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Edition 35

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Memoir

No Jesus man

SISTER CLARA FORD comes at me with eyes deep as sonnets, the whites of them bright as her dress and the black of them black as the shine on her forehead. Fingers that reach forward and touch my pale brow, send me floating backwards into the arms of men. Loose him, in the name of the Saints of Jerusalem, loose him. And I fall, feel the hands that catch me, large hands that rest me down among the pews, among others splayed here on the solid green First African Methodist Episcopal carpet. All of us laid out by her touch and the words that come with it, and I am loosed down here, but loosed of what? Floating, buoyant in a kind of spaciousness as if there's air and distance between me and the carpet, bodies strewn about me in their Sunday best, one bangled arm flung over my choir robe. Launched by only a touch on my brow and a ferocity in Sister Clara's eyes. Feelings gathering up into one that's singular, rising high in my body. But what is it? A taste of serenity, or being softly held together?

Through the blur of my lashes, Lily Outerbridge is lowered, poured onto the floor and arranged in the aisle beside me, her old arms flailing. This healing is going on right after the twelve o'clock service. All morning I've been singing spirituals and anthems, the choir performing for hours, roiling in music and praising His Holy Matchless Name. The only white boy, in my black and cream nylon robe, up in the choir loft among these old folks, singing out 'Ain't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus', when I'm not exactly a Jesus man. Now I lie in some half-focused light, hungry, faint-headed, susceptible perhaps, but the weightlessness is real, the clarity, the wailing and faint hallelujahs. I can't pretend I don't feel something. The sound of old Lily singingwonderful counsellor. I know the tunes by now. Sister Clara above us like a giant black angel, her nappy-grey hair with its great white taffeta rose, her fainting hand barely paler on its underside, her palm the darkest purple.

There is something going on here, something that can't be proven. Singing since dawn, as usual, first Sunday. Promoted to lead the tenors in the oldest black choir in Los Angeles. More the result of attrition than bona fide talent, straining my voice till it's hoarse.

Enthusiasm is my true gift, my voice is only from singing the solos at the Peninsula School, south of Melbourne, but I was never quite taught how to breathe. And here in Los Angeles I hardly seem to eat or sleep, out into the night at Catch One, dancing all hours with the black boys to their deep house music, the pounding bass, intoxicated by the flow of bodies. Maybe I just want to be touched. To be held by a stranger, or God.

 

I DRIVE FROM the club as the sun comes up, directly to this church on Sugar Hill, my wash-and-wear robe pulled over my jeans. I come to feel more of it, searching for the same thing maybe, in the rhythm of the 'Holy Praises', the thunder of Pastor Murray preaching, the drug of sound and movement. I roll and hum and shout, respond to the call of things I can't quite believe, raise my hands to the sky.

Knowing I wouldn't experience or stomach it among my own; I would feel nothing. I would run. But in the midst of these folk I shout regardless, caught up in it all. The mural behind me, those coloured saints and sages, black shepherds with sheep and the leadlight windows. Dark-faced Jesus and John the Baptist, their cheeks black as everyone's here but my own.

Yet this is where I feel at home. My mother on the farm so far away, so staunch in logic and an atheist - if she could see her golden boy now, lost and found and lost again, bewitched by these old-time Jesus people with their hollering and voodoo. There'd be incomprehension. A shaking of the head.

But I belong. Sister Clara, silk rose in her hair and her bright white crinoline dress, the same one she always wears. Her face and hands extruding, sweat-shined as molasses, laying us out like rows of planks. Sitting half-up I feel queasy, a buzzing of energy about my crown and the murmurs surround me, the almost silent talking in tongues, omshabadalothashada, keening and twitching, feverish, altered. Mabel Silent from the altos calls out in a deep, hoarse voice. Manulasenbario, repeating and repeating, swooning.

I'm afraid words might spill up from me, spontaneously, some language that doesn't find air, from a place I've never been, a past life bleeding through. A dialect I once started scribbling down when I woke from a dream, words on a page from some African girl on a ship. Like the words from the old church mothers spread about, who believe their exorcised evil now lolls in the aisle. Sister Clara's accent so Southern I can barely understand. Give um to me, in de only name of Jaysus. Singing rhythmic hallelujahs as she sermonises, ranting how lesbines are only coz a girl a bin incest, coz a all de sin. She's come up to this place all the way from Mississippi, but I am from a deeper south. And rumour has it she fled an institution, and not one of higher learning.

What is it I'm fleeing? She makes no sense but I come back each week for more, to share in this transcendence, lift out of myself, reach up and escape my body.

 

I'M SUPPOSED TO be down on the basement level for rehearsal: Bennie Pruitt's Truth is Marching On, his homespun gospel musical. I'd better get myself there. The only white boy to play the only white boy, the one behind the counter in the lunch counter scene, sing a song to the 'negro' boys who come to sit in protest. My solo is titled 'Leave oh leave I hate you' but I sing it as a love song, my purest yearning tenor voice, as if hate means love. And no one seems to notice. I get no direction - they're just happy to have me.

Bennie Pruitt thinks I should have a screen test, as if I'm so handsome - but I'm not so handsome, it's just that Bennie lives so deep in South Central, way down near One Hundred and Third and Success, that anyone foreign looks like a film star. Now I'm late for the run-through, opening my eyes again, closing them, woozy, among the groaning and swaying. Afraid my bliss will pass too soon, a cloud of hope that's sinking. It's the euphoria I long for. Freedom.

The shadow of Sister Clara above me as she wipes a spittled finger in the eyes of a woman, healing. Old Bessie Slaughter from the back row of the sopranos watches, her handbag over her arm like the Queen, smiling the faintest approval. I think of what Sister Clara said about lesbines and incest and I know in my heart these folks are so old school. I'll have to write a letter to the trustees. You should be aware that Clara Ford is preaching bigotry and nonsense. But what would they say if they knew where I'd been all night? Is that what Sister Clara wants to rid me of? My yearnings and rituals, my proclivities. Loose me, then, it might be easier, loose me.

 

I ENDED UP here the night of the riots, or what's since been coined The Insurrection, driving home from my office downtown at White & Jablonski, way up on the forty-first floor with a view all the way to Palos Verdes and the bridges of Long Beach. The Rodney King verdict had just been announced and I was indignant, disbelieving. I'd seen the endless repeat of the video footage. Beaten to a pulp. How could that be justice? Reginald Denny had been dragged from his truck, pummelled to a pulp in retribution on the corner of Florence and Normandie. Radio KJLH said a rally had been called at the First African Methodist Episcopal, a church I'd never heard of, a good stretch from Florence and Normandie. Incensed as the next man, I did what the next white man didn't, pulled off the freeway and found my way to South Harvard Boulevard. My own heightened search for adrenaline.

A high stucco church on a hill and black folks filing in, spilling out. A night falling warm and close, expectant. I parked and heard singing echo from the sanctuary so I crept in among them to get a glimpse of where the music came from. Ride on, King Jesus. I thought they were singing Right on, King Jesus, and I knew I was in the right place. I felt high just being there.

The old black mayor of the city was speechifying, the church interior cream and maroon and full of black men and women jostling to see, a general sense of fervour and rage. A couple of white men with extension cords and cameras, the press. One of them saw me, shook his head. Standing room only and I was stuck in the entry hall, couldn't quite catch sight of the pulpit.

The voice of the mayor through loudspeakers was guttural and incensed. The legacy of Martin King, as if we knew him personally. Are we back to business and beatings as usual? Reverend Cecil 'Chip' Murray, the pastor, up there pleading for peace and almost in tears, his voice so profundo the stained glass shook. Whispers around me of marching to the court in Simi Valley where the verdict came down, to make it historic. A scene in a film I once saw of Selma on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. How we have overcome little if we just stand by. Then the press was gone and I was the only white face left.

As the church doors reopened I also knew there'd be no walk on Simi Valley, it wasn't safe out there. Flames roped up from Adams Boulevard, just down the hill, sirens floated through the dark. People running, shouting, the crashing of a window. This adventure had become real. Black kids willy-nilly, looting. A boy about twelve with a big microwave, like a scene from TV. The smell of smoke and the media vans leaving quickly as I made a dash for my car, only one street over, but a group of kids marauding, one in a low-rider who shouted out his window - Hey mothafuckah watch yoo doin down here? And I was bolting back to where I'd come from, back towards the church, to a crowd that remained in this same sanctuary, too afraid to leave. A car in flames, like a distant torch.

We ain't goin' nowhere, a big man said, making plans in case the church got overrun. They seemed to know how crazy folks could get. We was here for Watts in '64. We know this pressure cooker. He rolled his eyes and scoffed with the excitement of it. And I was left among them, awkward, foreign, shy but friendly, searching for other white faces, but there were just flames climbing out from an apartment building down the hill, and a hot Santa Ana feeling, the smell of fire borne on dry winds. The crack, crack, crack of gunshots and I was being ushered away from church doors that were being locked as I went downstairs and joined the others, doing their church-smiling when they saw me, thinking Oh God, what are we going to do with him? Unsure what to do with myself.

The lights in the basement dimmed as I stood amid trestle tables, church fete-style, kitchen smells, a poster about a musical: When Harlem Was in Vogue. Everyone hushed now. I thought how I might need to slide into the walls like Otto Frank, if the anger from the street leaked down in here. I eyed an open broom closet, pictured myself wedged between the carpet sweeper and hanging brooms. A lady in an African head rag asked where I was from and eagerly I said Australia, as if that might not be so bad. You found yourself where you shouldna been tonight, she said, smiling. We'll take care of you. She gave me a bosomy hug and left me among about a hundred left over, milling about, a grim expectation settling in. A man jabbered loudly about how we always burn our own. But I had no memory of Watts or Selma, all I knew right then was how I was a far cry from Tooradin, from the farm and the bush and the horses twitching at flies.

After midnight a band of brothers made a barricade around me, got me out. You'll be a wheel within a wheel, one said, with a generous white-tooth smile, and I sensed it a biblical reference. They hummed as they circled me out into the smoke-filled darkness, like a many-legged creature, corralling me a block towards my car. The sounds of sirens and distant shouting, shadows running into the rioting night.
If you survive this, come back join us for church. They moved me through the unlit street.

You drive right outta here, don't stop for nothing, no light, no cop, no street-block, you keep driving. Thanking them awkwardly, profusely, I took their direction and high-tailed it north, cut through from Sugar Hill to Western Boulevard, my little Acura like a pistol through a city now devoid of streetlights or traffic, just the shape of an occasional person sprinting. Like Atlanta burning in Gone with the Wind, I thought, or Johannesburg. All silent, then another firecracker echo of a bullet, so distinct from a car backfiring, the sound of my own car pressing towards the distant hills. I turned on the radio - a city on lockdown, a curfew. Stay inside your homes. All over the city there are buildings on fire, looting. No kidding.

Like an idiot, out among it. A camera shop burning, a pet store next door. I imagined the parrots and kittens inside, wondered if I should stop to save them. But a fire engine passed me, bleating, and I pretended to myself it would be taken care of, just not by me. A Channel Seven van parked in the middle of nowhere. I imagined the story. Stupid white boy dies saving kittens. I headed on to where I should have been already, hours ago, up into Laurel Canyon, swooping up into those Hollywood Hills like a homing pigeon, the eucalyptus avenues, past the Canyon store, winding up Wonderland and the overgrown film-star gardens.

On the crest of Lookout Mountain I witnessed the view, the great basin of the city below, specks of burning buildings like distant fireflies, hovering. Back in my world, safe, alone, but the feeling of community gone. I wondered how my new friends were, the barricade of men who risked themselves. They took me in, those people, protected me, invited me back as if they somehow knew I belonged. If you survive this, come worship with us.

 

AND HERE AM I these ten months later, couldn't keep myself away. Hungering for the sounds that soared, they were exultant and I kept appearing, until I hungered for more. In the back pew in my suit from the office, eavesdropping on evening rehearsals, silent as a child, waiting to be part of something, to bathe in the unknown, protection or some state of grace. They greeted me with cautious, open arms, and when I was away from here I yearned for the timbre of their voices, their flights of ecstasy and inhibition. I had danced most of the night in the dark, then watched and swayed all morning in brightness. And I got brave enough to join the Cathedral Choir, slipped into the back row alongside the ancients, absorbing rhythms and words.There is a balm in Gilead. For weeks I sang a bomb in Gilead, assuming some modern take on the Middle East. But no one seemed to notice. Elijah Rock, Shout, Shout, Elijah Rock, Comin' Up Lord. I just sang and wept until I belonged. I was raised up high.

Now I sing in the front row, over-prepared and bright pink with trying, close to the pulpit, rehearsing the tenor parts in my car on the freeway, humming my way through work. We've since sung with the LA Philharmonic at Easter, and came on as the warm-up act for the Dalai Lama at the World Festival of Sacred Music, on stage at the Hollywood Bowl, swinging and shouting in our choir robes, raising our palms to the night.

There are even some faces in the congregation that I recognise from downtown: Lizzie the night word-processer in my office, a trustee from Bank of America. A few young guys from the nightclub who come here on the down low to the late service smile at me slyly, surprised. Gays are not embraced in black churches, but they are here. And I'm friends with Pastor Murray now, I'll tell him what I heard from Sister Clara's lips.

I will be gay and white and foreign, sing until I have no voice. I want to walk worthy, my calling to fulfil...

Not sure what I've come to believe, except perhaps in mystery and the frailty of my understanding. I reach for something among these black folks in their Sunday's best, proud men in their kente cloth vests, Jessamine Hidden and the old church mothers. I'm only able to guess at their lives, what they've seen. But they're unafraid to wail and shout, be lifted up and out. It's not so different from the rhythms of Catch One maybe, heat and light and percussive sounds, piano, organs, bass, bodies that move and sweat, the barricades of men. But here the stimulants aren't so artificial, no smoke or ecstasy or vodka, just Sister Clara shouting now: won't be no heaven for any who don't speak in tongues. I can't even fathom that kind of thinking. Bus as Bessie Slaughter closes her eyes and is ushered down so carefully, draped on the floor with her handbag still over her arm, I don't believe I'm here by accident. Laid out on this carpet from the touch of that big woman's hand, I feel as if I might grow wings.


From Griffith Review Edition 35: Surviving © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review