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A Black Christian Experience

Willie James Jennings

Mary, my mother, taught me to respect the dirt. Like many black women from the South, she knew the earth like she knew her own soul. I came along late. I was the last of her eleven children, born not of the South but of the North, the fruit of the great migration when black folks wearied of the Jim Crow South and, in search of work, pointed their hopes toward northern cities and replanted their lives in colder air. So I was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and found myself each spring with my mother, Mary, in her garden in the backyard.

There near the soil Mary deepened my understanding of her life, her history, and her hopes. My mother and my father, Ivory Jennings, were both magnificent storytellers. They told stories the way water cascades over Niagara Falls or runs down the Mississippi, stories that encompassed larger or smaller fragments of people, places, jokes, incidents, sayings, sermons, arguments, clothing, foods, meals, body parts, and prayers. I could never take in all those stories. I had to simply let them wash over me, again and again, until I was able to locate myself in the stream of their historical consciousness. Yet running through their amazing stories were several themes. Like large, immovable rocks that shaped the contours of the water’s flow, these themes carried the keys for understanding every story.

Foremost was Jesus. Ivory and Mary loved Jesus. To say they were devout Christians is simply too pale a descriptor. A far more accurate characterization would be, “There were Ivory, Mary, and Jesus.” Woven into the fabric of their lives was the God-man Jesus, who, rather than simply serving as an indicator of their orthodoxy, became the very shape of their stories. The stories of Jesus and Israel were so tightly woven into the stories my parents told of themselves, their lives in the South and in the North and then with their youngest children in the North, that it took me years to separate the biblical figures from extended family members, biblical sinners from the sinners all around us, and biblical places of pain from their places of pain. I was never able to separate biblical hopes from their real hopes. They knew the Bible, but, far more important, they knew the world through the Bible.

Ivory and Mary also channeled what Toni Morrison so eloquently called “the hurt of the hurt world,” the knowledge of the deepest struggles and contradictions of black folks living among white folks. My mother was one of those black women who carry intimate knowledge of slave voices. As a little girl she lived with her grandmother, a former slave. She also knew from her own experiences the lives of poor folks in the South who picked cotton, got cheated for their backbreaking labor, and worked diligently to stay out of harm’s way with whites. The experience of agricultural labor, life in the dirt, also brought her into a contradictory but very intimate relationship with the land itself.

My parents loved the soil, the earth, the outside, and in their garden I saw the freedom they felt with it. The garden announced to them and the world that they were absolutely free to be themselves. My mother was a small woman with very muscular hands formed in the crucible of picking, pulling, holding, and hauling. She had a strong back, and when she bent over to touch the earth you could sense her power. She moved through her garden like it was an extension of her body. While in her garden, momma loved to talk about the Native American side of the family, her mother looking and her grandmother being part Cherokee. She had irrefutable evidence for this native lineage, but I could rarely follow all the names, places, and events, especially as I was more content with observing how she worked the plants and the dirt with such brilliant efficiency. I was more interested in the corn, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, blackberries, carrots, and other gifts she brought forth from the earth. It was while she and I were in the garden that they came upon us.

To reach the garden in the backyard, you had to walk up the long driveway of our house and cross a gravel area and then walk across some grass. From the garden you could hear anyone walking across the gravel, the sound of pebbles crunching announcing their presence. But on one memorable occasion, I did not hear them. All I heard was the sound of feet moving through grass, and as I turned I saw two white men walking toward us. I knew my mother was at the farthest end of the garden, and I wanted to alert her. But that was unnecessary. I don’t know how she knew or how she moved so quickly, but as I turned to find her with my eyes she was already positioning her body in front of mine. Her actions were ancient and modern—a mother moving her body in front of her child in the presence of strangers, a black woman placing her body between the body of her tender young son and the bodies of white men.

“Hello,” they said, “I am ____ and this is ____. We are from First Christian Reformed Church down the street.” They went on to ask my mother her name, which she told them in her regal southern voice: “I am Mary Jennings.” She did not tell them my name. This was for my protection my mother would say. White men should not know the names of young black boys, as such knowledge would never be used for my good. The older man proceeded to talk about their church, the activities they had for kids, and what they were hoping to do in the neighborhood. He talked for a long time and quite formally, like he was giving a rehearsed speech. The younger man stood looking around nervously. After what seemed to me hours, the younger man showed his impatience with his fellow missionary’s speech and bent down to speak to me. This was an odd gesture, I thought, not only because it too seemed rehearsed but also because it seemed inappropriate. I was about twelve years old, and when he bent down he was facing my navel. His words and verbal gestures were equally misplaced. He talked to me like I was a kindergartener or someone with little intelligence: What was my name, what school did I go to, did I like school? Does any twelve year old like school?

The strangeness of this event lay not only in their appearance in our backyard but also in the obliviousness of these men as to whom they were addressing—Mary Jennings, one of the pillars of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. I thought it incredibly odd that they never once asked her if she went to church, if she was a Christian, or even if she believed in God. Mary and her twin sister, Martha, were about as close to their scriptural counterparts as you could get. Without fail they were in their customary seats in church every Sunday, and you could calibrate almost every activity of the church by and around them or us, their children. In addition, every Sunday they would visit every single person on the sick and shut-in list. The depth and complexities of Mary’s faith were unfathomable, as unfathomable as the blindness of these men to our Christian lives.

My mother finally interrupted the speech of this would-be neighborhood missionary with the words, “I am already a Christian. I believe in Jesus and I attend New Hope Missionary Baptist church, where Rev. J. V. Williams is the pastor.” I don’t remember his exact reply to my mother’s declaration of identity, but he kept talking for quite a few more wasted minutes. Finally they gave her some literature and left. I remember this event because it underscored an inexplicable strangeness embedded in the Christianity I lived and observed. Experiences like these fueled a question that has grown in hermeneutic force for me: Why did they not know us? They should have known us very well.

From The Christian Imagination by Willie James Jennings. Published by Yale University Press in 2011. Reproduced with permission.

Willie James Jennings is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale Divinity School. The Christian Imagination won the American Academy of Religion Award of Excellence in the Study of Religion in the Constructive-Reflective category in 2011 and the Grawemeyer Award in Religion in 2015.

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