Category Archives: faith

Faith Journey: Who Tells Your Story

Guest blog by Florence Dungy

I was very pleased when Gwen asked me to write a piece on any subject that I wanted for her blog….

When I was younger, I thought life was basically random. I grew up in southern Illinois in Carmi, located on the Little Wabash River. The population was around 5,000 people.

Carmi was my dad’s hometown. He was born in 1914 and grew up attending a segregated school and the segregated Mitchell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. My mom met my dad when she came to Carmi to visit her uncle who lived in nearby Maunie. My parents married in 1943.

My mother had been born in 1919 and raised in Whiteville, in western Tennessee. She also attended segregated schools and was raised in the Bartlett Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church. The name was changed to Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 1954.

My brother Charles and I were both born in St. Louis, Missouri—he in 1944 and I in 1947. Our family moved back to Carmi in December 1947.

There were very few Black people in Carmi. Charles would integrate Washington School by going to the first grade at age 6. My mom took Charles to school on the first day. When she went back to pick him up, she said she met him already on the way home, happy and skipping down the street. After Charles passed away, several of his classmates wrote me that they remembered meeting him in the first grade.

Growing up, Charles was much more self-assured than I was. He excelled in math and science and played basketball. He was outgoing and everybody liked him. I was concerned with being nice and polite and modest. I liked reading and writing and English.

Our lives in Carmi were integrated in every way except for church. This was a time when most people went to church, which at that time was largely identified as mainline Protestant denominations. I do remember going to Vacation Bible School, concerts, and programs at the White churches, but on Sunday we went to Mitchell Chapel AME Church.

While the theme of the Civil Rights Movement was “We Shall Overcome,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s oft-repeated observation in 1963 that 11:00 Sunday morning was “the most segregated hour in this nation” was certainly the reality in Carmi.

Mitchell Chapel was located a block off Main Street across the river in East Carmi. The church must have had a guardian angel, for in today’s world it would certainly be condemned as a fire and safety hazard. The church leaned to one side, there was only one entrance, and there was neither running water nor a bathroom. We had an old-fashioned coal stove and one of the men who lived across from the church would go early and make a fire when it was cold.

Not all of the Black people in Carmi attended the church, but they would come to funerals and also to fundraisers. There were probably 15 to 20 of us attending Sunday services, for which I remember getting dressed up and having new outfits for Christmas and Easter programs. We became part of a circuit with two other AME churches in Harrisburg and Carrier Mills, Illinois.

We were pioneers. My mother was the church recording secretary, and my dad was the lay reader and taught Sunday School. On Communion Sunday, we put up the white cloth around the altar and served communion with a chalice, using the silver communion set for the grape juice and wafers.

I remember the Sunday the minister “opened the doors of the church” and Charles walked forward to the altar to join. I followed him, joining the church because he did. Charles was in high school, and I was in junior high. Everybody cried.

We never invited any classmates to the church, and I am sure most people did not know the church existed because of the isolated location. When classmates asked where I went to church, I remember answering in a low voice and not with any pride. I do not remember any of the ministers as being special or giving outstanding sermons. We did not have a choir, but I do remember students from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale coming to sing.

 In the late 1960s, Mitchell Chapel was allowed “to die” with the changing times. My family would be joyfully welcomed into the Carmi First United Methodist Church (FUMC). We had many friends at FUMC and would make new ones. My mom was especially happy and would become very involved in church activities.

When I graduated from Carmi Township High School in 1965, I did not have a plan beyond knowing that I would leave Carmi. I was encouraged and expected to leave by everybody including my parents and teachers. I moved to Champaign, Illinois, to stay with my aunt and attended Illinois Commercial College.

In Champaign, I attended Bethel AME Church. The church had a choir and a good minister, and I could get involved in activities of my own choosing. I knew a few people and made more friends. Most of all I knew the AME liturgy and songs having learned them at Mitchell Chapel AME. I became an usher and taught Sunday School briefly.

Charles was at Eastern Illinois University in nearby Charleston. He would come to Champaign on weekends and practiced teaching math at Champaign Central High School.

There were just a few Black students at the Commercial College. Just before graduation the man who was in charge at the school sent me to talk with the State Director at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Farmers Home Administration State Office in downtown Champaign. He offered me a job and I accepted. I had just turned 19 years old. The office was small and convenient to where I lived, was with the federal government, and the employees were friendly and welcoming.

I would at times have challenges working with USDA but it was very beneficial to me overall. I worked with many smart and helpful supervisors and co-workers and made life-long friends. I felt rewarded and USDA enabled me to transfer from Champaign to St. Louis and Washington, DC. I received training, took business trips, and was able to retire after 41 years of service with a pension and health insurance.

When I moved to St. Louis, I joined Centenary United Methodist Church, which was part of the Plaza Square apartment complex where I lived downtown. Centenary was an elegant and historic church. I became a greeter and served on the church board for a year and participated with other programs and activities.

Charles and Gwen had met in college at Eastern, and married in 1967, when I was 20. They now lived not too far from me in suburban St. Louis with their young son Dan, but would later move to the Washington, DC, area. When an opportunity and encouragement came for me to also move to DC three years after they did, I wanted to move but also felt uncertain about doing so.

It would have been easy to stay in St. Louis. The move would take me away from the Midwest and my family, but I also knew I could easily fly home for vacations. DC was expensive and I wondered if I would be able to find an apartment and live in a safe and nice part of the city. I prayed and knew I wanted the transfer. I found a nice and very small apartment in a pleasant part of the city with the help of a friend. Being on the bus route and convenient to the Metro, it was a short commute downtown to work.

I had read about Metropolitan AME Church before I moved to Washington. The church was convenient to where I lived. It was a beautiful and historic church with a storied history and prominent members. Walking in the church, you feel the ancestors. I would come to understand that the AME Church, which was founded in Philadelphia in 1816 by Richard Allen, was about so much more than just segregation. I joined the church and became involved in many activities including ushering, the Love and Peace Missionary Society, the food bank, and serving as a chaplain for a seniors’ club. I took my co-workers to the church on weekdays when the seniors prepared a soul-food lunch.

I came to feel I was following God’s plan for me, which had always been there from the beginning. I would never have joined Metropolitan AME if I had not been raised in Mitchell Chapel AME Church in Carmi.

Watching the Communion Sunday church service online during Covid, I would use the Mitchell Chapel chalice my mom had given me before she passed and really feel the connection between the two churches.

I had been in Washington for 12 years and Metropolitan AME was going through changes. I was ready for a change also. The Washington National Cathedral was close to where I lived in northwest Washington. I had visited and toured the Cathedral and was awed by the beauty and peacefulness of the church and the grounds.

I liked the idea of the Nation’s Church which welcomed everybody. I did not expect to become a Cathedral volunteer or think it was even possible for me. I was not an Episcopalian. I made friends and met with the volunteer coordinator to find my place. I could volunteer at the Cathedral and still keep my membership and participation at Metropolitan AME. I would start as a greeter and become an usher, a lay reader, and volunteer in the gift shop.

My last time with Charles a week before he passed away would be attending a Sunday morning service in the Cathedral. Most people did not know Charles was seriously ill. When he passed away from a rare disease, I wondered why it had been him instead of me. At the end of the play Hamilton, there is a song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” I felt I survived to tell Charles’ story. I was the only connection to Carmi and our classmates.

I belong to a grief support group and recently we discussed how we would like to be remembered. I would like to be remembered as a Christian hopefully for kindness and outreach and inclusiveness and for understanding and forgiveness for myself and others. I feel blessed for the ways in which God has led, and I pray he will continue to guide me along my journey. 

 Florence Dungy is Gwen Dungy’s sister-in law.

Compartmentalizing Disrespect

By title and official authority, you’re the leader of the group. You work hard to carry out your responsibilities and you show respect to every member of the team.

You knew from the beginning that in this very hierarchical environment there was one person who, though below you on the organizational chart, would hold more sway or influence than you. You puzzled why this person had not gone for the position for which you now held because their desire for power and influence was apparent.

Nevertheless, this person who technically held the subordinate position to you also had authority over a segment of the population and had the ability to make work life comfortable or uncomfortable for a sizable number of people. They had an uncanny knack for influencing others to like or dislike who or what they deemed worthy or unworthy based solely on their personal sense of justice and fairness.

You refer to the person just described as Judge Everybody.

You worked with some of your team members to plan the annual retreat. There were to be serious and fun exercises, good snacks, and a very special lunch. It was during the lunch that the “real leader” of the group was publicly anointed.

During the exercises, Merry Merry, a charismatic sycophant, gleefully insisted that Judge Everybody be the leader for every activity. Others gave you side-eye glances to see how you were reacting to this enthusiastic robing of Judge Everybody.

It was during the lunch that Merry Merry made a proclamation that Judge Everybody was the “REAL Leader.” Merry Merry, who was your friend when not in the company of Judge Everybody, would not make eye contact with you.

At the time when all were to be seated for this special lunch, it appeared that your team was waiting to see where Judge Everybody would sit before finding a seat as close to Judge Everybody as possible. You deliberately left seats between you and Judge Everybody in order to give more space for those who wanted a closer seat to better inhale the aura of Judge Everybody. A couple of brave souls sat near you. You think to yourself, is my faith strong enough to get me through this gauntlet of disrespect and humiliation?

Fortunately, you have become an expert at compartmentalizing. You use this defense mechanism to put the feelings of humiliation in a box for later reflection. You know that you become impervious to slights by immersing yourself in work. Work is your refuge. It helps you trick your mind into denying reality by reframing the experience with a palatable interpretation.

You know that you’re not the only one who has struggled to hold strong in such an environment. You understand that designated leaders who have reluctant followers have to separate and insulate themselves mentally and emotionally by compartmentalizing. You accept that though you hold fast, wounds of humiliation never heal. They are merely rationalized and compartmentalized.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: As part of my personal motto, represented by the acronym FIRE, I make a habit of reflecting on experiences and what can be learned from them. I have used my journals over the years to do just that in the process of writing. It is my hope that sharing these reflections through this BLOG may have some value for others, but please note that I intend for people who I do not specifically name to remain anonymous to readers. For the record, this blog post is not about NASPA or anyone I worked with at NASPA.

In Spite of It All

If you were asked to describe yourself—regardless of the circumstances or situations—as generally optimistic or pessimistic, what would be your honest assessment? Would your personal emoji be the upturned or downturned smile? When you’re shown the glass with water, is it half full or half empty?

Asked if she was an optimist, Stacey Abrams, responded, “No I’m an amelliorist which is something I made up. I believe that the glass is half full. It’s just probably poisoned. And so my job is always to be on the hunt for the antidote” (“The Story Behind Stacey Abrams’s Fiction Career,” The Atlantic, June 2021).

The idea of being an amelliorist has stuck with me. Would an amelliorist be…

  • one who, in spite of having been betrayed, dares to trust again?
  • one who has seen and experienced injustice and in spite of it continues to fight for justice?
  • one who sees that nothing has changed and in spite of it continues to hope that things will change?
  • one who exhibits a spiritual strength that inspires and unites in spite of the emotional toll?
  • one who, in spite of having one’s own hopes dashed, shares a sense of hopefulness with and for others?
  • one who finds something to learn in spite of the worst of circumstances?

Am I an amelliorist? The mnemonic FIRE that defines my life’s values begins with two words for the letter “F.” Faith and Fate.

Fate has caused me to experience situations that I would rather have avoided, and in spite of it, I have had faith that I will get to the other side of whatever uncomfortable circumstance I’m currently experiencing. Fate makes me understand that life is a crapshoot; sometimes I get the poisoned water but, through my faith, magical thinking, or divine intervention, I’m not thirsty and don’t have to drink the poisoned water. 

Or fate has found me in a situation where quenching my thirst with this particular half glass of water is my only option for survival. In spite of the threat of death, I drink the poisoned water and because of my faith, the poison has no negative effect on me.

As one calendar year ends and another begins for optimists and pessimists (and amelliorists) alike, perhaps this is the optimum time to be mindful of our individual and collective efforts to search for a synthesis of our optimistic and pessimistic selves in order to discover and maintain the equilibrium necessary for us to find meaning and purpose in our lives in spite of external circumstances over which we have no control.

When the Moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter Aligns with Mars

Back then, our generation was consumed by the layperson’s minimal knowledge of astrological sun signs. Sun signs played a role in determining who would be our best friends, who was the best person to date, and who might be a good prospect for marriage. “What’s your sign?” was the question most frequently asked when young people spent any amount of time together. Instant assumptions were made about the essential character and compatibility of the person depending on their answer to that simple question.

Astrology was not only our guide for determining compatibility with others, it could also be useful when making decisions about fashion and home décor. When choosing among options, the colors associated with the sun signs of the zodiac were sometimes deciding factors.   

For example. our first house was one of ten houses on a dead-end street. In choosing to buy this house, we might have noted that it was a brown brick, like the earth for stability. For a small house, there were a lot of windows. Windows and light were something to love, but the window coverings were another story. Impressed with the wooden window blinds, we were disappointed when we realized that the dingy yellow of the blinds would not return to white even after scrubbing them with bleach and cleanser and using a considerable amount of elbow grease. Without easy alternatives, we made the bold decision to paint the blinds. But what color?  Sky blue was the choice because it was always associated with positive traits, astrologically speaking.

Our baby’s room was a sunny yellow, purported to reflect the joy and happiness of people born under the sun sign Gemini. In line with the Gemini character, the crib and chests were bold and cheerful in orange and white. The tops and sides of the chests were orange, and the drawers were white with orange pull knobs. We were so proud of our little nest and over the moon with our baby. I thought that leaning over the sides of his crib softly singing, “Good morning star shine, the earth says ‘Hello.’ You twinkle above us, we twinkle below” was the best way to start the little angel’s day.

In 1969, Good Morning Star Shine and other songs from the Broadway musical Hair were the catechisms and prayers on the lips of our generation. We were spiritually struck by, and literally infected with, the songs from the musical. Many people knew the lyrics to all the songs and, even though we lived on a shoestring, we bought the album and played it over and over again.

The song everyone recognized from Hair was Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In. The feelings evoked by the song confirmed our alignment with the universe and with humanity. During the turbulent war-torn times and political schisms of the late 1960s, all laced with violence and brutality, this song, in the opinions of many of the young, was one way to imagine all of humanity on the same page. Singing in unison with the singers on the recordings was liberating and hopeful at a time when we, as young people, felt constrained and misunderstood.

Astrology was one thing we could trust and believe in. When we didn’t always live up to our own expectations or those of others, we didn’t have to take full responsibility for our shortcomings because some things were pre-ordained according to our sun sign. According to our astrological sun signs, we all had parts that we might not boast about, but there were always the good parts that we could hold onto when we needed a boost. We could always choose to see ourselves in the best and most flattering descriptors of our sun sign. The balance in the descriptions made us whole.

Though it sometimes felt as if fate had dealt us a bad hand, we had faith that one day “when the moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligns with Mars then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars.”

Our Story, Our Song, Part 2: The Black Church in Chicago

(read pt. 1: Our Story, Our Song)

After living in Memphis with my Daddy, his wife, and my baby brother for several years, my Daddy sent me back to Chicago at the age of 12 to be with my mother and her family.

In Memphis, the two Black churches I knew were large, elegant, traditional religious structures in which members could feel a sense of pride. The first church I experienced in Chicago was a “storefront church” on the West Side of Chicago. It was on Fulton street surrounded by manufacturing industries and crisscrossed by “L” trains.

On my first visit to this storefront church, I thought it was not a real church because of its name and how it looked. There was a large showcase window to the right of the entrance with the name of the church painted on it. It read “West End Baptist Church.”

I soon came to realize that what West End Baptist Church lacked in traditional religious ambiance, it made up for in the religious fervor and dedication of its small and loyal congregation. Because of the loyalty of members such as my family who scraped together money, the congregation was able to rent a space shortly after my arrival in Chicago in a modest “real church” structure a few blocks away on the same street.

To say that my family was very involved in the church is an understatement.  My grandfather was on the Deacon Board and the Usher Board; my grandmother was in the choir and on the Mother Board; my mother was in the choir and the “poet laureate;” and I was in the choir. On Saturdays, my grandfather and I cleaned the church.

Some of the most exciting times at church were the Sunday afternoons when another church would visit. The choir, minister, and some of the members would represent their church. It was really fun when more than one church visited because it was like the battle of the choirs as each choir would have an opportunity to sing its best songs before the minister began the sermon. While I claim not to have any artistic talent now, I was quite proud of the banners I made to welcome visiting churches. Our dining room and car never seemed to be free of the glitter I used for my creations.  

On one occasion when West End Baptist Church was hosting visiting churches, the person who usually gave the formal welcome to visiting churches was not available. Since my mother was the resident poet who wrote poems for every special occasion, reciting them from memory most of the time, the thinking was that I, her daughter, should be able to give the “Welcome Address,” as it was called on the program. Apparently, the welcome I gave met expectations and, from that day forward, I was the most frequent designee to welcome visiting churches.

This storefront church challenged children in many ways. Church members were the encouraging audience for whatever any child wanted to try. The members praised my tacky welcome banners and responded to my welcome addresses as if they were something special. They gave me the courage to keep doing what I didn’t believe I could do. And, as challenges became successful efforts, my faith in myself and something bigger than myself continued to grow.

Our Story, Our Song

I recently watched “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” a PBS documentary that creator and narrator Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., describes as a message of “race and resilience, struggle and redemption, hope and healing.” 

Indeed, my Black churches revealed me to myself. They helped me to see who I was in relation to others. They showed me models of women I could strive to emulate. They challenged me and gave me the opportunity to try. They gave me the concept of faith as an enduring value.

The first church I remember is Mount Gilliam Missionary Baptist Church in the Orange Mound community of Memphis, TN. My mother and her parents loved this church. It was the first church they joined after leaving the Mississippi Delta. To see how they dressed and the sophisticated manner in which they carried themselves when they attended this church, one would not believe that it had been only five or so years since they had been sharecroppers.

In addition to Sunday services and other religious programs and meetings, the church was also the meeting place for charitable fraternities such as the Masons of which my grandfather was a proud member. My grandmother and mother were members of the women’s counterpart to the Masons, The Eastern Star, to which they were dedicated and seemed to be always involved in raising money for one cause or another.

The “Royal Court”

One of these fundraisers was a pageant where a little girl was crowned princess and a little boy prince depending on how much money their sponsors raised. My most vivid memory of Mount Gilliam Missionary Baptist Church is the night of the pageant when I was six years old. I remember being sleepy and my folks kept me awake so I could be in the pictures that would be taken that night. Apparently, my folks had not raised enough money for me to be the princess, but I was part of the royal court standing next to the princess and prince. Being in the royal court and not the princess may have been the first experience that made an imprint about who I was in relation to others.

The other Black church in the Orange Mound community of Memphis I became familiar with was Mount Pisgah Church, where Miss Bailey attended. Miss Bailey had a standing taxi appointment for my Daddy to pick her up early in the morning to take her to work. I think she was a nurse. I could tell that my Daddy respected her a lot, and he asked her if I could go to church with her on some Sundays when he picked her up to take her to church.

Miss Bailey was a kind lady who had manners, dressed nicely, carried herself in what people called a “dignified manner,” and seemed to have the respect of all who knew her. I felt good standing next to her in church with hymn book in hand singing “Have Thine Own Way Lord,” “Blessed Assurance,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” and my favorite song, “I Come to the Garden Alone.” Singing these songs and being in the presence of Miss Bailey, though I was only nine years old, I could feel the love of God, and I knew that Miss Bailey was the type of woman that I wanted to be.

The Black Church is, indeed, “our story, our song.”

(Next Week: The Black Church in Chicago)

The Excitement and Curiosity of Having “No Plans”

Retirement is one of those events that some look forward to with eager anticipation while others feel sad about the prospect.  Then there are some—like me—who don’t experience either of these thoughts or emotions.

On February 22, 2012, about a month before I officially retired from NASPA, I wrote the following in my journal:

As I get nearer to the final days at NASPA, I feel no sadness. I feel satisfaction and pray that all continues to prosper with the organization.

On March 1, 2012, I wrote:

I don’t think I’m going to miss my role. I just want to keep doing something that is meaningful to move our world forward. I want to add my part, fulfill my purpose, live up to my potential.

These were goals for my life. I had no plans for what I would do in retirement.  

Being without the responsibility of a job and having no reason to get up, to get dressed, and to leave the house would be a little like a free fall. I had to rely on my faith that without these routines and trappings of identity, I would still be able to maintain confidence in myself and optimism about my future.

As I dropped through the space of what could be a professional void, unexpected safety nets and lifelines afforded me a soft landing in the field of retirement after my last day as NASPA Executive Director on March 30, 2012. At the same time as I was consulting, facilitating workshops, and making speeches (see boxed list), I was working on writing projects with 2012 deadlines and organizing and filing a career’s worth of papers and notes at home.

What gave me the energy to follow through on the activities and experiences I had during the year that I “retired” was my excitement and curiosity about the experiment of having “no plans.”

Since this experiment, I’ve stopped making New Year’s resolutions and I’ve begun each year with optimism and “no plans.”

  • 4/15-16: Indiana State University
  • 4/18: Skype with master’s class, DePaul University
  • 4/25: in person with graduate class, University of Maryland, College Park
  • 5/21-29: China on behalf of NASPA
  • 6/4: Taylor University in Indiana
  • 6/19-23: Portland State University
  • 7/9: conference, Los Angeles
  • 7/28: conference, Manhattan
  • 7/30-8/3: University of Vermont
  • 8/16: University of Southern California
  • 8/30-9/1: Evergreen State University
  • 9/17-19: California State University, Fullerton
  • 9/18: Skype with graduate students, Colorado State University
  • 9/19-21: conference, Washington, DC
  • 9/30: Skype with graduate students, Oregon State University
  • 10/16-17: Berkeley College, New York City
  • 10/19: conference, Baltimore
  • 11/1-2: Wake Forest University
  • 11/18-19: conference, Hawaii