Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Belated Father's Day Tribute to Pastor John

Some of the photos I like most during this election season have been the ones showing Obama in the role of father. Images of him embracing his girls, evidently loving and caring for them - during the race of his life - make my little adamantine heart sort of clench, you know?

I've written a lot about my dad here on ChurchGal. He reads this site and has been incredibly gracious about standing in as my occasional straw man against which I throw my screeds and opinions.

If you looked at him today, with his distinguished gray hair, glasses and the goatee (that makes all the old ladies love him), you'd see an educated, charismatic older black man. A man who looks like he could be a jazzer or a popular philosophy professor at a city college. A man who looks comfortable wearing the collar of a reverend as well as the crazy red cashmere sweater-gym shorts-dress socks-sandals combo he wears to his daughters' chagrin during Saturday brunch. He looks settled, comfortable, successful. But his life story is, to me, the typical African American bildungsroman.

My father grew up in the ghetto. Literally. THE GHETTO. The projects of Compton and Watts might as well have been a sharecroppers plot. But from the ghetto, he went into the Army, married my mother, went to school to earn two degrees (including one from Talbot Seminary), became the young associate pastor of our church, then senior pastor.

I think growing up in the ghetto gave my dad some resilience. He built several ministries from scratch, launched a radio show and a web ministry; he survived a number of professional rivalries, controversies and church schisms. He survived the sudden death of his wife, the new world of dating in the 21st century and has somehow managed to avoid getting leg-shackled again. I remember a story he told me about dating a woman who became so frustrated at his unwillingness to 'take it to the next level' she sicced her little yappy dog on him and dumped water over his head on a beach date. Clearly, my relationship issues are a family trait.

My pops has lost several friends, made quite a few enemies, and earned grudging respect because of his unwavering integrity and willingness to call bullshit on the black church's excesses and hypocrisies. He's often an exasperating object of frustration to his daughters.

(A common refrain: "Dad, why don't you do things the way they're meant to be done?!"
A common response: "Oh, girl. You worry too much.")

In his middle age, my dad has become a different dad. The previous authoritarian has been replaced by a more mellow, cigar smoking, wine-sipping, Christian libertarian whose motto is 'That is between you and God. But you know you're wrong.'

This later incarnation of my dad is a very cool, though befuddling, one.

So this is what my father taught me:

He taught me how to argue. Dinnertime was usually 90 minutes of my dad and I exhausting my mother and sister while I argued why it wasn't a sin to go to the Homecoming Dance or the weekend ski trip and he'd block me every time - until I figured out how to flip his rhetoric around on him. Good times.
He taught me how to fight. Watching my dad constantly turn the other cheek in the name of the Lord, I formed different opinions about the value of strategic conflict. I mean, David was a warrior, right?
He taught me how to think critically. Listening to my dad tear apart the faulty logic of his opponents was cool; having that same logic tearing applied to me, not so much.
He taught me how to tell a story to make a point. These were always the best parts of his sermons.
He taught me how to lose. Like that Elizabeth Bishop poem, 'One Art.'
He taught me how to start over. Watching a pastor incubate and launch new ministries will do that.
He taught me that education counts.
He taught me that integrity and character count more.
He taught me that it is possible to change.
He also taught me there are some things you can't change
- who you are is WHO you are. It's just that some folks lie about who they are.
He taught me how to charm. The moms in the PTA liked my dad for a reason.
He taught me about jazz.
He turned me into a feminist
(when he told me I needed to learn how to make a man a sandwich.)
He is a walking lesson in vulnerability, sacrifice, faith and dedication to one's Call. (Yes, he might have *said* he wants to give his congregation the finger but he's still there.) This is a lesson I'm still trying to get.
He taught me that you make your own path. One thing I've always loved about my dad (both of my parents, actually) is that he has never, despite the unfortunate sandwich incident, tried to dictate my identity.

My memories of dad are those of unwavering support, whatever my decision has been. He was the one who drove across the country with my stuff when I started at UofM; he was the one who helped move me to Chicago when I decided to leave UofM; he was the one who didn't blink an eye when I told him I was going to jump into the unknown world of the non profit. He was the one who shut down his congregation when they had the nerve to whisper about my gay friends attending and helping out with my mother's funeral. He was the one who showed me that when other people start telling you how they need you to be someone you know you're not, you need to walk away and say, 'You crazy.' Consequences be damned. Most likely, there won't be any.

So, thanks, Dad. You've made me the feminist, bitchy, snarky, authority-hating loudmouth bougie snob I am today.

Love you! Happy Belated Father's Day!

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