Sunday, October 30, 2011

We Shall Overcome

I’ve often wondered why I started going to my church. It being a black church. And me being white. I’m sure there were more than a few church members who wondered the same thing. Maybe they thought I was one of those white guys who wanted to be black. But I’m not. I know that, for all the rhetoric about there being no such thing as skin color, there is such thing as skin color. And my skin is white even for a white guy.

Marcus Hall runs what we call the adult Sunday school every Sunday morning. He graduated from Harvard with a PHD in English and American literature. Marcus, a compact dynamo of a man with a close-cropped beard who always wears a suit and tie to church, is married to Ella, perhaps the most beautiful woman in Iowa City, who got her PHD from Yale. One morning, in adult Sunday school, Ella told us about her father. “My father,” she said, “was heavily involved with civil rights. He was down In Selma for the march on the courthouse. During one protest, he was arrested. And put in jail. And his name and photograph were published in the local paper down there, which is why I grew up in Kansas City. Because after that incident, he began to get death threats from the KKK, and he knew he had to run.” If I were to tell a story about my father, it wouldn’t be a story anything like Ella's. It would lack what, from the distance of a half a century, some folks might call “drama”. But death threats from the KKK, if they happen to your father, are more than drama. And they are completely foreign to my experience or family history.

Portia Byrd, an elderly woman who wears bright red lipstick and a fancy hat, told us about wondering, when she was a teenager, and, like Ella's father, active in the civil rights movement, why God would allow segregation to exist. It made no sense to her. One time, she told us, she became involved with a Jewish women’s group. They had lunches and held political events and things like that. And she was told that she could not join the group. Why? “Well,” she laughed, and everyone else laughed too. “Of course I could not join. I was not Jewish.” Then she spoke about a black women’s group at a church she once belonged to and a white woman wanted to join. “One half of a mixed couple,” she said. “And,” she said, “the answer was no. Of course she could not join. She was not black.”

“We need to be careful,” said Marcus Hall, “that we not believe that we have overcome, and therefore relax. And say, ‘Hey man. I’m good. I got the Lexus. I got the big house. I’m good. What do I need God for now?’” He said that the act of overcoming is what faith is about. “Reverend King,” said Marcus Hall, “talked about the promised land. He said, ‘I may not get there with you.’” Marcus paused and looked around. “’I may not get there with you,’” he said again.

There is a spirit, shining behind the black church, of joy. This joy leaks out from between all the little spaces between us. It’s warm, like the radiant heat from the sun. And once you’ve felt that warmth, you don’t want it to stop. I recognized my need for that kind of joy. But I knew that the spirit of that joy was not my birthright. The history of my race had not earned it. And sometimes when the choir (of which I’m a member), is singing a spiritual and I feel like crying for joy, or Reverend Dial is just starting on one of his rolls, and the words start to come out like an ocean wave rolling up high and getting louder and louder and the whole congregation, feeling it, begins to shout, "Amen," or, "Preach," or, "Come on," or, "Say it," sometimes I feel I’m taking advantage. Like I’m some kind of soul vampire, sucking up the blood of a body I do not inhabit.

Ever since I walked through the doors of Bethel for the first time, I’ve been on the lookout for people who didn’t want me there. While everyone prayed, I’ve kept an eye open, scanning the congregation for the one person who might shoot an un-approving look my way. Maybe I wanted someone to do it, so I’d be sure. So I’d have a reason to believe I didn’t belong. But no one ever shot me a look. No one ever has. I have had nothing, in my thirteen years at Bethel, but reason to believe that I do belong. Employed, unemployed, married, separated, at times of unbelief and belief, I have been more than accepted. I have been loved. As if there were, indeed, no such thing as skin color. And now, when I see photographs of us, the choir, or us, the trustees, or us, the congregation, I’m always surprised to see how white I am. How blue-eyed. How out-of-place I look.

When I’ve been asked (never by black people, always by white people), why I go to a black church, I’ve always said the same thing. “I think God led me there.” This is a simple answer. And I think it’s true. But it’s not very satisfying. Because it’s a pat response and without insight. I’ve had a few years to look inward now, and I’d like to amend that response to the question, why do I go to a black church?

It has to do with my son, Michael. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a fear of having a child with a disorder that would require 24 hour-a-day care. When Deb and I first moved to Iowa, over 20 years ago, Deb had a job taking care of special needs kids at the high school. She had no training in this field. What training, I thought, would anyone need in this field? The kid Deb had to take care of was severely autistic. He couldn’t speak, but he was smart. He’d play practical jokes on Deb. And he’d type snide comments to her on his communication pad. He’d fly into rages at times that seemed random. He’d need help in the bathroom. And at meal time. I remember watching his mother, who was a professor at the University of Iowa. She looked aged beyond her years. And how could she be otherwise? I couldn’t imagine what her life must have been like. I didn’t want to imagine. I didn’t spend too much time worrying about her, but I did spend some time being grateful it wasn’t me. After our third son was born, I found out what that woman’s life must have been like. Mike is severely autistic. He needs help in the bathroom and at meal time. He cannot communicate on a touch pad. He has no snide comments. He plays no practical jokes. He’s almost fourteen years old now. It changes you when you have a son like Mike. Who will take a shit in public if you don’t stop him in time. Who shouts and screams almost constantly. Very few people would say that they do not love their children. Most of us gladly say, “I love my kids.” And I do love my kids. But it’s a lot harder to love Mike than it is to love his twin sister, Lucy. Or his two older brothers, Sam and William. Because you get very little back with Mike. You might get the occasional sly smile. Which means he’s very happy. Or humming a tune while he eats. These are the highlights. He hits people a lot. And there are times when he has come home from school with bruises in places people don’t normally get bruises. On his forearms or biceps or the middle of his back or his thighs. And we wonder if someone is hitting our son at school. There’s no way to know, because Mike can’t tell us. We catch one teacher hitting our son on tape. Mike was in the hallway, and another teacher was taping a class, and we see the teacher wind up and slap him in the face. Other than that rare piece of footage, and the bruises, we have no proof. One time, I was working on the air conditioner in a special needs classroom. It was after hours, and I got to talking with the teacher, who came from a family of special needs professionals. “My father says,” said the teacher, “the problem is that people who should have more kids, don’t. And people who shouldn’t have more kids do.” I nodded. Maybe I should have said something, but it seemed too easy. Like it would be self-serving to tell her about Michael. Almost cliché. And what good would it do?

I came to Bethel because my resentment toward my son, and the attending guilt were things I could not overcome. Although I had no choice but to overcome them. If I could have fled my situation, I would have done it. But I could not flee. It seemed to be my fate to simply persevere. It's what I thought was expected of me. It’s a trait held in high regard. But it’s not enough to persevere. No one ever wrote a spiritual hymn that goes, “We shall persevere.” Not at all. “We shall overcome.” That’s what we sing. “We shall overcome. We shall overcome someday. Deep in my heart, I do believe…”


  1. This is very moving and I even find a bit of myself here. I do not have a child with such ever-present needs, but I can certainly understand why you felt led to this particular church. I've never even attended a "black" church, but the idea lies there like a beautiful but vague possibility, a place where a person could not just learn to abide,or persevere, but overcome. I remember watching the movie, "The Color Purple," and feeling a deep affinity with the people inhabiting it that I could almost feel as though it was a life I lived somewhere, somehow.... but, like you, I feel like an interloper even holding these thoughts. What right do I have to think I could possibly inhabit their world, understand their lives? That they welcome you with no looking askance is a strong testament to their beliefs, who they are as people of faith.

    You write about it beautifully.

  2. I'm glad you have Bethel, and I'm sure they're glad they have you.