Another stalwart has left us. One of those original people who accepted me into their church even though I never joined, never even became a Christian, in fact, has passed. There were about half a dozen people who shared a good deal with me. Brother Brown, which is all I ever called him, welcomed me from the get-go with his huge grin and ebullient manner. In one way or another, all the stalwarts did. In their own manner, all the people in the church did.
I will throw in here something they were probably aware of but did not say anything about: I was a very young White kid coming to this Black church in a very segregated society. I remember one time driving by a construction site, looking down in the ditch and seeing Brother Brown digging away. I slowed down and yelled out the window, “Hey, Brother Brown!” He looked up, saw me and identified me, grinned and waved and went back to work. I found out at his funeral that he had worked for that construction company for 20 years and arrived one hour early every day for work. But I thought about that moment and wondered if he ever caught any flack for that.
I would imagine some may wonder why I put this under the category African Diaspora. Just b/c it was a Black church? Weren’t the relationships personal? If so, wouldn’t they better go under Pat’s Worldview or some such? Not if you knew the conditions obtaining in our society at that time. The stalwarts were from East Texas and were a good 20 years older than me, meaning they had grown up during the Depression, a terrible time for Blacks in that part of the country. Yet these men and women treated me as just what I was, a young kid wandering into a different world. They were very patient with me.
What do I mean when I say they were probably unaware of it? It became very clear to me that they did not conceive of racial relations the same way a White Liberal in the early 60s did. For them, it was a matter of survival, figuring out a way to be fully human while evading the worst elements of Jim Crow. I learned code words like “acting funny” for what I would call “discrimination” or “he treated you alright” for “a White boss that did not take advantage of Black employees”. Later, as I grew more intimate with the stalwart who was my father-in-law, I learned through his stories some of the things that were seen as a part of that life. It was just interesting to me that they had little “race consciousness”, as it was called then, and that they had no problems taking me as I was. That was by no means true of all Blacks at that time, but the church people did not see me as suspect just a prospective convert.
Brother Brown did not really work on me like the others. It turns out he was a pillar, a stalwart, for the church and sought little power or recognition for himself. That was a bit unusual at a time when the Black church was the only place a Black person could seek position and power, there and in certain societies like the Masons.
As my wife and I were greeted heartily by so many people, like long lost children, that old feeling came over me. Nowadays we would call it Unconditional Positive Regard. It took in many strays…. and still does. But I wasn’t a stray. I wasn’t looking for anything, had not been cast out or deprived in any way. At the time I first attended the church I was a college student leading a comfortable life, a life very unlike the stalwarts’. I can’t say I’ve every experienced that feeling anywhere else. Coincidentally, the pastor’s sermon was on how Brother Brown treated everyone like that, how he embodied that spirit of the church, of Christ, and how that was our calling, to love those we despised the most.
I don’t think Brother Brown or the other stalwarts despised me by any means, but they must have found me quite odd. I did come from a different world and had not yet acquired the ability to blend in. (I’ve mentioned this before and have to repeat it and underscore it: I have never found being White excludes you from the company of Black people except for the artificial environment of the college campus or wanna-be militant organizations; in fact, I’ve even infiltrated a few of those…… but that story is for another time. If you act yourself, all the Black people I’ve encountered accept you that way.) Nevertheless, whether I was sitting in a pew on Young People’s night with just a few church members or going through the chow line on a Sunday morning, I was Brother Pat, never mind I was a self-identified agnostic happy to argue religion at the drop of a hat.
To the African Diaspora: I’ve read other people and have heard other people discuss this phenomenon of acceptance among Blacks. Many Blacks speak of missing it as they get out into the broader world. The stalwarts all hung in there, working and going to church, and their children and grandchildren now have educations and jobs beyond their imagination before the Civil Rights Movement. Yet many of these people, now living in parts of the Valley of the Sun closed to their parents, drive into that church on Sundays to luxuriate in that acceptance. My wife feels it as she was raised in the church. Despite her having left it 50 years ago and me never joining, it’s like we have become part of the aging stalwart cohort. You wouldn’t know that we are unchurched agnostics, the way we are received in that church.
Will this spirit of acceptance last among Black churches? Why is it absent among other groups….. or is it? Will the acid of competition and Wal-Mart dissolve those ties? Will Black people become as suburban as everyone else? I don’t see First Pentecostal going anywhere. The congregation is large for a relatively small building (about 600, a full house, were at Brother Brown’s funeral). The pastor is just an excellent man who, along with his wife, have been of wonderful service to our family in tough times. His sermons are full of wisdom and learning, yet he manages to pump in some Pentecostal fire at the right moment – oh yeah, this is a shouting church.
I always ask the upholders of traditional teaching methods for evidence that those methods work. All I can offer here is the testimony (that religious talk is contagious) of a teacher I worked with. She and I had shared secret sessions discussing government and how to teach it to kids…. long after I had left Social Studies to go fl full-time. Not long before she left the school, I mentioned the church in some connection and she was amazed. We talked evangelical for a while (one of my several languages) and she related to me the experience she and her husband had had church shopping. They happened upon a Black church and decided to try it…….. they are both White. As she talked about it, I just grinned. It was the exact same experience I had had, including the struggle to find words to express the sense of acceptance. We just about had a good cry together that day, wondering if we would ever find that anywhere else.