be here to write this column.
Ultimately, yes, Jesus is the reason I’m here. It’s the reason I celebrate his birthday – the only reason Christmas means anything to me. For me and the two billion others on the planet whose lives have been remade, it’s a time when we celebrate the incarnation of love, light, and life – the hope of a better day, a better life, a better world.