A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Call to Not Look Away

Yesterday morning, my partner Ann and I were in Raleigh, NC, and visited Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, the church I grew up in. In some ways, the church is just like it was then: about 350 adults sit in the main part of the sanctuary, and teenagers dot the three balconies. (Maybe they slip out for the sermon like my friend Ande and I used to.) Royal blues and deep golds color the sanctuary: embroidered cloths, one of wheat and the other of flames hang from the two pulpits (I once heard the church split earlier in the 20th century over the split pulpit, and the Baptist church that split off had only a single pulpit—I suspect and hope the issue splitting that church was more significant than the number of pulpits. There’s nothing about this split on the church’s history website, so maybe it didn’t happen, but I think it did, and am curious about why it's not in the church history); another blue and gold embroidered cloth hangs from the communion table displaying the Alpha and the Omega, Greek letters that stand for Christ. The embroidery somehow manages to be both noble and homey, like this church.

Behind the split pulpit and choir, images of Jesus and other important men shine in vivid colors in the stained glass windows. (Jesus is the one in the middle with the dove flying around his head.) Over the side balconies, rounder windows tell Bible stories in the same vivid colors. They were just like this when I went here. On today’s visit, Mom, Dad, Ann and I sat on a gold pew cushion. I remember when there was a lot of discussion about buying the gold cushions: “Couldn’t the money have been spent on some better cause than easing Southern Baptists’ behinds?” some folks in the church wanted to know. It was a fair question, I thought, the kind of question that has shaped who I am and what I believe is right.

The church has always seemed to me to be a place that strives to do right, to understand what’s right, and to ask a lot of questions. J.A. Ellis the church’s pastor beginning on August 6, 1919, was “the first of Pullen’s pastors to make frequent application of the gospel to controversial social issues.” 

In the 1958, before my parents had married and years before I was born, the church’s constitution welcomed Black people and folks from other denominations into membership, and in the 1960’s protested against the Vietnam War. As I understand it, the church was kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention for these affronts. This banishment was a source of pride, an indicator of who we were: Christians more committed to Jesus than the Southern Baptist Convention.

In the seventies and early eighties, as I advanced through Sunday School, I didn’t learn the books or stories of the Bible, but I did learn songs like Pete Seegar’s "Garden Song" (“Inch by inch and row by row, I’m gonna watch this garden grow….”) and “OneTin Soldier”  (“Go ahead and hate your neighbor, / Go ahead and cheat a friend. / Do it the name of heaven, you can justify it in the end….”)

I was always encouraged to ask questions in this church. (I remember a service in Poteat Chapel when we were asked to share a doubt with the person next to us, so I turned to my mother and said, “I’m not sure Jesus is the son of God.” It seemed to me that all of us were God’s children, so the distinction didn’t make sense to me. This is not the only time I shocked my dear mother.)

Our minister in those years, Reverend W.W. Finlator, was often in the newspapers challenging the next-door university and the rest of us to recognize racist policies. (I loved the man and appreciated the time he said he’d pray for snow so that I wouldn’t have to take a test in school the next day and an unexpected blizzard indeed closed the schools, but his sermons seemed painfully long and dull to me.) The next minister, the good Mahan Siler, who came to the church after I had moved out of state, led the church through a “discernment process” in which the church decided to sponsor a gay commitment ceremony in 1992 (and this time was kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention for good.) I wasn’t out to myself or anyone else at the time, but my parents and I feel so lucky that they had been through that process and stayed in the church while many long-time members left.

Along with all that’s the same are differences, but the similarities and differences both connect to the church’s core of “radical community.” For example, the church building and parking lot have changed significantly in the decades since I frequented the place. Poteat Chapel is now a meeting room. Finlator Hall, which used to be Fellowship Hall, has moved from under the sanctuary to the addition on the back of the church, near the Hope Center, which serves homeless youth. That’s new to me, too. When I was young, the church had a relationship with Coventry, England, and youth went regularly to see the church that was bombed during World War II. Thirty-five years later, as Ann and I headed to the sanctuary, we read about sister churches and communities in Nicaragua; Cuba; Coventry, England; Zimbabwe; and The Republic of Georgia. The current minister is a lesbian, a white woman who works for racial justice with the African American leader Rev. William Barber II. (If you haven’t read his book, The Third Reconstruction and want a cause for hope concerning racism in our country, don’t walk but run to your Kindle or your favorite local bookstore and start reading.)

There were other changes to indicate the decades that have passed since I attended the church regularly. In the service, I didn’t recognize others in the congregation, nor did I recognize the giant art hanging on the sanctuary walls, feminine representations of the divine to balance all the men in the windows.

I did recognize the accents. I loved it when I heard a woman behind me talking to the folks sitting there. As she left them, she said, “If y’all wont to, come own up this a way.” (No, I didn’t misspell anything.)

I also recognized the spirit of the place: people there seemed glad to be there and glad to see one another. During the service, one woman gave a talk encouraging others to come to a meeting about environmental justice.  Such a talk might have occurred at our littleMethodist church in Seattle, WA, differing in its size (only seventy people attending most Sundays) but similarly devoted to radical community. Oh, and we have a lesbian pastor, too.)

I hope that one day our churches will build a sister relationship, not across oceans but across this continent, where there’s such a regional divide. I think we could find solace in such a relationship and that our Pacific Northwesterners could learn about liberals in the South. I think our pastors would love and respect one another.  I’m working on that, but for now if you’re on the left coast and visit Raleigh, I’d recommend a visit to Baptist church, and if you're on at Pullen, (or anywhere else), I invite you to our little Methodist church with a big heart.

On our visit, the minister, Nancy Petty, preached an intelligent, heartfelt, and challenging sermon about one of the Bible’s most disturbing stories, Genesis 21:8-21. This is the story where aging Sarah directs her husband Abraham to have sex with their younger slave woman, Hagar, so that he’ll have descendants, and then when Sarah has a child of her own, she directs Abraham to send the slave and her child to the desert. (Nancy pointed out the problems of abusive power in this dynamic—thank heavens she didn’t ignore it—but saved that sermon for another day.)

Nancy focused on the scene where Hagar, in the desert and out of water, placed her baby under a bush, a make-shift grave, and wept for him. This scene reminded me of stories women in El Salvador told by peasant women forced to let their crying children die so that they and others with them would not be detected and might escape violence. Though Ishmael lives in the Biblical story, I know that many children in this situation did not, and I know the mothers will grieve for a lifetime. I cannot hear this as a happy story in which God provides for those who mourn and was glad that Nancy didn’t take the easy way out, didn’t suggest that if we just feel the pain deeply enough, God will make everything all right.

Nancy focused on this passage in the story:  “and as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy.” Nancy pointed out the oddness of these lines, that God heard Hagar weeping and heard the boy’s voice. This, she argued, teaches us to pay attention to another’s suffering, and she told stories of paying attention this week to homeless women she passes on her way into the church each morning. In this story, she said, she is called to notice others’ pain. She said, “I must always remain suspicious of my serenity in a world that’s suffering.”

Ann said she wished she’d heard this sermon before she tried to teach this story in Sunday school a couple of years ago. I remember how frustrated she was at the time: “How do you talk with kids about this story?” she’d ranted. “I just skipped some of the hardest parts and rushed through the rest until we got to a game that was in the curriculum.”

To be honest, I haven’t done Nancy’s sermon justice. When the sermon is posted on the church’s website, I recommend you read it yourself. I so appreciated not only her willingness to challenge traditional, pat interpretations of the scripture, but also her close attention to language. Just as she paid close attention to Biblical language, I paid close attention to her language. She made linguistic choices that interested me and that I feel sure weren’t accidental. For example, when she recounted Biblical dialogue and action, she used present tense, the tense commonly used when we talk about literature, rather than past tense, which we use in journalism and history. This choice revealed that she thinks of the Bible’s truth as literary rather than historically factual, as Biblical literalists do. (Don’t get me wrong: I know, love and respect some Biblical literalists. I just don’t think that way.)

Also, when Nancy talked of paying attention to pain in the world, she said, “I tried to not look away.” Now, split infinitives (placing an adverb between “to” and the verb in an infinitive), drives my English-grammarian self nuts, but I trust that Nancy knew what she was doing. The opposite of looking away in this case is an intentional not looking away. This, then, is what she says we are called to do, to not look away.

I’ll try, also, to not look away, and if y’all wont to, come on up this a way, too. And if you have prejudices about the South’s stupidity and bigotry, go to Raleigh, NC, and visit Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. They’ll give you a lot to think about. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Grandma and Grandpa

Grandma and Grandpa are three-foot, apple-faced dolls who hold hands and look vacantly towards the middle of our living room. They came to live with us in 2004 after an auction at a high school where Ann was consulting. I had come to the auction late, working long hours at my own school, and went through the silent auction by myself. I was the only person who bid on them: $27. Heck, I thought, the bench they’re sitting on was worth that much.  What luck!

Grandma and Grandpa looked a lot like older people I’d met in the small town of Spring Hope where my dad grew up in Eastern North Carolina: Grandma’s white hair is pulled back in a bun. She’s not smiling. Her face is somewhat wrinkled, but not overwhelmingly so, and her blue eyes look intelligent (even if she is in this moment staring vacantly: I’m guessing Grandpa was telling a long story). Grandpa’s hair is white and thinning, and he is smiling (pleased with his story, I’m guessing). Both used to have glasses, but when my nieces Lucie and Gretchen were in town for our wedding eight years ago, they tried them on and broke them. Since then, G and G have been without glasses, but they’re still holding hands unless our friend Ellen has put them in compromising positions. (I never saw that in Spring Hope!)

Spring Hope was once voted most like Mayberry, Andy Griffith’s small town. It has a couple of stoplights and several churches. The cemetery is across the railroad tracks from where Von’s Beauty shop (also her house) was, where my Grandmother got her hair done. The town’s best restaurant is The Grill, where I would get a North Carolina barbecue sandwich (no coleslaw) and fries with a real chocolate milkshake instead of the sweet tea everyone else was having. The country folk lived on farms, mostly tobacco, like the ones where my grandparents grew up: a detached kitchen (in case of fire), a gazebo (for curing pig meat), and a giant bubble in the green linoleum floor (where Uncle Bill had installed an electric heater when they were invented.) Dad grew up in town.

My favorite Spring Hope story gives me a sense of the people who grew up with my dad: When his teenage friends wanted to look wealthy one hot August day in 1956, they drove a convertible to Chapel Hill, the nearby college town, with the top and windows up so that pretty college girls would think they had air-conditioning. (In my day in the state capitol, convertibles were cooler than air-conditioning, but this was their day, and this was Spring Hope.)

I never came out to any of my grandparents. My Granddaddy Edwards died when I was three and my Granddaddy Matthews died when I was 23, and I didn’t come out to myself until I was 30, so I never came out to them. Still, I didn’t come out to either of my grandmothers who were 88 and 78 when I came out. My parents’ greatest fear, I believed, was that my grandmothers would find out I was a lesbian, and only the good Lord knows what would have happened. Therefore, when I mailed coming out letters to my whole family, I did not send my grandmothers the letter that I wrote everyone else. Both grandmothers, however, let me know in Southern code that they knew my secret and that they loved me.

When Dad, Ann and I visited my Dad’s mother in Spring Hope, he and I left the room to dish up ice cream for everyone. Ann stayed in the spare living room with grandmother, who sat in her red faux-velvet chair near the window where she could see the pecan tree and yell at the squirrels in the bird feeder. (The squirrels were not faux.)

As soon as we left, Grandmother said to Ann, “Are you the one who lives with Mary?”

Ann said, “Yes.”

Grandmother said, “I thought so,” and that was that. Grandmother was a woman as frugal with words as with money.

(When Grandmother was in her early nineties, she told my father that her dryer was on the blink. He said, “You should get a new one. You have the money….What are you saving your money for?”

(Grandmother’s blue eyes twinkled and her dentures grinned when she replied, “My old age.” I imagine my silent Grandma doll would respond the same way if she came to life.)

I imagine my Grandpa doll might have been a Yankee visiting Grandmother Matthews and family in the state’s Queen City. Though I don’t know if the Matthews family ever hosted a Yankee, I feel sure that they would have been Southern-friendly, asking about his family and life up North. They would have wanted to know about his kinfolk. What did he think of Sherman’s march through Georgia? Was he Southern Baptist, they would have asked, and if not they would have wanted to know about his religion. If he’d shown up without being expected, Grandmother would have pulled a Thanksgiving spread from her two refrigerators. In the summer, Granddaddy would have brought in some fresh “maters” from the garden, and there would have been a chocolate cake to top it off. “No,” was not an option. Not even, “No, thank you, ma’am.”

I didn’t come out to this grandmother either.

My partner Ann met this grandmother when Ann and I visited my mother’s family in Charlotte. Aunt Mary Ann had everyone over for Sunday dinner, the main meal in the middle of the day, after church. (It's not a meal with this family unless there are at least 15 people at the table, so aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins and Grandmom came to the table with Ann and me.)

Grandmom took a seat in the middle of the long table, seating Ann to her right and me to her left. Auntie Susan said, “Pass the potato salad,” and Cousin Lori said to her son, “Would you like some gravy with your fried chicken?” We focused on the food. Then everyone was talking at once.
Aunt Mary Ann told me about my Great Uncle Bubba. “He looked just like Clark Gable. I’ll tell you. We’d walk down the road together and cars would stop to look. Once someone got out to get his autograph. I’ll tell you. Did I tell you that the cat next door had kittens? They’re so cute. I’m keeping one that’s completely white. Her name is Snowball, and she’s so cute.”

Uncle Tommy heard her desultory story and said, “Dear, the train has left the track.” (I admired the sweetness of his observation: both have family histories of Alzheimer’s, and they’re helping one another notice when they lose track of a conversation.)

In the midst of this chaotic conversation, Grandmom turned to Ann and said, 
"Who does the laundry?"

Ann responded, "We both do."

My grandmom said, "Oh! That's good."

Then she turned to me: "Who does the cooking?"

I said, "We both do."

Grandmom again exclaimed, "Oh, that's good!" before going on to the next chore of her life. Grandmom, like God in Genesis, looked at my world and called it good.

These dolls remind me of my family and our stories. They have been a grounding tie to my past in these years when so much has changed after my brain tumors, and I have sometimes felt like I’m dangling in this world, not entirely tied down. Now, however, I’m ready to move on.

In July, Ann and I will welcome our puppy Dosey into our family, and I don’t see Grandma and Grandpa being a delight for Dosey like they are for me, so we have put them up for adoption, and before Dosey comes, Grandma and Grandpa will go to live with my friends Susan and Rod. (They weren’t home today, but Susan said we could leave on the front porch. By themselves?! With squirrels and bees and all manner folk around? No way!)

I’ll miss Grandma and Grandpa in our home.  I’ll miss the way that older women go directly up to Grandma and say, “Hey girl. How you?” (or in the case of Sister Josefina from rural El Salvador, “Hola Senora. Como esta?”)

This feels like a marker in my new life, a letting go of the old dolls and an embrace of  a new puppy.