Stories and tales from a guitar-picking writer, theologian, speaker, blogger and entertainer. From small town quirks to the bizarre realities of family, whacky church life and slightly damaged kinfolk, insights from a reluctant son of the South takes you along. Never know where it’ll end up but it’s sure to be worth the trip.
I got word that a dear sweet woman who used to be a member passed away this weekend. Betty McGee was an incredibly nice soul. Her life had plenty of ups and downs. But she was one of those hidden jewels of Baptist churches in the South. All most non-Baptist people ever get to see are the preachers, and that’s a shame. That’s like judging a house by the septic tank, at least when you consider the Reverends that purport to “speak for” Baptist folks. If I was going to nominate anyone to represent Baptist people (which is against our polity–NO Baptist “speaks” for any other), it wouldn’t be any preacher. The Southern Baptists who pass all those resolutions, well, that’s just what one little group of people got together and said to one another. The press likes it, but it’s worth about the cost of the toner and paper as far as authority as far as real Baptists are concerned. The loonier it is, the more you can guess that it’s from some man that annointed himself.
No, I’d elect a woman who was at least 75. They’re about all the good that’s left in the Baptists today. Especially the widows and single women. In every church I’ve been part of, I’d go with the older ladies in a church fight any time. Their kindness, love for children, friendships and loyalty, well, you can talk to ladies in that age group and everything opposite of them is why we’re in a mess.
Betty was one of those folk. She took it on the chin more than once in life, and somehow managed to redouble her efforts to do good with what was left. Betty’s obituary told some pretty great things about her. “She helped pioneer teaching on Alabama Public Television. She taught American History at W.A. Berry High School for 23 years and was an educator in Alabama for 37 years. She was an avid volunteer in both Birmingham and Sylacauga. She was an active member for many years of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. After moving to Sylacauga, she continued to volunteer her time and talents at First Baptist Church Sylacauga. ” But it doesn’t tell about a person’s goodness and character. That’s okay. People who knew her know. She fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith.
Tonight our band is going to perform in one of the most prestigious gospel venues around our region—the American Gospel Quartet Convention, here in Birmingham. Here many of the great African American gospel groups gather to sing, worship and honor fellow performers each year. It’s meeting at the More Than Conquerors Church in Birmingham. I like the names a lot of the independent churches give themselves. It says something about “who we want to be.” I heard about a midwestern church that actually named itself “Christ Memorial Church.” What in the WORLD! Ain’t you people heard about Easter???!!!!
Anyway, many of the greats of gospel have played here over the years—the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Fairfield Four (remember the quartet singing in “O Brother Where Art Thou” when the boys are about to meet their maker at the end of a rope?) Gospel and Blues have often conflicted with each other. Some in the church even disapproved of the blues, feeling that it conflicted with the joy of the gospel. I read once that the magnificent Mahalia Jackson, who died in 1972, refused to sing the blues. “’Blues are the songs of despair,’ she declared. ‘Gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing gospel you have the feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong, but when you are through with the blues, you’ve got nothing to rest on.’”
Mahalia Jackson may be one of the greatest singers EVER. Her rendition of the song of the day I posted today, “Precious Lord,” plays at the Lorraine Motel while you stand at the spot where Martin Luther King died, at least it did when I visited, and the tearful experience I had there inspired my song “Lorraine.” I have to gently disagree, though. The blues, they are Bible songs, too, if we read the Psalms right. There is a whole section scholars call, “Psalms of Lament.” Over sixty of the psalms are considered “laments,” mingling despair and hope as a prayer calling on God for help. Somehow, to win victory by denial is a diminishment of the spiritual journey.
Still, the fork gospel music became offers a place of respite, joy, and at least a chance to voice the vision of victory. Thomas Dorsey, the author of “Precious Lord,” embodied this contradictionand conflict between blues and gospel. Son of a pastor, he rebelled against his raising early in life and went to Chicago in the early blues scene and gained some renown under the name “Georgia Tom,” but he struggled financially and spiritually.
“Precious Lord’ was born out of his own tragedy. The preacher’s kid who had the foundation, whose parents prayed for him, who drifted away, into the nightclub world and secular success, then, two mental breakdowns, and finally, surrender to the gospel ministry and a long, long career at the famous Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago nevertheless suffered terribly.
In 1932, in the midst of his transition back into gospel for good, his wife Nettie died during childbirth, along with their firstborn, Thomas Andrew, Jr., who died the next day. Thomas was away at a gospel meeting, and got the news. Out of the anguish of that song came “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” It was the end of his blues singing for good, oddly enough.
His gospel greatness came out of that crucible of suffering. There is no guarantee about life. If the Bible is any guide, the blues will be the way to Gospel Joy. They are different parts of the same journey. I hope you’ll enjoy a listen to a version of Dorsey’s song I recorded with my bandmate, Nancy Womble of Shades Mountain Air. We recorded it at my house, with me playing bass, guitar and mandolin and simply a lead vocal. It is spare, recalling the hallowed, bluesy, holy crucible of Tom Dorsey’s suffering. Ann Lamotte says there really are only two kinds of prayers: “Thank you, thank you, thank you” and “help me, help me, help me.” One is gospel, the other blues…
“It is the morning after a wall of thunder ripped across our lovely state. Time to roll up our sleeves and see what we can do to help.”
A lot of death and injury greeted us when we emerged–damaged homes, businesses gone—and we found the task of cleaning up absolutely daunting. One family in my church found themselves in a neighborhood of felled trees, including a big one right in the middle of their den. The husband put it this way to me on the phone, “We’re glad to be alive.” A lot of people echoed those thoughts. One family in my church watched the huge Tuscaloosa tornado on television live as it destroyed the store in which their son was working. Then, for 45 minutes, they waited for the phone call—his truck was totaled, but he and his co-workers all alive.
Many were not so fortunate. Well over 200 died all across the state. For months and weeks, the wounded and grieving dug out. Volunteers poured in from everywhere, as did the government and state workers and the nation’s sympathy. Not long after, Joplin was devastated by another killer tornado and Alabama moved off the front pages.
Walking, Praying and Learning Where Jesus Walked
In July of 2010, I was part of a group of 18 ministers from central Alabama. I was asked by a colleague who led the project to recruit the group. We met in an initial retreat, then went together on pilgrimage to Israel for two weeks. We were funded by a grant from the CF Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia in a program that has been functioning for many years to deepen and renew the spiritual lives of ministers in the hope of revitalizing churches in order to impact their communities.
Most of this group had never been to Israel before, and we committed by our participation to be an ongoing Christian fellowship, praying for each other and eventually working on a project for the greater good of our churches and the place where we live.
Most are pastors. A few work in church-related ministries. We were Episcopal, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Baptist, and Methodist. We were male, female, racially diverse, geographically from many different seminaries, hometowns and experiences. Most of us knew about one another but didn’t really know each other until we came together for an initial community building retreat in Atlanta for two days.
The trip to Israel was transformative. We did not merely visit tourist sites—we prayed in them, stayed in a Benedictine retreat center in Galilee for a week and another Catholic center in Jerusalem for a second week. Our days began and ended in worship. We went to the West Bank, saw the walls and checkpoints guarded by automatic weapons and suspicion.
We lived together as a community of faith for two weeks and came back as friends. We continued to meet monthly together, every other month in a four hour “pilgrimage” to each other’s place of service. The highlight of these meetings was to lead us to walk together through the buildings, hear our stories, and pray together for that person at a “holy place.”
We struggled with the project, though. What could we do? We spent a follow-up retreat agonizing through to something. It was organized, intentional, and lifeless. It had all the passion of a tooth extraction. We went home and nothing happened.
Throwing Out the Plan
In April of this year, one of our group, Mike Oliver, found his community devastated by the tornado. More than a hundred homes were utterly destroyed. The next week my church, like hundreds of others, loaded up a truck full of donated supplies and took it to them in Williams, AL where Mike’s church had organized..
The church instantly turned into a community kitchen, feeding thousands of meals to homeless people from the community, a daycare center, and a disaster relief operation. They had to bury two of their own members and get back to work.
All through the summer, people worked, cleaned up and prepared for the next phase, which only now is underway in earnest. One of the realities about disasters is that the tornado or the tsunami or the earthquake get all the publicity. Rebuilding is harder to watch over the long haul.
Meanwhile, our ministers group kept meeting, praying, wondering about what we might do. Mike had an idea. He
invited our group to come together on building a home for a family in his community. The church had already organized to do this as their calling. They have already built five homes and more are on the way.
Thought all of our congregations already had multiple projects they were involved in, we all decided that we would do this one together, somehow. We are raising money, sending volunteers, praying together, and will go on October 7, all of us who can, to work together on our house that day.
When Mike presented the project idea, it rang a bell. I suspect it won’t be the last one we do together. There are still needs here in Birmingham, and other places. But God has a whole church in the world that only has to harness us to one another to make good things happen.
So it was that on Monday, September 19, four of our group, along with two men from my church, went together to see our project. We were met by the leader of our Israel trip from last year, Dr. Loyd Allen, and Tom Tewell, the man who
leads the foundation program that sent us, as well as Mike and number of his church folks.
After a time of lunch and fellowship together, we rode out and toured the area. It was the first time I had seen it extensively, so I found myself deeply affected by to breadth of destruction, and by how many areas still had debris and damage evident. The hardest site was one of sorrow and joy side by side. A concrete slab, clean to the ground, lay as evidence of a place where a home had been. It was the home where two of the church’s members had died, their bodies thrown across the road, deep into the tangle of trees and debris. Next door was one of the homes the church had completed and dedicated, where recently the congregation came to celebrate a new beginning with a family.
After visiting several sites where homes had been built or were underway, we came to the site that we have committed to help together. The husband and wife came out to meet us. They have been married 38 years, have eight children and there were thirteen of the extended family together that day when the tornado roared over their little patch of land and destroyed their trailer homes. I will let you listen to Mr. Hardy’s remarkable description of what happened. It’s about 2 ½ minutes.
We were joined by the chair of deacons and we all joined together and had a groundbreaking and prayer together for the home we hope to build. Tears streamed from men’s eyes as we listened to the Hardys tell us how blessed and overwhelmed by the thought that “complete strangers” would care about them and help them. I told them it was we who felt blessed to get to meet them. I was pretty sure we were talking directly to Jesus through their faces and hearts. I felt Him with us.
When I got home, I was tired, deep tired. I began the feel the emotions of all the damage I had seen, the suffering it represented, and the power of hope in a place where people have cast aside the divisions normally among them and began to help one another. They were and are becoming real “neighbors” to one another.
I woke up this morning thinking about Galilee and Capernaum and Jerusalem—and Williams, Alabama. I thought about all the terrible divisions in that place of killing and brokenness, where walls are being built at vast expense, to keep people apart. We saw it with our eyes, together.
We came home also with memories of the place where Jesus lived and died, the water he fished in and the village where he grew up. We prayed and prayed together, and we became friends, more than ministers usually do, I am sad to say. We live in our own siloes, running our own little place, and need God’s help to get pulled out of them.
So out of nowhere, on April 27, the walls blew down and we stood there, afraid, vulnerable, dazed. We needed each other. Then gradually it has been dawning on us that these walls started blowing down a long time ago—in ancient Israel through a rabbi who told the Truth, indeed was Truth in human form. And somehow, in a journey a group of pastors who didn’t know each other took, mainly because somebody paid for most of it and gave them a gift. We went thinking, “This will really be nice. It will inspire me and give me some sermons.”
Well, we weren’t prepared for what it actually did. It knocked the walls over. We began to truly care about each other and our churches and our ministries. God connected us all through the land of Israel and that ancient story. So on the “day after thunder,” we discovered that we didn’t go to Israel just to get away from our churches or enjoy a time of respite. It was to lead us to rural Williams, Alabama, and to the Hardys, and to Pratt City and Birmingham, and down deeper into our own congregations and people, to see that this is indeed the best and most holy work of all, realizing the meaning of the words of the Lord Jesus when he said in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We went to Israel to find what Jesus always wanted us to find—one another.