I was a disgrace to all sides. An utter liar. A collaborator in whatever camp I was in at the time, and in my world, there were many camps of relatives where I hung my caps. Reared by paternal grandparents, both who had almost opposite sets of views on some things; on others, they were two peas in a pod. But I loved them both dearly and they loved me. And that was the problem, both parents had me some of the time, my paternal great aunt had me other times, and aunts and uncles, and multiple step families had me other times, and most folks had some different belief that had to be remembered and mimicked. I had a lot of lies to keep up with.
Mamma (paternal grandmother) was quite the bigot in some ways and on the other hand helped to drive John Henry Brown and others of his African American family and circle, to and from jobs when there was the bus boycott. Daddy Paw, head collaborator, who had been taught his lesson in 1930s depression-era Alabama bigotry: “How dare he include Black folks in the food share!” He started openly saying that I ‘wasn’t right in the head’. Mamma’s sister, my great aunt, OMG, I like ta’ died in my 20s seeing another side of her. I have spoken words about her already. There was lots of bigoted folks to go around.
It was Birmingham and most folks were Connor and Wallace loyalists, but I was fortunate. My Catholic mother had married a Lebanese man whose church was the Melkite St George’s in Green Springs. The priest was a blessing to all, all his life. He worked for the integration of Birmingham and although few of the parishioners ever marched with him, all were at the church helping him, supporting the cause. I remember very little of any of my interactions, but stuffing envelopes was wonderful fun, I was eating my way through a multitude of world cuisines — the most wonderful foods on earth. It all rubbed off on me. Thank goodness.
This was such a contrast to my grandmother’s evangelical, fundamentalist, works church which had a talk in church one Sunday, that they were told to expect a Black couple or two to come and integrate. The plan was to leave them be, they would be shown a seat and they would be shown out at the end of service.
The day the couple came to visit our church must have been the shortest service in the history of the Birmingham First Church of the Nazarene. Few amens were chanted by the regular voices, Brother S and Sister B Oh dear, Her daughter was Jay… friend’s also with my dearest friend Anita. She was one driven into her grave over moral Jesus bashing – ” if she would just surrender to Jesus.” Not all things are the fault of morals. Sometimes mercy is the better grace.
And that was that, the couple came and we were officially integrated. They were shown in and they sat at rear seats in the middle pews. My grandmother was whispering for me to turn around and face front in my seat — 2nd row from the front. (I was wanting to walk to the piano one day and play the hymnal for offering so I liked to sit up front. I did play eventually. I stopped too soon and they had to walk the rest of the pews with dead silence. I was beet red in the face, of the not right in the head for weeks.
The couple left, and since all folks were told to stay in their seats as part of the pre-plan, no one moved, it was Brother J that walked them out and Brother H was following down the other aisle. My feet were dancing around the floor like they had jumping beans chomping at the bit to take off and see the folks before they left. She had a lovely fur stole and her wonderful pale beige hat matched the color of her wrap. I have no clue of the date but it was not cold enough for a heavy winter coat but it was chilly enough for a wrap.
Right in the head or not, it was difficult to go between the households and keep up with who I was supposed to be for, and root for, and shun, and hate. I was at a wedding a few years ago where the guests were coming from all over the country as we had flown from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans and a wonderfully, confident woman, part of our brides ‘in’ table arrived and said, “Ok, who do we love and who do we hate.” I thought how I would wish for the freedom to think what I like.
Years later, I was back in Birmingham for my father’s funeral. I went to that now Black church as a visitor. I had just been through scuds in Israel for Gulf War One and was still jumping to duck when I heard any sounds resembling any part of incomings and outgoings and shots to hit the incomings. I never felt so out of place as on that trip. I was not the only white person there but there were only a couple of others who were part of their bus ministry to bring folks from the neighborhoods to the church.
I sat in the middle, about half way up. For the welcome, the minister called to me and the other visitors among the stranger faces visiting that Sunday. He said welcome and would I like to introduce myself. I told the congregation who I was, and how I had wished I had been more than 9 or 10 years old back then and I could have just run up to that couple and said “hey, I’m Cherie Lynn.” But, someone would have just called after me and told them, “pay her no mind, she’s not right in the head, she’s just not right in the head.”
Today the church is the MT Zion Cathedral Church; please go say hello to them for me, I always think of them and their welcoming me to their church, as a beautiful sign, that maybe I and the world, will continue to learn to love each other and help each other and grow beyond the failings of my youth. Never a day goes by that I don’t hope and pray to lose the shortcomings of my soul.
The priest of St George has a biography in Wikipedia. His short time in Birmingham is mentioned.
The contrasts between the two church communities was not lost on me
Learning to write words the alternative.
Our Colors ~ That Is My Mother You Are Talking About