Leaving what is familiar has never been easy for me. I have seen myself as an adventurer, an explorer, but when I dive deep into my psyche, I discover that I also value my connections to home, a base from which to venture. It’s a polarity within which I live.
With that in mind, I am forced to deal with a new reality.
My wife and I moved from our home in Atlanta to our new house on St. Simons Island, Georgia. I am hoping it becomes my home. We’ll see.
I was born in Atlanta, at Georgia Baptist Hospital. Born with a full head of black hair, according to my mother, which means it’s gospel. She said my black eyes were keen to follow the light in the delivery room, causing her to quip that I looked like I was in a McCarthy hearing, searching for Communists. Not the last time she would miss the call.
I lived in Lakewood Heights, down by the Lakewood Fairgrounds, and attended Tull Waters Elementary for my first four grades. I was baptized by Brother Bill Rainwater at the age of six at Lakewood Height Baptist, an obviously precocious spiritual awakening. His wife, Bertha, was my Training Union director, who I remember distinctly as a loving and properly polite person, which is what you were there to learn to be…..it’s why they call it “training”. And I remember us being at church a lot……or as Steve Harvey says, all da time. A LOT. I don’t remember much about that time other than one Sunday morning, seeing my dad cry when he was singing “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross”. I did not know why. Now, I do.
We moved to East Point to be closer to the airport where my dad worked. My neighborhood was called Carriage Colony, and had the normal menagerie of kids, not unlike that of the movie, Sandlot. I was the character named Smalls, the bookish kid who had no clue about baseball, and had to be tutored by Bennie the Jet, in my case, Danny Hall. We even had a pair of brothers, Ricky and Collie. And maybe Tony would be cast as Squints, but without the black Roy Orbison glasses. Actually, my friend, Eddie Owen, reminds me of Squints.
It was a large real estate development, so there were a lot of different folks, but no blacks. They would come later, and the neighborhood “changed” as white flight sent folks packing. Looking back on it, I was blessed to have a neighborhood in which to play, ride my bike, play ball. But I was missing something, and didn’t even know it. Now, I do.
Growing up in south Atlanta, I feel a deep connection to the city. I have a kind of pride around the unique collaboration that happened in the wider city between blacks and whites. My grandfather, who was a white Atlanta policeman, gave me inside knowledge of the struggle to treat people fairly and with respect. He embodied that value, and it bubbled up out of his soul, even though his raising in West Georgia might have trained him differently. I am convinced that his faith trumped his raising, something that I did not and have not observed in some others. As I have said, he was a kinder and gentler John Wayne character in stature and demeanor.
Atlanta introduced me early to the issue of civil rights, with the prominent characters of Martin Luther King, Sr., known as Daddy King of Ebenezer Baptist, and Dr. William Holmes Borders, of Wheat Street Baptist who did a pulpit exchange with our pastor, retrospectively quite a progressive and courageous move.
As a kid, I would see a young MLK, Jr. on television, along with others, talking about love and brotherhood. And then, I would hear people who talked about King derisively in the local barber shops, causing me an early experience of cognitive dissonance, something I experience today when I listen to some folks.
My grandfather, who often had to provide police protection for King, would not abide such talk, and on occasion, walked out from that barber shop on Lee Street, an ironic location, taking me with him by hand. It’s the first “curse word” I heard, and it was from my John Wayne grandfather……”damn”, he muttered. And he wasn’t talking Yankees.
I lived in Atlanta for my first thirty some years, with me being actively involved in politics, religious groups, and the whole social reality of Atlanta. As I mentioned a few articles ago, I was a hired gun who went to East Texas with the informal billing that I was familiar with “the Atlanta way”, which gave me way more street cred than my Episcopal priesthood or doctoral degree. It was a mantle that I was proud to wear, hopefully making my home city proud.
It was a hard move for lots of reasons, but mainly, I was homesick for Atlanta, and progressive spirit of the place. I eventually discovered my Texas roots, gracefully stumbling across my great grandmother’s grave in Mart, Texas, just outside of Waco. Like many women of that time, she died in childbirth, and my McBrayer great grandfather returned to Georgia….no midnight train.
And so I have experienced some anticipatory grief this year, realizing this move was immanent. My wife was completing her teaching gig at the amazing Schenck School that focuses on dyslexia. We had been talking about the move for years but this COVID intrusion gave it a bit more drama and degree of difficulty for the dive. The actual June morning of the move was surprisingly brisk and cool as I headed my Tahoe south toward the coast.
I intentionally drove past the Braves stadium formerly known as Sun Trust Park. What a fabulous complex they have built there, with so many establishments that make for more than a ball game. I mourned the Brave’s move from downtown out to Cobb County, playfully suggesting that they should change the name of the team to the Cobb Crackers. But the city seems to be supporting the team, and I am hoping it will turn out well for our wider city. Love me some Braves baseball…..a little low and outside, as Uke would say.
I drove south on I 75-85, down past North Avenue, glancing toward the Varsity, where I first skipped high school. Chili dogs, onion rings, and a Frosted Orange hang in my culinary memory, while the fatty deposits hang in my arteries. Just beyond, on Peachtree is Emory Midtown where I had my quad bypass surgery, speaking of the Varsity. It was a new procedure, beating heart/open heart surgery perfected and performed by my Emory classmate, Dr. Omar Latouff, a Muslim who came from Jordan, one of the greatest humans I have known, now providing leadership in this pandemic, working at Mt. Sinai in New York City.
Further down Peachtree a bit, you’ll find the Episcopal church, St. Luke’s, where I was confirmed, and began my work with the street people of Atlanta. Luke’s defined for me what an urban church could be and gave me hope that the church could make a real difference. They were my sponsoring parish for the priesthood. But more importantly, they were my Camelot that I could never forget.
On down the connector, Freedom Parkway leads to the Jimmy Carter Center, my favorite hangout, and Manuel’s Tavern, the home of my adjunct political science teacher, Manuel Maloof. Just east is Emory where I learned how to question and think, and where I made some life-long friends. Still undefeated in football.
Further along down the highway, the Grady curve, the massive public hospital where I learned of death and dying. And then, there is the place where the Atlanta Stadium stood, a place that changed the future of Atlanta, made it the urban center in the South. I got to see Pele play soccer there, and watch Henry Aaron make history.
Then, there was the Olympic stadium where the world came to Atlanta, and the Braves won the World Series. We affectionately referred to it as The Ted. thanks to one of the drivers of this town’s spirit. It now houses Georgia State which thrills me and gives me hope for the future of this city.
A few miles south, you see kudzu covered remnants of Lakewood Park and a large vacant lot where I witnessed R.W. Schambach and his Holy Ghost Miracle Revival. I saw his big tent, lighted in the night as I drove down the expressway. I went out of curiosity to see an old time sawdust Pentecostal extravaganza. I was a student at Emory studying religion, and I, by God, found it in full strut, there in the Georgia moonlight. Neil Diamond’s Brother Love Traveling Salvation Show must have been in my head as I watched this event, unlike any I had seen in my buttoned-down Baptist get-me-to-lunch-on-time service. I had to come back the next night, bringing some fraternity brothers who were Jewish just to see this thing. The joke was on me, however, as I wound up in Tyler, Texas twenty years later, the home base of Rev. Schambach.. In one of the great gifts and surprises of my life, we became good friends.
A turn to the west on the Lakewood Freeway, takes you to the Tri Cities, namely East Point, to the high school I attended, now razed, and the golf course where I had my first job, Lakeside, now sold to developers.
Further south, the highway divides just north of the airport, a veer right takes you southwest to Newnan, and Columbus, rolling along beside my beloved Chattahoochee, which began as a trickle of water in a gorge in North Georgia, and makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico.
A veer to the left, heading southeast, the highway goes past the Farmer’s Market where my granddad taught me how to choose the proper ripe watermelon. It’s all in the “thump” of the index finger on the rind that tells the tale. As I write those words, it occurs to me that nothing veers left in the State of Georgia. My mistake.
So I am now heading south and east to the Georgia coast. I will pass through Macon, the home of my high school best friend, on through Dublin, the home of Cindy the Porno Queen, and Metter, where they say it’s “better”. It is in the general direction of Savannah but before I get there, I will turn south toward Florida, just outside the city. About a hundred miles down the coast, you come to the port of Brunswick, and cross over a causeway onto St. Simons, a barrier island.
St. Simons Island is where my house is now. We are here, unloaded, and now unpacking. Have mercy Jesus, Buddha, or whoever will come to my assistance.
For some of you unfamiliar with this area. St. Simons is in Glynn County, which is the topic of the famous Sidney Lanier poem to the marches of Glynn. It is “low country”, a part of the United States, that my friend, Pat Conroy, wrote about, on up Carolina way. It struck me that unintentionally, my “moving in” day was June 16th, Bloomsday, made notable by James Joyce, in his book Ulysses. And, it was remembered and captured by Pat in his book on Charleston, South of Broad, a book I waited until a year ago to read. I picked it off my bookshelf a year ago to the day. It would make Pat smile, I think, and bring a caustic quip. I wrote about Pat’s novel here a year ago, as a part of my process of grieving.
And now, here I am in low country. The race relations I struggled with growing up in South Atlanta are still troubling here in South Georgia. The strides I thought were made in the Civil Rights movement seem to pale in the shadow of the Civil War. The new page we turned in 2008 was an illusion for this hopeless romantic, who thought we had made some progress. And the reality is that we have made progress, at least in law if not in heart. But there is so much left to do.
I now live in the county where Ahmaud Arbery was shot down on Feb. 23rd, my ordination date as a deacon, the Feast of Polycarp, a martyr. His murderers went free for weeks until a video revealed the dark deed, resulting in arrests and yesterday, formal indictments. As a part of the country’s reaction to other violation of rights, protests have emerged here in Brunswick as justice is demanded by citizens who can see the killing of Ahmaud by two white men, one a former police officer of Glynn County, and the other, his 34 year old son. Both have been linked to racist group activity.
Clergy have gathered on the courthouse steps to call for justice in this case. Peaceful protest has been encouraged by the clergy, as my new community waits for trial.
All of this has been taking place as I prepared to pack up my home in Atlanta and make the move to Glynn County. One of my long time friends laughed and said that it just figured I would be in the middle of it, even though I had not left. I am frankly pleased that the community of faith seems to be responding in a thoughtful way, but how this all ends is hard to say. What is true is that a twenty-five year old man is dead and is not going to get a chance to live out his life.
This salt march, just up the road from my beloved Cumberland Island, is going to be the locale for my house. I am hoping and praying to make it my home. I left Atlanta in the broad daylight, flooded with the memories of a lifetime. Atlanta is in my rear-view mirror, but quite alive in my soul. It’s time for new chapter to begin. I wonder what surprise is in store. And as the song says, the road goes on forever.