We’d been talking to Janes friend Tracy, asking what he was doing this Sunday, did he want to catch up? He said he was attending gospel church with his mother. Tracy described a small country parish that had seen generations of people attending church, celebrating their faith with fellowship, music and… song.
Could this be one of those churches I’d read about where the congregation bursts into song, sounding like Aretha Franklin, swaying rhythmically, responding viscerally to the music and messages of their faith? I was curious…
How do you let someone know you’d like to witness this without turning their deep spirituality into entertainment, a spectacle? But it wasn’t so complicated…Tracy simply invited us to come along.
Tracy lived not far from us in downtown Norfolk so we picked him up on the way. His mum, Miss Skinner, who lived a little further out, would normally drive herself, but today we’d all travel together to the New Willow Grove Baptist Church in Chesapeake, rural Virginia.
We traveled out of the city along a spaghetti of crowded freeways, past suburbia and after about twenty minutes, turned onto a country highway. A few miles in Miss Skinner directed us to a single lane road, deep into the woods. She warned us to watch out for deer, oncoming vehicles and not to pull over too far as the ditches on the verge were hazardously deep. What had I signed up for? It was unfamiliar, unsettling. I felt like I was intruding into someones private place.
At the end of the narrow road the church soon appeared. Miss Skinner told us that the original congregation was founded in 1864… I wondered what it would have been like to be a person of colour back then.
We pulled into the car park and saw impeccably dressed women, many wearing hats (I was glad I’d chosen to dress conservatively). People were meeting up, embracing us as we walked across the tarmac. We felt so warmly welcomed that all my fears of intrusion were immediately dispelled.
Inside the foyer Miss Skinner introduced us to more of her friends, many intrigued by the notion of two Australians, coming to Chesapeake, visiting their church. We followed her to a preferred pew and slid along the bench. The woman next to me held out her hand, introduced herself and we both agreed it was an utter pleasure to meet!
At the front of the church the band softly began to play and then…
…the choir stood and started to sing.
A familiarity with the hymns at first (like the ones I’d grown up with)…but as the voices grew, the rhythm built and the music soared, those simple songs of praise were taken to a whole new level. The people in the congregation responded, shouting out affirmations, clapping, standing, swaying with the rhythm, voices booming. The little church came alive, my heart raced. It was powerful, stirring, bigger than a Motown sound, like nothing I’d ever heard before. I was so moved, the sound so beautiful, so electrifying, so beyond my most wild expectations that I could barely comprehend the experience. My eyes filled with joyful tears.
This was just the prelude to the service. After a few songs the choir sat back down, the pastor rose and the service commenced. We started with a traditional hymn and the lovely ladies next to us, seeing that we looked a little unsure, handed over the hymn books, opened to the page, smiled and encouraged us to sing. I hoped my scratchy, waspish voice didn’t upset the mood too much!
I must confess I thought the sermon would be some bible bashing, god fearing, devil decrying, tent preaching event. Instead Pastor McPherson gave a deeply moving talk about accepting responsibility for your actions, moving beyond ‘what you feel’ to what is right. As the sermon continued it became more like verse. The band picked up the rhythm of his voice and his words sounded like the most perfect, soul-stirring song.
We recited verses and stood to pray.
When the notices were read Pastor McPherson warmly acknowledged Jane and me, surprised to learn we had traveled all the way from Australia. A gentle response of ‘welcome’ could be heard amongst the congregation.
And when the service was over many of the parishioners came up and thanked us for attending, intrigued we’d come from a place so far away…but we were the ones who could barely thank them enough… for the privilege of coming to their church, experiencing that extraordinary choir, listening to the wise words and, most importantly, the warmth and love that these people, complete strangers, had so generously shared.
Ms Skinner introduced us to Aunt Flo. I recognised her as the woman who’d handed me the hymn book when I was looking a little lost during the service. The women invited us to join them for lunch and we eagerly accepted.
We all squeezed into Jane’s car. Miss Skinner directed Jane through the back roads, we crossed state lines and eventually arrived at a barbecue restaurant in North Carolina. Tracy told us they often came here, after church, to share a meal together.
During the trip, we chatted away. I learnt that Ms Skinner and Aunt Flo had known each other since they were little girls. Now both 87, these women had shared a long history. I was keen to find out more.
We were seated and handed menus but Ms Skinner said it would be better to have the buffet as we’d get to try a greater selection of traditional southern food.
So I took her advice and grabbed a plate.
I loaded it with ribs, stuffed crab, fried chicken, beans, mashed potato and tucked in….it was bloody delicious! We went back again and again, working our way through all this North Carolina Barbecue restaurant had to offer…(regretfully) even finding room desserts!
While we ate lunch everyone began to relax, the conversation opened up and we got to know these two women at a much deeper level. Jane mentioned she’d just returned from the Hamptons after spending Summer cooking for a New York family. And that is where we found common ground…
Both Miss Skinner and Aunt Flo had ventured to New York in the early 1950s. They too had worked in the homes of wealthy New Yorkers. They spoke of the subtle discrimination. Of being trusted nannies, doing everything for their young charges, but when they became cooks being prohibited from using the same fridge, drinking the same drinks or even eating the same food they’d cooked for their employers.
When Aunt Flo worked as a cleaner she remembered picking up her bosses trousers, casually tossed on the floor, with dollar bills spilling out of the pockets…amounts way beyond her meagre pay. She would neatly stack the notes on the dresser aware that handling the money was complicated. The threat of being accused of theft was ever present…a trumped up charge often thrown at ‘difficult’ staff (usually women who knew far too much about the secrets of a family) and one that could ruin all chances of future employment.
Miss Skinner told of the time she took a short trip to Washington. She stood at the counter of a café wondering why she was being ignored as the waitress attended to all the other customers. Speaking out, Miss Skinner asked ‘Why’, only to be told that women like her needed to go out the back and be served at a different place. This counter was ‘Whites Only’. Miss Skinner thought she’d left that type of discrimination back in the South and was shocked to find it here in a city which supposedly prided itself for its liberal, anti racist views.
Aunt Flo told us how hard it was to be a little kid, of the hurdles she faced just to get to school. So often we hear that education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty. When Aunt Flo was a child people of colour were banned from sharing the school bus with the other children from her state school. She remembers been taunted by the kids on the bus as they passed her while she walked the long distance to school. Eventually a second, older, bus was provided but it broke down so often that it was barely worth using it. She spoke of only being given second-hand, state issued, school books. Of all the pages being already filled in and having nowhere to write her answers. Of the bullying in the playground, of the exclusion. As a mother I could barely comprehend what this would be like for a child, what it would do for their confidence, their self-esteem.
But Miss Skinner and Aunt Flo were exceptionally brave and determined people who went on to have careers, raise (successful) children and live full lives in spite of what society had thrown at them.
And today I was so pleased to meet these two beautiful women, humbled by their stories and touched at how included they made me feel when they welcomed us, strangers, to their church.
Thank you Tracy so much for giving us the opportunity to spend time with you, your Mom and Aunt, it was such a privilege and one of the most memorable days of my life.
Much love Anna x