Anyone who denies the value of the village has missed the most important thing about community. We didn’t learn it in school. We gleaned it from our every experience every day living in proximity with people of value and conviction who loved on us by teaching us everything they knew. Not in a classroom. Not necessarily even in a group setting.
But at every opportunity, without even knowing it, Village Mothers dropped nuggets of wisdom and instruction. This is the most elegant form of discipleship. And we benefited from the constant exposure.
That’s why, first of all, I’m personally offended when people scoff at the village concept. Most of us in the African-American village are a melange and hodgepodge of the many-colored love, the shades of hope and the kaleidoscope of vision offered by everyone who cared.
I’m proud of the work my village mothers have done and continue to do to make me the person I’m becoming. Yes, becoming. Even at 68. My life is wide open and I’m embarking on new horizons with brand new hope and energy.
One of those sainted women was my cousin, Anita, who was not a blood relative, but the 7-year older person in the foster household to which I was assigned at 7 when my principal caregiver died. The important thing about this relationship was that Anita was the only happy person in the household. She talked to me. She listened to me. She spoke the same language, although sometimes I had more mother wit. She was always there for me without making me feel like a burden. She alone was able to convey that and I’m so grateful. So we laughed at all kinds of things. And we poked fun at the elders in the house. Quietly. And as she got older, she found myriad ways to enlarge my horizons. She took me to art museums. She took me to teas. She secured my first part-time summer job as an assistant in a church office, recording amounts from offering envelopes.
She took me to New York to the 1965 World Fair. I saw telephones with screens on them so people could converse with “face time,” when we had not long since escaped party lines. While others groused about my unladylike behavior, she told me how to act like a lady. She showed up for all my important days. My wedding. My ordination. My first pastorate. My graduation from Coppin University and from Wesley Seminary. And when I started a magazine, she contributed the first thousand dollars. Without my asking. We continued our relationship as grownups do until her death in 2016.
And when we knew it wouldn’t be long before she left us, I wrote a piece, “May the first face she sees be Jesus,” to celebrate her life here and her new life in glory.
May the first face she sees be Jesus.
All of us have a little mental illness in our families. Yes, all of us, even though some of us are in denial. One of the travesties of Anita’s mental haze was the loss of her connection with heaven. It caused her to doubt the faith she’d held so dearly for many years. It caused her to lose the sense of family she’d felt in church since childhood. It caused her to speculate about her own end and that of the rest of us. And being a woman of faith, to me that was the worst thing about her illness.
As a child and into her adulthood she loved the hymns of the church. She’d grab a hymnal and play until she got tired. And then she’d make me take over as we went page by page through her favorites. The Way of the Cross Leads Home. Oh That Will be Glory for Me. Rejoice Ye Pure in Heart. Just Over in the Glory Land. Blessed Assurance. And for Grandma Sue, Thou Thinkest Lord of Me.
She loved the Psalms in the Old Testament and the Gospels in the New Testament.
She was a gifted teacher and lent those skills to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. And after she married and moved her membership to Zion Baptist Church, she got me my first real summer job; recording donation amounts from their church envelopes.
Anita’s gentleness was only exceeded by her kindness and wanting to help whoever she could. By the time I reached high school she had her first job and took over the financial responsibility for my lunch and bus fare. She also make sure I had the little things I needed to be a lady, which was her first emphasis. Being a lady. As we both matured, our conversations were about our families, our children, their accomplishments. We talked about politics and sometimes we moved from one country to another without my being aware. You understand.
She continued to cheer me on throughout my life as the big sister she was to me in spite of the lack of blood connection. When I got married she was there. When I graduated from seminary she was there. When I got ordained she was there. She cheered when I became editor of the AFRO and when I started Mustard Seed magazine, she gave me money to pay the designer.
I’m saddened that she’s left me but I’m glad heaven awaits her. With its streets of gold. With its jewels that bedazzle everything the eye can see. With its urns of collected prayers and tears of the saints. No street lights – no need because the Lamb is its light.
“Dear Anita. Rest peacefully in his arms, re-acclimating yourself to the place you left over 72 years ago. Pick up your golden shoes and claim your rightful place he prepared specifically for you. In that moment, understand that he was there for you all the while, when you couldn’t feel him, when you couldn’t see him and when you even doubted his existence. He was there for you all along.
And may the first thing you see when you drop the robe of flesh that has housed your soul and weighted your spirit, as you seize the everlasting prize that awaits you…Look long and hard with excitement and joy into the face of Jesus, your Savior and King.”