It was spring of 1968 and there was a policeman on every corner in Washington,D.C. My dad said that the riots of the night before wouldn’t hold us back from going to church. He wrote some large words with soap on the old car window.
“Just a precaution,” he said.
He’d read in the Washington Post that this soap writing would allow anyone into the inner city, giving some protection from getting a brick thrown through our car windows. He wrote “Soul Brother.”
Dad would do anything to not miss church. He told us to all pile in; and on this crisp, sunny Sabbath morning we headed toward downtown Sixteenth Street. As he drove, three kids including me bounced as normal on the seatbeltless back seat. Mom was quiet and eyeballing our dad. Dad just drove as normal. Well, almost normal.
Dad had his heavy foot under control, no petal to the metal this morning; but it wasn’t just the speed that made me think he was driving his Sunday best. He was white knuckling the steering wheel. He didn’t have to tell us to be quiet. Quiet bouncing prevailed.
In the back of the church a police guard directed the parking. Mom ushered us quickly in the back door behind the sanctuary and then patted our shoulders as we fled to meet our friends in Sunday School. Mrs. Wintershall, our teacher; presented the lesson which she said was all about how God loves us all equally. No matter what color, no matter what race.
I looked at the preacher’s son, a handsome young boy my age; and as full of mischief as me. I thought about how people at church were always sucking up to him. Wanting to be his friend. But he and I were true friends.
Our friendship had begun five years before, when we were in second grade and in total agreement as to how to answer the “And how are you this morning?” question that adults always ask when they think this will show they are interested in you. It’s a question the adults throw at you and then beam down waiting for a “very good” answer. He and I made a pact. Never, ever would we say “good”. We both took the Sunday School lesson of “none good but God” seriously.
We were silly, maybe. Mischief maybe. Down right trouble, maybe. But never good. He and I would never be good; and we would never ever say “I’m good, thank you.”
We’d been raised in the letter of the Bible. We knew there were rules to play by. As long as you didn’t dance, or date too young, or swear in front of an adult; we were going to heaven. To me the lesson on God loving everyone no matter what race was just another one of those rules that people said but didn’t live by.
I slumped in my plastic Sunday School chair and saw the note the Preachers son had passed my way.
It read: “So here on this bright Sunday morning we have another lesson from the Bible that says what we should say we believe- but the real rule is that Christians of another color worship not on Sixteenth Street with us- but on Nineteenth Street! Aren’t we all Baptists? Could we go to Nineteenth Street? Want to skip out?”
“Sure,” I nodded and we both made the same excuse at the exact same time; of needing the bathroom and Mrs. Wintershall believed us. We slipped out the back door and down the alley way to where the preacher’s son stopped for a moment. I thought he was figuring out which way to turn to get to Nineteenth Street, ducking the Military Police.
Instead, he lit a cigarette.
“What are you doing?” Come on!” I said, indignant.
“Do you know how hard it is to get to Nineteenth Street? Especially with all the trouble going on.” He leaned back in a door of the alley way.
“You’re not supposed to smoke,” I leaned back next to him. Now I was truly anxious in case one of the soldiers saw us.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I never exhale.”
“You mean inhale.” I was too scared to run back into the church, and had no idea how to find the other Baptist Church. We were stuck in the alley way, at least until he finished whatever he was doing with his cigarette. I suppose I’d follow him anywhere.
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