Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Speech: A Simple Gift

Sometime in the mid-1980s, my friend Chris Lydon, his eyes glowing and finally tearful, told me that he had joined the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury. Born a Catholic, raised to be erudite and free, he had been searching. The pastor, the Rev. Michael Haynes, once a friend of Martin Luther King, had gradually become his spiritual guide. Chris did not quite know how to explain this, and I did not quite know how to interpret it, but he told me with conviction that he had been "saved." I suppose my envy was a kind of faith.

Over the years, after many visits to the church--often just to see Chris' white face singing, shining, swaying, in an otherwise black choir--the word saved began to make sense to me, though not in a way that would redeem any doctrine. We would sing how He lifts me up, or how He keeps on blessing me, and "saved" just meant melting into the terrible mystery you felt as the hymns swept over you, a mystery of courage, hope, love, justice--terrible because these things are gifts, terrible because they are true only when you are ready for them, which is not exactly when you need them.

The most memorable of these visits was Father's Day about eight or nine years ago. Sidra and I were in Boston and had come to the church, as it were, by chance. One young man after another, graduating, or just having finished a school year with ordinary success, came up to be blessed by Rev. Haynes, and to acknowledge the mentor in his life. The June air was thick, mostly with gratitude, which is the only thing you really need God for. And Father's Day was always particularly poignant for me, for it was the day my father was buried, the Sunday in 1971 after taking his own life. I stood there, watching those young men, thinking about the responsibilities they were assuming in the face of so many discouragements, and the humility that unlocked, of all things, their autonomy. I thought especially about the mysterious truths my father had not been ready for.

I HAVE JUST read a series of columns about how Barack Obama's inaugural speech was, well, disappointing; I am thinking about the Twelfth Baptist Church. I confess Obama's words--pouring through my laptop on a tense Jerusalem evening--had me riveted, speechless, much the way that Father's Day did. I suppose we could have done without "rising tides" and "still waters," which came (alas) at the beginning. But like Chris' word saved, Obama's other very familiar words, "responsibility," "common good," seemed true, faithful, something hard won by a young man who, wondering about what to make of Father's Day himself, had put away childish things at a young age; who realized that, for him, soldiers fought, for him, marchers marched, for him, mothers scrambled.

The speech, some note, had no memorable lines, which is what others said about the speech on race. For me what was memorable was the plain struggle between the lines: the relief of a plain sermon, simplicity after complexity. I thought about Obama, like Chris (like me), rediscovering simple gifts. I thought about the way Rev. Haynes mixed unabashed political exhoratations with unabashed moral exhortations; how he put away childish things, like the need to say something memorable, because there was no point saying anything just once, or to people not yet ready to be saved.

Chris once told me that its black churches are the secret heart of America. The secret is out. In Dreams From My Father, Obama admits to crying for the first time, standing in church, finding commonwealth in the pews. The cadences and themes--and criticisms and cliches--of Obama's speech would have been inconceivable without those pews, I believe. The reinvention of America, and its global responsibilities, would be inconceivable, too.