By Curtis Price
Posted December 18, 2021
I am sitting in a North Alabama conference room, furnished in Deep South church-basement Deco. The walls are pale cream, as are the tiles, with only the brown chairs and tables offsetting the wan interior. It’s the Volunteer Christmas Party at a local community services agency. The crowd is divided roughly fifty-fifty between black and white, all older women with only two men, me and one other. This overwhelming sex imbalance reflects the nature of volunteering, where it is women more so than men who get involved with community issues, including visiting the frail, shut-in elderly and tending to the sick.
Speaking of the small, black church nurse corps – where women who do this work of unpaid caring for others – Noel Ignatiev once wrote that this mutual aid and non-professional caring was the essence of socialism. Perhaps it is. But also probable as a scenario is the same church group driving out an unmarried mother by whispering and shunning because of her “sin.” The two sides go hand in hand. The Southern church can both envelop in non-commodified compassion or it can become a boa constrictor wielded against the outcasts and non-conformists, suffocating the different.
I strike a conversation with an elderly black woman sitting next to me. We slip into an easy informality. I gather from her conversation she must be in her seventies, even if she looks much younger. Her story is that of many working-class Southern women, black and white. Taking care of children and one set of dying relatives after another, from parents to spouses. Unlike the professional middle-class, who can wall themselves off by having the coins to hire outside help to provide caring so they can pursue their precious careers in the market place, working class women are confronted life-long with a double-burden of care and employment.
The inspirational speaker, the improbably named Reverend Equator Black, strides in with a broad smile, a tall string bean of a man with a long, sad face like an itinerant Delta blues singer and dressed to the nines in a pinstriped suit. The Reverend is 96 years old, and still works every day farming. He tells snatches of his life story: bootlegging as a child during the Depression, “whore-mongering” across the South before he got “The Word,” a stint working in steel up north in Pittsburgh, truck driving – he’s done it all. He then performs a brief shimmy that’s a cross between a Chuck Berry cakewalk and a Limbo, to audible gasps in the room, showing how limber he is nearing 100 and of course, “thanks to the Lord.”
He starts preaching, citing Bible quotes and then putting the microphone in front of one of the audience to complete the Bible passage. But to me, as a non-believer, it strikes me as sometimes forced and formulaic, which in fact it is. Call and repetition, however, strikes a chord with this group. Yet, like much of today’s religion in the United States, it comes off as self-centered. God is an insurance policy, for people that don’t have insurance policies. The Lord is all-powerful and has time, in His busy schedule, to personally oversee every act of His flock. I don’t hear much social aspect, that this type of religion makes you better so you can help others.
But at the same time it counsels waiting for Divine Intervention or blessings, it holds out a distorted, but real vision, of a better future, nourishing hopes in barren grounds. Yet this is the same privatized religious impulse that can swiftly change under the right social conditions to become a critique of the powerful and a demand for justice on earth, such as happened in the Southern Civil Rights movement. It is also a shield against dissipation in the wider world, a talisman burnished against the siren-song slop of consumer culture. However rigid and narrow it can seem to outsiders, you don’t find in it the corroding dissatisfaction that cripples so many other American lives, even if the “Gospel of Prosperity” and its snake-oil peddlers such as Reverend T.J. Jakes are steadily whittling away at these rich, older rural South traditions.