Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Relatives

It’s true.  I have a cousin who is a white supremacist. 

I loved him when we were kids.  He was probably 4 or 5 years younger, the 4th born of my  Uncle Owen’s 5 children.  He was a cheerful oddball, the product of a strange upbringing by missionary parents.  Looking back, his sly grin may have revealed a mean streak, but it didn’t seem that way at the time.  He seemed quite the innocent to me.

My first memory of Jeff is from my Grandma Madeira’s living room, with the great African American singer Marian Anderson crying from the Victrola, “I Told Jesus It Would Be Alright If I Changed My Name”.  He’s sitting on the sofa with his sister Jane, and he’s smiling happily.

Those days at Grandma's were the days of two brothers reuniting, with 8 kids in tow.  The bond between Dad and Owen was strong, and typical of brothers, competitive and fun.  Dad was older, stronger, wiser, and humbler than Owen, who was nonetheless cheerful, fun, and daring.

Owen gave me my first airplane ride.  One day, Dad and Owen put all the boys (of course, just the boys) into a station wagon, and drove out to a cornfield in the Lancaster County farmlands, where a Piper Cub sat idling.

The fuselage was made of canvas, and there was room for 2 passengers.  Owen crammed into the back seat, while my cousin Ray Don and I squeezed into the front seat.  We sat idling and Owen said, "Boys, let's have a word of prayer before we take off", to which I cracked, "I'm already prayin'."

One icy winter, another stunt was played out on the slick roads of Grandma's neighborhood.  Dad or Owen would drive, while the other would lay prostrate on a sled with a few cousins sitting on top of him, hanging onto the rear bumper with one hand, skidding through the streets at midnight.  Our mothers never knew.

That was the fun side.

The mean side surfaced in odd stories like this one:  In the early 50s, when Owen was in the Army, each soldier was rationed a bottle of beer with his dinner.  A non-drinker, Owen's soldier buddies would ask for his beer.  Owen, thinking he was doing the men and God Almighty a favor, would smile as he poured the bottle into the trash.

This story was told repeatedly with immense pride.

Owen was a well meaning man who dragged his uptight religious wife Rita to Colombia and Ecuador in the Fifties to make converts for Christ.  Along the way, they had five kids, all raised on the mission field.   While I wouldn’t venture to bring my children up in a hostile environment nor prop them up as “different” than the natives, it could have been worse.

Take, for example, my Aunt Agnes’ kids, the other missionary cousins.

Agnes’ kids were left at a home for missionary children, for four years at a time, while their parents tried to make children of God out of pagans in Thailand.  This has always amazed me, the concept of leaving one’s children in a stranger’s care, while trying to show the rest of the world the love of God.  I’ve always thought the best way to show the Love of God is by loving your children, not abandoning them, but these were people for whom making heathens into children of God meant making their own children into orphans.

My parents took a great interest in Agnes’ kids, bringing them to Rhode Island for weeks at a time every summer.  It’s mind boggling, but Agnes’ kids saw my parents more often than their own, who were usually in Thailand.  We would take them to our family’s holy place, Goosewing Beach, where they were given the gift of belonging to a family, with a mom and dad who were conversant with them.  No wonder one of them named his daughter Anna-Lisa after my mother.

We saw Owen’s family once every few years, and it was a major event.  Once, I recall seeing them off in New York City where they were  boarding a merchant vessel for Ecuador.  Their life seemed exciting and exotic, and they were family celebrities for living their life in this sacrificial fashion.

While in Columbia, Owen was hanged upside down and beaten, all for being a Protestant.  To this day, he remembers what “the Catholics” did to him. 

Other unfortunate events occurred to this family as they sacrificed for the Gospel.  As an infant, Richard, their fifth and last child, needed an emergency tracheotomy.  The Colombian doctor cut Richard’s vocal cords, leaving him bereft of any natural voice for the rest of his life.  

What if my parents had followed God Almighty to some less civilized place?  What if their bluesman child had had his vocal cords cut by a surgeon’s poorly wielded scalpel?  Tell me what song I’d be singing now.

Richard’s untimely brush with a South American hack ended Owen’s days in foreign missions, so the family returned Stateside, where better doctors were available.  Owen’s new mission field was the Philadelphia ghetto of Camden, New Jersey, where his 5 children were routinely picked on as outsiders.

Owen was a lover of the downtrodden, and lived his life to share with the outcast, the minority, and the poor.  The price of this mission might have been turning his own children into outcasts and minorities.

I’ve wondered if it was during this season of sacrificing for Christ that the soil of Jeff’s soul was made fertile for racism and hatred.

After high school, Jeff graduated from the Nashville Diesel Mechanics College, and moved to South Carolina, where he enrolled in an obscure Bible school.  In a setting which made Bob Jones University look downright upright, Jeff was given a spurious scriptural basis for his hatred for all things black, all things nonwhite.

When his oldest brother Frank married a Jamaican woman in the 70s, Jeff acted out his racist leanings.  He stopped speaking with Frank, apart from cruel remarks meant to incite an argument, spoken with a wide, superior, gotcha grin. 

News of the family rift was sad, but we lost touch with Jeff for decades, until Barrack Obama came onto the national scene.  It turns out, Jeff’s “ideals” hadn’t softened with age, but had become increasingly hateful.

When Obama was running for the office of president, Jeff wrote me a taunting diatribe saying, “The book of Isaiah says that one day I will be able to look down into the Pit and see Obama, Martin Luther King, and Jesse Jackson!”.

Does this, kind reader, send a chill up your spine?  It does mine.

I guess I’m not reading the same Bible as Jeff. 

Today, Jeff’s certainty in his position is frightening, and there are times when I wonder if he will make the Madeira name famous, by going out and becoming another Timothy McVeigh or James Earl Ray.  He seems that far-gone to me.

His father, my Uncle Owen, has a good heart, but is no less stricken with the the same disease of unyielding absolutism. 

When the oldest Madeira cousin passed away a few years ago, Uncle Owen sent me the funeral program.  In the center page, a man had written of my cousin, “Steve was my best friend.  I believe that we lived many lifetimes together, and that we fought many battles side by side.” 

I’ve never been one for the idea of reincarnation.  No one ever says, “In another lifetime, I was a restroom attendant”.  No one ever believes they were a loser in another lifetime, never mind a toad. 

But I understood what Steve’s friend had written.  It wasn’t good theology.  It wasn’t even good fiction.  It was just a guy trying to say that he simply loved his best friend, and romanticizing rather than reckoning with that great loss.

Owen attached a note to the program:  “Steve wasn’t Christian.  Steve was New Age.  It must have been an awful shock when Steve woke up in Hell”.

I was stunned.  And outraged.  Steve, right along with Martin, Jesse, and Barrack, had been assigned to the Pit.

I wrote Owen a letter.

“Why is it”, I asked, “that you Fundamentalists see Heaven as a sparsely populated expanse, where only your kind will find an eternal home?”

My friend Mark says this of Hell:  I have to believe in Hell!  Why?  Hitler and Mama!

I have no need of Hell in my belief structure.  The appeal of Christ is His love, not the fear of Hell.  For some reason, most evangelists see it differently than I.

Owen backpedaled and denied that he had consigned Steve to Hell.  He also recoiled at being called Fundamentalist, and that remarked that he was an Evangelical.

By the way, I am neither.

A few years later, he emailed the known world a letter about Jane Fonda, calling her a traitor and bringing up the ancient wounds of Viet Nam.  The heading of the email read “Never Forgive”.

There is a kind of certainty that scares me, a certainty that it isn’t about faith, but about being right.  It is connected to the fear of being wrong.

This is what empty religion, theistic or atheistic, accomplishes or aids and abets: fear, wars, racism, murder, genocide, hatred, and unforgiveness. 

It boggles my mind that my cousin might as well be in the Klan.  I wish we weren’t related, wish we didn’t share our last name.  And I can rail all day long about Uncle Owen and the phrase “Never Forgive”, and I’ll remind myself that he and his brother David, my dad, were miles apart when it came to living what, to me, looks like the Christian life.

But the real struggle is my own Christian life.  Can I give some breathing room to fundamentalists, racists, and “mama”, or will I silently think “Never Forgive”?  I don’t want to be related to Jeff or Owen, but damn, we are related. 

What’s more, I am related to every son of Adam and every daughter of Eve, from Al Sharpton, to Madalyn Murray O’Hair, to Jerry Falwell, to Hitler, and to Mark’s Mama.


Monday, April 5, 2010

Passion Fruits

For nearly every October of the new millennium, I have traveled to San Francisco to participate in a free music festival called “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass”, given to the city by financier Warren Hellman

 In 2009, I had two Hardly Strictly appearances to make, one with Buddy Miller and Robert Plant, and the other with Emmylou Harris.  Having plenty of time to enjoy this beautiful city,  my Southern Born woman joined me for a relaxing weekend there.

Most of the October days I’ve spent in San Francisco have been fairly chilly, but this particular weekend was perfectly sunny and mild.   We exulted in the opportunity to walk as much as possible. 

It had been suggested to my dearest companion that we visit the San Francisco Art Exchange,  a gallery showing  photographs of famous musicians  from Sinatra to the Stones.   Under normal circumstances, neither of us would have cared about seeing pictures of aging rockers in the glory days, but we decided to honor her friend’s recommendation by popping in to take a look.  The curator of the collection asked if we were in town for the Festival, and upon finding out that I worked with Emmylou, he took us under his wing, and gave us the cook’s tour. 

Name dropping has its perks.

In an off limits room, we were given a glimpse of rare portraits of Elton John, Mick Jagger, and The Beatles.   The curator explained that these prints were printed from the original negatives in limited runs, and the price tags were commensurate with their rarity.

The most captivating photograph was of Frank Sinatra tying his tie backstage, with a look of fatigue and weariness.   He didn’t seem to be enthusiastic about having done it ‘his way’.   It wasn’t a flattering picture, however, it was magnetic and telling, giving credence to the idea that when someone takes one’s picture, they are stealing their essence.  Frank’s vacant blue eyes looked like his soul had been captured one too many times.

We crossed the street and entered the Weinstein Gallery, quite by chance, where a showing  of Richard Kipniss prints was premiering.  Fantastic prints, painstakingly constructed, revealed not only the stark imagery of  autumn, but also the  dedication of an artist to finding perfection, beauty, and balance.

The curator of this gallery was a twenty-something young man, who knew his stuff.  His enthusiasm was unbridled, and while we knew he hoped to find customers in us, it was apparent that he truly wanted us to be enlightened about Richard Kipniss’ work.

Embracing us as eager students, our young teacher was more than delighted to dispense knowledge, explaining the painstaking printmaking process, which involved carving a negative image onto several sets of stones.

We left with our heads full of crisp, floating autumn leaves, tree limbs emerging from blackness, taking root in the creative soil of two people who like to paint.

From the galleries on Geary Street, we walked over to Chinatown to the Red Blossom Tea Company, another recommendation.   Our host was another twenty-something man named Peter, whose family owned the business.

He stood with us at a wall of shelves on which hundreds of urns sat, full of fresh tea.

When my companion disclosed her taste for chai tea, Peter was diplomatically dismissive.  We were informed that teas such as chai were low on the food chain of tea, and he compared them to  cheap wine.

In moments like these, the “Southern” in my Southern Born Woman blooms like a fragrant rose, undeniable and undismissable. 

“Well”, she said wryly, “Can you show me a tea that you can respect?”

Caught in airs, Peter broke into a smile.

She had him, as she often has had me. 

He apologized and offered us a seat at a small table, where he methodically prepared tea.  The ritual was calming and beautiful.  As he brewed several different pots for us, he spoke of the origins of tea, taking great pleasure in dispensing knowledge on eager students.

Later in the evening, over a wonderful paella and a good bottle of red Zinfandel at the Hayes Street Grill, we noted the thread of passion that was woven from the photo gallery, to the print gallery,  to the  tea room.   How wonderful to have encountered  people whose vocations had relevance and connection to  things that they were passionate about.

“I’m not interested in what you’re against”, she often says, “Tell me what you’re for.” 


The next day, we decided to seek out a place of worship.  We found Trinity Episcopal Church nearby, and walked over.  It was a grand place, but a sign on the door pointed usaway from the sanctuary, and toward a small chapel. 
Apprehensive about the follow-through, we poked our heads in for a look, and were immediately ushered up to the second row.  We were probably 25 minutes late, arriving as congregates were exchanging The Peace. 

Too late to turn back now.

The parishioners seemed to be from two people groups:  Gay or octogenarian, with a few homeless people, and one exceedingly handsome young man and woman thrown in for good measure.  Token hetros, I assumed, provincially.

Many were there with dogs and cats, and we realized that we had probably just missed The Blessing of the Animals. 

On our left flank, not three feet away, sat a small choir, who rose for the offertory. 

I’ll give them an A for effort.

The basses and tenors were everything one would expect from a choir in San Francisco.  But the altos and sopranos, all very old women, warbled with vibratos that felt like the tremorous prelude to an earthquake. 

It was like being at a mother-son banquet for a gay men’s chorus.  Lap dogs welcome.

As we moved into the communion part of the service, the odd little band of priests and acolytes began vigorously making preparations.  The priest in charge was English, which made things feel properly Anglican.  And God knows, I’m all ears when it comes to an English accent. 

But at some point, I tuned out, gazing  about at the interesting group of worshippers.  I was transfixed by an older homeless man, who seemed blind, or perhaps blind drunk.  I was caught up in wondering about his story, probably making assumptions that had no basis in reality.

It was in this moment of daydreaming that I didn’t see the other priest, a 60-ish woman, fall over.  There was so little commotion, as if this was part of the service, perhaps a very radical form of genuflection, that I didn’t even notice it.  My Southern Born Supplicant, however, did notice, and wisely waited to tell me after the service. 

It was a small act of kindness, God Almighty blinding me in that moment of unholy disruption, so that I wouldn’t lock eyes with my woman and fall together into a spasm of laughter.

The service ended, and we left all smiles.  It was one of the oddest church experiences we’d ever had, not life changing, not particularly inspiring, but in its own way, it was lovely in its life affirming kookiness.

I wonder how that English priest feels about his crazy little flock.  Maybe he feels the same way Jesus feels about His crazy little flock. 

Some Sunday mornings, I find myself  sitting in a side pew at Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville.  It’s a vast room compared to Trinity Church’s chapel out in San Francisco.  I look around me and take note of the society types, the young couples, the widows, and even a few homeless, as is the case with most downtown churches.  I notice, with a particular amount of warmth, quite a few gay couples sitting together, reciting the Creed, kneeling for prayers, and finally bringing the chalice to their mouths to receive the Gift of God Almighty’s passion.

I am weary of a phrase many Evangelicals have beat into the ground:  Love the sinner, hate the sin.

We can talk 'til the cows come home about every person being welcome in church, but this is an untruth of Evangelicalism.  If you are gay, my friends, you are not welcome in their churches.  So insistent are they on hating your sin, that they don’t have the time nor the inclination to hate their own sins of pride, hate, gluttony, lying, misogyny, lust, and a list of isms to long to write down here.

I think I’d rather find myself in the company of displaced persons and lap dogs.

The next time my Southern Born Woman and I visit San Francisco,  we’ll seek out that little church again.  And maybe once again the Body of Christ will bring us a good laugh.