Don't Never Let Nobody Tell You Religion Comes Before Your Good Sense
My great grandmother, Celia had a pistol under her pillow, Orishas on her bed, dancing spirits hanging from the trees outside her window...she was the mother of her destiny. She went to church on Sundays to play piano for the choir because that was how she spoke to God. When her arthritis claimed those fingers of joy, she stayed home and looked for spirit in the mouths of her ancestors. When she no longer went to church, the church came to her. The pastor, deaconesses, elders came to her in secret after service much like our enslaved ancestors had to practice their faiths in secret) and they would sing her favorite hymns and ask to hear her stories and be touched by her healing hands. Many late night Sundays I sat in her front yard under her grand mango tree listening to the mangos fall and Gullah spirituals whispered in song from her bedroom window. The wind would blow through the trees and I understood, someone older than religion, someone older than slavery was convening a meeting in my great grandmother's house and she was the conduit for this ride.
She continued healing those who could gain insight and joy from the stories, the healing memories, cures for the mind, body and spirit handed down from her father's people the Dahomey by way of the Gullah Islands. She listened for the stories on the tongues of Africans who spoke Spanish, French and my paternal grandfather's Arawak, Cuban and Scottish stories. She shared the story of my grandfather's lineage.
She said, "You can bet your bottom dollar, there ain't no Thompson's in Africa or Cuba. So how you got that last name? Them Scottish people was also getting an ass whipping way back then for worshiping they nature Gods from just like the Africans. Them British was kicking some Scottish butt, putting people in prison and making them indentured servants on ships. That's how a Scottish sailor got to Cuba, made some babies with an Arawak woman and left her with the name Thompson and the rest is the history of how you got here. We are more alike than we care to know and all them things meet inside you. You ain't nothing but the little descendant of some pagans. And pagans ain't nothing but people who love nature and see God's purpose in the passing of the seasons and they name those forces gods and goddesses. Well that's what the Orishas is too. Winter coming and going, trees bearing fruit, storms bringing destruction and then life. That's proof possible of God's existence and that's what they worshiped.
Her ferocious determination not to be defined, but to live in limitless self-definition is a burning ember she left in my belly. She found the connections between African, Gaelic, Christian gods and their stories and that was her spirituality at work in the real world. It needed no church to be close to God. I listened to her and my Tio Cilo speak of stories from Africa, how his religion was Yoruba and followed the paths of the Orishas. I remember her warning him not to step on her glory.
"You got your stories and I got mine: one don't make the other right and both can stand side by side. Cuz whatever keeps you breathing longest and living in the light is what makes it right." They fought about it, but he respected her immensely and that feeling of what spirituality should feel like has stayed with me to this day.
I remember watching PBS documentaries with her and asking curious questions when I learned that priests blessed the guns of soldiers during WWI and I asked her.
"Well if everyone is praying to God that this gun will kill their enemy, how does God decide who to protect?"
She said, "Chile, the priest used to bless the heads of the slaves before they got on the boat knowing good and goddamn well what he was sending them off to. That's religion and it ain't got a thing to do with spirit. Don't never let nobody tell you religion comes before your good sense. The divine is within you. It's the spirit of god that makes you do right even when everybody else is trying to get you to do wrong."
I was like, "Yes, cause all religions say do not kill and they steady going to kill somebody cause they won't join their religion. That's extra gramma..."
She'd laugh, "Religion can make you crazy to that,,,when it make people leave they good sense behind in an effort to be right."
And we'd eat Johnny Cake and hoot.
She practiced no one faith and found spirit everywhere by blowing a wish of goodness your way and spinning it into healing rituals. She unknowingly (less by her words and more by her actions) taught me that religion is an agreement among men regarding men. Spirituality is a personal journey and no one owns it except the seeker and the visionary. She loved fellowship which she rightly understood is the province of religion, but was never bound by it. I believe, I learned that profoundly sitting under her mango tree. She was leading many, because she refused to be defined by one idea of God. And I realize that unwittingly, that is my definition of spirituality.
I welcomed an old acquaintance into my home and learned that she was eager for me to join her church. And before asking what I was about, she proceeded to tell me what was missing from my life and how her church could fill those empty places. She saw my great grandmother's photo on my altar and asked me about my church home. I told her about the religion that my parents later discovered which was quite different from the things my grandma and I discussed.
" I was raised in a faith that taught me to be a student of the bible by keeping me in service five nights a week and missionary work on Saturdays. It saved me from the ills of the ghetto and taught me that religion is an agreement among men. We all sign off on how "God" should be interpreted and then go about following the path that we've co-signed on which is totally legitimate. It's how civilization is built. It's a social contract to not kill each other needlessly and agree to build structures that support life. And this is a good thing until it's not, but it is in no way the end of the discussion."
She then said, "So instead of carrying your butt to church on Sunday, you sit here on the floor and light a candle?"
And instead of slapping the shit out of her (I was, afterall, raised by a woman with a pistol under her pillow) , I smiled and said,
"No, my dear. I sit here on the floor, light a candle, sing the songs my ancestors sang crossing the Atlantic. And I thank god, that I'm not sitting in a church next to someone like you with the bitter taste of the contempt that self-righteousness breeds in my mouth. Instead, I sit on this floor and think about my next step in the journey. What kind of healing my next story I write will create; the conversations it will spark, the little girls whose eyes will open and the ways they can imagine great things for themselves, if only I do my job right. I think of how grateful I am to have found my purpose and how it fills me with joy and I remember: This is exactly what my grandmother was doing in that little house in Miami in the room with the altar, the bible, the machete, the orishas, the flowers and the mango tree. She was healing...she was helping others see themselves and what was possible even when they were walking blind. That was her purpose and she practiced it like she practiced playing the piano. That fills me with joy and I'm sorry you have no modern examples of this kind of grace. Yours are in the bible, mine used to live a 15 minute walk from my backyard."
I shared this dreamscape with this acquaintance, though I knew this would fall upon deaf ears even as I told her I'd done enough church to last me a lifetime. I had the advantage of being cussed out in my own home over a plate of really good pigeon peas n' rice, so she had no choice but to enjoy the full weight of my response. I told her that,
"Now that I'd done my time in church, I was in search of spirit, of connectivity to other people, to find my purpose. Because once I learned what I was put here to do and got down to doing it, that would be "my ministry" to coin her phrase. Knowing my purpose involves leaving this place better than I found it and that drives my spirituality. I told her that I have no interest in earning brownie points on earth so I can get into heaven. My heaven is here, on earth...my heaven is what I do everyday here in the present. My thumbprint that I leave on everything I touch. The surety that I must leave a good print, a useful print, a print that leans towards the light. That's my purpose and therefore my spirituality. Allergic to organized religion I may be, but me and ""J.C. is copathestic" because like him, I'm just a hippy hanging out with society's discarded ones....looking for the beautifully broken, fragile places within us that continue to reach for the light.
That's also what I do when I sit here on the floor lighting candles instead of "having my butt in church. And so good I am with that. And if church is where you find your purpose, you should be good with that or do you need me to co-sign your decision to convince you of its rightness? Sadly, that's not part of my purpose, but I wish you well with yours.
I encouraged her to enjoy the last plate of pigeon peas n' rice she'd ever taste under my roof...I'm hoping she did...
When next I lit the candles on my altar where I have all the amalgamations of her my past, my present and my future: things from Africa, Gullah prayers, notes from Oshun, my Santa Barbara candle that holds my Tio's fire and the most transformative image of my childhood, this symbol of the black madonna, the idea that the divine could look like me; the Scottish coat of arms of the Thompson family reminding me that we've been fighting for self-determination longer than Jesus was a baby.
All these pieces of my pagan past, my well-lit future, my connection to a far broader humanity that any one religious tradition can hold, I'm am awed...filled with a kind of grace...a grace that says, again and again...ache', ache', ache' as I continue to source what serves me and discard what limits my light...