January 25, 2015
Savannah Morning News column
It’s a little scary going to a strange place. Habits are hard to hand over. That’s why it’s good to wear an orange hat.
“I sure do like that hat,” said a woman on Montgomery Street after I got out of my car. “Can I have it?”
I could tell she meant it.
“I have way too much stuff,” I answered. “So I would love to give it to you, but I love my hat, too.”
She busted out laughing (don’t you love “busted out” instead of burst?) and grabbed me in a hug, not an air hug but a real one, real close. That’s how they do at First African Baptist.
“Where are you from?” a woman holding a pencil and piece of paper asked as soon as I walked up the stairs to the crowded front parlor of the red brick building on Franklin Square in a church that used to be called First Colored Baptist. The pews, which were made by slaves, are nailed into the floor. Beneath the auditorium floor is a sub-floor known as the Underground Railroad floor. That’s where runaway slaves would hide as they made their way north. The air holes, as necessary for life as was their perilous journey, were drilled into the floor. They still exist.
How do I or any of us answer that question: “Where are you from?”
Next to me, also waiting to go into the sanctuary, a couple said, “Ontario, Canada.” Another said, “Chesterfield, Virginia.” Still another, “Richmond, Virginia.”
I finally said, “Fiftieth Street, Savannah, Ga.”
The church was nearly filled when I walked in. The last time I visited I went with a friend from Vancouver, Canada, who had done her research before visiting. This was her first trip south. This was the historic black church she wanted to visit. Rev. Thurmond Tillman was away on family business in Florida that week so Rev. Paul Little took over. Many women were wearing hats. I remembered that. I also remembered Rev. Little asking people in the congregation to report how so-and-so was doing and hearing, “in the hospital, out of the hospital, in for procedures, out for tests.” Then he asked again: who are you praying for? Speak their name.” Then he implored, “Someone shout out, ‘I’m covered’.” More than one replied, “I’m covered!” He called for anyone who was praying for someone to come forth. We held back, Mary Burns from Vancouver and I from Fiftieth Street. But who doesn’t have someone they’re praying for? It didn’t take long to figure that out. We walked up and joined most of the congregation who had moved forward. We held hands. We hugged. Our eyes grew full. It was healing.
I came for some of that healing. I came for succor. Yes, digging in the garden is good for the soul. Yes, standing shoulder to shoulder at an oyster roast on the edge of the continent on a beautiful if blustery day is healing, especially after the sun, absent for what seemed forever, finally showed itself. Yes, going to a fundraiser on a Saturday afternoon for a brave woman with lung cancer who is having trouble paying the bills, is healing. But I was looking for something else. I walked into the church shoulder to shoulder with an orange hat and a bunch of people I did not know.
Before the readings or the words, Rev. Tillman said it was time for fellowship. Not just with the person next to you or in front or behind you. To the faint sound of a bass guitar, an organ, a tambourine and just the hint of a drumbeat, we got up and walked around and hugged and shook hands. The men did that shoulder-banging-greeting thing. The women, not to be too gender specific, hugged, really hugged.
Then a group of kids, wearing white shirts (their ties flying) and pressed pants bounded to the front, passed around the microphone and read the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Free at last, free at last, free at last.” The congregation, some standing, arms waving, fingers pointing, shoulders swaying, heads shaking, cheered them on.
And then Rev. Tillman asked the hard questions.
“Why would Martin Luther King Jr. put it all on the line?” he asked, his lanky body moving back, then forward. “He had it made. Why not just let things be the way they were?
“Dr. King never said he hated white people,” Tillman said, pausing. “He spoke only love.”
After that the good reverend recognized “a young brother” who was celebrating 10 years of sobriety, a Miss Black USA and a former Miss Black USA and gave the details of someone who would be “funeralized today.”
Two hours later, I walked out, still in my orange hat, full and fulfilled. It’s good to take time in fellowship even if it’s in a strange place with people you don’t know.