This is how the memory goes … I don’t know where we’re going, or why, but we’ve been going all day, I’m just the little kid in the big back seat, Mom and Dad up front, and it’s getting sunset time and we’re just entering some place too small to be a city and too big to be a town …
… and I hear my father say, “Momma, I feel like going to church.”
So that narrows it down to being a Sunday or Wednesday evening.
This paragraph is specifically prepared for those of you who weren’t there in the 60’s. There are no iPhones, there’s no Google, no GPS. So here we are wanting to find a church in a strange place, and we need to find it pretty quick, because you don’t want to walk in just in time for the altar call, so we’ve got two options: 1) Stop at some little store and ask somebody; or 2) Drive around and hope that we pass a church …
And Hey – there’s a church right over there! Like a prayer answered! Isn’t God good!
I’m pre-reading age, so I don’t know what denomination the church sign might have identified. All I know is that there are cars in the parking lot and I can hear singing going on inside. Mom probably fished some mirror out of her purse to make sure her hair wasn’t out of place, Dad would’ve run a comb through his hair, but as for church attire, we’re dressed for driving comfort, not church appropriate for the times.
It’s one of those long skinny churches so common back then, with a middle aisle and wooden pews left and right, and like our own little church, no foyer … when you opened the front door You Were In The Church.
This paragraph is for all of you who started the first grade after the schools were integrated. This memory is all pre-MLK. He’s alive, but he’s not a national figure yet. Black and white Americans live in different neighborhoods (except in the country, more on that some other time), we shop at different stores, we go to different schools, and we certainly worshipped at different churches. That’s just the way it was.
So, now, back to our story, where most of you are waiting for me to just come out and say that Yes, our little Sunbeam-white-bread family of three has just walked in on a black church service.
Yep. There we are.
The black preacher is looking right at us, stopping his oration mid-syllable, just stunned. We might well have been Lazarus-come-forth for the shock of our appearance.
Now the congregation turns our way. It’s hear-a-pin-drop silent.
My eyes set on this big woman with a white hanky twisted in her fingers because she is smiling at me like I was cute enough to be on the cover of a cereal box.
The preacher caught himself, smiled, and waved us in with his Bible and tried to get back to his place in the sermon. The church is pretty full, so down this main aisle we go looking for a spot big enough for the three of us, everybody in the church watching us, and we end up on the second row on the left side.
Everybody sitting near us smiled, and once seated, we were less self-conscious.
This paragraph is for those of you who are used to a quiet style of church worship, the kind where the preacher or the priest, they talk and everybody listens. I had grown up in a church where you could raise your hands, or encourage the preacher with an Amen, but a black church, pre-MLK, it was as if I was in another country.
Colorful. Talking about the clothes now … reds and purples and white-whites and peacock greens, the older ladies with hats and feathers and all that. Almost every woman had a white handkerchief and many of them were holding those pre-A/C-in-the-churches cardboard fans.
And loud, I remember that. The preacher, just shouting, pausing for dramatic effect and to wipe his brow, yelling “Y’all don’t hear me!” to get a comeback from the congregation. They heard him, and all service it was this back-‘n-forth between pulpit and the pews, with Amens and Preach on Bruthuh, and Yes Jesus and Tell It Like It is and Lawd Have Mercy flying through the air as if lyrics from a song.
We whites, its now-we-sing and then it’s now-we-sit-down-and-listen, but in this church the whole service was musical, sometimes uptempo, sometimes on the slow-down, but always there was a sway in the air, like sheets on the line in the breeze.
I don’t think I’d be out on a limb by speculating that for most of the congregation it was the first time they’d ever had white visitors for a church occasion that wasn’t a funeral. That it was an accident my parents never confessed. When the service concluded, we were swarmed with smiles and so-glad-we-was-to-have-you’s. I, as cute-offspring-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time, was the center of attention in a way that I had not experienced ever before.
Even all these decades later … I’ve spoken before large crowds a few times, I’ve had a few 15-minutes-of-fame moments, but I doubt I’ve ever had an experience where everything was so out-of-body different and yet wonderful … and for that to happen before I could spell cat or even count past ten …
(This is the perfect place for me to insert the politically correct sentiment. If I say the right thing, it’ll be because it’s true to me. Political correctness was shameful to watch, and I despise the weakness of it. In Bedtime Stories to come, my experience coming of age in America during the Civil Rights Movement will certainly come up, for one simple reason – I believe historians hundreds of years from now won’t care about JFK, Vietnam, Challenger, Saddaam, or bin Laden, Obama, or even 9/11 … The Story of life on Earth while I was here for my few heartbeats will be what the Civil Rights Movement in America did to transform expectations for all the citizens of Earth. The acorn of it all was Ghandi in India, but it’s MLK in America that put some growth rings on the tree.)
This memory is one of the quirky accidents that affected how I reacted to the integration of the schools and the eventual integration of America. For the first time in my life – my parents’ life – we were the minority. Inside this church building it was just us three, and all-of-them, and yet we felt safe, welcomed.
More important than their hospitality … see if you know where I’m going … was that they were praying to my God too.
That old kiddie song, Jesus Loves The Little Children, red, yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight … just words with a nice sentiment, but the accident of walking into the “wrong” church gave me this curious gift of seeing some of the ones not white loving Jesus back.
This edition of Uncle P’s Bedtime Stories is brought to you by Eighty-one, where we believe that whether it’s an accident, serendipity, or God making chess moves towards the end game of a life, once you have an insight your road just got wider, and the wattage just went up on the light bulb. Uncle P can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.