My early years were spent living with my grandparents. My mother had moved home following a divorce, and was teaching biology at the local high school in south Atlanta, Fulton High. The fact I was around testified to her knowing something about human biology.
As she taught, I stayed at 1388 Oakland Drive with both grandparents, my grandfather having recently retired from the Atlanta Police Force. He had been Sherriff in a western Georgia county, but resigned, not wanting to arrest his brother-in-law for moonshining.
And so he came to Atlanta, working a downtown beat and riding a cop bike, a Harley, that he loved. He was the Georgia version of John Wayne, with a bit less bravado and a hell of a lot of compassion that I hope I got a dose of. He would put Mr. Dial, the next door drunk, to bed most every Saturday night, after he had tried to tame his World War memories from inside a bourbon bottle. Mr. Dial just couldn’t quite make it home, passing out on the front lawn, and on a good night, his front porch. My granddad would pick him up, put him in his bed, and never say a judging word. “He’s got a lot of hurt in him”, my granddad would offer his home-grown clinical diagnosis.
On Sunday morning, Granddad and I would have coffee…yeah, coffee, Maxwell House, good to the last drop.. Sausage and biscuit was the treat. But we had to be quiet not to wake up my grandmother. She could be hell to pay, a noted Bible teacher who could pull out a Bible verse quicker and more deadly than a Smith & Wesson .38. Then, we would retire to his den, before there were “man caves”, to watch Gospel Jubilee on WSB television, featuring the Florida Boys and the Happy Goodmans. It’s where Iearned to love harmony, and a bit of showmanship.
At the end credits of Jubilee, we would get in his white Chevy to drive to Oakland City Baptist Church. Granddad took me with him to the “old men’s class” known as the Friendship Class.
Make note: Baptists South of God name their Sunday School classes. And I noted that the names give a clue to the nature of the gathering of human beings therein. This “old mens” class was called the Friendship Class, and that was accurate. There was a men’s class at Decatur First called the “Alert Class”, which is where my father-in-law, Dr. Bill Grimes, attended and sometimes taught. I always wondered what they were “alert” to, perhaps meanderings of our pastor from the straight and narrow. And there was the Pilgrims class, a middle aged group of adults who prided themselves in following Truth wherever it led. I remember teaching them one Sunday about contemplative prayer, introducing Thomas Merton to this group of progressive Baptists. They were “pilgrims” in the best sense of the word. I recently taught, via Zoom, a class in a Presbyterian church in Austin called the Lively Class, and they were, engaged and inquisitive, living up to their billing.
The Friendship Class was just that, comprised of Mr. Barrentine, Mr. Sellers, Mr. Boseman, to name just a few retired old men that were my grandfather’s friends. I was gifted by this group of men, who adopted me as their own. While I did not have a biological father in my house, I had an ample group of men who stood-in as my paternal presence, loving on me in a way that only a Baptist Church knows how to do.
This was in the mid-Fifties, a time in the world, particularly the South of God world, that divorce was frowned upon. It clearly meant someone was headed to Hell, usually a man, a rounder. The fact that the “boys” of the Friendship Class looked past any moral judgment and loved on me was my innocent primary experience of grace in the context of Church.
On my third birthday, my mother asked me what I wanted for my party. My answer, which she reported later, was that I said matter-of-factly, that I wanted to invite “The Boys”, referring to the Friendship Class. And so that is what happened on June 30, 1957, a gathering of the boys. There was the picnic table, the redwood type. There was a birthday cake in the middle of the table, along with a punchbowl. A photograph shows me in the arms of my granddad, surround by twenty something old men, circled around the table.
Now, I don’t know what sense you make out of this but for me, it was a prefigurement of what Church would come to mean to me. A place of grace that looks beyond cultural norms and prescriptions, a gathering of folks around a table to sense a spiritual presence, there with bread in the form of a sweet cake and wine in the form of Baptist punch. It’s just not surprise what this would mean for me, a proleptic experience of the heavenly banquet of God’s love, made real for this young boy in the love of a group of retirees.
I have continued to find that in a variety of settings, some deeply religious, and some profundly secular, though the demarcation has seemed to blur, blame it on aging eyesight or growing wisdom, moving beyond binary simplicity.
A circle of folks, around a fire on the beach at Folly Beach.
A circle of brothers in a fraternity chapter room on Fraternity Row at Emory.
At a table of co-workers at Churchill Arms in Buckhead at the end of the week.
At a table of mavericks at a bar named for Hemingway.
At the quintessential Texas roadhouse, the Broken Spoke, with convivial, dancing Episcopalians.
Around the altar at the Trappist Monastery in Conyers with seriously playful monks and under the altar in the crypt as we celebrated Christmas Eve with spirited Monk Punch and alternative Baptist Punch without the punch.
A virtual circle on a Zoom call on Sunday morning from St. Athanasius in Brunswick.
Seven moments of connection.
Seven moments of communion.
Where are the places where you get that sense of connection with something larger? Dare I ask, where do you get a moment of connection with a reality that is transcendent, something bigger than your self?
I would love to hear from you, either in the questions here or in a note to my email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In my new island home, I have recently found a table, where post-vax, I gathered with an old clergy friend for lunch. What was to go an hour, became three, with this meeting place feeling incredibly Holy, in spite of touristas sipping boat drinks. I am hoping this is a sign of new gatherings, new transcendent events to add to my collection. I’ve got a good feeling about this, y’all. Blessings.