Granny raised me on mustard greens, hot water cornbread, and a super-sized portion of Jesus. Although I mastered the Rubik’s cube of rules for sanctified living, religion robbed me of my voice and left shame in its place. You could say that it all started with my teenage neighbor Bobby.
When I was a kid, I let Bobby paint my fingernails red. I knew it was a sin by Pentecostal standards, but my nails looked so pretty and shiny in the sunlight. A few days later, our street had our annual block party. Everyone had moved their cars off our Brooklyn street that morning; one end was blocked off with a Cutlass Supreme and the other with a Nissan Maxima. We played in the street all day until late into the night—volleyball, tag, double Dutch, hide-and-seek. Folks played spades and dominoes on the sidewalks; roamed from yard to yard sampling each other’s food; and blasted reggae, reggaeton, old school R&B, and hip hop from speakers all at the same time.
As I played across the street from my house, Bobby barreled into me on his bike. His front wheel and handlebars collided with my groin and stomach, sending me flying several feet away. I limped home to tell Granny what happened. She suddenly noticed my red fingernails for the first time. Again, we were Pentecostal, which meant we weren’t allowed to wear fingernail polish. Anything red was considered to be a special kind of sinful—carnality of the whorish variety. Instead of consoling me, Granny whipped me with an extension cord. That was the day I learned that one’s own pain is secondary to religious dogma. I learned to keep quiet when people hurt me, or else risk punishment for revealing something far worse—something sinful. And so I never told Granny about our teenage neighbor Michael who always climbed on top of me in my bed whenever he babysat me.
For Granny, faith was her salvation. It had given her a new life when she moved from Florida to New York in the 1950s to work as a live-in domestic for a white family in Jericho, Long Island. With no family or friends in her new city, fellow church members became her surrogate family. When my mother was born, Granny was twenty-three and unmarried—circumstances that were still taboo in 1960. We didn’t even know she was pregnant until after your mother was born, an aunt told me. I didn’t even know I was pregnant, Granny used to say. The doctors said I had a tumor or some kind of growth. But perhaps she was too ashamed to admit her pregnancy, distance from her family and her petite frame allowing her to hide it. But her church family served as friends, babysitters, and godparents. And that support system lasted for decades. My godmother, who is still alive, christened me more than twenty years after she originally christened my mother.
Granny eventually became a licensed evangelist. This was a far cry from the version of herself she’d left in Riviera Beach, Florida—where she chain smoked, got into fights, and frequented a bar called Snook’s every day.
Although Granny frequently preached in churches in New York and elsewhere, she wasn’t choosy about where she found her flock. She preached everywhere—trains, street corners, wherever there were souls that needed to be saved. She used to preach on our front porch while I passed out sandwiches and fruit punch to people who stopped to listen to her. She’d stand there, the overhead light shining down on her in the darkness as if she were an angel, and belt out fervent exhortations of grace and redemption. Her pop-up congregation sat on their bicycles or leaned against our wrought iron fence munching and listening. Granny’s insistence on feeding people during her porch sermons reminded me of the Biblical story in which Jesus and his disciples fed thousands of people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. I suppose a dose of Jesus is best served on a full stomach. Pentecostal preachers are loud and theatrical, and Granny was no exception. During these porch sermons, she would pray, sing, and clap her thin, small hands loudly. She frequently interjected her prayers and singing with excited utterances of “heeee caaa shon da laaa bo seeekiaaah!” or other variations thereof while she spoke in tongues.
No neighborhood gathering was ever complete without a prayer from Granny, and most folks indulged her. Sometimes she carried her bottle of blessed oil from house to house, anointing neighbors’ doors and gates. Other times, a simple prayer would do. During a block party one summer, Granny decided to pray for all the kids. However, my neighbor Steve was not on board with that plan and ran away from her. In response, Granny did what any self-respecting Bible thumper would do: she chased him down the middle of the street with her Bible, while dodging playing kids and a volleyball net. She finally caught Steve at the end of the street. You can’t outrun Granny or Jesus.
And you can’t outrun your demons.
The summer after my first year of law school, Granny went with me to the doctor. Although we were in the middle of a heat wave, my chest was congested, my voice hoarse, and my ears stopped up. When my name was finally called, she waited with me in the examining room. The nurse practitioner—a tall, surly looking white woman with blond hair—came in with a medical student. The student, a black woman, looked as if she were fresh out of undergrad. I explained my symptoms to the NP. She then asked me some background questions. Are you allergic to any medications? (No) Are you currently on any medications? (No) When was your last period? (I never remembered so I made up the date) Is there a possibility you may be pregnant? (Not unless I was the Virgin Mary 2.0) Have you ever been sexually molested or raped? (Silence) No one had ever asked me this. And then the tears came, heavy and uncontrollable. Granny stood still, her eyes wide. “Maybe you should wait outside,” the NP told her.
Take a deep breath. The intern had a Damn, medical school didn’t cover this look on her face, before she too left the office. She returned with some Kleenex and a hug. “I’m so sorry,” she said. What happened? I was there for my self-diagnosed ear infection and cold. What did their questions have to do with anything? And then I told them about Michael. How old were you? (Really young. Eight or nine or seven) Did he penetrate you? (I don’t think so. Not completely. I wasn’t sure.) I had blocked the abuse out for years, my memory only being triggered when I began dating a guy my junior year of college. Besides, I had other experiences of sexual abuse to fill the void. You should get a GYN exam. (Granny took me for an exam when I started my period at nine years old) I was so terrified of anything entering me that I hadn’t been to the gynecologist since that first visit. I didn’t have an ear infection or cold after all. I had bronchitis and a bad case of repressed memories.
Granny and I walked home in silence. As soon as we arrived, I went straight to bed and cried some more. She brought me juice and crackers, and sat beside me on the bed.
“Who was it?” she asked. I couldn’t bear to tell her that a neighbor’s son had molested me. I didn’t want her to live with the guilt of knowing this had happened in our own home. She might never forgive herself. I thought the abuse would sound less intrusive, less harmful, if I only told her about Natasha, another neighbor who sexually abused me whenever her parents or older sister babysat me overnight. Granny never let me spend the night when Natasha's mom worked the graveyard shift. "You don't need to be alone with no man," she would say. As strict as Granny was, she still couldn't protect me.
“I figured it might be her,” Granny replied. How long had she “figured” this? And why? Was it because I had spent so much time at Natasha’s house? Had I shown signs?
“I hope you don’t blame me.”
“I don’t,” I reassured her.
But I did blame her—not for failing to prevent the abuse, but for creating an environment in which I didn’t feel safe enough to tell her the truth. And what use would blaming her do? How could I say I was so afraid of the sinfulness of sex that I was willing to hide my own abuse for years? What would I have gained by saying her fanatical, puritanical religion had terrified me so much that I was afraid of being “bad” or “dirty”? I have long struggled with believing I deserve to hold people accountable for hurting or disappointing me.
Granny had been molested by her stepfather when she was twelve years old. Although her mother didn’t believe her, her grandmother and a teacher did. The adult me wants to think Granny would have believed me had I told her about the abuse. But I never forgot the red fingernail polish and the judgment that came after. Granny and I never spoke of my sexual abuse again. In life, we must learn to accept the apologies we will never get.
Growing up, religion was always about rules—following the ones that would gain God’s (or some man’s) favor, not breaking others so as not to incur God’s wrath. The church considered it a sin for women to do anything that might invite sexual desire from men; or might enable us to revel in our own bodies and femininity. No makeup, lipstick, fingernail polish, or jewelry (except wedding rings) were allowed, lest we draw men under our Jezebel spell. Women couldn’t wear pants because God apparently had a strong aversion to women wearing men’s clothing—and because pants showed off the irresistible curves of our legs and hips. Our dresses and skirts had to fall to the knee or lower, and we couldn’t have splits in our skirts so as to prevent men from looking straight up to the cracks of our behinds. The church preferred for women to hide our bodies, rather than requiring that men regulate their own behavior and imaginations.
Whenever women entered church, we had to cover our heads. Our usual coverings were round, lace doily-like cloths with attached combs to hold them in place on our heads. We had them in different colors to match our outfits. We also had special occasion head coverings, which were white, flowy, shoulder-length scarves that covered our entire heads. These were made of lace, satin, or cotton. We only wore them during communion, on Pentecost Sunday, and during the fifty days of consecration between Easter and Pentecost Sunday. The cotton scarves were my least favorite because they made my head sweat and dried my hair out; the lace ones were prettier and offered lots of ventilation.
Women were even restricted in how we wore our hair beneath the head coverings. We couldn’t wear braids, although I’ve since forgotten the origin of this religious tenet. Given the thickness of my hair, however, Granny was a lot more relaxed about the no-braids rule. She used to let our neighbors and family friends braid my hair in cornrows when I was a little girl. Sometimes they’d get extra fancy and add colored beads to the ends of my hair, held in place by small pieces of tin foil. In high school, Granny started letting me get my hair braided at African braiding salons.
The common denominator: women needed to be tamed in order to show we were even worthy of being in God’s sight, let alone loved. I didn’t understand how these “sins” made one unworthy of God’s love and how their absence made one closer to God. Is God really that petty and bored?
The church did not police men’s bodies and behavior. Where women’s actions were condemned, men’s were ignored. Whenever an unmarried woman or teenage girl got pregnant, she became a pariah. The pastor would punish her by making her repent and sit in the back of the church for the duration of her pregnancy. She wasn’t allowed to participate in any church activities. No singing in the choir, no serving on the usher board or the praise and worship team, as if her fornication were contagious, her presence a reminder of moral failure. But expectant, unwed fathers weren’t shamed or even outed, as if the women had gotten pregnant by themselves. They simply continued living their lives—preaching, playing the drums or organ, boys continuing to be boys, their behavior and reputations unencumbered by rules of “godly” behavior.
The salacious sex scandals involving male pastors had all the makings of a chart-topping reality TV show before reality TV was a thing. For years, everyone knew our married pastor was sleeping with other women in the church. As a kid, I used to hear Granny and her friends gossiping about our pastor’s mistresses and marital woes. And then there was that Sunday morning, while sitting in the alto section of the choir stand, when I noticed a lot of commotion in the balcony. A group of men were wrestling with someone. I later learned that the detained man was married to our pastor’s girlfriend. He had brought a rifle with a scope attached, and planned to send our pastor straight into the afterlife. A gun-toting husband was urgent enough for the church to convene a meeting. No kids were allowed, so my friends and I hung out at the nearby library until the meeting was over. The members voted to fire our pastor. He started another church close by and many people, including Granny and me, followed him. Had our pastor been a woman, he would not have received such loyalty and forgiveness.
I remember the day I became bitter towards religion and God. I was a freshman at Barnard College, and had regularly attended Pastor B’s church for several months with one of Granny’s friends. On the Sunday I planned to become an official member of the Baptist church, Pastor B began his sermon by telling a story about a woman who had gone to her own pastor for counseling because her husband was beating her. Instead of encouraging the woman to leave her husband, the pastor instructed her to return home. Her husband later beat her to death. Although Pastor B admitted that the woman’s pastor had been wrong for advising her to stay with her abuser, he also said it was okay for a man to beat his wife. He then began talking about other rights men had in marriage.
“You women say you don’t wanna have oral sex. But you kiss and the mouth is dirty and doesn’t even clean itself,” Pastor B shouted from the pulpit as children and adults listened. “At least the vagina cleans itself.” He was more explicit than any sex education class I had ever taken.
“A woman cannot deny her husband sex,” he continued.
“Amen! Preach, pastor!” the men in front of me yelled as they waved their hands and high-fived each other. You muthafuckas cannot be serious, I thought as I looked around at them with disgust. The faces of the older church mothers registered a collective Now hold on just a damn minute as they mumbled amongst themselves. And yet no one challenged Pastor B.
I slowly raised my hand. In case you’re wondering, a Sunday morning sermon in a Black Baptist or Pentecostal church is not a Q & A session. It is not a Bible study class. You’re supposed to just sit and listen, and let out an occasional Glory! Or Hallelujah! Or You betta preach! And when the organist starts playing the fast shoutin’ music, you grab a tambourine or you get up and dance your best holy dance. But you do not raise your hand.
“Yes, young lady?” Pastor B asked me.
“If a husband forces his wife to have sex, wouldn’t that be considered rape?” Surely, logic would prevail.
“How can you rape something that belongs to you?” he asked me in a very matter-of-fact manner. It wasn’t really a question. Something. A thing, not an equal or human being. That belongs to you. A possession. I was stunned. Angry. I felt exposed and invisible. It was the first time I ever felt unsafe in a church. What kind of God sanctioned the abuse and rape of women? What kind of monster preached such things? And what kind of congregation thought such teachings were acceptable?
Pastor B’s sermon seemed out of character. I had visited his church many times since I was a small child. One of my earliest church memories was of being at a tent revival, my legs swinging from a wooden chair as Pastor B sang in his robust tenor voice:
In everything, give thanks
For this is the will of God
In Christ Jesus, concerning you.
His was a progressive church, far more liberal than the Pentecostal fundamentalist church I had grown up in. He had a large following and multiple churches. Some of my favorite women preachers held leadership positions in his church. Granny and her friends said Pastor B had caught his wife sleeping with another man shortly before that sermon—that his words were really the ramblings of a heartbroken husband. But such an explanation did not excuse his rant. If the rumors about his wife were true, his reaction was not surprising. Much of religion is a tower constructed to protect male egos and privilege.
Dissatisfied with his views and our exchange, I decided to write Pastor B a letter. But Granny disagreed with my course of action.
“Don’t do it. He knows the Bible better than you,” she told me after receiving counsel from her pastor—her male pastor. “He’ll chew you up and spit you out.”
Her trembling voice let me know she wanted to protect me from being humiliated. But I was the girl who had fallen in love with feminism in junior high, when I read bell hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman for the first time. The kind of girl who had known since eleventh grade that I wanted to attend an all-women’s college. I didn’t need the Bible to tell me about my place in the world. And I was tired of keeping quiet about the things that hurt me.
Granny’s reaction shocked me because I had always thought of her as a tough and fearless woman. She was my hero. She used to tell me how she had beat up a family member’s husband because he was abusing her. Granny’s twin brother reminisced about how she used to fight boys who bullied him in school. Years later, when Granny got saved, she became a rabble-rousing letter writer. Whenever she needed to tell a pastor something important, she would write him a letter or record her message on a cassette tape and hand deliver it to him. I was exactly who she had raised me to be. I don’t know why she thought some justification for Pastor B’s words would be found in the Bible. Or why she didn’t go with me to deliver my letter. Sometimes we must be our own hero.
In my best cursive penmanship, I wrote a 19-page letter to Pastor B titled “Amazing Disgrace.” Undeterred by Granny, I returned the next Sunday to deliver my message. I handed him the letter as I walked by to put money in the offering plate. How ironic: me financially supporting a religious institution that did not support my human rights.
Wearing a broad smile, he began silently reading my letter from the pulpit as people passed by. Remembering the adage, “Start with the positives before you criticize,” I began the letter by telling Pastor B why I had admired him and wanted to join his church.
The muscles in Pastor B’s face tensed up and his smile began to fade. I recounted the story he had told us about the woman whose husband killed her. If you believe that woman’s pastor was wrong for telling her to return to her abusive husband, then how can you advocate for the rape, abuse, and oppression of women? Does God’s grace not extend to women? I’ve since forgotten how he justified domestic violence and rape, but not murder; how he condoned violence against women, but faulted his fellow clergyman for having advised a woman to return to such violence. Maybe my anger erased the memory of his explanation. In his theologically-inspired hierarchy of violence, perhaps there’s a threshold of acceptable abuse. Maybe you ought to beat a woman just enough for her to comply, and that there is some point at which you can punch or slap a woman too hard or one too many times. A point at which you’ve gone too far. I’ve often wondered whether Pastor B was the pastor in his story, struggling to rationalize his way to a clear conscience.
Pastor B’s face now looked as if he smelled raw meat that had been left outside all day. Being a member of your church as a woman is as insane as me being a member of the KKK as a Black person. I am unimpressed by mere representation; doctrine matters more. Women make up the majority of most Black churches. We fill choirs and usher boards and missionary committees. We are pastors and ministers. And yet many churches preach sexism and misogyny and violence towards women. I’ve often wondered what compels a woman to stay in a church like Pastor B’s. Perhaps they justify it as they would staying in an abusive or dysfunctional romantic relationship. I’ve invested too many years to just walk away. Or Any church is better than no church. Maybe they tell themselves, Every church will have something you dislike, so you might as well just embrace the good parts and ignore the bad. More Black women are killed in the United States than any other racial group. Black women are also more likely to be physically and psychologically abused by our intimate partners. We experience rape and other forms of sexual or physical violence at disproportionately high rates. Black women cannot afford the gospel of misogyny.
Pastor B suddenly threw my letter to the ground. Later in the service, still overcome with indignation, he attempted to do what is commonly done to women who think for themselves—he berated me.
“Some of you think you know everything just because you’ve gone to college and can string a few sentences together,” he told the congregation. I smiled to myself. Nineteen pages were more than “a few sentences.” That was the last time I ever went to that church or attempted to join any other church.
Black women rightfully demand that people outside our communities recognize our humanity—white people, white feminists, police officers, politicians. But how often do we surrender our humanity to racial solidarity and the church and Jesus? The church taught me what it looks like when Black people, especially Black women, do not hold our institutions and our people accountable. The church taught me to walk away from things that no longer serve me.
I spent years trying to follow the right formula to get into heaven. I was the perfect church kid. I swore off premarital sex. I overdosed on school gospel choirs, Bible scriptures, church revivals, and a tambourine I named after the Biblical prophet Miriam. But I did sneak and listen to “worldly” music—the kind of music that made one worldly and well-rounded. Despite my efforts, I still never felt Christian enough, saved enough, good enough. During an all-night “shut in” service, I stood in a corner of the church tarrying for the Holy Ghost with the rest of the young people. I prayed, clapped my hands, and said Jesus over and over again real fast, willing the Holy Ghost to take control of my tongue so that I would start speaking in tongues. JesusJesusJesusJesJesJesJesJeJeJeJeJJJJJJJ. The Holy Ghost skipped right over me. I never spoke in tongues. Never started shouting. And then I heard a voice whisper in my ear, “I know you’re not really speaking in tongues, so stop playing.” That was not the voice of God. It was Larry, a man who sang in the choir and had never uttered a word to me before that night. He was supposed to be praying with us, but was instead cramping my style. What kind of person picks on a kid who’s trying to talk to Jesus? I still remember Larry with a fondness akin to the feeling of waking up with gastric reflux.
When I began college, I was shocked by how few Black students there were in comparison to my Brooklyn high school. I was so eager to meet other students who looked like me that I once walked up to a random group of Black students at Ollie’s, a restaurant near campus, and shouted, “Excuse me, are y'all first years?” They were first years, and all but one of them ignored me for the rest of our time in college. A small group of us church hopped in search of a Black community and the familiarity of our pre-college lives. One of my friends was Catholic so we visited a Catholic church, where we gawked at journalist Bryant Gumbel after the service. We also visited the historic Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem, which reminded me of the churches I had attended all my life. I was so offended by the bus loads of white tourists who sat in the church’s balcony that I later wrote a paper about it. Although having a designated tourist section minimized disruptions during the service, their presence felt sacrilegious and had a “let’s see how the natives worship” kind of feel to it. We also joined the Barnard-Columbia Gospel Choir because we knew it was likely to be full of Black folks—and we were right. More than twenty years later, I’m still friends with many of the students I met in gospel choir.
Although our churchgoing routine didn’t last long and Pastor B’s infamous sermon had left me jaded, I wanted to understand religion’s influence over people. I took various religion classes, studied black liberation theology, and considered double majoring in religion. For my “Black Women’s Religious Experiences” class, I designed and conducted a study that examined the ways in which Black women’s religious beliefs affected their political and feminist views. But I didn’t learn anything that would erase the cynicism and sense of betrayal Granny’s faith had left me with. As I would with a school bully, I respected religion’s power and kept my distance.
Whenever I went home for the weekend, Granny would make me go to church with her. “While you’re in my house, you have to abide by my rules,” she would tell me. By the time I graduated from college, I had stopped regularly going to church. But church was my earliest form of community. Church was inseparable from the person I loved most.
After Granny developed Alzheimer’s disease, she began hallucinating. Her phantoms ranged from people having sex in our backyard, to the mafia having a sit-down in her bedroom, to a young man’s funeral occurring in our closet. "He had AIDS," she whispered to me after one of these funerals. I had stopped taking her to church or to places with large crowds, because her hallucinations and delusions followed her. I never knew when she was going to start yelling at the invisible people. We once went to see her friend’s grandson perform at Julliard. We’d taken Access-A-Ride, the ride-sharing service for people with disabilities, to and from the performance. On our way back home, there was only one other passenger in the van—a tall, well-dressed, elderly Black woman in possession of all her mental faculties. Granny yelled at the woman the entire ride about being in cahoots with the invisible people who were trying to take over our house.
“You oughtta be ashamed of yourself for trying to overthrow me,” Granny said. “But God said, ‘No weapon that is formed against me shall prosper!’” Even in her illness, God was her personal hit man.
“Granny, she doesn’t know us,” I said.
“Shut up. I know what I’m talking about.” I shut up and gave the woman a sympathetic look. Thankfully, she never responded to Granny. We listened to her tirade for over an hour.
Although Granny didn’t go to church often, she never lost her Pentecostal mojo. During a two-week hospital stay to assess the cause of her hallucinations, I worried that she would be anxious about being in a new environment. But she quickly slipped back into her familiar self. Like every smart inmate, Granny found a crew and established her leadership role among the unit’s patients. She met with a small group every day in the dining room, where she prayed, gave short sermons, and counseled her fellow patients. She saw a need for hope and encouragement, and she fulfilled that need. Supply and demand economics on the old folks’ psych ward.
During one of my visits, I caught Granny holding one of her church services.
“Your grandmother really blessed me. She’s a wonderful woman,” a patient told me. She and the others were sitting at one of the dining room’s round, light gray tables while Granny stood facing them.
“Here’s my name. Please pray for me when you get out,” another woman said as she handed Granny a piece of paper.
“I sure will,” Granny answered with a smile. Her tone was benevolent, as if she were doling out blessings and forgiveness. I pictured her saying, “Go in peace and sin no more, my child” while making the sign of the cross. And then I remembered all those cans of ginger ale hidden in her nightstand drawer. I wondered if her parishioners had given them to her as offerings or to express their gratitude. The scene reminded me of those movies where the prisoner who’s being released promises his homies left behind that he’ll keep in touch or do some favor for them once he returns to the outside world. The freed prisoner usually leaves and never looks back. Granny probably wouldn’t even remember them after being discharged. But it was fascinating to watch. Despite lingering somewhere between fantasy and reality, she was still a charismatic, Holy Ghost-loving preacher.
Granny’s connection with God made her popular with the other patients, but complicated matters with her doctors.
“She has religious ideations,” a young white resident wearing a yarmulke said to me while discussing Granny’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. “She says she’s a prophet and that God talks to her.”
Although I had my own conflicted relationship with religion, I resented that the doctor hadn’t taken the time to learn about Granny. Instead, he had dismissed her beliefs. I needed to make the doctor see her.
“No, no, no. She has always been very religious—even before the hallucinations and delusions,” I told him. Realizing how inadequate that explanation was, what I really wanted to say was, Granny believing she’s a prophet and that God talks to her is her normal level of crazy. That’s her baseline. I can deal with God. It’s all the other people who need to go. The home invaders having oral sex in the recliner chair in Granny’s bedroom? Those were the real culprits. The voodoo man hiding in the closet and bathtub? Evict him for good. The mafia, who regularly met in Granny’s bedroom and who told her we could stay in our home? Tell them they don’t make the rules and send them packing. I needed the doctor to focus on the real problem.
It was true that Granny had always referred to herself as a “prophet”—an oracle or a person to whom God speaks about things that will happen in the future. In the Pentecostal faith, prophets aren’t just dead people you read about in the Bible. They are chosen by God and highly respected. Pentecostals view prophets as being extremely devoted to God, not delusional fanatics.
Granny’s doctors might have committed her for life had I told them that, for as long as I could remember, she had engaged in a practice called “writing in the spirit.” When writing in the spirit, Granny would compose passages in an unintelligible dialect of symbols, shapes, curves and strokes that looked like a young child’s scribblings. Although no one else could understand them, Granny said God revealed messages to her through the writing. She often hung pages of her writing in various places throughout our house—above doorways, on doors and walls—because she believed they would bring God’s blessings and protection.
Other churchgoers viewed Granny’s writing as a gift from God.
“Prophetess McKinney, write in the spirit and tell me what thus sayeth the Lord,” one person or another would say to Granny whenever they wanted God’s guidance. She would take out some paper, usually a black and white composition notebook—but any random piece of paper and even a napkin would do—and she would silently begin writing until she felt God had revealed his intended message to her. To me and our community of faith, Granny’s religious beliefs and practices were not “religious ideations;” they were her legacy.
In defending Granny’s faith, I was trying to preserve what Alzheimer’s had not yet seized. Even when her memory and sense of reality began to fail her, her faith remained unchanged. I was determined to cling to as much of the old her as possible. To hold tight and not let go.
Four years ago, almost three years after Granny’s death and less than a year after I sold the home she and I had shared since I was a baby, I dreamt about Granny. In the dream, Granny sat in the dining room as I sat facing her from the adjoining living room.
“How do you feel about us moving?” I asked her.
“I feel good about it.” Her voice sounded optimistic about the future.
“The house seems a lot bigger with all the stuff out of it,” I added.
“Yea, it does.”
“Now, the new neighborhood is a lot busier than this one,” I warned.
“Yea. A lot busier.”
“Ok. Well the first thing I’m gonna do is check out the . . .”
“The churches?” I completed her sentence. What else would she be interested in? Church was her life.
“Yea. I wanna go to Antioch Baptist Church.”
And then the dream ended.
I had never been to an Antioch Baptist Church; nor had Granny ever mentioned one. There was an Antioch on 125th Street in Harlem, near my college. I used to pass it whenever a friend and I cut class to go to M&G’s Diner for some salmon, grits with scrambled eggs, and white toast, or whenever an old boyfriend and I went to mass at St. Joseph’s. When I googled “Antioch Baptist Church,” I discovered that there was also one in the Brooklyn neighborhood Bedford-Stuyvesant. It was founded by Reverend Moses Prophet Paylor in 1918. The likes of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Langston Hughes and Aretha Franklin had visited the Bed-Stuy church over the years.
Not long after my dream, on my way to a book club meeting in Park Slope, I passed an Antioch AME Church. It was warm outside, so they had the doors open. I stood in the doorway and watched. Everyone was dressed in white, perhaps for communion, the pastor’s anniversary, or Women’s Day. An usher invited me in, but I declined, not wanting to be late. Our book club was going to discuss Wave, a memoir of loss by Sonali Deraniyagala. It wasn’t a Baptist church, but it was close enough. It was a sign.
I visited the Antioch Baptist Church in Bed-Stuy the following Sunday. Just as intrigued by my dream as I, my two friends and three of their children accompanied me. We didn’t dress up for the occasion. We looked like lost tourists stopping in for directions and a place to rest. The church had all the splendor of a cathedral—with its high ceilings, arches and columns, stained glass windows, and wooden balconies—and the intimacy of a storefront church. The parishioners ranged from elderly Black women who reminded me of Granny with their fancy suits and big hats, to hospital employees fresh off work and still in their scrubs, folks in jeans, and at least one woman in flannel pajama pants. The come-as-you-are doctrine was in full effect. The kids gave a tribute to Nelson Mandela, and I sang along to the choir’s familiar selections. As we sat in the back of the church, I felt love. I could feel Granny’s spirit. I imagined her laughing in triumph and saying, “I’m gon’ get you saved if it’s the last thing I do.”
Antioch was the kind of church I might like if I went regularly: politically aware; liberal; good singing and fast shoutin’ music; and sermons that were equal parts fiery, scholarly, and practical. And its members were friendly. Church folks can be some of the meanest folks, especially if you sit in the seat they occupy every Sunday.
“Go to someone not sitting next to you and shake their hand,” the pastor told the congregation. A man and woman from several rows ahead of us came back to shake our hands. And then one of my friends told the couple about my dream.
“Well God meant for you to be here,” the man replied. Visiting Antioch was like going home. It was a little piece of Granny on Earth.
In grief, we look for ways to hold onto our loved ones. I read books about others who have lost people and things. I sift through Granny’s old Bibles, reading scriptures she underlined and the notes she made on napkins and in the margins. I flip through the notebooks she used to write in the spirit, running my fingers along the pages to feel the indentations her pen made. If I can no longer hold her hands, at least I can feel what her hands created. Granny was obsessed with preserving the details of her life. She used to record everything—telephone conversations, church services, random conversations in the house. I sometimes listen to these old cassette tapes because her voice comforts me. One of my favorites is a recording from when I was a little girl. Granny and I are gossiping as I help her pick an outfit for church. And I think about my visit to Antioch. I’m sure if I look close enough, visit frequently enough, I’ll find cracks in the foundation. Imperfect people. Intolerable doctrines and politics. But I’m not looking for Jesus or the church or a preacher to save me. I’m just trying to hold Granny close. And make peace with the ways in which her faith has been my curse and her legacy. I’m still searching for my own faith; my own kind of salvation.
Jodi M. Savage is a writer and attorney in New York City. Her nonfiction has appeared in Catapult, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Wear Your Voice Magazine, and The Establishment. Jodi is also a contributing editor for Kweli Journal.
Jodi graduated from Barnard College and Seton Hall University School of Law. She can be found online at www.jodimsavage.com and on Twitter (@macreflections).