Wednesday, December 5, 2018
If you’ve ever been to Skagit Valley’s Tulip Festival, you might have seen me.
You’ll remember the acres of tulips, ribbons of reds, pinks, yellow, purples, and oranges (Can you sing a rainbow, too?) You’ll remember the snowy mountain backdrop and old barns. Do you remember that yellow tulip by itself in the wide swath of red tulips? That was me.
As a child, I never really fit in. When I was growing up, people often told me, a girl born and raised in Raleigh, NC, I didn’t seem like I was from the South. When I asked where I seemed from, I was always told I seemed like a Yankee. Though being called a Yankee in the South is nearly always an insult, they didn’t intend to insult me, and I never took offense. They were merely sharing what they’d observed, and I was glad to hear there might be some place I did belong. In the South, surrounded by a loving family and a clutch of friends, I felt alone.
I don’t know why I was always different. Perhaps that feeling of difference started because I was a red head in a blond world.
Also, I was a young feminist in a culture where “feminist” was the f-word. I loved to play sports in a culture where girls ached to be cheerleaders. I found barbies boring, preferring to ride my Big Wheel. As a teenager, I loved to read and write and never skipped school or smoked a cigarette (or anything else.) Emily Dickinson's "I'm Nobody, Who are you?" was my favorite poem. I loved to go to church, too, so much that my dad once said, “You’re getting awful churchy.”
Maybe it was that church that made me so different. Though Pullen Memorial Baptist Church was a large church, otherwise it wasn’t like other churches I knew. I wore blue jeans with peach patches to church while other girls wore fluffy dresses with patent leather shoes. My cousins in a different city learned the names of all the books of the Bible in order. We didn’t commit the Bible to memory, and read broadly from other spiritual texts. For example, I remember one youth retreat where we read The Velveteen Rabbit.
As a teenager I attended a Wednesday night youth group that sometimes went to Burger King for dinner. Often, people asked us what we thought of our minister. “He’s boring,” I remember saying. Though I had tried to listen to his sermons for a long time, I never understood them and only focused on the minister’scombover when he got excited and the combover fell into his face. (I finally gave up on his sermons and started sneaking to a nearby park to swing on the swings with a friend before he spoke, returning for the closing hymn.)
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the minister, W.W.Finlator, was a controversial figure in Raleigh, locally famous for Progressive sermons and particularly anti-racism work. Fittingly, he’s listed in the Civil Rights Digital Library. This 1986 interview with him will give you a sense of who he was. As I read it, I notice what a strong influence he must have had on me, even though I skipped so many of his sermons. He was a good man, one of the truest Christians I ever met. (Another was his successor, the Reverend Mahan Siler, perhaps best known in Raleigh for facilitating a church discussion about gay people and then in 1992 conducting the congregation’s first gay union ceremony. A third is Rev. Siler’s successor, the Rev. Nancy Petty, an out lesbian and fighter for justice for all people, particularly LGBT, Black, and Muslim people.)
These people are heroes to me. Perhaps their influence called me to work for social justice as an adult. Perhaps they’re why I feel at home far from the place of my birth. Perhaps they’re why I attend a little Seattle church with a similar passion for justice and inclusivity.
Here in Seattle I’ve found my stream of yellow tulips, and I don’t feel alone anymore.