In Mother’s House

27 Apr

As I push the door open, silence hits me. Fifteen minutes before six and there is no one inside Mother Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston S.C, the Holy City. Before my Tuesday afternoon horse and carriage tour, I didn’t know the city’s nickname, but the synchronicity is undeniable. A smiling lady, her wide face the color of dark cocoa, rounds the corner. She is puzzled until I ask about the service. She tells me its at seven since it’s Maundy Thursday.

Over an hour away. But we have dinner reservations at 8:30.

“It will last about an hour, right?” I ask.

The lady chuckles a bit, “Well, that depends on where the spirit takes Brother Singleton. Ain’t no telling how long it might be.” She turns and moves back through the sanctuary doors, leaving us to the silence of the dim vestibule.

Should I. . .shouldn’t I?

Mom asks, “Well, what do you want to do now?”

We could easily go have cheese, crackers and wine and forget this attempt to go to one of the first all African churches of the south, one in which I am sure to encounter a more physical expression of the Divine…something vocal, something physical.  In this place will be “Jesus” up close and out loud.

“Let me take some photos while the light is good”, I tell her, but really I’m buying time to decide. I take pictures in the empty church while I contemplate. Mom’s brave faced acquiescence to attend this part of my pilgrimage still evokes my guilt every time I move past the rich red cushioned pew on which she perches.

This would be so much easier if I was alone. I’d just sit and wait. I wouldn’t have her schedule to contend with.

“Maybe we should find a place to be until the service? I’ll call and see if we can delay our reservations.” I sigh irritatingly while getting the number. Being in charge of myself all the time is one thing, being in charge of others all the time can wear on a soul. A quick phone call while descending the stone stairs takes care of one reservation, but not one which is building inside me.

Maybe I should just give this up. Mom really doesn’t want to go. I have enough to do to keep her calm. 

A slow increasingly uncomfortable resentment starts to build as we brave the stiff breeze for a few blocks. Mom’s displeasure at having her hair disturbed expresses in her drawn face and tight jaw. I wish I could put her in a limousine which would deliver her in pristine condition from one location to the next, so I don’t have to solve her ever present concern for hair, lipstick, crisp dry clothes, shoes made only to adorn the feet not to walk city blocks.

Ok, that’s it…we’ll just go find a bistro. I make a quick plan to go to an A.M.E.service for Easter Sunday morning at home, until I see a biracial couple, probably in their 50’s walking directly toward us down the sidewalk.

A woman’s deep voice speaks in my head.

What did you come here for? Why are you afraid?

I stop on the sidewalk. I turn to Mom, “See them Mom? There’s the sign. We have to go back. I’m sorry. I hope that’s okay.” She sees the couple and for the first time, I think she understands.

“Ok”, she says looking at the couple as they pass by. “At least we will be out of the wind. It’s whatever you want to do.” We turn and walk back.
Once again in the sanctuary, we sit in the rich red, amber, and dark mahogany expanse quietly waiting. I’m reminded of my visit to the Ann Spencer House last April and my unexplainable love for dark people. It feels more peaceful to be among them. Somehow I feel like I belong, like I can be more me. How can a butterfly remember wings of a color she never wore? How can there be this river of memory never lived?

Sitting in the church pew waiting for the service, I think about the fact that I have to keep going, following signs until I’m not heavy in my heart any longer.  I’m tired of pretending to enjoy all this freedom. I’m tired of the journey now.  I’m tired of trying to figure everything out. I just want it to be over. I want someone else to show me what to do, how to be. Someone who will take care . . .of me. And the safest most loving place is here, in the House named after the most loving Mother of all. At this moment, I don’t have to be a mother to anyone. Not my students, not my friends, not my own mother, not even me. At this moment I get to be the child.

People begin to file in, some in feathered hats and Sunday best. Some in humble attire, wearing their modesty as suit jacket and tie.  A tall white robed man approaches the pulpit and begins the service. Brother Wayne Singleton, the music minister, is filling in for the pastor.We begin by singing, and almost immediately a sensation of peacefulness spreads over me like a well worn quilt. Comfort and familiarity spills out into my consciousness. We move through the hymns, traditional ones I remember from my childhood, but this time they produce no anger, no angst…no interior guilt. Only joy. And the call which begins from the choir loft, the “Amen” and the “Yes, Jesus!” Don’t unnerve me. They don’t make me feel uncomfortable or odd. I understand them now, this shouting to the Divine. This joy that can’t stay quiet and still. A voice that breaks the rules of proper expression.

I try to avoid looking at my mother. I don’t want to see her rigidity, the acceptable religious participation rules have been transgressed I’m sure. Because if I do look, I will slip unwillingly into the pool of her judgment, and feel responsible for her emotions once more. I will lose my focus in trying to make it right for her. To ease my sense of having done the wrong thing, I try to imagine that I’m alone.

Brother Singleton begins his sermon, a message resting on Matthew 27:22.

Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Crucify Him!”

As Brother Singleton moves through the sermon, his focus deepens on the first part of the verse; he speaks of the ways we should answer the question: What shall I do with Jesus? My own understanding of the message blooms like the blossoming limbs lining the Charleston streets.

Then what shall I do with Love?

I become increasingly aware of my mother as he speaks; the microphone is too loud it seems for his charismatic words. She holds her ears; a slight scowl descends over her brow. I notice that my belongings are lying between us. What shall I do? I move my things to the floor. I take her hand, rub my thumb across its thinning skin and give it a squeeze. I smile.

Don’t’ reason! You can’t come to the answer in your head…in your reason like Pilate tried to. You can’t figure out Jesus in your head. You gotta come to Him in your heart.

As I hold my mother’s hand I think about my new commitment to allowing. To love what is, rather than love after my preferences have been met. To hold my heart open for the coming and going of people is still too scary. To be vulnerable is to invite more pain, but now I realize a closed heart is condemned to pain permanently. Real love can only come from a genuine place, a place only visible in an allowing state. Having the courage to possibly be hurt is the only way I will be able to experience a genuine love. I must love people for who they are and the love they uniquely manifest.

You are the only one who can answer the question. No one can help you. No one can go for you. No one can tell you what to do with Him. You can’t ask somebody else to bear your cross. You gotta decide for yourself one on one what you gonna do.

I begin to nod, as the “Amens” descend from the choir loft echoing to the pulpit. The path is a single one, ultimately. It just is. I can hate it all I want, but it doesn’t change that people will come and go. The challenge is to take joy in the comings and try to take more than sorrow from the leavings. I think of my mother and how she is supervising my grandmother and maiden aunt now. Maybe her clinging to extraneous trivialities is a way of feeling stable. . .safe, feeling in control of the loss that’s surely to come.

Once you know Him, there ain’t no substitute. You wake up on Sunday sometime. You think, I got more important things to do. I got this. I got that. I feel better doing something else than be with Jesus. But I’m here to tell you even the food down at Jestine’s ain’t no substitute for Jesus.

Mom turns and smiles at me for a moment and then releases my hand She has scooted closer. Unseeing the challenge of loving others as I love myself isn’t possible now. I can’t unsee the need for kindness. I can’t unsee the need for justice or the need for empathy. Unseeing is the closest thing to “sin” I can think of. If I can’t unsee my own shortcomings, I might as well learn to live with them…for that is the only way I will have deep loving relationships. It’s the only way my closeness with Mom, the only permanent relationship of my life, will survive and grow.

And the question remains, “What shall I do with Jesus?” You won’t ever answer it in this life. You answer it every day. In every way. With everybody. You answer the question every morning and every night. You answer it when ya suffer. You answer it when ya sing. You answer the question on every step of the way. Cause the answerin leads ya right back to Him.

I ask myself.

What then shall I do with Love?

What then shall I do with Peace?

What shall I do with this heart laid open?

We rise to sing a hymn before communion; unbelievably it’s one of Mom’s favorites:

And He walks with me and He talks with me and he tells me I am his own

And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.

I slip my arm around her waist and hug her tininess. She begins to cry. It’s something to simply accept, this being there for her in ways she needs, and her being there for me the ways she can. All she has ever wanted was my happiness. Love isn’t any simpler than that.

Communion around the purple draped and lily strewn altar places us on our knees at the rail. As a part of the body of this congregation now, our lighter faces fade into the darker ones. Our eyes shine in the candles and lamplight of this century old building. Kind faces. Open hearts. Humble spirits. The ladies near us who have helped my mother to her knees, make extra space for me, but I stay on my knees on the floor behind her. It seems the right place. At the table of common love and human suffering, we are all one. It doesn’t matter that the particulars of my faith aren’t aligned with theirs. When Brother Singleton cracks a wafer and places it into my hand, I think of how I’ve been cracked open by going on this pilgrimage. Thirty seven days ago I made two decisions that changed everything. I left a relationship for the wrong reasons, but I regained focus upon a spiritual journey that began last September. Both ultimately healed me in many ways. As we pray and share this ritual meal, I think about how I would never be kneeling here, experiencing this without those decisions. Gifts come from the Universe when we least expect them; how fruitless it is to believe the unfolding of our lives is within our control.

After communion and closing benediction, Mom and I visit with folks. When they ask us about our presence, I tell them about my journey, how I felt led there, how it all seemed part of some big design. Their acceptance and understanding of my story is obvious in their hugs and “Bless you, baby’”. We are both showered with genuine affection which travels with us out of the huge wooden doors, down the stone steps and out onto the night street, wind still crisply blowing.

As Mom and I ride in the taxi to dinner, she takes my hand.

“You know, tonight reminded me a lot of growing up in the Methodist Church. I really enjoyed it hun. I’m glad we went.”

She squeezes my hand, all smiles, as the streetlights flash and fade across her face. When she begins to make small talk with the driver, I have a few moments to reflect. I think of the person who unknowingly sent me on this part of my journey. One day, I want to share with him that my leaving opened a space for something beautiful to bloom.

My challenge is to live in those lessons every day, alone or partnered. And to live in Love fiercely as much as surrender to it. For in the surrender comes the rising again of hope. . . and hope has wings.

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