Another in the series of tributes to some men whose style helped to shape my notions of self-sufficiency, deep affection, spiritual dedication and humility.
Know Your Place
My place was wherever my elders asked me to be. On that Sunday morning when Mister Harold asked me to come and sit for a spell, it did not matter that I was sixty years old. He was my elder, so my body moved to his side with a quickness that was conditioned during childhood.
After graduating from high school in 1951, I entered the United States Air Force. During the succeeding twenty years in uniform I returned home to Valdosta, Georgia, most often during periods of military leave. It was where my values were molded when Valdosta was a community of less than 15,000 persons.
Even though Valdosta, like almost every village and hamlet in this country, has been altered by enormous social and technological change since my childhood, not much has changed at St. Timothy A. M. E. Church, where I was baptized. Physically, bricks now cover the white wooden planks of yesterday and central heating has replaced the potbelly wood-burning heater that dominated the space near the Alter where the faithful receive Holy Communion. At least two new coats of paint have been added to the pews, and as older members became less agile, a ramp was added to accommodate wheel chairs. The congregation endorsed these physical alterations and even some minor changes in the liturgy. But there are some rituals that have survived, seemingly unaltered.
For as long as anyone in the church can remember, Sunday has traditionally been the day to combine giving praise to God and visiting neighbors, especially the sick who could not attend. Another custom is the gathering near the Altar immediately following the services. There, the congregants, especially the older ladies, mingle and touch each other a few minutes and, of course, show off new hats and dresses. It is to this space that visitors also are attracted and where it reminds those of us who now live and work in far-flung places that home means Valdosta.
During one visit it was my turn to again receive the hugs and kisses that embellish such welcome from those ladies and to follow their choreography.
“Turn around, James Edward, and let me take a good look at you.” Even though the years have added an opaque layer to their vision, they could still detect the slightest variance in my weight or appearance since their last inspection. After all, they have known and embraced me before I knew my name.
When one of the older ladies tells a visitor, “Come visit me a spell before you go away again,” she might just want company or somebody to remind her of her place in the community. She might also want to review some pages of her life, and the guest could awaken her memory. Furthermore, considering her long acquaintance with everybody’s history in the neighborhood, she might even want to finally disclose something that another time and place dictated secrecy or discretion. Whatever the reason for her invitation, it is also a request from a person whose very presence silhouettes your own existence, and you dare not tell her that you’ll visit her the next time, because she now counts her days, rather than years, and she knows the truth that my grandmother often recited: “Tomorrow ain’t promised to you.”
As I chatted and was inspected, I was approached by George Stripling, a friend since childhood. He had walked the few paces from where he has taken his late father’s seat in “the Amen Corner.” He came to share greetings and to relay a summons: “When you have a moment, Mister Harold wants to see you.”
Three weeks later I drove along the busy freeways of Los Angeles thinking about that Sunday at home. It made the rush hour traffic more tolerable. Suddenly I had an overwhelming urge to more carefully ponder what had happened at the church. I exited the crowded lanes, parked, and reflected on a sequence that was as natural and spontaneous today as it was when I was a child. I remembered George’s words: “. . . When you have a moment, Mister Harold wants to see you.”
On that Sunday morning I did what I was trained to do. I immediately answered his call. I was not engaged in any activity that could excuse making Mister Harold wait. As I advanced in his direction, I could almost sense that my approach was monitored by some of the men who once sat next to him, all of whom are gone. But before they left, they taught me how to be—me.
I sat beside one of my last mentors, Mister Harold Wade. With one hand propped on his cane he leaned closer and motioned me to put both of my hands in his free grip. Mister Harold had some questions: “How you doing James Edward?” I was fortunate to reply: “I’m doing fine, Mister Harold.” He had positioned me to evaluate my most accurate monitors; my eyes and my pulse. He smiled and continued: “I been reading about some of the things you been doing boy.” Then he got to the core: “Are you behaving yourself?” It did not matter that I had just celebrated my sixtieth birthday. Mister Harold was an adult when I was a child and he helped to teach me right from wrong, good from bad, and what was pleasing in God’s sight. Mister Harold was entitled to know if his lessons were still my guidelines. I was commanded to respectfully tell him the truth: “Yes sir, Mister Harold, I’m living my life the way you’d want me to.” He gave me his final reward: “I’m proud of you son.” We both knew it was our last exchange. We embraced.
When I returned a year later, his seat was empty.