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We're not Nazarenes

My family was white, incredibly and indelibly. White like winter at the North Pole. White like sort your laundry and use an expensive detergent. Mom didn't make spaghetti — that was too exotic. We ate white people food, did white people things, and lived in a white neighborhood. All of Mom and Dad's friends were white. Everyone on TV was white. Everyone the history books was white, and everyone in my comic books was white. We lived in a big city, so I sometimes saw different colors of people out the window of the car, but other than that it was an all-white world for little-kid me.

My brothers and sisters and I attended God's Own Christian School, and I like to think it was because Mom & Dad wanted us to study Leviticus for an hour every damned day, but coincidentally, at GOCS, all the teachers and students were white. 

When I was in 3rd grade, though, Dad got laid off, so to save money me and my brothers and sisters all switched to public schools. Kids and even teachers of color began to exist, and it was not traumatic. Without Bible class, school was less boring, but other than that there wasn't much difference. I'd hated the all-white private school, and I hated the well-mixed public school.

Several years later, Dad and my older sister had a long, loud conversation alone in the kitchen, while I listened from the living room. A black boy from her high school had asked her out, and Dad said no. He explained, "The purpose of dating is to find the man you're going to marry, and you're certainly not going to marry a black man, so — absolutely not. I won't allow it." They argued and argued, but Dad could not be swayed. My sister cried but relented, and said she'd explain it to the boy. Instead she dated him secretly, all through her junior year.

Sis said Dad was a racist, and she was right, certainly, by present-day standards. For a man of his era, though, he had only a mild case of the disease — no Confederate flags, thankfully, and he never said anything plainly derogatory, at least not around me. Once, when a TV news show reported that black people had marched for equal access to lending, my dad said, "Well, good for them. They should have equal access." For the most part, though, race never came up in the conversation.

The main event I want to describe today happened years before, though, in the very early 1960s. I was drooling and in diapers, so I don't remember any of the following. I've only heard about it from my older siblings.

Dad did scientific work for a giant industrial concern, and they wanted to transfer him to a different job, in a different city — New Orleans, Louisiana. That's a long ways and a world away from Seattle, Washington.

Dad was a company man, so we were moving, but there was one major problem: Our family's denomination didn't have a church in New Orleans, so where would we worship, twice every Sunday and for mid-week meetings?

I'm not a churchgoer any more, but if that's a major part of your life, then finding the right church is important. Before we moved, my dad poured through reference books at the library, to figure out where each denomination stood on questions like Calvinism, determinism, free will, infant baptism, the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed, and all that crap.

Dad and Mom decided that the Nazarenes were OK, and they had a church in New Orleans, so — problem solved. We packed everything, and moved from America's progressive north to the very, very South in the early 1960s, just as the Civil Rights movement was beginning to simmer. Colored drinking fountains. Segregated schools. Segregated everything, really.

Dad was well-off and Mom was a slob, so in New Orleans we hired a maid, like on The Brady Bunch, except our maid was black. She was pretty cool for a grown-up. She was the first black person I'd known, and maybe my first black friend. Shout out sixty years later, Jessie!

Come Sunday morning, though, Jessie went to her black church, while we attended the Nazarene church — which was all-white, of course. Dad said, "We're a Nazarene family now," and we came back the next Sunday, and the Sunday after that, but then suddenly we weren't going to that church any more. What happened?

One sentence from one Sunday's sermon is what happened. I can offer no context, but in the middle of an otherwise boring service the pastor said: "I lost my wallet, and I think some n-word lifted it." Except he didn't say 'n-word', of course. He said a word that I won't even type. Said it from the pulpit, in front of God and everybody.

Mom and Dad looked at each other, started whispering to their six kids, and promptly walked us out of that church, never to return. This was big drama, for my white family in that time and place.

We lived in New Orleans for four years after that, and on Sundays we alternated between a Baptist church and a Methodist church. Both were all-white, but never explicitly anti-black. According to family folklore, my oldest brother once asked why we didn't go to the Nazarene church any more, and Dad said, "We are not a Nazarene family."

 

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