Tuesday, June 17, 2008

a belated father's day tribute to pastor john

Some of the photos I like most during this election season have been the ones showing Obama in the role of father. Images of him embracing his girls make my little adamantine heart sort of clench, you know?

I've written a lot about my dad on ChurchGal. He reads that site and has been incredibly gracious about standing in as my occasional straw man against which I throw my screeds and opinions.

If you looked at him today, with his distinguished gray hair, glasses and the goatee (that makes all the old ladies love him), you'd see an educated, charismatic older black man. A man who looks like he could be a jazzer or a popular philosophy professor at a city college. A man who looks comfortable wearing the collar of a reverend as well as the crazy red cashmere sweater-gym shorts-dress socks-sandals combo he wears to his daughters' chagrin during Saturday brunch. He looks settled, comfortable, successful. But his life story is, to me, the typical African American bildungsroman.

My father grew up in the ghetto. Literally. THE GHETTO. The projects of Compton and Watts might as well have been a sharecroppers plot. But from the ghetto, he went into the Army, married my mother, went to school to earn two degrees (including one from Talbot Seminary), became the young associate pastor of our church, then senior pastor.

I think growing up in the ghetto gave my dad some resilience. He built several ministries from scratch, launched a radio show and a web ministry; he survived a number of professional rivalries, controversies and church schisms. He survived the sudden death of his wife, the new world of dating in the 21st century and has somehow managed to avoid getting leg-shackled again. I remember a story he told me about dating a woman who became so frustrated at his unwillingness to 'take it to the next level' she sicced her little yappy dog on him and dumped water over his head on a beach date. Clearly, my relationship issues are a family trait.

My pops has lost several friends, made quite a few enemies, and earned grudging respect because of his unwavering integrity and willingness to call bullshit on the black church's excesses and hypocrisies. He's often an exasperating object of frustration to his two daughters.

(A common refrain: "Dad, why don't you do things the way they're meant to be done?!"
A common response: "Oh, girl. You worry too much.")

In his middle age, my dad has become a different dad. The authoritarian i grew up with has been replaced by a more mellow, cigar smoking, wine-sipping, Christian libertarian whose motto is 'That is between you and God. But you know you're wrong.' And he leaves it at that. Free will means free will, you know?

This later incarnation of my dad is a very cool, though befuddling, one.

So this is what my father taught me:

He taught me how to argue. Dinnertime was usually 90 minutes of my dad and I exhausting my mother and sister while I argued why it wasn't a sin to go to the Homecoming Dance or the weekend ski trip and he'd block me every time - until I figured out how to flip his rhetoric around on him. Good times.
He taught me how to fight. Watching my dad constantly turn the other cheek in the name of the Lord, I formed different opinions about the value of strategic conflict. I mean, David was a warrior, right?
He taught me how to think critically. Listening to my dad tear apart the faulty logic of his opponents was cool; having that same logic-tearing applied to me, not so much.
He taught me how to tell a story to make a point. These were always the best parts of his sermons.
He taught me how to lose. Like that Elizabeth Bishop poem, 'One Art.'
He taught me how to start over. Watching a pastor incubate and launch new ministries will do that.
He taught me that education counts. My dad is who he is because of the higher education. It can save a life.
He taught me that integrity and character count more.
He taught me that it is possible to change.
He also taught me there are some things you can't change - who you are is WHO you are. It's just that some folks lie about who they are.
He taught me how to charm. The moms in the PTA liked my dad for a reason.
He taught me about jazz.
He turned me into a feminist (when he told me I needed to learn how to make a man a sandwich.)
He is a walking lesson in vulnerability, sacrifice, faith and dedication to one's Call. (Yes, he might have *said* he wants to give his congregation the finger but he's still there.) This is a lesson I'm still trying to get.
He taught me that you make your own path. One thing I've always loved about my dad (both of my parents, actually) is that he has never, despite the unfortunate sandwich incident, tried to dictate my identity.

My memories of dad are those of unwavering support, whatever my decision has been. He was the one who drove across the country with my stuff when I started at UofM; he was the one who helped move me to Chicago when I decided to leave UofM; he was the one who didn't blink an eye when I told him I was going to jump into the unknown world of the non profit. He was the one who shut down his congregation when they had the nerve to whisper about my gay friends attending and helping out with my mother's funeral. He was the one who showed me that when other people start telling you how they need you to be someone you know you're not, you need to walk away and say, 'You crazy.' Consequences be damned. Most likely, there won't be any.

So, thanks, Dad. You've made me the feminist, bitchy, snarky, authority-hating loudmouth bougie snob I am today.

Love you! Happy Belated Father's Day!


Atalanta said...

Just pointing out that it is not just the *old* ladies....

ding said...


ding said...

to the Anonymous who just wrote something that made me so pissed off i deleted it:

i owe you nothing.

you don't get to know about my dad's foibles and weaknesses; you don't get to hear about the ins and outs of my family's relationships. why? because it belongs to me.

do you know me?
do you know my folk?
who the fuck are you?
who the fuck are you to demand that i draw back the curtain and spill my intimate family shit to you?

you're fucking nobody.

ding said...

(yeah, i don't turn the other cheek over here.)

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ding said...

whatever bug you have up your ass about me needs to chill.

and, look! deleted again.

Anonymous said...

That was beautiful, D. Hope my daughter someday will be able to express her affection for her dad (along with the inevitable frustrations to come). She's about to turn four in a few weeks, so no rush, I know.


P.S. My father's day gift from her and her mom this year was a male sea horse plush doll, with a pouch carrying three tiny sea horse pups. It's adorable.

P.S.S. Just saw "August: Osage County" last night, a play that began as a Steppenwolf production. Did you see it when it started in Chicago? It was the best modern play I've seen live since Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia." Talk about family dysfunction - you'd love it.

ding said...

Dr. L -
in a town where there are more dramas about Vietnam era angst than you can shake a stick at, the rare modern play that rocks gets attention. i'm so glad 'Osage County' is going to london! i didn't get to see it but Roomie, a theater freak, saw it and raved for weeks.

and thanks, Lee. (did you meet my dad? i can't remember.) maybe your daughter will capture all your foibles and awesomeness and turn it into performance art. that would be neat.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to say that I never did meet your dad, though I've heard enough about him to make him a pretty vivid presence in the mind's eye. Have you met Elinor? I can't remember.

Your funny comments about your dad's sultry appeal to the ladies makes me wonder if there's an equivalent to Ratemyprofessors.com for pastors. I'm sure he'd get a lot of chili peppers. They're all I ever care about when I've looked at my own ratings (yes, I've looked - wouldn't you?). One guy in my department has oodles of them, and at department meetings I shoot daggers at him behind his back.


ding said...

I have not met Elinor.
I think the last time you and your wife were in town, Elinor's arrival was imminent.

Re: ratings. Of course I would look, but a basket case I would become.

Does your colleague know you envy him his peppers?

ding said...

The stories about your mom and her students were pretty vivid, too. I still snort when I remember them.