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WRITING GOD'S OBITUARY
How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist
By ANTHONY B. PINN
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2014 Anthony B. Pinn
All rights reserved.
ALWAYS ON DEATH'S DOORSTEP
We don't pick the circumstances surrounding our births. If we did, I might have chosen a different location. Nothing against Buffalo, New York, but it doesn't have the depth or sophistication I find myself drawn to now.
My family lived between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park and Delaware Park. While Delaware Park was pristine and solidly middle class, King Park was closer to downtown, closer to the "Fruit Belt"—an area of the city, oddly enough, named after fruit but housing some of the most dangerous activities in the city. My stretch of the city, between these two public markers, was working class. But as you moved from King Park toward Delaware Park, the people in the houses in general got lighter in complexion and more solid in their economic position in the city.
It's not that my section of the city was Hollywood-movie bad, but the economic challenges were clear when you looked at it from the suburbs or from the other side of Delaware Park. We always had the basics and more; we were comfortable. My needs were met and most of my wants were addressed. At times we "robbed Peter to pay Paul," as the expression goes, although it would be some time before I knew this was the case.
The highway, just a couple of blocks away from my home, divided the landscape and served as the escape route for those who worked in the city but called the suburbs home.
My neighbors were, by and large, blue-collar workers, with some schoolteachers and so on determined to carve out for their families something of the American Dream. We knew each other and felt some responsibility for each other in part because we looked alike. There was the occasional white family in the neighborhood, but for the most part the push to the suburbs left this space for us, with little indication outside the large but almost empty Catholic church nearby there had been a different look to the place some years before my birth.
My parents, the former Anne Hargrave and Raymond Pinn, settled in this neighborhood, not far from their families, and lived in a small house with three bedrooms and one bathroom. My mother; father; two sisters, Joyce and Linda; and brother Raymond (another child, Kenneth, died at the age of five of cancer before my birth) all lived in this house on Florida Street for different stretches of my time in Buffalo. I was there from my birth to my departure for college.
The configuration of people in the house changed as my siblings—at least nine years older than me—moved on and out. But one thing among my family remained consistent: fragile health and compromised physical bodies. My father, for as long as I can remember, struggled with diabetes—complicated by his smoking and drinking—and he would lose both legs before his death in 1999. One of my early memories is of him receiving his insulin shot; I vaguely recall the needle as I sat there on the floor, hoping I wouldn't end up with a needle like that going into me. While the ramifications of my father's diabetes were a bad image for a child, my mother's health had a more profound effect on me.
She'd developed rheumatic fever and heart disease as a teenager, and over time ended up having two open-heart surgeries to replace a damaged heart valve.
My mother had a large scar on her chest, where surgeons had opened her up to get to her heart. I remember that scar—long and smooth, dotted on each side—marking where her chest was opened and sewn back together. That scar became associated with life for me, its fragility, uncertainty, pain, and joy all wrapped up and held together.
Some of my earliest memories are of my mother in the hospital or sick at home in need of some attention, sometimes an ambulance. I don't recall many nights climbing into bed without the thought going through my head that my mother could be dead or in the hospital before morning. So, I was always aware of death, with it being so very close and beyond anyone's ability to control. My mother couldn't guarantee her health, couldn't assure me I wouldn't end up without her, and I was keenly aware of this.
I never felt secure and never felt my parents could do anything with super strength. I imagine most kids live with the illusion during youth that their parents are larger than life and have the ability to defeat any problem, correct any situation, or comfort against childhood angst, but I had no choice but to be different. I didn't labor under the illusion that they could protect me from everything, that they could even protect themselves. I was aware my parents were just humans, with all the weaknesses and uncertainties associated with being just human.
In the back of my mind was a question I didn't ask my parents until I was much older: "Being so sick, why did you have another child?" Because my mother had undergone open-heart surgery and was on a variety of medications, her doctor told her that having another child would be unwise—downright dangerous for her and the child. My mother and father weren't young at that point, so why take the risk? Weren't four enough? The doctor wasn't certain the condition of her heart would allow her to bring a baby to term, and the various medications could present health complications for a baby. Despite this advice, my parents had me.
My father didn't respond to the question, but we didn't talk much anyway. We spent time together, but we were distant and didn't ever really get along, although until I was roughly ten, he was around and did what he could (and how he could) to be "present" by taking me to piano lessons and Little League games and by watching TV programs with me on the couch and he in his La-Z-Boy chair, cigar or cigarette in his mouth and the ashtray nearby. My mother responded by calling me her "miracle baby."
She'd say, "God has the answer. You were born to be my comfort in my old age. That's what an old woman said when she first saw you as a baby."
Needless to say this perspective on my birth, as the youngest of five children, meant a special bond with my mother and, by extension, with her side of the family.
Like my father's family that had moved from Virginia to Buffalo, New York, as part of the "Great Migration," the Hargraves moved from Halifax, North Carolina.
Both families were responding to the promise of a new day, new opportunities, and better lives because of Bethlehem Steel right outside of Buffalo, in Lackawanna. I never liked visiting Lackawanna, where some of my father's family lived. The houses depressed me; the fake brick siding made me sad, and the whole city seemed covered by a red dust I just knew came from the large and imposing steel plant. I still have a feeling of desperation, of unease—a desire for movement to get away from the red dust—whenever I think about Lackawanna.
My father's family and my mother's family worked to make a life in western New York; this they had in common, but they differed in that my mother's parents—Annie Whitehead Hargrave and Ashley Hargrave—were college educated. She'd served as a teacher in North Carolina, and he'd done what most college-educated black men did during the early twentieth century: he got by doing what he could to earn a living for his family. But in the North this education seemed to make a difference, to give him a different take on what was possible. Ashley Hargrave eventually left manual labor and opened a few dry cleaners in Buffalo, and a good number of their children—thirteen in all—worked for him. The sign of his success was a big house for his family on Northland Avenue, in what was then a predominately white neighborhood.
My father's family was difficult to know, with only a few exceptions, and the long drive to Lackawanna wasn't the full reason for this distance. My paternal grandfather died when I was young, and all I could remember about him was a faint image of a tall, light-skinned, and thin man standing in a doorway in a white shirt, black vest, and black pants. My grandmother wasn't someone we spent a great deal of time with; from what I could gather, she wasn't particularly fond of my mother. One of my father's brothers, Robert, and his wife and kids were the only ones we really ever visited and with whom I spent any time.
Because Northland was only blocks from my home on Florida, we spent a lot of time with my mother's parents. I have memories of being with my grandmother in one of the dry cleaners, the one around the corner from their home. I remember something about being with my grandfather in the other shop, but what I recall most vividly is the time in church with my grandfather.
He was a deacon at a small Baptist church in Lackawanna. The Baptist faith was not an unusual choice for people like my grandparents. After all, the first independent, black-owned and operated churches in the United States were Baptist. Each of these and subsequent congregations were autonomous and free to conduct business as they liked, which made a lot of sense to people who'd spent too many years dependent on the whims of others.
I don't know whether my grandfather and the other members of this particular church—even its leadership—really cared about the details of church doctrine. They cared about some version of salvation and the basic steps to getting it and keeping it, but anything beyond that may have been the sole territory of the pastor. Regardless of the particulars, church attendance had a variety of meanings and purposes, including socialization, community formation, spiritual hygiene, and leadership training, among other things.
My grandfather had influence, and as a result, most of my mother's side of the family went to church with some frequency. Even those who didn't really seem concerned with salvation went through the motions often enough to know their way around a church sanctuary and order of service. And they performed religious commitment well enough to keep my grandfather and grandmother content.
While he could still drive, my grandfather would pick the kids up and take them to church, but by the time I was old enough to remember any of this, he wasn't driving. My mother would take us for Sunday school, and this was followed by a full service with my grandfather sitting with the deacons and the grandchildren doing the best we could to entertain ourselves without catching his eye. You didn't want him to see your antics. All he had to do was look in your direction and squint, and you knew you were in trouble. He'd catch you after church, look at your through those dirty, thick glasses, and tell you about yourself. He'd give that stern look, and you would just want to melt, but of course, it didn't stop antics the next Sunday.
Despite the threat of reprimand from Ashley Hargrave, church was something of a playroom—the hymnals were easily transformed into a game of pick the same page. You'd open the book without looking, and another kid would do the same, with the goal of ending up on the same page. There were always adults praising God to imitate and mimic, and the bathroom run gave time to get away, meet up in the hallway, and clown around for a couple of minutes before heading back to the church pew.
I don't remember my mother being with us during most of those services, but I also can't remember a time when she wasn't deep into the church. She was a born-again Christian eager to serve the Lord, despite a husband with no interest in that church "bullshit."
Before their divorce, he'd stay home or go somewhere else, but never to church. I think my mother saw this as a challenge; she'd try to be so Christlike that he'd be convinced and come to Jesus. Until then, they, in biblical terms, were "unevenly yoked"—she, a Christian bound for heaven, and he, a sinner bound for hell.
This seemed a common situation, if the overwhelming number of married women in the church against the limited number of men was any indication. These women prayed for divine intervention to strengthen their families and, on a more selfish note, to demonstrate God's favor for them by answering their prayer and bringing a sinful husband to Christ. In an odd way, there was also something about the suffering, the trauma prior to the conversion—if it ever happened—that they enjoyed. Like Christ, they were suffering for the welfare of others. They didn't have the physical cross of Christ they sang and shouted about, but they had a symbolic cross—an unrepentant husband—who took them through so many trials and tribulations, including drinking, smoking, adultery, bad language, and so on.
The stories were fairly similar: a husband living a life of sin and the long-suffering wife living out the requirements of the gospel by putting up with the wrongdoing and by attempting to model the best of the Christian faith. It seemed few of them had unsaved husbands who lived a boring life, one who just went to work and came home. But that type of husband wouldn't have made such a compelling story, wouldn't have shown the power of God so evident when the worst of sinners changed their lives.
They'd walk into the church, or so they seemed to hope, arm in arm with the miracle Jesus had given them—a husband saved from sin and a new soul in the population of believers. And the community of the faithful would celebrate the strength and benefits of the spiritual commitment these women had shown.
So much of church culture as I understood it involved the signs and symbols, the language, postures, and ethics of this struggle to share one's faith.
I imagine there were also Christian husbands in churches like mine whose spiritual labors were meant to bring a spouse into the community of Christ, but the gender dynamics within churches would make these stories less frequently highlighted and explored. Women, in the churches I experienced, had something of a copyright on this story of the long-suffering spouse.
The preacher—most typically a man—gave the women in churches like mine some sense that men could be righteous; their husbands need only be like the "man of God." For the Christian men in the church, the preacher served as something of a role model—how they should relate to each other and their families, how they should position themselves with Christ, how they should talk, how they should think, and how they should relate to the nonchurch world. This, of course, was before technology made it so easy to quickly learn about the indiscretions of these ministers.
Slipups, whether explicitly discussed or merely hinted at, pointed to the difficulty even preachers of the gospel had in trying to live beyond most human frailties or even to do a better job with temptations and shortcomings than their congregants. It had to be a hard life for the minister—always on display and monitored. But the rewards for embracing this status as spiritual role model could be substantial, particularly in larger churches: a home paid for by others, a free car, fine clothing, and the constant attention of adoring fans.
It doesn't seem these Christian women ever really considered the possibility that they made it easy to conduct the behavior they found objectionable. This is not to blame them for their misery, but simply to say there might be something about the embrace of suffering that conditions us to expect it. Their saintly stance—their standing as good and wholesome Christians within the church—required ongoing misery. They sang on so many occasions: "No cross, no crown." And they counted their metaphorical battle scars (at times literal scars) as the price of their salvation and the salvation of others. These scars, they reasoned, were nothing when compared to the awards they'd receive in the next life, if not in this one.
Women like my mother seemed to have a difficult time not seeing the world through the necessity of suffering. How could they see things differently when they were confronted by the golden cross on the altar at the front of the sanctuary, the stained glass windows glorifying the story of a suffering Jesus, and countless songs and sermons celebrating misery?
It was clear something about this Christian faith required, and rejoiced in, pain and suffering. This discomfort marked life and mapped out progress toward God, and who could complain about it? After all, according to the sermons and songs, God suffered on a cross. Surely we could endure our particular spiritual and physical aches and pains? Redemptive suffering—the idea that our sufferings advance us, refine us, can be used by God as the means by which to bless us—anchored those of faith in their relationships with each other and the "world."
My mother had something over most of the others. Her sources of suffering were greater, so the possibility for God to do a significant work through and for her was also greater. Not only was her husband a sinner, described as being more interested in the local bar and a cold beer than in his soul, but she also was in poor physical health. My mother knew spiritual suffering because of my father, but she also knew physical suffering unlike most in our church community. Suffering was her life—at home, at work, and within her body.
She was vulnerable to her heart condition and its accompanying ailments, and she was profoundly sensitive to my father's slights, but she met each day with dignity and determination. My mother's strength was not fully visible to those who saw only her physical condition. There were times when I was embarrassed by her sense that righteousness meant willing exposure to mistreatment, but I could never deny the strength involved in this moral and ethical outlook. I respected and loved her dearly.
My mother wasn't able to bring my father to the church, but she kept trying. Even after their divorce she remained concerned about his soul and prayed for him regularly. She encouraged me to pray for and evangelize him whenever I visited him. Raymond Pinn was on a good number of prayer lists.
Excerpted from WRITING GOD'S OBITUARY by ANTHONY B. PINN. Copyright © 2014 Anthony B. Pinn. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One: always on Death's Doorstep, 11,
Chapter Two: Nuns and Books, 21,
Chapter Three: church Is in Walking Distance, 29,
Chapter Four: Doc' in the Pulpit, 47,
Chapter Five: church Politics, 59,
Chapter Six: can You Say, "Bob Jones"?, 83,
Chapter Seven: New York, New York!, 107,
Chapter Eight: Wait for the Next Train, 125,
Chapter Nine: They Don't really Train Preachers, 137,
Chapter Ten: The church across from the Park, 149,
Chapter Eleven: Godless, 159,
Chapter Twelve: Thinking My Thoughts ... You Don't Have to Agree, 171,
Chapter Thirteen: Minnesota ... Not So Nice, 183,
Chapter Fourteen: Enter the UUA, 199,
Chapter Fifteen: Don't Mess with Texas, 207,
Chapter Sixteen: Whose Humanism?, 219,
Chapter Seventeen: Staking a claim, 225,
READING LIST, 229,
INDEX OF PEOPLE AND PLACES, 233,
INDEX OF SUBJECTS, 237,