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Monday, April 11, 2011

Connecting The Dots

When I was a kid, I loved those "puzzles" where you had to connect the dots.

I suppose it was one of those games which encouraged kids to learn the sequence of numbers while having fun watching the picture emerge from behind the jumble of dots and the numbers.

As you got older, the pictures became more complex, but the theory was still the same. Just follow the numbers, connect the dots, and everything would become clear.

Sometimes, life is like that.

Sometimes, it's not.

Last night was one of those moments in life where the dots came together, but not exactly by following the numbers. It was much more serendipitous than that.

In 1991, I became the Executive Director of the AIDS Resource Center at St. Barbabas Church and the Vicar of St. Barnabas, Newark. It was a scruffy, feisty, inner city congregation in the West Ward of Newark, NJ.

The 1967 riots had devastated the neighborhood. It was, once again, decimated in the early 1980's by the extension of Route I-280 to accommodate the "white flight" out of the densely populated urban areas of Newark and East Orange westward to the rapidly developing Morris County.

The freeway extended from the parent Route I-80 in Parsippany-Troy Hills Township, Morris County to I-95 (New Jersey Turnpike) in Kearny, allowing suburbanites to continue their love affair with the automobile and formed a tar and concrete idol to worship the god of 'rugged American individualism", while being blissfully unaware, for the most part, of their complicity in urban decay. 

Route I-280 and the thousands of suburban commuters who used this route daily did so at the expense of hundreds of poor, inner city, mostly African-American families who were summarily displaced from whatever identity and sense of community they had pieced together after the Great Migration from the South, looking for a better life, free from Jim Crow.

It was urban planning by connecting the dots in a straight line between the suburbs, where people - Caucasian people - could live their picture-perfect illusions of safety and prosperity which were snugly contained behind white picket fences and finely manicured lawns.

Never mind that that line of I-280 cut through the heart of neighborhoods and people's lives. Never mind that those 'dots' where people's lives. The picture that emerged was one of progress.

To not want progress was positively un-American. See?

Shortly after Route I-280 was built, the first waves of the AIDS epidemic began to make it's way across the Hudson and Passaic Rivers that separated New York and New Jersey. It hit Newark. Hard.

The people of St. Barnabas Church had not wanted the AIDS Resource Center located in their parish hall, but since they were a "Mission Church" - where the bishop is rector - they had no right to veto. If the bishop said it was happening, you could take his word to the bank that it was going to happen.

Those still left in what remained of the neighborhood of the once affluent Roseville Section of Newark - so named because there were so many rose bushes in front of so many of the Victorian homes there - were still recovering from the Newark Riots.

They weren't in denial. They knew only too well the devastation and ravages of the disease which had taken from them some of their brightest and best. But, so had unemployment and poverty, drugs and guns, police brutality and violence.

They had an acute understanding - not paranoia, as some White people tut-tutted - of the way AIDS was yet one more plague come to wipe them out in what seemed to them to be an intentional form of urban genocide.

Indeed, by the late 1980s, early 1990s, many African Americans in Newark believed the theory that AIDS was a mutated virus which had been created in a lab at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, MD and specially designed to wipe out their race as a chemical version of "the final solution".

It was not unlike the theory that many White people had at that same time - that AIDS had been brought to this county from Africa where tribes of "savages" had contracted the virus by eating monkey brains.

It was a wild racial game of 'connect the dots' which always drew lines between Black and White. The emerging picture was one of fear and hatred, xenophobia and paranoia.

Gay people? The folks I knew harbored no ill will against gay people, despite what they heard preached from the pulpit in the Black Evangelical and Pentecostal store front churches.

The fact that African Americans were being lumped together with a group of people even the White people hated but even they got better medical services simply added fuel to a long-simmering fire of racism and race-hatred.

Yes, they understood that the church is supposed to help people. However, they wanted neither the stigma of AIDS attached to their church nor a bunch of White do-gooders with wide grins coming to "rescue" them from their plight.

What a wonderful set up, then, for a young White woman, newly ordained and a former health care professional with a female partner and all those kids, who was filled with a blinding combination of a love of the gospel and the spirit of altruism to be named Vicar of the Church and Executive Director of the AIDS Resource Center.

That would have been me.

Looking back over it all now, I can hear the slogan from the Peace Corp of my youth: "It's the toughest job you'll ever love."

I have lots - TONS - of stories about my five years at St. Barnabas, but I wanted to give you a sense of the context from which this present story emerges.

Believe it or not, I'm exercising great restraint here, but you might want to fix yourself a cup of tea, put up your feet and settle in.

I have a story to tell.

There were many parishioners at St. Barnabas who tied themselves around my heart strings whose faces are portraits of courage and determination. The images of their faces are etched indelibly in my mind and inside the walls of my heart.

More importantly, their names are written on the palm of God.

One such person was a woman named Miz Eula Jefferson.

Born in 1922 in Raleigh, North Carolina, Miz Jefferson had wanted to become a teacher, but her daddy had told her that he couldn't afford to send her to college.

In 1938, toward the end of The Depression, she was but 16 years old when she moved to Newark with some relatives who had moved North as part of the Great Migration. She took a position as a domestic for some of the affluent White families who lived in the Highland Section of Newark.

The Highland Section was home to opera singers and actors, business men, corporate types and entrepreneurs who made the easy commute in their chauffeur driven cars and limos into New York City.  Many African-Americans found employment there as domestics and cooks, nannies, chauffeurs and gardeners.

Miz Jefferson married at age 21 and had three children - two daughters and a son - and began working as a Teacher's Aid where she could be close to her children and still pick up the education, training and skill to achieve her dream.

Eventually, after much hard work and untold sacrifice, she became a Kindergarten Teacher, all the while raising her three kids by herself after her husband left the family. She also provided educational opportunities for her children, sending her two daughters to Montclair State College and her son to New Jersey Institute of Technology.

I don't know how she did it, but she did.

Miz. Jefferson was a dedicated member of St. Barnabas, working quietly to make certain that the brass candle holders were always polished to a faretheewell, the purificators and corporals were bleached, starched, and ironed to perfection, and there was always coffee and coffee cups and, perhaps, one of her famous apple or pineapple upside down cakes for Coffee Hour.

Once, when we were having one of those Altar Guild "Spit-and-Polish" Saturdays in preparation for Christmas or Easter, I came across a thick folder in one of the file cabinets in the sacristy.

I don't know how anyone could have missed it. It had been tucked away in one of the back file folders, crammed-full with pictures of St. Barnabas in its 'hey day' of the 1940's and early 1950s.

Perhaps you've seen pictures like it. Pictures of church school classes of 200 smiling children. Pictures of choirs with thirty, forty people, all stiffly posed in black cassock and white cottas with their priest in front, decked out in black cassock, white surplice, black tippet, academic hood and Canterbury cap or biretta.

Everyone, of course, was White.

Ah, the good old days when the church was "successful"! These are the images many remember and to which they hearken - and harangue - us to return.

I came across one picture which caused me to cover my mouth as I gasped. There, on the sanctuary steps of the church, was a picture labeled "Family Night". It was taken from the audience/congregation, and you could see a packed house.

There, in front of the altar, were six men - some with banjos or drums or clarinet or saxophones - all in 'Black Face'.

"Lemme see that," said Miz Jefferson over my shoulder, as I tried to put it out of sight on the bottom of the pile.

She pulled it out of my hand and pursed her lips together as she looked it over, carefully. "Yes," she said, "there's Mr. Carleton. Oh, and that's Mr. Bottomley - the one playin' the banjo. And that one? At the end? That's Mr. Smith. He was the rector here."

I looked at her, carefully. "The rector?" I said, incredulously.

"Oh, yes, chile. The rector. A priest in God's own house"

I couldn't stop the gasp that came out of my mouth.

"Didn't I tell you that I used to walk by this church every day on my way to work? I would wait out front of the church at the bus stop. One day, I was a bit early, and I noticed that they were having some kind of prayer service at the church. So, I thought I'd just stop by and have me a little talk with Jesus 'fore I went to work."

She spoke in matter-of-fact tones, without even a tinge of perceptible anger or indignation. "But, I didn't get past those front doors. One of the nice gentlemen - Mr. Carelton, as I recall, stopped and told me that 'my kind' wasn't wanted in the church and to 'move along' and 'worship with my own."

She shook her head sadly and then straightened her shoulders and said, "Well, little did he know that Jesus has no 'kind' of people. Jesus loves everybody because his Father made everybody."

"What did you do, Miz Jefferson?" I asked quietly.

"I did what I always do, baby," she laughed. "I waited. Good things always come to those who wait on the Lord."

"Now," she said, "Mr. Carleton is gone. Lives somewhere in Wayne, I heard. You know? Where it always floods? Heard he had to move out of that house because the water done wrecked the 'family room' he had fixed up in the basement. Tore up the fancy carpet, ruined all the furniture, and wrecked the color TV. Heard he had to sell it at a loss. Too many people knows, now, about the way the floods work."

She showed no signs of triumphant justification. She was just reporting the facts.

"Oh, Miz Jefferson," I said, "I'm so sorry."

"Oh, now listen to me, chile. You gots nothin to be sorry for. Wasn't you who treated peoples bad. Wasn't you who was stupid and ugly with hate."

"I know, Miz Jefferson," I said, putting the picture to the bottom of the pile, "but I'm so sorry you were treated that way."

"I know you are, baby. I know," she said, "And I know that it's real. I can see what you're trying to do here. Many peoples can. You have a good heart - a heart for the peoples here. God don't pay no nevermind to what's on the outside of peoples. God pays attention to what's in your heart. That's what you do. We see that. We see you lookin' into our hearts. So, we do the same thing with you."

She straightened her shoulders, took the folder of pictures from my hand and put it back in the file cabinet. "Now," she said, "let's let the past stay in the past. What do you think? These candle sticks and collection plates gonna polish themselves? I got to gather up all these linens and take them home. I got hours of work ahead of me, washin', bleachin', starchin and ironin'. No time to be messin' 'round with stuff that don't do nobody no good."

"Here's the only thing you need to know: I love you. God loves you. Jesus loves you even more. Now," she said, pushing me towards the sink, "get back to work!"

It's important to let the past stay in the past. But, not past relationships that have been such an important part of your formation as a person and a Christian.

I lost touch with Miz Jefferson over the years. I heard she had had a stroke and had moved out of her apartment in Newark to a nursing home somewhere in the Oranges. No one seemed to have any information about her.

I had thought she was now numbered among the saints, and found myself, from time to time, remembering one of the many Miz Jefferson stories I have tucked in the rich, deep, inner recesses of my memory banks.

Last night, I found her!

It was a serendipitous conversation which put me in touch with the former organist at St. Barnabas in which I followed my curiosity and asked a few questions which connected the dots which led me to Miz Jefferson.

She's now 88 years old and living in Senior Housing in Orange, NJ. She's had two strokes, she told me, which "left my right side petty bum". She said she gets around pretty good with a walker, making her way to the market once or twice a week, cooking her own meals, and doing her own laundry.

"I used to go to the hairdresser once a week," she said, "but, after the last stroke, the medicine did something to my hair and it all fell out, so now I just keep it close to my head. People say it looks attractive, but I still miss my hair. I had good hair, you know?"

"Yes, I remember," I said, "it was beautiful and you always kept it so nice."

"That last stroke was really something," she said, "Took my hair and my last daughter. When she heard I had another stroke, she had a heart attack and died."

"Oh, no, Miz Jefferson," I said, "I'm so sorry."

"Yes, well. Lost my youngest daughter years ago in Newark after the first stroke. It's just me and my son now. He come over whenever he get a mind to it. Mostly, it's just me and Jesus here in this apartment."

"Are you able to get out to church?" I asked.

"No. Nothin 'round here interests me anymore. All them preachers talking crazy talk now. Lots of noise and guitars and rapping so fast I don't understand half of what they talking about. My son say I'm 'old school'. I guess maybe he's right."

"Does anyone from St. Barnabas come to call on you, Miz Jefferson?"

"Thirty-nine years," she said in unmistakable tones of sadness and indignation. "Thirty-nine years I was a member of that church. And do you think there might be one - just one - righteous person left who would come to call on me? No, not one."

I cleared my throat and said, "Miz Jefferson, I'm going to be back in New Jersey for a wedding the end of the month. Might I come by and visit with you?"

"Oh, baby, of course. Of course you can come visit me. I'd like that. I'd love that. Write this down. I'ma give you my address. My apartment is 502. Way upto the fifth floor. You have to ring the bell marked 502 and I'll ring the buzzer - ring it for a good long while - so you can open the door and take the elevator up to the apartment. That's number 502. You won't forget, will you?"

"No, ma'am," I said, "I have the address and the apartment number written down right here in my book."

"Oh, I knew'd you would find me! I knew'd you would come! I always loved you baby, you know that, right? I always loved you. All. Ways. I know some of the peoples gave you the blues because you was White and because of your family and all, but I always loved you. I looked on your heart, just like God do, and I could see it was good."

"And, I always loved you, Miz. Jefferson," I said. "All. Ways. I've always kept you in my prayers. I'm so glad that I finally found you."

"Didn't I tell you?" she said, "Didn't I always tell you that good things come to those who wait on the Lord?"

"Yes, Miz Jefferson," I said, fighting back the tears, "I believe you always did."

"Yes, chile, and even death," she said, "even death is a good thing that comes to those who wait on the Lord."

"Now, Miz Jefferson," I said quickly, "don't you be going anywhere until I see you in a few weeks. You hear me?"

"Oh, I ain't planning on going nowhere, except to my bed after an hour or so of TV and some prayers," she laughed, "but, you never know. And, if it do come, it's alright. It's okay. Me and Jesus been talking about this for awhile now. I'm ready whenever he calls. I hope he don't call me too soon, 'cuz I have to see my Yankees beat them pesky Red Sox of yours for just one more season," she laughed, "but I have to tell you that, after all this time, just hearing your voice and having this little visit with you on the phone makes my heart so glad I could sing."

And then, she started to sing:
Well I started out a-travellin'
For the Lord many years ago
I had a lot of heartaches,
Met a lot of grief and woe
But when I would stumble,
Then I would humble down
And I can say thank the Lord
I wouldn't take nothin' for my journey now
She laughed and said, "I still got the voice, don't I? Yes, yes, I can still raise this weary old voice and sing to the Lord. Ain't as pretty as it once was, but I do alright. Yes, I ain't got neither my hair nor my voice, but by the grace of God and a little help from my friends, I do alright."

We shared some laughter and then she said, "I feel connected again - to something bigger than me and this little apartment. Something that was once important. Something I thought I had lost but now have found and I wasn't even lookin for it. That's the way life do, sometimes, chile."

"Yes, ma'am," I said.

"It's like one of those math puzzles I used to teach my Kindergarten Kids. You know the ones? You just keep connecting the dots and, all a sudden, not only are you learning your numbers, but you got yourself a picture of a flower or a dog or a house or President Lincoln."

"Sometimes," she said, "that's the way life do. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other and, 'fore you know it, you find yourself comin' back 'round and pickin' up the things you thought you had lost."

"Good things come to those who wait on the Lord," she said, "Didn't I tell you that? Didn't I always tell you that? You just gotsta be patient - wait for Jesus to show you the way to the next dot. That's all. That's the secret."

We shared a few more pleasantries before she said, "I love you, baby. I always have. I always will."

"I love you, too, Miz Jefferson," I said.

"I know that, baby. I know that.," she said, "I can't wait for you to come visit."

Neither can I.

I was so excited I had a hard time falling to sleep last night. So many memories. So many stories. So many dots suddenly making so many connections.

I fell asleep smiling and pleased with the picture of my life that began to emerge. It's a picture rich and with relationships and friendships, life lessons and learnings, some tears but lots more laughter and smiles.

I fell asleep hearing Miz Jefferson singing:
There's nothin' in the world
That'll ever take the place of God's Love
Silver and gold could never buy
A mighty touch from up above
But when my soul needs a healin'
And I begin to feelin' His power
I can say thank The Lord
I wouldn't take nothing for my journey now.

Well, I wouldn't take nothin' for my journey now
I'm gonna make it to Heaven somehow
Though The Devil tempts me and tries to turn me around
He's offered everything that's got a name
All the wealth I want and worldly fame
If I could, still I wouldn't take nothin' for my journey now
Won't somebody in the church give me an "Amen"?

Amen. Amen. And, again I say, Amen.


IT said...

Wonderful. What a wonderful lady.

Tho' shame on the parish folks who didn't visit Miz Jefferson.

I love how you tell these stories!

Karen H. said...

Oh my goodness, yes. Amen & amen.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Not only will I say, "Amen," but I'll add a "Preach it, Sister Jefferson! You preach it!" (I frequently peeped in the windows of the AME church down the road as a kid, I know a little something about this...)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

IT - I can't wait to see her again. In fairness, the church is pretty well demoralized and decimated - down to Sunday supply and a few handful of people in church.

"Without a vision, the people perish".

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Karen.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - I'm sure you do, so your AMEN rings loud and clear.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Cameron. Looking forward to seeing you on Wednesday.

JCF said...

Amen---and Lizbeth, WRITE A BOOK!!!!

Raven~ said...

Too wonderful for words
Too cool :-)

May The Lord of Fortuitous Happenstance journey with you

Happy Stance!

whiteycat said...

What a fantastic story! Thanks for this post. And ... AMEN!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - Thanks. I'm continually amazed and deeply gratified that people find these stories entertaining. Mostly, I just write for myself as part of my spiritual discernment. I'm discerning a call to writing. I think I'm just about ready. I'm meeting again next week with a published author. I need to get clear about 'audience'. Thanks again.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Raven.

Anonymous said...

AMEN Sister! (My beloved is doing his field ed for seminary at an all Black parish and I love it when he preaches and he gets Amens!)

Please count me among your AUDIENCE. I think you'll be amazed at how big a group we are.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Romelover - I have a bit of a sense when I check my sitemeter and look at the number of followers of this blog. I'm blown away.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, whiteycat.

Linda Ryan said...

Amen. This story is priceless. Please write a book of your stories. They always have something in them that touches the soul in a very positive way.

IT said...

I agree with JCF about a book.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Desertcat - Thank you. I'm working on it. I'm discovering that writing really starts in the soul

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

IT - Well, the first hurdle is with me. The second is finding a publisher/editor who thinks as highly of my writing as y'all do.

IT said...

BP agrees with me, you gotta write a book.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, if BP says it's so, it must be so.