Not My Mother …
My mother first met the idea of her spirituality in Rochester, New York at an Episcopalian church and she is a woman of strong faith. While there may be those who consider that statement oxymoronic I would dare you to meet my mother. Her mother, Cecile, worked as a domestic and was a faithful member of a Baptist church in Rochester. My mother’s father, John, worked during the week as a lumberjack in Canada and came home to Rochester at the week’s end. From what I can gather, he did not have much time for church or the spiritual life. That is not to say that he did not believe in “spirits.” In fact, he devoted much of his life to spirits – distilled – but spirits nonetheless. It soon became apparent that a spirit-filled life and a spiritual life do not always equal a match made in heaven and so in the early 1940’s my grandparents parted ways. John went his way and Cecile, with her two daughters, June and my mother, Dorothy, went another.
Some time later Cecile met and married Earl, a God-fearing, fun-loving, hard-working Red Cap (the railroad’s equivalent of an airport’s Sky Cap) who came to Rochester, New York from Atlanta, Georgia. It was Earl who was the member of the Episcopalian church. It was Earl who attended church with his stepdaughter, Dorothy, and as fate would have it my mother became responsible for taking her little sister, Yolanda, the child from Cecile and Earl’s union, to church with her. It was in this church that my mother began to tone her spiritual muscle.
Married life became rocky. Children are seldom concerned with the “whys” for they are not as important as trying to cope with everyday life and getting through each day. John, June and Dorothy’s biological father, was not around and had not been in the picture for quite some time. June, the older sister, began to act out. There was constant tension between June and their mother Cecile. Once again the “whys” held no import. Yolanda, the youngest of the trio, seemed to fair a little better. Unlike June and Dorothy, her father was in the home and while she and Cecile had their difficulties there was only so much that could be done to her for “Daddy” was ever present. Cecile and June however, was another story entirely.
Dorothy was the classic “middle child;” quiet, introverted and with the exception of her height and pleasant look, easy to miss. If life was a movie, then she would more likely be cast as an extra as opposed to the star. She loved both her sisters equally but lived life as a spectator observing the different ways similar outbursts between here two sisters were handled. More often than not it was Dorothy who cared for Yolanda as she was more than a decade older. She held Yolanda’s hand as they crossed the streets to go the church.
The sanctuary never held truer meaning than for Dorothy. It was in this safe place that Dorothy began to beseech God. It was in this place where her personal “whys” were pondered but refuge for all was requested. While in her home, Dorothy’s faith was constantly tested but in her church with her God she found a mighty sustenance that made the daily discomforts of life seem almost bearable.
Dorothy seemed to go through life without a great amount of risk or chance taking. To her, God was, is and forever will be a sure thing. There was no sense in seeking something or someone greater because there was no such thing or being. Pressing one’s luck did not make much sense to her. If I am painting the picture that my mother was boring, then I have done her a huge injustice. She was then and remains resolute, resilient and consistent – qualities not found in great abundance today. Mom has a self determination that to me, as her son, is at times maddening and refreshing at once. I have come to believe that those qualities are not only gifts from God. Each time she relies on those gifts she feels that she is honoring a God who loved her enough to give those gifts; she knows God is watching and it is her desire to please her God.
To this day Dorothy does not wear her faith on her sleeve. Her faith is not something that she has to show you or me anyway. Her faith is reserved for her God. It is not a faith that you see with your eye but rather a faith that you feel when you are in her presence. I can remember hearing her faith in an answer to a question that some theologian may have expounded upon for hours. I asked her, “How and/or why do people who seem to never get a break in life keep coming to church and why is their faith so strong?” In what appeared to be no time at all, she exposed my lack of faith and demonstrated the strength of the convictions she had learned as a child. Her reply was unassuming, simple and quick, “God said our reward is in Heaven. So we really shouldn’t be expecting too much here on earth. That is why anything that we do get while here is considered a blessing and we should be thankful for it.”
As a child, Dorothy learned there was a loving, forgiving, providing God. She believed it wholeheartedly and would come to lean on the strength that the phrase held repeatedly throughout her life.
…Not My Father…
My father’s introduction to spirituality was more of an immersion. He was the next to the last child of Porter, Sr. and Dorothy’s (coincidently the same name as my mother) six (6) children. Porter, Sr. was the pastor of a Baptist church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dorothy kept the household going and also printed the bulletins for Sunday service, typed Porter Sr.’s sermons, taught Sunday school and as if all that was not enough, she was the organist for Sunday service. Of the six (6) children, there were five (5) boys, four (4) of whom were ordained Baptist ministers. The only girl married an ordained minister.
My father, Wendell, grew up under the teachings of Porter, Sr., a devout Christian and probably the holiest man I will ever have the pleasure of meeting. He was a preacher whose trajectory suggested that he was on his way to becoming a member of the Academy. He was an educated man who, in 1941, was already in possession of two graduate degrees, was working on his doctorate and had published a book entitled, W.W. Brown, Host. From the time I met him, Grandpa’s life was completely given over to “his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” He had never been to a movie theater, believed in hard work and providing for his family, and above all, serving God always in all ways. He was not overly involved with the day to day workings of maintaining the family, which was my grandmother, Dorothy’s job and she handled it quite well seemly loving every minute of it. Porter, Sr. seemed to always be focused on the next sermon. As soon as Grandpa came home from church he immediately retreated upstairs to his study to begin researching and writing his sermon for the next Sunday. He did that for close to fifty (50) years.
There was never any question of whether or not you were going to church. It was understood and expected. If there was the infrequent occasion where one of the children found themselves too sick to go to church (or school for that matter), then the remedy was always Castor Oil. To listen to my father tell the story, it would appear that Castor Oil was quite a drug. The mere mention of its prescription seemed to miraculously cure all who even thought they were ailing.
Young Wendell grew up witnessing the works of his father firsthand. Dad would often remark that his father was “the best sermon he had ever seen”. To Porter, Sr. the way to “God’s Kingdom” was through service and sacrifice. On those terms there was no wiggle room.
Though my father was ordained a Baptist minister, he was called by the newly formed Northwest Congregational Church in Baltimore, Maryland in 1964 – I was seven months old. That church later became Heritage United Church of Christ. The UCC appealed to my father because it gave the congregation a voice. Directives were not merely handed down from a larger, governing body or dictated by some demagoging pastor. The UCC invited people from all denominations to participate. It allowed a pastor’s creativity to flourish. The pastor could work with the congregation and vice versa. The people had a say in what they would do as a “body of Christ.” My father believed in God and religion, but he had grown weary of denominations and their doctrines. He was felt that the denominations did more to divide churches as opposed to providing cohesion.
My father strongly believed that God was either God of all or he was not God at all. Consequently, there was no place where God’s word was not sovereign even if it was not welcomed, including the political arena. He learned this lesson from watching his older brother, Channing, who was the pastor of Lincoln Congregational Temple United Church of Christ when he became the first Black to be nominated for President of the United States of America by a major political party from the floor of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Dad consistently put his faith into action. As an entrepreneur, he opened a religious bookstore and card shop in the neighborhood. When I questioned the logic, he would just reply with, “The community needs this.” I did not understand. I thought the purpose of going into business was to make money and “the community” could certainly use a record shop. He ran for public office and was the first minister to be elected twice to terms in the Maryland General Assembly amid cries from some that the political arena was “no place for a pastor.” He went on to become the first Black to chair Baltimore City’s Legislative Delegation and in the mid 1980’s helped to deliver more money to Baltimore City than had ever been delivered before. He did these things and many more based solely on the beliefs imparted to him by his father and mother. Without question, my father was the greatest sermon that I ever saw.
…But It’s Me, Oh Lord …
As you have probably been able to discern, my story is not the story of someone who has constantly toiled through life. It is not the story of one who did without the “finer things”. It is not the story of one whose parents were scattered about by lofty ideals or haunted by the lack thereof. Not to in any way belittle the situation or the powerful witness that these stories contain but mine is not the story of a “black boy from the tough, inner city, raised by a single-mother” or grandmother because his father was not there or both parents were strung out on drugs, incarcerated or some seemingly insurmountable combination of the two. And though “some of my best friends” have come from those realities, I thank the Lord that I did not. My parents provided everything I needed. I did not have to “do without.” Nevertheless, my life has not been without struggle… beautiful struggle.
It may come as a surprise that though I grew up around so many ministers I really do not know much about the Bible. My lessons usually came from watching great people who I have encountered attempt to live out lessons from the Bible. From those observations I have tried – for the most part – to live my life adhering to what I feel are the two most important lessons in the Bible: 1) place no one and no thing above God; for there is no one greater and, 2) “Whatsoever you do to the least of these you do so unto me.”
While my parents grew up in different types of homes I benefited from the main thing they held in common – their sense of spirituality. My parents seemed to recognize that it takes a certain amount of introspection to unravel the questions related to one’s spirituality. No matter how one grows up there must be something on the inside that helps determine one’s path. Unlike me, my parents both had siblings. In my mother’s instance, she chose a different path then her sisters. In my father’s situation he chose the same (or very similar) paths of his siblings. My mother and father found each other and I was able to benefit from both of their strengths regarding spirituality. My mother’s quiet, reserved dutiful but unshakable faith coupled with my father’s “faith in action” afforded me the best of both worlds with regards to spiritual teachings.
… Standing In The Need Of Prayer.
On January 29, 1993 my father died suddenly. Needless to say my world was rocked; shaken to the core. My mother and I were devastated. Dad was everything to both of us and a whole church and surrounding community grieved with us. Had you asked me prior to his death how I would live without him, I would have told you that I could not. Almost seventeen (17) years later I am still here. I have two daughters to whom I am teaching the spiritual lessons taught to me by my parents and in that way he lives on through me and now to them. Though I did not think that I was ready for him to be gone it seems that Dad had helped fortify me with most of the tools needed to survive. My mother has lent to me some of her remarkable strength to help balance out the equation.
I struggle sometimes with the inevitability of death and, at times, when my faith is low, the finality of death. But then I am reminded that when a caterpillar “dies” a butterfly is born. Through my spirituality I have come to accept that once a person has learned all they need to learn or taught all they need to teach their work on this earth is done and whether we know it or not we will be ready.
As I stated earlier, my journey to this point has not been without struggle. When you are born with the same name as your father society immediately relegates you to forever stand cold in his shadow and I am sure the same holds true for women and their mothers. It matters not if people speak well or ill of him your place remains unchanged. You inherit all of his enemies and half of his friends and the struggle to define yourself – at times for the sake of others and at other times in spite of others – begins.
I never felt that my parents forced religion or spirituality on me. Yes I had to go to church but I never felt that I “had to” attend church. I went along with what people expected the PK (Preacher’s Kid) to do with regard to griping about “having to” go to church but the truth of the matter is that I really enjoyed “living” in church. I learned some of the best lessons that could have ever been taught, met some of the greatest people God’s ever created, laid down some of the heaviest burdens, cried some of the most cleansing tears and experienced some of the most outrageous joy. I remain in the process of becoming. My spiritual growth is a work in progress and I may never get it right, but I thank God for each opportunity that I have to do so, for without God, I am nothing.
Standing in the Need … (A Spiritual Autobiography) © 2009 by Wendell F. Phillips