Category Archives: reflection

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.

Reflecting on Top Gun: Maverick

I was eagerly looking forward to the release of Top Gun: Maverick since it was postponed more than once during the height of the pandemic. I’m a huge Tom Cruise fan and I don’t care if he jumped up on Oprah’s sofa in excitement when he appeared on her talk show eons ago.

As I’m still taking some precautions regarding the transmission of COVID, I wanted to see the film when the theater may not be as crowded in order to have some distance between myself and other moviegoers. The movie was showing at the largest theater on the largest screen in the area. I waited until the movie had been out a few weeks and went to the box office on a Saturday afternoon for a 4:10 showing. You know what happened: Sold out!

I bought advanced tickets for the following Wednesday at 1:10 p.m. since some very senior people in front of me chose that date and time. I figured that there would not be many of us in the theater at that time. After all, those not retired would be at work or at the gym or doing something else that more senior people might not be interested in doing.

You know what happened. Every seat was filled in this huge theater on Wednesday at 1:10 p.m.! And there was a wide diversity of ages. I, like everyone else I’ve spoken with, thought the film gave us what we wanted from it, meeting our expectations. The images and accompanying sounds were so intense that there was very little time for eye-blinking. I’m sure I’m not the only one who had dry-eye when this vivid and visceral experience was over.

Clearly, dialogue was not the heart of this film, and I doubt if anyone other than me listened for words to ponder following the experience. However, when I left the movie theater and images of the aerial scenes and the intense emotion portrayed by some of the characters began to fade, I recalled three short sentences from the dialogue.

Admiral Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky, played by Val Kilmer, says to his friend Maverick, “It’s time to let it go.”

And when Maverick responds, “I don’t know how,” I thought that this movie was about to exceed my expectations.

At some point during this same exchange, the Admiral said, “It’s not what you are, it’s who you are.”

I’ve heard that evidence of a good musical is when you leave the theater humming the songs. For me, a good movie is one that allows me to reflect on something someone said that made me think.

Mementos for a Rainy Day

If you’re like me, it’s easier to recall the slights, humiliations, put-downs, and general meanness experienced than the kind, gracious, generous, and loving messages received.

In my quest to clear my memento cache, I discovered that I had squirreled away some of the kind messages that I’d received.

For me, this blog serves as a way to preserve parts of these messages kept for a rainy day. It is my hope that this encourages you to not only reflect on such messages you have received, but also to be the giver of such encouragement. Such messages go a long way in countering the negative messages, and often are treasured by the receiver far more than we know.

For instance, when I faced challenges in my leadership role, Mike affirmed that, “You, more than any single person, are responsible for the success of NASPA. I thank you for your amazing service to our Association and for your friendship over the years.”

And KC took it to another level:

Thank you very much for another year of progressive and excellent leadership at NASPA. You have had a wonderful and lasting impact especially with the new and young professionals who have become a part of the organization. Your leadership has been very “Heroic” meaning it is visionary, energizing, passionate, enduring, courageous, and loving. During my undergraduate years, I always heard and witnessed the Jesuits speaking and going on about “Heroic Leadership,” and I thought it was something unique to them as an order or religious organization. However, after witnessing you, your presence, and your leadership at and with NASPA, you too have it and are a “Heroic Leader.” You and your presence touch thousands in a very positive manner year in and year out. Thank you very much for leading and creating an organization that all members can be proud of and develop full ownership in. (December 31, 2007, KC)

Indeed, the messages from and about the young professionals like RW that I sought to mentor hold a special place in my heart:

Bless you! Thank you so much for supporting my efforts to pursue my education. I am very thankful for you taking time out of your hectic schedule to support me…. You are an amazing role model and mentor.

And when I wasn’t always sure how well a presentation had been received, messages like these made all the difference:

I can’t begin to describe the passion and sincerity with which luncheon participants described your presentation. They were deeply moved, and they were moved because you told them the truth in a manner that allowed them to hear it. However, after telling them the reality of these times we live in, you gave them reasons for and ways to keep hope alive. (December 2000, GE)

***

I really enjoyed my one-on-one visits with you and was grateful beyond words that you were our group leader. Your presentation Thursday really got me thinking, and I have been working hard on articulating my personal formula (which we hope to have our staff do as well later this summer). (July 30, 2007, JC)

And in those times when you wonder if others see the vision toward which you’re working as the leader of an organization, messages like the one from XR let you know that the sacrifices are paying off:

During your tenure NASPA has expanded internationally, grown in membership, significantly expanded its financial assets, and has become “the” voice of student development nationally. In addition, under your vision and leadership, NASPA has become our collective voice in Washington and on Capitol Hill—a role that becomes stronger as the years pass. (November 3, 2005)

And, finally, there are the messages that convey more than collegiality, but a true friendship and understanding of one as a person (down to the use of “integrity” as part of my FIRE mnemonic):

It is a pleasure working with you, Gwen. In addition to your high level of competency, and even, rational approach and warmth with people, you have a tremendous integrity that underlies all your work. I am so proud that you represent NASPA to the world—you make us look really good, and I consider myself fortunate to have this opportunity to come to know you and work with you. (December 17, 1998, KRH)

***

I just wanted to sincerely thank you for your support and friendship over the past few years. I truly enjoyed my time on the Board and have always been so impressed with the amount of passion and grace with which you do your work. I have learned so much by simply watching you and I sincerely hope we are able to stay connected. Thank you for everything and know how much you are appreciated. With much gratitude. (March 16, 2010, Pauline)

I am truly grateful for the support and friendship of so many over the years.

1951-1952

I called the cab stand and Miss Henrietta, the operator, answered saying, “Orange Mound Cab Stand.” As always, without giving a name, I asked, “Is my Daddy there?” I heard her yell, “James, your baby is on the phone!” When Daddy came to the phone, he asked, “Are you alright? Where y’all at?”

I was seven years old going on eight, and my little brother was one going on two. Reflecting on what happened in 1951 and 1952, it’s as if the ring of the call I made was a bell tolling for the demise of our fragile family. Except for during the first months of my life when James rented a room in a boarding house to which he could bring Lottie Mae shortly after I was born in 1944, it was during 1951 and 1952 that we lived together as a family.

It wasn’t long before we were once again living with our mother’s parents on Hollywood Street. Sometime before my eighth birthday in 1952, our mother’s father was called to Chicago to help take care of his gravely ill brother. After being in Chicago for a short while, he sent for our grandmother to join him.

Because our mother, Muhdear, also was gravely ill with what had been diagnosed as terminal, our grandmother insisted that Muhdear, my brother, and I go to Chicago with her. Muhdear did not tell our Daddy that she was leaving Memphis and taking us with her. She was too sick to remain on her own with us in Memphis, and she knew that Daddy would never allow her to take us to Chicago. He didn’t know where we were until he received that fateful call from me.  

 In Chicago, my grandparents were able to rent what was called an attic “apartment,” in the same building where our grandfather’s sick brother lived. The apartment was one long room under the eaves with enough space for a small bathroom, a stove, and refrigerator. The eating table was at the foot of the bed, the only space available.  

Leaving her baby boy with her parents in the “apartment,” Muhdear and I were essentially homeless, sleeping on couches and makeshift floor pallets at the homes of various cousins, aunts, and uncles. During the day, Muhdear sometimes took me with her while she looked for work.

Life in Chicago made me long to go back to Memphis. Because our condition was so bad and she was so sick, I frequently asked Muhdear if I could call Daddy to come get us. Years later, when I asked what made her change her mind to allow me to call our Daddy that day, this is what she told me:

Snow was deep and the street cars would not wait for you to get on with children.  One day, I got up on the streetcar and paid my seven cents. When I looked around, you were still on the platform. This really scared me, and I began to wonder if I could take care of my children in my condition. I knew that if anything happened to you all, I would rather be dead, and I knew if anything happened to Rabbit’s (James’) children, he would kill me because I left him and took you all with me.  

So, when Daddy arrived to take us back to Memphis, she got in the car for the sake of her children to make the risky but necessary trip back to Memphis.

Why

Two weeks ago, Buffalo
Two days ago, Uvalde

??????????????????????

Why are active shooter attacks increasing?
Why does this keep happening?
Why can’t we stop this?
Why do people kill?
Why is enough not enough?

Why do all the questions begin with WHY!

Beaches

Beaches are on my mind. The one constant for me about beaches is that my loving Charles was always with me when I was on them. Our first beach together was in Acapulco when we were on our honeymoon. We visited various other beaches in places such as Nassau, Nice, St. Croix, St. Martin, Hawaii, Jordan, and several beaches in Florida. Stone Harbor at the Jersey Shore was our favorite.

Some of my favorite things at the beach—in addition to the sand, sun, and water—were sipping the varied piña coladas, reading books that had piled up on my bedside table, and eating the kinds of sweets and snacks that were forbidden in other settings.

When I would tire of reading, I would ask Charles questions about himself that, when he would answer, never failed to elicit some new information about the man with whom I was spending my life. On some occasions, we would share our fantasies and dreams about the future, while other times we would reminisce together. Recollections beginning with “remember when” tended to elicit a lot of laughter. The memory was usually about some embarrassing moment that was not funny at the time but oh-so-hilarious now.

As Charles and I sat side-by-side, there would be long stretches of time when, in complete silence, we just stared at the water. As I looked out over the water, I usually felt a deep sense of humility. Everything was aligned and put into perspective through no effort of my own.

When we were on the beach, it seemed as if we were alone in our own world even though surrounded by people up and down the shore. This was our time to be easily and naturally fully engaged with one another without expectations or distractions. It was just us.

It was on the beaches where I felt most emotionally intimate with my life partner. It’s hard to articulate the specifics of bliss, but the contentment and happiness I felt during our time on the beaches was about as close to bliss as I’ve ever been.

 I miss having time at the beach with Charles.

A Very Good Summer

Summer 1999

It was a very good summer. All the stars aligned. Good vibes all around. I recorded specific encounters and activities in my journal and found that most journal entries ended with some acknowledgement of how fortunate I felt to have my family, friends, and colleagues. In retrospect, I wonder if the events are what made it a good time or if my attitude helped me to see the positive in some situations that could have been interpreted differently if I had not been working on a personal challenge.

I challenged myself to be deliberate and intentional in practicing graciousness and respect during encounters, especially when my instinct might be to push back. My challenge to myself was like a New Year’s resolution or a change in behavior that some implement at the beginning of the Lenten season. I wanted to experiment with how I might be able to change my experience by changing the orientation of my mind.    

I determined that I would look for opportunities to honor the basic goodness in others and act without rancor when negativity invaded my space.

I had several opportunities to try out my experiment during the summer of 1999. One   opportunity was during a professional development program being run jointly by my organization and another on a campus in the Northeast. Our team of facilitators was excellent, and I made no journal entry indicating that there was any friction among colleagues.

My opportunity to implement my personal challenge came instead from an encounter with a woman who was working at the cash register in the dining facility of the host college. I noticed that unlike most people who might have an occasional bad day, this person seemed to be having a bad day every day. In my journal notes, I describe her as impatient, unfriendly, and rude. One morning, when this woman’s supervisor (who was always kind and smiling) was near, I praised the worker at the cash register for her patience with us because it had to be frustrating when visitors didn’t know or follow the processes that made everything go smoothly. Within earshot of the supervisor, in a teasing manner, I commented that this worker should receive a bonus for having to put up with us.

A change in attitude was immediate. By lunchtime that same day, the once unfriendly woman appeared to be in a much better mood. On subsequent days, when I was not in her line, she would give me a smile and a nod across the way. On our final morning in the dining hall, my new friend came to the table where colleagues and I were having breakfast to wish all of us a safe trip home. I recorded this episode in my journal because I was so moved by the power of honoring the positive and basic goodness in others especially when the first instinct is to respond in kind.

Family ties were strong. My skills were stretched and appreciated. Travel for my work was exciting. And, when there were mishaps and possibilities for negativity, I harkened back to my challenge and reframed the situation. The summer of 1999 was a very good summer.

“Gift” Unto Others

Perhaps you, like me when hearing certain songs, conjure memories of what you were doing when you first heard the song. 

When I hear a recording of Barbara Streisand singing Secondhand Rose, I see myself in a small café where the noise of the el trains is so ubiquitous that no one notices it.  

During a break from college, I was at home in Chicago. My priority was to get a job—any job. I saw a classified ad in the newspaper for a waitress position, and that’s how I ended up working in a White, working-class neighborhood on the north side of Chicago.

The man in charge of hiring questioned me about whether I was one of those college students just looking for a summer job. He said that he didn’t want to hire somebody who was going to be gone in a short period of time. I could understand his position and that is why I pondered whether I should tell the whole truth and ruin my chances of getting a job or rationalize telling a lie because if I didn’t get a job, I most likely would not be returning to college.

After the lie about my status, I was hired as a dishwasher. This was something I had experience doing. It was during the times when I was washing dishes that Streisand was singing Secondhand Rose. Hearing her was like being with a friend.

Occasionally, I received a reprieve from dirty dishes and could help the waitress. I was eager to pitch in for even a short while because I thought I might be able to get some tips.

One day, a group of men who were having their lunch break from their laborer’s jobs were laughing a lot. Being a Black woman, I assumed that they were having a laugh at my expense. I just kept Barbara’s beautiful voice and song in my head and continued to clean tables, all the while keeping alert in case customers needed anything.

I recall that I was deliberately attentive and courteous to the “happy” men because I thought that if they noticed how attentive I was, they might leave a tip. When the laughing men left, I went to clear their table.

The tip was one thin dime. I felt anger and hurt. I wished that they had left without what I saw as a mocking gesture. I felt demeaned. I understand and believe that it is not the gift that counts, it’s really the intention and thought that matters. The thought and intention were clear to me. I believed that the paucity of the “gift” symbolized these strangers’ measurement of my worth and the intention was not to reward me for service but to put me down.

My feelings associated with that experience have made me sensitive to what I think others might feel upon receiving a gift that does not reflect a sense of authentic caring. That’s why I think that you ought to gift unto others as you would have them gift unto you or don’t gift at all.

Becoming With One Another

Is it too late for us to see one another as good neighbors? Is there anything that will make us honor and value one another?

Optimists used to think that extreme threats would bring people together in harmony and mutual caring. Now they might not be so sure. Since 2019, the entire world has endured a potential life-ending threat and during that time, rather than bringing people closer, the schisms and reasons to separate have become more apparent. The threat itself became a cause for disunity and separation.

Witnessing the failure of a pandemic to make us mortals live together in harmony, one might think that even “the really big one,” such as a catastrophic earthquake, would not make a dent in softening the hard hearts of many people who have staked out their position on every conceivable topic.

A metaphorical earthquake is occurring all around us when voices escalate over ideological conflicts, when citizens arm themselves with lethal weapons, and when states roll back laws protecting civil rights. It’s no wonder that people get drawn in and fixate over TMZ-brand news, reality shows, soap operas, and other distractions that “stream” into our homes.

When I attempt a philosophical perspective on how people treat one another, I come back to a thought I’ve had for many years. That idea is that we are part of each other’s becoming. What I experience from you is only a part of the equation. My reaction to what you initiated completes the formula. Your behavior toward me and how I react determine how both of us are growing into or away from our ability to live as social beings. What if we purposed to become each other’s foil in our quest at becoming? Then our principal role would be to help those we encounter to become the best that they can be.

We’re all works in progress tasked with learning how to value our connections. It’s not too late for us. However, the impetus for honoring and valuing one another is not outside of us. The motivation comes from us. We know what the right thing is. We just have to do it. One person at a time.