Tag Archives: humane


An agnostic Jew finds sanctuary among black worshipers

Photo from gallery of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles.

The ladies seemed aglow with the proposition of their attendance, as if this was a highlight in their lives, or perhaps the highlight of their lives. Photo from gallery of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles.

by Dell Franklin

Maybe it was time I showed up at a “house of worship”—church, synagogue, mosque, etc.—after a more than 50-year absence (except weddings and funerals) as a fully committed agnostic. So when my brother-in-law, who along with my sister is white and a volunteer sponsor of minority foster children for an organization associated with the black A.M.E. Church, invited me to join him for morning services at that church in Los Angeles, I said yes.

I was curious and also looking forward to entering the unknown as the 1 percent minority, if that. Also, having lived on the mostly white conservative Central Coast of California for the last 30 years, I was excited, as a kid reared in mixed-race Compton, to again rub elbows with black folks.

The church was a huge, stately structure. We arrived early and people were milling around, dressed in their best for a festive Thanksgiving. At the entrance we were greeted by a man in an immaculate black suit and white gloves who welcomed us, while another man similarly clad handed us programs titled, “God’s blessings inspire an attitude of gratitude.” A few ladies stood talking, nodded at us, smiled, and I was immersed instantly in a cocoon of warmth and graciousness of a different kind.

We found our seats up front, in the second row, along the middle aisle. Already, the choir was in place behind and beyond the pulpit as dignitaries of the church sat in a row behind the lecterns. My brother-in-law, Bruce, was eager to hear a visiting pastor from the Dallas, Terry White, and the church’s own pastor, “J” Edgar Boyd, in the face of Trump’s recent election as president.

But to me, this occasion posed a brilliant cornucopia of unrivaled people-watching, my favorite pastime. The ladies seemed aglow with the proposition of their attendance, as if this was a highlight in their lives, or perhaps the highlight of their lives. How could an agnostic, a cynical bastard like myself feel cynical about this as these ladies caught my eye and smiled and welcomed me to their church?

As the massive cavern filled with black people only, a different emotion filled me—I was getting with it. I was among the congregation and did not suffer the usual guilt of being a nonbeliever facing a man preaching the Bible, nor the self-betrayal of just being in their midst, nor the boredom and manipulation I had resented and endured in the synagogue growing up, or any of the other churches I had been forced to attend for weddings and funerals. I felt utterly at ease here—and safe.

The service began and hymns and litanies led to prayers by a lady reverend, another lady, and  a teenager. Scripture was read—Samuel—a commentary having to do subtly with Trump, followed by the choir, which was just warming up, and then came Pastor Boyd, his constant refrain, over and over and over again, with more and more emotion, what these people, his people, felt after the election, after years and years of struggle: “WE MADE IT!”

“YES, WE MADE IT!” People began to stand, mostly women. They nodded and raised a hand and announced their agreement. “Yes, we made it!”

“AND WE WILL MAKE IT AGAIN!” Over and over again, and Trump’s name was never mentioned, but everybody got the pastor’s message. Black people had overcome slavery, lynchings, beatings, the unleashing upon them of vicious dogs and powerful water hoses and teargas, incarceration for whatever the white man deemed guilty, centuries of civil rights abuse and bludgeoning of spirit, but always, always, they “made it.”

The reverend was a resonant showman, the ebullient spirit pouring forth from his every pore, preaching that two-fisted old fashioned religion, and Bruce and I found ourselves rising with the throng, clapping our hands, and when the pastor finished in a rousing finale, a tall man in a light brown suit led the choir, and now the place was really rocking, the blend of powerful, magnificently blended voices leading a chorus among the congregation, and I found myself not singing, because I know no words and I was not really a person who talked about the lord or Jesus or even God, but instead watched the people, and especially the ladies, so carefully attired, jewelry gleaming, and I was reminded of the hardship most black women endure, reminded of my days of working on the riverboat Delta Queen on the Mississippi River back in 1969, and being the only white employee below the officers, and of being taken as a guest to a blues club in Memphis by a crew of waiters and maids, and getting with that music, and watching my friends react to this music, such sad, woebegone music, and, while dancing with one of these ladies, who was sending her pay home to her children and family in New Orleans, I asked how people could be so joyous over such brokenhearted music, and she told me, “Honey, we got to celebrate our sufferin’, or we ain’t gonna make it.” And, “We got our blues, and our church, and they can’t take that away.”  And she smiled, knowing I had no clue to either and probably never would, but that was okay, too.

It made me think about my own life, and how easy things were for me, how I, a white person, could hitchhike from LA to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and land the best job on the Delta Queen as the ship’s storekeeper. No black person could hitch through the south without fearing disaster, and none of the uneducated blacks on the Queen had the training to be a storekeeper, as I had, starting out as a 15-year-old stock boy in Compton.

Those maids on the Delta Queen reminded me of the ladies in this congregation, who, as mothers and providers, and believers, beamed with pride and hope and faith cutting through hardship and hurt. The faces and  bodies of these women depicted heroic resilience beyond my comprehension, and the more I watched them, as the choir moved into a higher gear, and the people began swaying and repeating, a spirit entered me. I saw what religion meant to these people, and joining them made me feel good, and grateful, and strangely whole. I didn’t have to believe in Jesus, or the lord, or God, or any god, but just needed to be among people who genuinely believed, and shared, and found this day, and perhaps every Sunday of their lives, a salvation and a salve for the week’s wounds and life’s unfairness, a refuge from what occurred daily outside the walls of this massive church.

The Gospel ended and now Reverend Terry White Sr. from Dallas took over, and his oration, like Pastor Boyd’s, came from an echoing chamber deep within, and his showmanship and passion soon had everybody rising and repeating his words, and he wound himself into a fury, moving this way and that, his voice powerful, and the whole place rocked and rocked, and I thought to myself that if I lived around here I might show up at this church more than a few Sundays a year, to again drop some cash into their coffers and experience what was proving to be to me an almost Zen-like occasion.

In the end, we all held hands, swaying back and forth, and afterwards I was myself shaking hands with men and hugging women as we headed toward the exit in a cloud of jubilation. Outside, a few more hands were shook, and then I ran into the man in the brown suit who led the choir, and I told him how great I thought they were, and he shook my hand and said, “Thank you, we give it our all.”

I ran into a lady who must have been well past 80, struck up a conversation, and she urged me to come back, and hugged me. Driving back, Bruce said, “You think we feel entitled, going in there, because we’re white?”


“You think two black men would be as welcome in a Southern Baptist white church, or any white church?”

“I don’t know. Churches are supposed to be welcoming places. Maybe, but I doubt it.”

We talked about the white man who went into the black church in South Carolina and shot and killed innocent people. And they forgave him, prayed for him. To those people I don’t think it was just about Jesus, or the lord, or God, but a spirit of humanity and magnanimity, just as they would accept me in that very same spirit as a nonbeliever, a person who walked out feeling that humanity and magnanimity and carrying it with him for that day and to this day too, and perhaps for some time to come. §

Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he maintains his love for humanity, and the hope of people who struggle against ignorance and hate. His other works can be viewed at dellfranklin.com

Let go, let Amtrak

Photo by Stacey Warde

Photo by Stacey Warde

by Stacey Warde

A couple of guys in shirts and ties board the northbound train in LA. They reek of the corporate office with their shined winged-tip shoes, dark slacks, crisp powder-blue dress shirts, and navy blue coats slung over their shoulders in a sort of “casual” way.

“Yeah, sure, we could probably add another million dollars in sales if she didn’t have such a volatile personality,” says one as he, and then the other find their seats across the aisle. “She’s a diamond in the rough. She’ll be all right.”

“You’re too soft on your people,” says his companion, as he neatly folds his jacket and sets it aside.

“Yeah, well…” the other starts to hem and haw, and concocts a story about giving people a chance, room to grow, management by positive incentives….

He is too soft, I think, just as his companion says.

He’s probably a lousy manager, even though he tries hard, no worse than I’ve ever been, I’ll bet. He means well, but he’s lousy. I hate managing people. What can you do with someone who’s volatile? Get rid of the bitch, I think, fire her, and find someone who can sweet talk customers and bring in the million dollars. That’s what I would do but I’m not cut out for the sort of heartlessness that’s required to succeed in the business world.

I’m too soft, just like this guy who’s trying to convince himself that giving people a chance in the cold corporate world of maximizing profits, increasing production and making quicker turnarounds really makes a difference, that the guys sitting on the top floor really give a rat’s ass about giving someone, even a diamond in the rough, “a chance.”

His companion stops him mid-story and counters: “If you create goals, with clear-cut objectives, and set a timeline….”

“I know, I know,” the other interjects, annoyed but conceding the point, unwilling to hear more of what his companion is going to say, looking through the window as if planning an escape, and then attempting without success to convince his companion that a softer, more humane approach will bring out the best in this volatile sales woman.

I try to listen over the rattling of the passenger car, the frequent whistle of the train, and announcements from the conductor over the exceedingly loud intercom, but it’s impossible to hear what he’s saying, how he’s trying to rationalize his softness in the face of the hard and fast facts of production, the cut and dry narrative of numbers, results and annual reports, the reminder that his only purpose is to produce, to whip people into shape or send them packing.

My instincts tell me he’s not mounting much of an argument; he’s bullshitting, a storyteller, like me, buying time, trying to find a shred of the humane in the inhumane and prefab world of corporate values. What a waste of time, I think, put on a shirt and tie so you can spend your days making up stories and kissing people’s asses. I feel my throat constrict.

It can’t be good for you, this life of stifling your humanity, of living a lie. Sooner or later, if you’re not cut out for it, as I’m not, corporate life, where you have to suck up all the time to people you fear and despise, whether you want to or not, will turn you into a shell of a human being, or worse, a raging sociopath.

I’ve never been a friend of the corporation. It represents just about everything I abhor: the attempt to be original despite sameness and lack of invention or originality, save for its branding; its flowery and false rhetoric; its brutal agenda to profit no matter what; and its disregard for everything humane.

More often it’s an enemy of health and well being, killing the soul, if not the body and its environs. It’s all about the money, getting rich, or more likely making others rich. There’s nothing wrong with earning a living, even making it big, but not at the expense of turning into another heartless cog in the system and destroying everything and anyone who gets in your way.

As the next station stop approaches, the organization men grab their coats to jump off the train, continuing to discuss their million-dollar problem.

“Maybe the thing to do,” the soft one says as he heads downstairs, “is to set a timeline, like you say….”

I resign myself to the ride north, relieved, five more hours of nothing to do but watch and listen, as the commuter train makes its way closer to home, where so many people like myself have removed themselves to escape this very same screwed up system that runs LA and most of the country, the one that makes us look out the window and see nothing but dollar signs.

In San Luis Obispo, the train’s final stop, and in Cayucos, in particular, you can rest assured you’ll find outcasts, escapists and “misfits,” as mom says, people like me who don’t want to live in LA, and some who don’t belong in LA, who have had enough of the corporate life and the hyper-reality of amusement parks and shopping malls that it creates.

They move up there to escape, mom adds disapprovingly of the people in my community. They couldn’t get along in the “real” world, she says, so they found a place where they could be slackers, hermits or just plain weird. There are plenty of slackers here, I agree, misfits, hermits and weird people too, many of whom, as I, would die in the “real” world, I tell her.

Still, I argue: “There are a lot of smart, independent people here too, mom, good people who just don’t want to live in LA.”

The train picks up speed as it winds its way north and the hum of the engine and wheels overtake me and time seems to stop and there’s nothing to do but let go, relax and let Amtrak Train 777 carry me home.

Then, a flash of my own life, a jolt of panic runs through me. Another diamond in the rough, my girlfriend, who is supposed to meet me at the end of the line, who also has a volatile personality, says she will pick me up at the train station in San Luis Obispo if I buy dinner. Deal, I say, knowing that our days are numbered. I can feel it. I’ve been living my own lie, pretending that my life is just the way I want it, staying in a relationship that went bad years ago.

“I’ve found someone new,” she says. “I think he’s the one. Can you move out ASAP?”

I assure her that I can, and make the painful realization that living a lie, stifling one’s humanity isn’t limited only to the corporation. It’s a household thing too, and I’m more than eager to move out. §

Stacey Warde is publisher of The Rogue Voice and lives like a hermit deep in the hills where no one can find him.