LEARNING TO LIVE: AN AMERICAN STORY
BY JAMES W.H. SELL
When my parents were married in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1933, two ground rules were established. My father was an Episcopalian. His family took the Episcopal Church pretty seriously. Of greater consequence, mother took the Democratic Party very seriously. The deal was that she would become an Episcopalian if he would be a Democrat. That is how it was and nothing ever changed. She did not care where they went to church, but she sure was not going to live with a Republican.
Growing up in Charleston in the early 1950s was slow and mellow. But in about 1953, when I was in the fifth grade, something happened that was so emblematic of the age. The local newspaper reported that Charleston was number fifty on the Soviet “hit list” in case of an all-out nuclear conflagration. The “Chemical Valley,” as the Chamber of Commerce proudly called the area, was one of the epicenters of the Cold War, or so we were led to believe. One spring afternoon, we thought the game was over. A particularly dense thundercloud rolled across the sky and darkened the day without the usual rain. The principal was convinced that this was “the big one.” The Russians must have dropped an atomic bomb somewhere and the fallout and radiation was drifting over Charleston. She got on the public address system (a new-fangled addition to the school) and announced that we were under attack. We were instructed to get under our desks and cover our heads. After maybe ten minutes of cowering there in dread, she thought better of it and announced that all was well and we could come out. But, probably, for the next fifteen years, I just assumed that, barring any special circumstances, I would probably die in a nuclear holocaust, and I expected it to be sooner than later.
Two years later, yet one other thing happened that caused me to come face to face with what appeared to be my impending mortality. I was in the seventh grade. One October day I began throwing up in school. When my mother was called, she determined that something serious was wrong. Before the day was out, I was diagnosed with appendicitis and delivered to surgery. One afternoon in the hospital I had an uninvited guest. A fundamentalist Christian minister was going through the halls of the hospital, seeing who might be open to being saved. He asked if he might come in and talk to me. I saw no problem with that. He then began telling me about the “wages of sin and the certainty of death”. I really do not believe he asked me if I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. If he did, I am sure I had no idea what he was talking about. After all, I was an Episcopalian. We had never heard of such things. Later in the day, when my parents dropped in to see me, I announced that I was going to die, but it was okay because I was saved. My mother went ballistic! She jumped on the hospital staff for letting this “crackpot” in my room, but the deed was done. I was building a file on impending death in my head and it would continue to grow for a number of years into the future.
In the 1950’s, everyone either went to church or synagogue or said they did. I did not know a single child who was not a part of a congregation of one kind or another. I had no idea what my parents’ religious life consisted of. Were they persons of faith? Did they just go for cultural reasons? We never talked about religion. The prevailing attitude of the era was that one simply did not discuss one’s faith. Like money and sex, it was seen as “too personal” and outside the realm of “polite conversation.” Anything too self-revealing was impossible for my father to cope with. On the other hand, my mother, the extrovert, was simply happy to get up, get dressed, go to church and visit with other members of the congregation. Religion never seemed to be her main interest. The Episcopal Church was seen as the upper middle class denomination in those days and she liked that…a lot.
My sister and I attended dutifully. We had no choice. For the most part, it was a love-hate relationship for me. Most of the ethos of the congregation was one of benign indifference. People attended because the wider culture expected it, but nothing spiritually transformative ever seemed to happen. Most of the preachers spoke elliptically, without ever quite coming down in concrete terms about anything. The image of a significant preacher was a man who looked and sounded somewhat like a professor and seemed very serious from the pulpit. It was not the message that needed to be stimulating; style points were what counted. A clergyman would mount the pulpit. The lights would go down in the congregation; a spotlight glowed in a heavenly way on him and the congregation felt like they were in touch with something sacred.
But, as I grew and became more connected to the church and world around me, I discovered that I was learning to live through one of the most transformative ages in history. The church, as an institution, began to suffer dramatically. People who did not want black worshipers in their congregations probably were the same kind of people, who did not want us ordaining women, or ordaining gay men and women, or consecrating gay bishops or marrying LBGT couples. With every struggle more and more of the old resistant crowd left. While I personally missed the people I had known for years that splintered off over these issues, I did not miss their lack of vision, failure of nerve, and fear of inclusivity.
For me, just the opposite was happening. If the American story is the tale of going from rags to riches, I may have missed out on the economic stuff but, I have been able to live to see something new and far more authentic coming into creation. I found a pathway toward a church that I came to love.
To be continued…..