I grew up in rural Georgia. Back then, a good many of my family members worked in the textile mills. I feel a kinship to those days, as without them, it’s possible that my parents might never have met.
In those days, life revolved around the mill. We kids went to school and the adults went off to the mill. In the afternoons, folks would work in the gardens and on Sundays, everyone went to church.
There were churches scattered all around my small town. Mostly, those churches were of the Baptist or Methodist faith. There were a few Pentecostal and Episcopalian churches around as well, but my family was distinctly Baptist, so those were the ones I knew. There was a Catholic church in my town. I often forget that it’s there because I didn’t know anyone who went there or if I did, I wasn’t aware.
During my senior year in high school, my guidance counselor passed away. She was a very sweet lady and highly respected. There was no question that I was going to her funeral along with all of my close friends. Her funeral was held in an out-of-the-way two-story church complete with a balcony in the African-American section of town.
In those days, most churches didn’t have air conditioning. I wore the lightest weight dress I owned along with white gloves despite the fact that I knew it was going to be sweltering inside.
We parked in a dry patch of red clay along side the parking lot. Every space was filled and the edges were starting to over flow. The sky was a rich blue without a single cloud.
The church was a rather large, simple square structure with a huge steeple. It was bright white with fancy shutters. A wide front porch ran along the front of the building, where several men gathered to talk and smoke cigarettes. Beyond, there was a warm inviting glow and despite the solemn occasion, there was good-humored laughter.
When I entered the church, it was packed almost to standing room only. My friends and I made our way up the stairs to the balcony where it was so hot I thought I was going to pass out. Often the tradition in Southern churches was to pass out fans. These were fancy cut pieces of thin cardboard. Usually the front had some famous art depicting Jesus while the back would be an advertisement for the funeral home that provided the fans. I was thankful for the sweet soul that passed them out to us. Without that fan, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to experience what was about to unfold.
Before this, funerals were somber occasions that I dreaded…and avoided as often as possible. This one was quite different. It was a celebration of this dear lady’s life and I was completely in awe. There was singing, shouting, and a whole lot of crying. But more than anything, the beat of her life filled that room and not a single person there went unmoved.
Many hours later, I left with a new understanding that not everyone did things the same way and I realized that I had a thirst for understanding and knowledge building inside of me.
In college, I spent many weekends away from home and it could get lonely at times as most students went home on the weekends. One afternoon, I was thinking about this particular funeral and it made me wonder what it might be like to see what all the churches in town had to offer. For a while, I’d entertain the idea and then fear would take over and I’d tell myself I’d do it later.
One day, I chanced to be walking by the post office. At just that moment, church goers began arriving for services at the Catholic church next door. I stood on the steps and watched as many of them passed to make their way through the heavy wooden doors. On the spur of the moment, I decided that I would possibly be invisible in the crowd and no one would think anything of my curiosity. Without a second thought, I followed a few young girls inside.
It turns out that I stuck out like a sore thumb. I didn’t understand the Latin Mass and I was at a complete loss when it came to sitting and standing. By the time the service was over, I was sure that everyone there had marked me as an “outsider.” As soon as it looked like the service was ending, I made a mad dash for the closest door, my heart pounding in my chest.
About a month later, I went back. Then the next time, I went to a different church and before long, I realized that I was enjoying discovering all the ways that people worshiped God.
I recall a Christmas service with hand-bells at a Baptist church, a keg in the Fellowship Hall for a Fat Tuesday low country boil at a Presbyterian church, a high-tea at an Episcopal church, witnessing speaking-in-tongues at a Pentecostal church (I left before the snakes) and a circumcision ceremony at a Jewish Synagogue.
Today, I don’t recall what steps put me in front of the post office that fateful day, but I’m thankful for what errand I was on. That split-second decision I made that day gave me the courage to go into the Catholic church and that gave me the courage for the next and so forth, each event building on the last.
Since then, I’ve grown to appreciate not only the differences in the way we practice our faiths, but the differences in the way we dress and speak. I love experiencing the differences in the foods we eat.
Not long ago, a friend of mine was highly offended that another friend was having an Indian themed birthday party for her very Caucasian daughter. For a few days, the anger brewed and one day finally spilled out in a heated argument. As these are both friends of mine (and they both know that I’m part Indian), they called me to “discuss” their issues. I listened to both of them, but stood firm in not speaking ill of either friend. Finally, I asked if they would both agree to meet for lunch. Both of them showed up.
At first, they both sat silently until suddenly they were both speaking at once and again getting angry.
Finally, I decided it was time to do something. Both of these women are my friends and they are both friends with each other. This was so much non-sense. I started by telling them both that I flatly do not understand how this party for a young girl could be offensive. Personally, I am glad that she is interested in what happened to the Indian people of our country. It pleases me that she wants to know more about the trail of tears (actually, I’m pretty impressed that she even knows what that is). I don’t care if she wants to have an Indian rain-dance and have her school friends paint their faces.
I see this issues so completely different from the way my friends did. The friend giving the party just thought it would be fun for the kids. The other friend was angry that a white kid would want to dress up as an Indian. I asked them how my friend’s daughter will learn how to respect other cultures if she is not allowed to experience it for herself, even if it’s only in a make-believe way. Both were silent and introspective. It won’t happen overnight, but I believe they are back on the path of friendship and that the friendship is strong enough to bear this tiff.
When I walked away from the table that day, it saddened me to know that our culture has gotten to this point.
It wouldn’t be such a wonderful, mixed up, messy, interesting world if we were all the same. And how very, truly sad would it be if we couldn’t share outside our own small view of the world?
Until next time, enjoy and appreciate ALL the flowers you can find.