An agnostic Jew finds sanctuary among black worshipers
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