Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What A Friend We Have . . .

there are two more african-americans from my past about whom i wish to write. like those about whom i've written in the past few posts, i have no idea what their last names were. the first i knew as "josephine;" i'll write about "mary" next post. josephine had known me from my infancy. i believe she had helped my mother when we first moved to the small town in which i was raised, the town in which my father's lumber mill was located. we moved there when i was about a year old.

my father had a fenced play yard built for me at the mill, and i am told i spent part of many days playing there. the employees of the mill would stop to talk to me as they passed my play yard, so many of these employees knew me. often as i got older, former employees of the mill (which had closed) would greet me by name and talk with me as i went to the small shopping area of town with my mother on saturdays. i had no idea who these adults, many of whom were black, were, but i enjoyed adults taking an interest in me and looked forward to these quick conversations.

one of those who frequently visited with me was josephine. josephine had sparkling white teeth, and her constant smile illuminated her face. she had dark brown eyes that seemed to dance as she spoke. i loved seeing josephine and sensed that i held a special place in her heart. i was very surprised during the end of my senior year in high school when josephine showed up at the back door of our home carrying a folded bundle of cloth. she explained to my mother and me that this was a graduation gift for me, and as we unfolded the bundle, we discovered a beautiful pieced quilt-top. this piece of work had probably taken josephine many hours to make. as a senior in high school i didn't know how to appreciate such a gift, but i could tell from my mother's reaction that it was a precious gift. i carried that quilt-top with me through several moves over the years, but along the way it got lost. i can still see it in my mind's eye, and i regret that i never had it made into a quilt.

josephine never played a big role in my life, but for some reason i was someone she loved deeply. perhaps, she never had children of her own or had lost a son, and i took that child's place in her heart. i often think of josephine and can still see her tall slender body and her beautiful face with its animated smile and dancing eyes. i can hear her lilting voice. how precious that memory is to me and how wonderful it is to remember the joy that filled my heart each time i saw josephine.

my prayer for myself and you today is that we remember that we never know how we may touch another's heart, as josephine and i touched each other's hearts. on the deepest level, we are all connected, vibrating as we do with the pulse of creation, and so we are all each other's brothers and sisters, parents and children, and our love for one another is the greatest gift we can give.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go

this morning i remember miss ollie's nephew, a man named leethern. the contrast between leethern and miss ollie is as great a contrast as one can imagine. where miss ollie was a small woman who appeared large to my young eyes by her manner of carrying herself and her gentle, precise speech, leethern was a huge man, well over six feet tall. his skin was a deep brown. he walked with a slovenly gait and spoke in the same way. he was missing one eye, and where the eye should have been there was scar tissue that gave his face a frightening appearance to the young boy that i was. he had scars on his arms from many knife fights, and when he failed to appear in my grandparents' store for long periods of time, we knew that he was either in jail or recovering from the injuries of another fight.

as many of my grandparents' customers did, leethern kept a running tab at the grocery store. from time to time, he would have a little money that my grandmother said probably came from winning at craps and would pay something on his tab. miss ollie often inquired about leethern's debt to my grandparents, and if it had grown too large, she would pay it down to a level she hoped he could pay off himself. when she asked about what leethern owed, she would tell my grandmother that she worried about him constantly and waited for the day she would learn he had been killed in a fight. she asked my grandmother each time she paid on his bill to please let leethern have a little food on his tab so that she wouldn't have to worry about him going hungry.

i never saw them together, and it was my impression that she saw little of him, except when he needed money and would come by her home to ask for her help. i often wondered how someone like miss ollie could be realted to someone like leethern. my grandparents always treated leethern with kindness, and i believe they had some knowledge of his history that made them sympathetic to him, though they never spoke to me of what had happened to cause leethern to travel the destructive path that he was on. in time, as i matured, i too sympathized with leethern. he was a pathetic and tragic figure who stumbled through life without direction or purpose, and his deep sadness was apparent beneath the surface of his pretended toughness.

i don't know what became of leethern. i hope that he found redemption through the continued kindness of people like miss ollie and my grandparents, but i doubt that was the case. after my grandmother had to close her store, i never saw him again. by that time miss ollie was gone, and there was no further chance of contact with leethern.

my prayer today is that we look beyond the outward appearance and actions of others, searching for the deep truths of their lives, treating people like leethern with respect and kindness, hoping always for their eventual abandonment of lives of self-destruction and their coming to know the redemptive power of love, love that we share with them without expectation of the reward of love being returned. shalom.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Teach Us As Sister, Brother Each Person to Embrace

as i've thought about writing this post during the past few days, it suddently struck me that all the african-americans i knew as a child i addressed by their first names. in american society in the south during the period about which i'm wrting, the late 1950's, a child like me would never have addressed a white adult by that person's first name, but rather would have spoken to mr. x, mrs. y, dr. z. yet no one of any age addressed an african-american with this kind of respect; african-americans were addressed as one would a child or a pet. most of those about whom i'm writing are not known to me except by their first names, because that is how i heard them addressed and that is how i addressed them. looking back, this seems unbelievably insensitive to the respect that should have been accorded them, but the practices of society were so ingrained in white southerners that no one ever thought of the contempt for an entire race of people that this custom exemplified.

today i write about the only african-american from my childhood that was addressed by a title of respect, miss ollie. miss ollie was one of the best educated people i knew as a child. she was a customer in my grandparents' store and their neighbor. my grandparents' home was attached to their store, and miss ollie lived behind their home with an alley separating the two properties. her father had been a school administrator, and his parents were freed slaves. miss ollie taught in a school somewhere north of the town in which my grandparents lived, and she lived in that community during the week, returning home to the home she inherited from her parents on the weekend.

i always looked forward to seeing her in my grandparents' store during the summers, when she was at home during the week. her manner of speech was intriguing. she spoke in a sort of sing-song voice, and when she talked, i could almost hear a melody underlying her words. it was if she lived in an opera. it didn't matter to me what she said; i was fascinated by the way in which she spoke. she spoke with great precision, pronouncing every consonant crisply. there was none of the laziness of speech that characterizes our southern speech patterns.

my grandparents treated miss ollie with great respect, never calling her by only her first name. yet i never heard them say her last name. perhaps adding the "miss" to her name was as far as they could go in addressing a black person. their entire bearing changed when she came into the store, and even a child my age could sense that she was someone special--a person who had overcome adversity and risen above the station that society had assigned her, a person whose family had not been content to accept the roles that were expected of them, a person who cared deeply about the children of the communities in which she lived and worked.

miss ollie's posture, like her speech, was regal. though she was short, about five feet, four inches, the way in which she stood and moved indicated that she had great respect for herself and expected no less from others. maybe that is another reason she was held in such high regard in both the black and white communities. i often thought that her students were so fortunate to have miss ollie as their teacher and wished that i could have a teacher like her. i am sure that she instilled in them a pride in their race that helped them overcome many adversities and made them question the way that they were treated in a segregated white-dominated society.

there are so many questions i would like to ask miss ollie now that never occureed to me as a child who accepted the societal norms of the time. i wonder what instilled such dignity in her, what her parents taught her that enabled her to become such an amazing woman. my prayer today is that each of us can overcome the expectations of society, that we will question the roles of gender and birth that society tries to enforce, treating ourselves and others with respect that disregards the expectations of society.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

We Meet You, O Christ, in Many a Guise

a few days ago, i was listening to national public radio while driving around. a news story came on about a new deal program to support artists during the great depression. the story focused on the many works by african-american artists that might never have been created without the support of roosevelt's new deal. the subject matter of these works would have found little support in the market place, and an important commentary on the lives of african americans in a segregated society would never have found expression. in today's political climate, art works with no commercial value would be viewed as insignificant, and the idea of a government program that pays artists to create, especially with complete freedom of expression, would be decried as a "socialist" plot.

these art works documented aspects of african-american life that were completely unknown to the majority of americans, leading me to think about my own experiences and attitudes. i am fortunate to have grown up in close contact with african americans. my father was the manager of a saw mill that employed many african americans, and my mother's parents operated a "mom and pop" grocery on the fringe of a predominately black neighborhood where most of their custormers were african americans. i can't pretend to have had close friendships with any of the african americans with whom i came in contact growing up, but i did have the experience of having many black acquaintances, something that was unusal for most white children.

during the next several posts, i want to describe some of those acquaintances and their influence on my life. i wish that i had more sensitivity to the experiences of african americans in the segregated south during my formative years in the 1950s and 60s, but as a child such thinking was foreign to me as it would have been to most children. my grandfather operated a small farm outside of the town in which his grocery store was located, and he employed a black "hired man" named John to help him on the farm and to do a few odd jobs around the store and my grandparents' home. John would be what we now call a "day laborer." he didn't receive a weekly salary, but was employed from day to day as my grandfather needed him. To my knowledge, he had no other employment, so his income was meager.

two incidents stand out in my mind. one was awakening early one morning while staying with my grandparents. i jumped up in the bed when i realized my bed was off the floor and being rotated. my grandfather was holding up the head of the bed and john was holding up the foot. my grandmother had decided to rearrange the bedroom in which i slept, and, rather than waking me, was supervising the moving of the bed with me in it. when john saw how startled i was, he broke out in laughter, commenting on how they were scaring me. his laughter was infectious and soon my grandparents and i were laughing hysterically along with john. the room rearrangment had to stop while we all recovered. from that moment on, i had a deep affection for john.

a few summer's later while i was once more staying with my grandparents, as i always did in the summer from the age of six through my sophomore year in college, john was mowing my grandparents' yard with their gasoline-powered mower. as he pulled the mower back toward him, he lost control of it, and it backed onto his foot. in those days, there was no safety shut-off on gas mowers, so the blade continued turning, slicing through john's shoe and almost severing his big toe. his cries brought all of us out into the yard, where he sat on the ground, holding his foot and moaning. my grandmother ran to inspect the foot, and her soothing manner helped john regain control of his emotions. he asked for some kerosene to be poured over the cut and for bandanges to wrap his foot. both were supplied, and my grandmother dressed his wounded foot. i worried all day about john's injury, and at mid-afternoon i asked my grandmother if we could go check on john.

she and i walked to his house a few blocks away, knocked on the door, and were admitted. i don't remember who greeted us, but i do remember john sitting in the darkened front room in a big easy chair with his injured foot propped up. i was old enough to drive by this time and had my car there at my grandparents. i begged john to let me take him to the doctor. he assured me that he would be fine without assistance from the doctor, but he was profuse in his thanks for the offer and for our taking time to come check on him. i could sense that john was deeply touched by my concern for him. from that time on, john went out of his way to befriend me, always seeking me out when i came to visit my grandparents and asking about my welfare during the school year when i was back with my parents.

i wish i could say that i kept in touch with john, but after my grandfather died and my grandmother became too infirm to keep their store open, i lost contact with him. i will always remember how kind this man who was probably forty years my senior was to me. he sensed my affection for him, and, despite the ill treatment he received from many whites, he saw me, not as a representative of an oppressive race, but as a child who dared to reach out to and love a black man. i am grateful to have known john and to have enjoyed his gentle friendship with me.

my prayer today is that we learn to love others in spite of our prejudices and the limitations of the society in which we live, just as jesus loved the samaritans, greeks, and canaanites who came to him. shalom

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

God Who Touches Earth with Beauty

six mornings each week, i go to the church around 5:30 to practice. i spend the first thrity minutes of that time sitting in one of the pews in prayer and meditation. as i've sat there for the past several weeks looking toward the chancel, the harmony of the church's design has spoken to me. architecture and its impact on us is a fascination of mine, and i am convinced that the design of the rooms in which we spend our time has a profound effect on our mental condition.

from wherever one sits in the church the eye is drawn to the center of the back wall, which is framed by a large arch. in this focal point, three crosses are mounted on the wall, the center one larger than the other two, an obvious reference to Jesus' crucifixion with the two criminals on either side of him. in the recessed area outlined by the large arch is the main choir seating area.

from the three crosses, as the eye backs away, one becomes aware of two smaller arches on either side of the large arch, mirroring the the three crosses. in front of each of these smaller arches, there are organ pipes, and these pipes are arranged with large central pipes surrounded by small pipes on either side.

backing away from the arrangement of three crosses, three arches, and the organ pipes, one sees that the front of the chancel has a tripartite configuration with the communion table in the center, the pupit to the left and a lectern to the right. because of its location in the center with a large wooden panel that hides the organ console behind it and the large arch with its three crosses as a frame, the communion table becomes part of the central focal point.

the choir seating area itself is arranged into three sections, too, with the large central section inside the large arch and two smaller "wings" on either side of the main seating area. this arrangement is mirrored in the congregation's seating area, which has a large central area that occupies the major portion of the cruciform shape of the room. on either side of this long seating area are smaller seating areas that occupy the left and right areas of the cross arm of the room.

everywhere one looks in the room, there are reminders of the number three. the three large stained glass windows are divided into three panels. there are three smaller stained glass windows on either side of the long seating area. these three-part arrangements and the mirroring of the choir seating area and the congregation seating area give the room a unity and harmony that is not apparent at first, though i believe that our subconcious mind registers the subtle beauty of what appears to be a very simple, plain room, at first glance.

the angling of the seats in the two smaller congregation seating areas, the central steps directly in front of the communion table that lead up to the chancel, and the placement of the lighting directly in front of the chancel all direct the eye to the large arch with its three crosses. there are two smaller hanging lanterns over the side congregational seating areas and a large central lantern that hangs from the center of a dome formed in front of the chancel.

the designer of this room has created a small architectural masterpiece that nurtures the worshippers and honor the God who is worshipped there. my prayer today is that we find harmony and unity in our own lives, just as the room i've described creates such feelings in its occupants. may the God of beauty be reflected in our lives and hearts. shalom.