Shirley Wilson joined the Atlanta Police Department at the same time that I did. We were both divorced and each had two young daughters. We became friends during our stint at the academy and shared the trials of being among the first policewomen in the department. (I almost used the word “force”—but that’s a story for another blog.) Shirley asked me to attend her daughters’ baptism, to be their g-dmother. I hadn’t personally attended any baptisms, and certainly none in a Black church. The size and depth of the baptismal font on the dais took me by surprise because the ones I’d seen in movies were like fountains. This swimming pool was to a fountain what a steamship is to a rowboat. I bordered on panic when the pastor submerged each girl fully under the water. And then they emerged.
They emerged to shouts of joyous hallelujahs, cries of “praise-be,” and more hand- and body-shaking than I had ever seen on the wildest roller coaster at Six Flags amusement park. The congregation’s response was deafening and exhilarating, and I got caught up in the spirit and the love.
I occasionally went to Black churches after that, especially when I lived in Richmond, Kentucky. There was no Jewish temple there, so I had joined a Unitarian-Universalist fellowship. Sunday morning services were more like Chautauqua lectures, and the hymns resembled a chamber music concert. Then a colleague of mine, who was pastor of the “quiet” Black church downtown, invited me to attend a service. He said it was quiet because it wasn’t a Holy Roller church; however, it was anything but quiet by UU standards—or even Jewish norms. The choir was magnificent . . . as were the hats the ladies wore. When I entered, I was greeted as a friend, as a member of the community. I could go there for comfort, for joy, for hope. But I also visited this church for another reason.
Every now and again I hosted a pair of Japanese exchange students who came to Eastern Kentucky University for six weeks, during which time they stayed with a host family over one or, time permitting, two weekends. They would arrive bearing a hostess gift, generally wrapped in paper that immediately told you they were not from the neighborhood. The paper was always subtle in color and design—entirely different from the bold, bright paper we Americans use that almost always has a design theme that gives away the occasion. Not so Japanese paper. I loved those little presents and I loved those weekends, when I would always take the students to the Black church.
I had two reasons for taking them there. The first was that it was a beautiful experience both musically and visually, and we didn’t need a ticket. Secondly, and more importantly, most often these youngsters came to the United States and my university without ever having met a Black person. Their only knowledge of Black Americans came from whatever movies, books, and TV shows they happened to come across growing up in Japan. I seriously doubted that I wanted to leave those images go unchallenged. Taking them to the Black church provided a visceral experience that demonstrated the true dignity and character of Black Americans.
It was my gift to them.