Traveling home from the summer ’89 CBE conference unearthed a flood of sad memories that surprised me in the light of the supreme joy I had experienced at the conference itself. Although the still, small voice whispering “This too shall pass” brought comfort, the memories, once uncovered, reflected a pain and anguish familiar to those acquainted with such suffering.
My husband George and I stopped earlier than expected on the first day of our drive from St. Paul to Boston. Our youngest daughter, soon to be twelve, and our grandchild, age four, were both very tired of each other’s company, and both had developed summer colds. We decided to put the girls to bed and generally relax after the exciting, but demanding, weekend.
Finally everyone else was sleeping. Except for the sound of the air conditioning, the entire universe seemed to have become still and motionless. But at 4:30 A.M. I was wide awake, because the distant past had suddenly seeped into the present. Although I looked over to the other double bed and thanked God that things had changed so from the time I was these children’s ages, I could no longer suppress or ignore the memories that flooded my mind.
I was about eleven years old. My aunt and uncle were moving from Tampa to Washington, D.C., as my mother had done years earlier. They were making their final trip, with the last of their belongings and my mother and I were there helping them.
As I ran around the back of the car, I saw the car was closer to the ground than usual. And when my uncle yelled, “Get in!” I stood frozen. The three adults were in the front seat, and I panicked as he jumped from behind the wheel with that hard, stern look of anger he usually wore. My aunt, intimidated, mumbled “Give her time, she’s getting in.” But she was wrong. I was not getting in because I saw no place for me to sit.
The space in the back seat beside the huge TV set was filled with boxes, clothes, and lamps. But even though there was not even room enough to shift my body (and I was a skinny child) my uncle put me there for the twenty-seven hour ride. I felt like a rag doll being stuffed into an overcrowded toy chest. Hidden.
We ate while we rode – food out of a shoe box, chicken and boiled eggs prepared especially for the trip. But no one had to explain why we had to travel like this – crammed in, reluctant to stop. In those days, “colored” people were not allowed in most hotels or restaurants, nor were they welcome to stretch their legs in the beautiful parks they passed. I knew that only white people were allowed the comforts of life. And although I suspected that there might be some “colored” people somewhere who had more money than my people and perhaps enjoyed better conditions, I later learned that even money did not prevent discrimination.
However, the twenty-seven hours as a rag doll, cramped between the side of the TV console and the lamps, boxes and suitcases, were not as much of a problem as the fear of what lurked in the darkness (and sometimes caused me to scuttle into gutter during the day): Fear of what white people might do if we got in their way. I was terrified that white people might stop us and either kill us or put us in jail. I was real angry with my uncle for jamming me into so little space, but I did not want the police to pull him out of the car, beat him up and leave him for dead. I had heard such stories from those around me – things that happened to friends, strangers, and relatives. Stories of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, and men and women thrown in jail were a worse terror than my cramped condition in the car could ever me.
But there were other stories, too. There was this Jesus who loved everybody, who helped everyone who was in trouble. Jesus was the Son of God who suffered and died even for people like me. I was told that this Jesus would comfort you when you were afraid, and make you well when you were sick. But I was also told that you had to keep Jesus’ commandments, the greatest one being love. So, now I knew I could not hate those who treated me with cruelty. I had to love them, and pray that God would change their hearts from hate to love.
My grandmother believed these stories, and I saw her praying for those who treated her unkindly. She was so loving herself, and told me Jesus expects us to be loving too. So, although I was still real scared in the back of that car, my grandmother had also taught me the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, and they were my companions on the drive back home.
As – once again in the present – George, the girls, and I started off the next day, I thought, “What a far cry from some memories of my own childhood these girls will have! And I recalled my two white friends who lived on a nearby street in Washington. We three had to meet secretly in the alley between the garages, because their parents did not allow them to play with me openly. Yes, times have changed in many places, and in a changing world, I must learn to deal more positively with my memories.
As we were waiting to be seated in a hotel restaurant in Wisconsin, a kindly looking old white man attempted to be friendly to my granddaughter. “I know where you’re from,” he said as he smiled at her. “You’re from the city, aren’t you?” She said nothing, and so he repeated, “You’re from the city, aren’t you?”
For me, the word “city” immediately evoked images of black poverty, crime, welfare recipients, drugs, muggings, prostitutes. And I thought: “The scars of being black in American society – will they ever completely heal?” So I said to my granddaughter, “Tell him you do not live in a ‘city’ (translation for inner city ghetto). You live in a suburb of Boston, a town called Newton in Massachusetts.”
George said later, “It was unfair of you to attribute all of this to that old man’s friendly overture.” But I had done just that. I must pray: Dear God, let me not see evil where none is intended.
So we did travel back home to Newton Centre in comfort, freedom, and felt no limitations. We slept and ate in places of our choice, places that were clean and attractive. My children were not treated like rag dolls; there were puzzles, books, toys and car games to keep the girls occupied. (And George and I even hoped the constant playing of the CBE conference tapes would affect them subliminally!) But I see that as I look back into the past of a racist society, I must hold my parents, my grandparents, and all who suffered harsher realities than I in higher esteem. Things have changed, and we today owe so much to those who went before.
My concern is now about my two little girls. Will our society allow them to fulfill all their dreams, goals, talents? And, in the Christian church, will they be rejected from the Baptist pulpits as I have been?
At the Christians for Biblical Equality conference, there was a truly Christ-like spirit about the workshops, the plenary sessions, and the worship services – a spirit that has given me new hope. So as I prayed to put things in perspective, images of a new and better world accompanied me on that drive back home. The conference had truly represented Galatians 3:28.
But I must challenge our membership: Will Christians for Biblical Equality continue to provide the support, the scholarly research, and the model of Christ’s teachings that will help my two little girls? Will CBE be committed to helping our Christian churches remove all vestiges of signs saying not only “No Minorities Allowed” but also “No Women Allowed”?