When I was 20 years old a girl broke my heart so badly I had to leave the state. She did it with precision and seemingly with great joy in June 1989. By August I had moved from Southern California to South Carolina to get as comprehensive a breakup as I could achieve. I didn’t even want to chance sharing the same oxygen molecules as her.
I remember deciding in late June to turn my depression into action. I picked eight states I wanted to visit, wrote their names on strips of paper, and put them in a hat. I drew out South Carolina, bought a one way plane ticket, and packed my sister’s foot locker with all the gear I thought I’d need. I got accepted into a college there but I wasn’t really interested in continuing my education. I only applied to make my mom think I hadn’t totally lost my mind. Within three months of being in the Palmetto State I had a job at Sears, an apartment and had made a friend who is still my friend to this day.
I got the job and the apartment because I was associated (I never joined) with a church. I found the church – truthfully, was found by the church – because being fresh from California I didn’t know what a thunderstorm was. I heard storm warnings before I left my dorm for a walk downtown one Saturday morning but they penetrated my head in the same way a rubber ball penetrates a wall.
While downtown checking out what the local shops had to offer I paid no attention to everyone carrying umbrellas. I did notice the dark clouds piling up and pressing toward town but I was more concerned about the suffocating humidity. Clouds I had seen before. Humidity was foreign and, I thought, demonic.
At my last stop I bought some candy and headed out of the shop. The clerk asked me if I didn’t want to sit a spell in her store until the storm passed. I took that suggestion as being somewhere on the spectrum between creepy and threatening. I shook my head “no” as I pressed the doorhandles out. I made a mental note to stop wearing shorts and tight fitting T-shirts downtown – I was making all the women crazy.
Outside a minute later I heard a tremendous BOOM and my first thought was Jesus of Nazareth was returning to earth. I was terrified. Then an ocean fell from the sky. I panicked. I had never experienced rain hurtling out of the sky at me like an enemy force. I ran for the dorm – over two miles away.
I’m sprinting over puddles and zagging to get underneath any overhang to avoid being drowned by clouds. As I tire I slow to a jog. That is when a guy in a red Saab 900 pulls over to the curb and yells at me to get in.
“It’s raining too hard to be out trying to jog!” I hear.
Now I knew why the clerk asked me to stay in her store. Now I was not afraid of potential kidnappers. I hurried to the passenger door. I got in, apologized for wetting up the leather seats, and met the smiling but befuddled face of the driver — Pastor Scott. He was the pastor of a Methodist church I had passed about two blocks before. He never picked up strangers he said but I looked like too big a fool to pass by. It was obvious someone needed to intervene.
He gave me his umbrella when he dropped me at the dorm.
“You can give it back to me when I see you tomorrow,” he said knowing he didn’t have to ask if the deal was closed.
“See you tomorrow Pastor,” I returned.
I hadn’t gone to church in months. I hadn’t even brought any church clothes with me on my one way journey. I wanted a break from God. He, it appeared, did not want a break from me.
Over the next year I became a regular attender of the church. I’m quite sure the theology wasn’t Reformed. I’m quite sure I heard the Law every Sunday rather than the Gospel. I’m quite sure the church was as much a meeting ground for middle-class, white collar blacks as it was the spiritual center for local Christians of a Methodist bent.
But they showed me hospitality. The kind I’ve only ever witnessed in black churches. Hurt, confused and mad at a God who I didn’t think cared about my pain I ran from Him and ran straight into His people — a great cloud of witnesses.
I had a ride to church every Sunday – even after I moved from the dorm to an apartment further away. I had somewhere to eat and to do my laundry every Sunday afternoon. I never lacked for any needed item — even cash if I was really strapped.
My landlord was a member of the church as was my boss. I met the latter first who then introduced me to the former. Two ladies at the church made sure to write my mother every month to give her news of what I was doing.
Is all that I received in South Carolina and saw given from the churches I grew up attending in California merely a construct of southern American blackness? I’ve been a member of churches and denominations with correct theology for fifteen years now and I’ve yet to see the open houses, open hands or open hearts of the congregation repeated like I saw in the black church.
I’ve wondered about that these days as I’ve sent my children away to school. My daughters left in an orderly and normal fashion – not like their father who bewildered an entire community with a rash decision to move across the continent. I called ahead to the churches nearest where my daughters would be going to school and expressed my concern that my kids didn’t have transportation and they’d need a ride to church. I mean, they could use Uber, I know, but what then is the point of a connectional denomination? Surely, getting a ride to church less than 10 miles away wouldn’t be a hardship. It would be seen as an opportunity to keep covenant children close to the faith handed down to them. It would be seen as a way to practice the doctrines of grace taught faithfully every Lord’s Day.
No, it wasn’t seen that way. Picking up a young woman and bringing her to church was too great a burden. Uber it was (when we had the money for it). One of my daughters walks to a Baptist church now on Sundays. She’s anonymous there. The other is back home. Sadly neither of them knows what they missed. They think hospitality is a “black thing”.
Maybe it is. Recently I read an article about welcoming visitors in a magazine for a predominately white denomination. It has ten (tepid) steps on how to show hospitality. It blows my mind that looking out for young, vulnerable Christians has to be rationalized and broken into directions.
In an era where even the most spontaneous of sports – basketball —has been subdued by data analysis maybe expecting a pastor or a laymen to be on the lookout for random fools too stupid to carry umbrellas is too much to expect. Or maybe what the black church has (still I hope) is so rare and so precious we don’t value it properly.
I’m in no way attempting to ignite a racial or theological argument. I’m just telling you to watch out for one another. A lot of unlikely, scared, and dumb people are within your reach. Most of them are not as obvious as I was but there to be found nonetheless.