The worst job I ever had -- data entry for the City of Portland Bureau of Buildings -- had its bright side. What made it bad was the boss, a neurotic woman -- a control-freak who treated everyone like children (which I suspect was the dark side of her direct superior, a woman who wanted to be everyone’s friend.) The bright side was working alongside black people as equals. At the desk next to me was Madison, a dignified African American who had been ghettoized into the worst part of our job: abandoned car removal. Day after day he sat patiently entering their particulars so they could be towed after a certain time period as well as checked against the police list of stolen cars. Long eyestraining lists of trivia.
It was not the most dangerous job. Eddie, a tall Somali-featured man from the Louisiana/Texas border where he grew up among cotton and catfish farms, went out on the street actually ticketing the cars, which often represented the fantasy wealth of someone on the economic and emotional edge. When they rushed out to protect their car and offer to fight, very tall Eddie would say, in his patient soft voice, “Well, all right. If it has to be that way.” Slowly he’d put his clipboard on the hood of the car in question, take off his jacket and carefully fold it to lay alongside, begin to neatly roll up his sleeves -- by that time, the prospective attacker was beginning to bargain. There never were any real fights and he rarely called for police backup.
Madison, once I got it straight in my head which president he was, became my friend and we even talked religion, since he was a strong church member and I was an ordained Unitarian minister but not in a pulpit. One day he said something about God, and I replied with a joking reference to “Her.” In wonderment he asked, “Do you talk about God that way in your church?” He wasn’t angry. I can’t remember whether he suggested I visit his church or I asked if he would mind if I visited. He thought it over and then said, “If you go, call me beforehand and I’ll go along with you.” I think he thought that a white woman like me might feel a little lonesome in a black congregation.
So one Sunday early I called his house and got his wife. “Tell Madison I’m going to Mt. Olivet this morning.” I heard her say in astonishment, not quite muffling the phone, “Madison! Some white woman wants to go to church with you!” He said he’d meet me there.
I’m generally early so I can sit in the back where I can watch the people. This time I stood in the vestibule watching people arrive. They all greeted me, the women in gorgeous hats and fabulous dresses, the men immaculately barbered, and the children spit-shined. In a short time, a matriarch came to interview me. (EVERY congregation has them!) Her hat was splendid and she wore black kid gloves which she kept on while we shook hands. None of the women in this congregation wore pants -- most wore very high heels, even if they weighed more than I did. In the Nineties the principal of my high school in Portland was a woman of this kind -- in fact, she was ordained and led a smaller congregation not far away. But this gate-keeping lady at Mt. Olivet could NOT make out why I was there and when Madison arrived, towing his youngest boy as a chaperone, her gaze on him plainly meant, “I’ll see about YOU later!”
Black people go to church for the whole day, unlike the Catholic get-there/get-blessed/get-out practice of people intent on other Sunday recreation. For these folks, Sunday WAS the recreation. The sermon was not about splitting fine theological hairs as it might have been with the Unitarians. It was a checklist of moral and success-aimed practices and notes -- with an outline and space for one’s own additions supplied in the order of service. This minister did NOT talk politics, though he glancingly commented on a few things. What he was after was preparing people to get ahead in the world in spite of all disappointments, setbacks, and prejudices.
The music was sublime, opera-quality. Think Jessie Norman. The collection was not taken on shallow plates passed along the pews: instead we marched up front and put our money in deep baskets in front of the ushers to make sure they saw what went in and that nothing came back out. There was a sprinkling of married-in white folks, mostly women. All was dignity, glamour, high standards, skill and confidence. It went on for hours. I loved it. But it wasn’t “me.”
Barack Obama’s minister has caused a sensation -- or rather, people looking for a chink in Barack’s high idealism have landed on his minister, trying to hood him with every cliched stereotype they can find. It was okay for the far right to say that we brought 9/ll on ourselves for wicked behavior, but not for Rev. Wright. McCain and other candidates have consorted with and accepted support from far more ferociously judgmental clergy than Wright. Melissa Harris Lacewell, Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University, author of Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, and seminarian at Union Theological Seminary in New York, has pointed out that a whole range of people of every background and multiple colors attend this church -- inclusion is the formal position of the United Church of Christ denomination -- and this woman, reporting on “To the Point,” an NPR program (3/19), said that just about every black professor at the University of Chicago belongs to this congregation.
It strikes me that what many whites, esp. in the north, think is characteristic of black churches is really more related to Southern churches: the Pentecostalism, the high emotion, the gospel music, and even the snake-handling. In fact, this style of church is strong on the Blackfeet Reservation, because it offers hope (note that!) and a certain amount of emotional venting and ecstasy while holding a job -- like Madison’s -- that is mind-erasing and even (depending on how one is treated) demeaning. The sermons in such a place are in a style once well-known in New England, preaching as a kind of samurai sword-fight with the Devil, intense, confrontive, and impatient with this earthly world. If you’re a nice Episcopalian, it can be intimidating, but individual ministers in EVERY denomination are samurai and I’ve heard more than one Unitarian minister express the same sentiments as Jeremiah Wright! The tradition goes back deep into the Old Testament. If sufficiently aroused, I can do it myself.
Like other experienced clergy, I find it laughable that anyone would think that a parishioner would automatically agree with and obey his minister! A member of the Portland UU Church said one day, “I wish Alan would announce for whom he’s voting so I could vote the opposite.” The minister is often like that movie reviewer you read because you know if that reviewer liked it, you won’t. UU’s speak of “freedom of the pulpit” and “freedom of the pew.”
Preaching can be an art form capable of hyperbole, high rhetoric, emotionally inflammatory declarations. Like politics. As for the Iraqi war, I keep thinking of Henry Fonda in “War and Peace,” the version I saw in high school wherein Fonda played "Pierre.” He stands looking at the long winding trail of suffering in the snow caused by Napoleon invading Russia and says (thrillingly, I thought as a child), “Damn you, Napoleon! Damn you to Hell!” Somebody has to say it.