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Scourged by his foes, a boy who sought solace in Jesus has his own agony of doubt in the playground.
By David Bradley
It was Easter Sunday, 1959, and I was losing Jesus. This would have been a trying moment for anyone raised in the Christian tradition. It was especially so for me. Christianity was more than the way in which I had been trained up to go; Christianity was my business.
More precisely, it was the family business. My great-grandfather had become a preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in about 1830, while he was still a slave. Both his sons, born free, also were ministers in that denomination; eventually the son who was my grandfather became a "presiding elder," overseer of a number of churches. Before that he had pastored at Mt. Pisgah Church, located in a rural western Pennsylvania hamlet called Bedford. That was circa 1915; forty years later his son, my father, became Mt. Pisgah's pastor, confirming a cherished clan myth, that for at least one male in each of our generations the ministry was destiny.
Actually, my father's career had similarities to the story of Jonah. His youthful ambition was to be a history professor; he'd earned his B.A. and M.A. and studied for his Ph.D., and tried to compromise with the Call by teaching at a church-related college. But God had him swallowed up by cetaceous circumstances and transported from the Tarshish of Academia to the Nineveh of a Pennsylvania parish -- or so clan lore had it. Where it had me was unquestionably lent unto the Lord; I was the only male in my generation.
Accordingly, my clan elders -- grandmother, senior uncle, father -- made sure I saw my personal identity reflected in the Scriptures. One of my first memories is of my grandmother showing me my name written in the first Book of Kings. (I was obnoxiously proud of this until I realized that almost everyone I knew had a 'Bible name.') I loved to hear about my namesake -- how he was a direct ancestor of Jesus, or how, when David was just a boy like me, he knocked Goliath out cold, sang Psalms to soothe the king, and befriended the king's son. (I forgave his marrying the king's daughter, though I was entirely uninterested in girls.)
Bible stories were my bedtime stories, sometimes told but frequently read from a large, richly illustrated Bible story book; my first reading lessons were based on David, Daniel in the lions' den, Samson and the Philistines (Delilah's role was kept vague), and Moses in the ark of bulrushes. My first school was Sunday School; my second, summer Bible School. Before I learned the Pledge of Allegiance, I had by heart the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes. And before I heard of truthful little Georgie Washington I knew about Jesus.
I knew about Jesus in the Manger, Jesus questioning in the Synagogue, Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount, calming the Sea of Galilee, riding a donkey into Jerusalem. I knew about Jesus dying on the cross. But most important to me, I knew about the Jesus who loved children, in whose sight all the children of the world (red and yellow, black and white) were precious. The Jesus who raised a girl from the dead, borrowed loaves and fishes from a boy, who told his disciples to "suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven." This Jesus was my friend. Not an imaginary playmate -- those, I knew, were chimerical. Jesus was real: an understanding, forgiving, silent -- I was religious, not schizophrenic -- presence. Jesus loved me, this I knew. Though I prayed to God my soul to keep, it was Jesus I trusted to protect me from the alligator underneath my bed, and I didn't need to tell Him about the alligator because He knew; He had been a child.
This Sunday School image of Jesus did me no harm, but I also attended adult services, and sometimes was troubled by mature mysteries. Though I misperceived much (the Trinity seemed to me like bad arithmetic), in my own way I grasped the gist, often from spirituals and hymns. When Moses told Pharaoh to let God's people go, the music's minor key told me the Exodus was a solemn, dangerous business. When Ezekiel saw the wheel in a wheel I imagined a truck tire in a car tire, but understood that the Grace of God was a massive and inexorable thing. Though I thought "'Tis midnight and on Olive's brow" referred to the forehead of somebody named Olive, I realized my friend Jesus was suffering in the Garden, and that while Christmas brought joy to the world, Easter was what mattered.
Easter Sunday, 1959, was only six months past my eighth birthday. I was still a child, thought as a child, had a child's uncomplicated faith. I was not losing that faith. I believed Jesus was the only Son of God, that though crucified, dead, and buried, He had risen and ascended. But I was wondering if He understood as much as I'd thought, if He was really friends with me, if maybe I didn't want to be friends with Him any more.
Prime mover of this alteration was the African part of African Methodist Episcopal Zion -- not that any member of Mt. Pisgah, called him- or herself African. Certainly no one in my clan did; we preferred the term Negro, which was then politically correct. However, most Bedford blacks -- who would have been insulted by the word black -- were comfortable with colored. Most Bedford whites used that term when blacks were present. Some, though, used other terms when the colored gentlemen had left the room, and taught those terms to their children.
I first heard nigger on the playground, on my first day of school. I did not know what it meant, much less how to react. This frustrated the little boy who used it, who defined it by bloodying my nose. I did not get hit every day, but insults were common, and epithets were often accompanied by threats, which were sometimes carried out. In keeping with the Universal Children's Code of Silence, I told no man. But one day a pair of chunky Philistines called me nigger, stripped off my pants, and whipped me with briars, and that
night my mother saw the still-bloody scratches and forced me to tell all.
To my surprise, my elders seemed powerless, almost indifferent. My mother telephoned the mother of my flagellators, and they were told to leave me in peace. But her plan to secure general immunity by calling other mothers ended when one of them called her a nigger. My grandmother called her foolish; sooner or later, she said, I had to learn to deal with this, and she taught me how to control my facial muscles, to keep my face impassive, so as to deny "white trash" the satisfaction of knowing I was insulted. My father told me I should "walk away with dignity," as if I hadn't even heard. I tried to do as I was told; I learned to retaliate with language. My grandmother, unknowingly, had taught me my first racial epithet; by eavesdropping on other black adults I collected a lexicon of insults which I hurled like David's five smooth stones. Though none of my foes fell unconscious, many were deterred. Continued ...
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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 6/24/97