We attended a progressive mainline church before moving to East Nashville, and then — once we moved close enough to almost see the parsonage from our balcony — tapered off our attendance. There weren't many young professionals, and even fewer who didn't have kids. The multigenerational friendships were nice but it felt like our role there was shaping up to be doing a lot of the things our childed peers couldn't commit to, like clean-up chores after fellowship, and it became harder to hype myself up to give up a quarter of my weekend for that.
When we were out in Mt. Juliet last week, there was a quick prayer before the meal. Not entirely unexpected for either a gathering of members of a fraternity founded by men who went on to be ministers, or for Wilson County, to be honest. The concept was, however, foreign to my child, who kept talking the way she lives her life: in ALL CAPS.
Even if we pull a reversal of what my parents did and move her to the midwest once she's school-aged, she will still grow up in America so I should probably prepare her for living here, and that will include exposure to religious services and religious practices.
Anyway, and because of that, I'm still subscribed to the church newsletter.
I live about an hour from the small town where I grew up. I know two people from high school now live in my neighborhood, and another is a Metro councilman for a district on the other side of town, but other than one person I ran into during Pride ten years ago I haven't run into anyone from there as an adult. I have a short list of Instagram mutuals still, most of whom have scattered around the country, and that's it. The first few times the church newsletter invited seniors to participate in a cardiac health study and screening after services, my brain didn't process the cardiology resident's name, but today it did.
A quick check on the wider internet confirmed it. She is the daughter of one of my elementary school PE teachers, the one who went for her doctorate and also became a vice principal at my high school.
Third grade was my first full year of school in Tennessee. I don't remember my mom being at my school much but, in the little bit she was, she'd managed to pick up that nobody included the two Black women who taught PE when giving teachers gifts, which is how I found my shy self awkwardly standing in front of their shared office bearing Christmas gifts. I remember she started to cry. I didn't fully understand then why she became so emotional about it.
I didn't fully understand why I choked up today when I tried to tell Stephen that I'd recognized her daughter's name.
In 2020, while the baby napped in my arms, I read an article about efforts to remove Confederate statues in a town near where I grew up. For all the concern about erasing history, no one interviewed ever mentioned what almost happened to Thurgood Marshall there, something I didn't learn about until I was at least thirty. One of the subjects cited something that had happened in the time since my parents and brother had left town: that same vice principal had been pushed out of a job at the school system's central office and repeatedly rejected for openings afterward. She sued and received a $500K settlement. (They should have added at least another zero.)
In the last few years my dad told me a story that must have taken place around the time of the Christmas gifts. Over beers with a Southern Baptist neighbor, my dad was talking about something that happened at work and mentioned a coworker's name and the neighbor asked, "Is he Black?"
I could see Dad's eyebrow raising then just as it did in the retelling. He said he said yes.
"Down here we call them—"
Was he testing the waters or trying to enforce a sort of order? I don't know, and Dad didn't care. Apparently he jumped down the neighbor's throat, letting him know that he didn't, and he didn't ever want to find out his kids were hearing it, either.
And here I'd thought they had cooled to us because we weren't religious enough, not because we weren't racists.
Before I'd heard the neighbor story, I served on a board and a handful of us stayed back after an event, talking about gentrification. I felt, as they say in the church, a little convicted. I said that I wanted to live around a variety of people from different walks of life - like a bigger version of the church that had helped draw us to the neighborhood - and that any time I was in a space lacking diversity there was always a part of me suspicious that there was a malignant reason it was homogenous and everyone else hadn't told me. It sort of spilled out of me, and as I said it I didn't connect it then to where I'd grown up.
Maybe I do know why I started to cry today, even if I can't sound it out entirely, just as for so long I couldn't spell out exactly why homogeneity makes me anxious.
I started a draft of an email to the cardiologist daughter while running unit tests on today's pull request, but I felt preemptively embarrassed doing it and deleted it. As Stephen teased me, in the small-town South, "tell your mom I said hi," sounds like a threat. But it's where I need to start, isn't it, even if nothing afterward is possibly enough?
Thank you for being so kind to me. I'm sorry I didn't know then just how awful they were. I'm sorry they did that to you, and especially after you loved their kids for more than two decades. I'm sorry that sorry is not nearly enough.