“Ge’challs asses on outdoors!”
My Bible-thumping, God-fearing Auntie Gerry rarely cursed and never took a drink of liquor in her entire life that I can recall. A marvelously curvaceous woman, her hefty flesh cinched with the triple-bolted girdle, she was light on her feet and, with the record player needle dropped on the right song, Gerry Ross could swing and swag a dazzling “Lindy Hop.” It took a lot to get my Mama’s peace-loving sister riled up, but my cousins and I had a knack for such things.
There was no telling what set her off that time.
The smallest of the bunch, I was always the last one to clear the wrought iron burglar bars and screen door. Hustling up a Bolo bat or a bag of metal jacks or, more frequently, a book to read on the wooden swing suspended from the porch was a real coup. The bookstand, filled with World Book encyclopedias and Childcraft volumes purchased on installment payments by my Uncle Ross, was situated at the top of the stairwell on the last landing. The trick was to swiftly scamper up the red-carpeted risers, without getting caught, and slide down the polished balustrade.
Running in the house was forbidden, as were a lot of things, including my escapades on the railings. We couldn’t dance to “grown-folk” music and anybody taller than a field possum had assigned chores. The kitchen, a job principally reserved for me and my cousin Bookie, had to be spotless before we nestled into our makeshift pallets spread out on the living room floor each night. Invariably, a fight would break out over which blanket belonged to who, earning somebody a swift whack on the backside.
Sometimes, there were as many as eight or 10 children living in the two-story, wood-framed house on 10th Street in East St. Louis—some related by blood or marriage, others with no relation at all. Geraldine and her husband, Albert Ross, had open hearts and an always-open door, but it was my Auntie Gerry, as I called her, who kept order. Uncle Ross was the ever-ready enforcer, doling out spankings to help you gather your senses.
It was Auntie Gerry who loaded us into the car, often three times a week, for church. Part of going, I knew, was to keep us busy and off the streets. In the ’70s, bad news lurked down alleyways, in abandoned burned-out houses and on street corners in our part of the world. If somebody shouted, “What’s up now, my nigga!” we knew it was time to break for the house.
In the precious, and invariably prolonged, hours that we were singing in the choir, listening to a breathless, sweat-strewn sermon, or sitting in Sunday school, we were out of harm’s way. Outside of school, I was never allowed to venture from Auntie Gerry’s line of sight.
She taught me how to love hard, pray without ceasing and believe in something larger than myself. I was 5 years old when I joined Mt. Paran Missionary Baptist Church and was baptized the following week. Aunt Gerry sat proudly in the front pew as I got dipped in the chilly tank of water, wearing a plastic swimming cap and a plain white frock that my mother had sewn by hand.
“Take me to the waters… None but the righteous, shall see God…”
It was always supposed to be that way. Aunt Gerry, me, and God. In the years that followed, I sang solos in the choir, taught Sunday school, and led morning devotional services. I had a lot to say back then. When testimonial sessions opened up during first Sunday communion services, I was always among the first of the flock to stand, grip the pew, and tell everybody what Jesus had done for me.
To say that my faith has sustained me would not pay sufficient homage to the darkest hours when I fell to my knees, beseeching an unknown power for a reprieve. There was that night in a hospital room 27 years ago, only days after I attempted to take my own life, that a charge nurse pointed me to Romans 5:1-5.
Since then, I’ve floated in and out of church. Five years ago, I found a new home at Buckhead Church in Atlanta, a super-sized church renowned for its inclusion and led by Pastor Andy Stanley. Forty years to the week after I was first baptized, I re-committed myself to Christ. The road has been anything but easy.
Sometimes in life, we stumble upon a clearing in the woods. I am there now.
Aunt Gerry is nearing 83 and sequestered in an intensive care unit in Atlanta, suffering from a long list of maladies. Our family is praying and, usually, that would include me too. Of course, I want the woman who raised me to pull through—if only so that I can delight in her mustard potato salad and stewed collard greens one more time. She is sporadically responsive and cannot speak on her own. I want and need to hear her voice.
I still believe in God, just not the kind I was raised on. I never told Aunt Gerry or even my mother, because I know it would break their hearts to know that I no longer share their brand of faith. I am not an atheist, per se. I simply do not know what holds the world together, if anything at all. I tell you this, because I am afraid we might lose her now.
But letting go of Jesus was the hardest part. I cannot point to the day or the hour that it happened, but the notion that there is someone—a man, no less—who loves me without condition or border, is now difficult to embrace. I have earnestly tried to lead a good life, but I suppose it was soothing to believe that a mystical creature had “paid” for my many foibles and saw the best in me when others would or could not.
As a black woman living in America, who knows well the spiritual legacy of slavery, to walk away from those traditions has been nothing short of traumatic. Was heaven not accessible before we were chained and dragged to these shores, our bodies plundered and sold as chattel? Had this God ordained and anointed the Middle Passage? Are the children who now live in war-ravaged Sudan, walking miles for water each day, not worthy of His grace and mercy? Are there no gay or lesbian people in this heaven? Where do transgendered people go when they die? If I plant crops side-by-side or wear garments of mixed threads, who will be in charge of the stoning? I don’t mind telling you that my eldest daughter, a breathtakingly beautiful, hard-working Ivy League alumnus who has a perfect smile, might surely fetch a good price on the open market, but she sometimes works my last nerve. Is it OK to sell her off?
Those were a few of the many complications that led me to rethink my relationship with organized religion. Wars had been fought in the name of the “righteous,” towers of innocent people brought down by airplanes flown by men seeking Paradise, women subjugated and stripped of their humanity to earn the grace of a faceless power, and genocides justified by the most wicked among us clinging to a holy text.
It is no small thing to think your own family delusional. Breaking those bonds is the sort of emotional jeopardy I have avoided my whole life long. Walking away also meant that questioning the basis for nearly every decision I have ever made—every relationship, every job, every single day of my 47 years—was now on the table.
The looming questions for me were: What of the world had I not experienced? How much or who had I disregarded and shut out? What new, innovative ideas had I suppressed in deference to the Bible my Grandmother Alice held so dear? Who, the more critical query was, had I oppressed with my small corner of privilege?
I have come to regard faith as a personal venture, to have it or not, although that often defines one’s worldview. I make it a practice not to condemn others for where they are, but I cannot stomach the notion that I serve the god of Mike Huckabee or the one that whispers into Ted Cruz’s ear. The religious fervor that informs our public discourse is, all too often, a repugnant product of bigotry, thinly concealed inside a King James Bible. It was that same Bible that allowed their conservative predecessors to relegate my ancestors to separate water fountains and segregated classrooms, the same one they now use to deny the poorest among us decent health care and meaningful jobs at meaningful wages.
Can one be a moderate or liberal progressive and still cling to the tenets of Christianity? Sure. But walking away has little to do with my politics and more to do with a personal quest to do good in my living days—to leave the world better than I found it, to give myself to others as Auntie Gerry gave herself to me.
“Do for one what you want to do for the many,” Pastor Stanley often says. I believe that with my whole heart, and it is my daily mission. That said, for me this is an unexpected, albeit painful, place to be. As the scion of slaves, their songs of liberation will forever remain a part of who I am. As I stand naked in this clearing, as Auntie Gerry fights for her life, I do not know if Grandma Alice is laughing or crying in her grave right now. She may be doing both.
Or nothing at all.