Remembering Grandmother

Originally Published in The Washington Post, Outlook March 1, 1998

Faith, Hope & Clarity
By John W. Fountain
Florence G. Hagler, one of the prayer warriors at True Vine Church
of God In Christ and John Fountain's grandmother.
The air inside the narrow storefront church on Chicago's West Side felt like hot maple syrup. Grandmother's brown hands, reached up toward the high white ceiling, the glowing globes and the cobwebs, as if trying to pull down heaven and touch God. "Praise yo' name Je-sus!" one church mother shouted.
"Hal-le-lu-jah," intoned another.
It was Sunday service at True Vine Church of God in Christ, a weekly spit-spewing Pentecostal revival, sometime in 1982. After six days of enduring one thing or the other among the travails of life in the ghetto, "the saints" usually sought rejuvenation through these teary testimonials and spirituals.
I once branded the whole business as snake oil, being of the mind that the spiritual powwows were no better than smoking weed or drinking cheap wine. But that was before my teen marriage and a time on welfare and three children to feed by age 22 led me to seek the intoxication of the Spirit.

True Vine Church of God In Christ (circa 1970's), founded by Fountain's grandparents George A. and Florence G. Hagler.
The church, located on Chicago's West Side was at 3915 W. Roosevelt Road and was a beacon of hope. 
"You can't stop dreaming or you start to die."

Standing in front of the sanctuary, lifted up by the "uh-HUHs" and "amens" of my grandmother and the little old ladies of the church, I testified:
"Giving honor to God, to the pastor and his wife, to all the elders, saints and friends. . .
The congregation urged me on.
I-I-I don't know how I made it this week. . . ."
Tears streamed down my face. Truth was, I couldn't see how I could make it through another. I can still hear Grandmother's soothing voice, "Hoooold on my darlin', hold on. . . . "
I was 19 when I first began to gravitate to the small black congregation of mostly relatives at True Vine, whose flashing neon sign lit up the strip of liquor stores, drug dealers and occasional men in drag. My grandfather, a robust, gentle man with a round face and gray mustache, was pastor. True Vine was housed in a tidy renovated storefront in the 3900 block of West Roosevelt Road, which us church folk had nicknamed the "Jericho Road" because of its peril. The neighborhood was known as K-Town, so called because many of the streets were named after Polish Americans and began with the letter "K."
K-Town was so dangerous that often when it was time to raise an offering, we locked up and posted two deacons at the entrance. Burglars had ripped us off so much that we took to buttressing the doors with two-by-fours at night. We could never understand how anyone could stoop so low as to steal from a church. But I later came to see that a people's spirit and self-respect can become so eroded by the daily grind of poverty and hopelessness that they care little about themselves, or anyone or anything. That's how brothers could sell crack to their friends' mamas, break into their neighbors' homes and, yes, steal from a church.
I had grown up in the church, but only became "saved" (accepted Jesus as my personal savior) a few months after my 19th birthday. As a child, I had hated Sundays. Having to wear my cousins' oversized hand-me-downs to church often made me want to crawl under a pew. I acquired a scowl that said "leave me the hell alone."
But there was one rule in my house: We had to go to church. Mama wasn't saved, but she was still part of that group of God-fearing black folks who believed that Sunday was God's day. Divorced and remarried, Mama dealt with my stepfather's periods of unemployment and our toggling off and on welfare as best she could. She often went without so that we could have. She borrowed and pinched to send us to a Catholic high school, placing her hope in her children.
Hope was something that played cat-and-mouse with her throughout her life. She married and had me when she was only 17 and still in high school. Undeterred, she went back to school soon after I was born to get her diploma.
Then life happened. My father's alcoholism and abuse. Remarriage. More children. The loss of hope in the face of an oppressive reality. Sometimes I would watch Mama sitting alone staring out of the window late at night. Often, she seemed to find solace in the weekend slapping of cards on the table with neighbors that lasted until almost daybreak.
"Joh-honnnn," Mama coaxed on Sunday mornings until my reluctance to climb out of my top bunk kindled her wrath. "Get up and get ready for church. NOW."
"Ah-ight Ma," I'd mumble, then hit the wooden floor with a thud, dragging and huffing all the way to the bathroom. Sometimes I complained, but not too long and never too loud. Mama, a thick woman with quick reflexes, didn't play that. The only time I got to stay home from church was when I was sick or when I faked it.
John Fountain and his sister Gloria.
Either way, the penalty was I couldn't go outside to play. Somewhere along the way, in the zillion services I sat through, some of the Christian teachings rubbed off and I became a bona fide convert. But not before fathering two children with my girlfriend and dropping out of college. I got a job computing the salaries of truck drivers at a shipping company and tied the knot that March in 1980. It was a simple wedding: the bride, groom and preacher, a best man, a maid of honor, and close friends and family. Grandpa performed the ceremony at True Vine. Afterward, we held a small reception in the dining hall upstairs. Our parents held separate repasts at their homes where they played cards and served up hard liquor. Looking back, I'm sure they needed a stiff drink. As for me and my six-months pregnant bride, we caught a ride to our new apartment and fell asleep on blankets on the floor. We didn't have enough money for furniture, let alone a honeymoon.
I know now we really had no business getting married, no business making babies or even having sex in the first place. We had been high school sweethearts and taken the love roller coaster to teenage parenthood like so many other teens we knew. The only difference was that we got married, in the name of love. But were too young to understand the responsibilities or the complexities of adult life.
After a year of work, I grew frustrated with its mundane routine and stopped showing up. I started looking for another job, not having the common sense to keep working until I had found another. I looked and looked and looked. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months of incessant borrowing to make ends meet, which eventually gave way to swallowing my pride and walking into a West Side welfare office. I had known poverty before, the pain of not being able to afford a 5-cent cookie to go with my free lunch as a child. But now three other people were depending on me. It wasn't long before my wife was pregnant with our third child, something she said occurred despite faithful adherence to the Pill. Whether it was true or not didn't matter. What mattered was there would be another mouth to feed in the Fountain family.
I kept looking for a job, scouring the want ads and plodding out on Monday mornings only to return home a little more broken, sometimes riding in the back of the Chicago Transit Authority bus staring out of the window, tears falling. I had taken Civil Service exams, was on the waiting list at the post office, and had been turned away by prospective employers at the personnel office more times than I could count. Once, I stood outside all night warming my hands over a flame in a garbage barrel to put in an application at a new company.
I applied for a job as a bank teller. The manager, a middle-aged white man, perused my resume, smiled while looking over my credentials and my clean-cut, white-shirt-and-tie appeal. A job, at last, I thought.
      "What are you doing here?" he asked, looking at me strangely. A job, you big dummy, I thought to myself. What do you think?  
        "You should be in college," he said.
        I should have been. I had won academic honors in high school, played basketball, ran track and cross-country, led the drama club and chess clubs, been named to Who's Who Among America's High School Students and had dreamed of becoming an attorney. I searched for words to explain but found none.
            "I could give you a job," the man said, not the slightest hint of animosity in his voice. "But I think if I did, I'd be doing you a disservice. You're better than this. This job is a dead end. You have something special."
I trudged back to my apartment and unemployment, feeling like kicking him. Some years later, I would feel like kissing him. By then the bank had closed and been replaced by a liquor store.
Whenever I got so down that I found it hard to go on, the little fiery gray-haired ladies or the prayed-up young Christian sisters at church would tell me that God was going to bless me someday, if I could just hold out. I started attending Tuesday and Friday morning prayer service. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I would be the only man amid the "prayer warriors" -- elderly women who basically rolled out of bed every morning and hit their knees calling on the name of the Lord.
I didn't have a car, so Grandmother picked me up for the prayer sessions. A caramel skin-colored woman with a round face and long, black hair peppered with gray, she had worked as a seamstress for a men's clothing manufacturer for years and raised six children while my grandfather held a variety of laboring jobs and served in the Navy during World War II. She is probably the sweetest woman I have ever known. She seldom raised her voice and always seemed willing to listen, although you could count on getting a good scripture from her vast repertoire of Bible verses.
"They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength," grandmother would say sometimes. "They shall mount up on wings as eagles."
If anybody was going to heaven, Grandmother was, and so was the band of little old ladies she mixed it up with in prayer. On Sunday, the ladies wore beautiful, colorful hats and sat in their rows of chairs at the front of the sanctuary for all to see, looking like proud peacocks with their scarves draped across their knees, Bibles in hand. They didn't take any mess, especially when it came to spiritual things. There was simply a clear dividing line between good and evil. And those who intended on walking with the Lord had better know it because they didn't mind correcting them.
There was Mother Vaughns, Mother Chapman, Missionary Hawkins, Aunt Mary, Sister Crane, sometimes Aunt Scopie and others. Few of the women had an education beyond high school, most of the elder mothers having come up through the South at a time when hands were needed at home and in the field. But, man, they knew how to pray.
"Oh, Law-aw-awd. We praise yo' name. Ya' been mat-tee goo-ood. . . . Ummmmm. Glo-raaay-to-yo'-name, Je-sus."
They didn't believe in women wearing pants, makeup or showing any cleavage. They scolded some of the younger sisters for exposing knees and thighs, and told them to drop their hems, take off their lipstick and colored fingernail polish. The brethren were not excluded from reproof, either. We could get a quick tongue lashing for not helping our wives with the kids enough, or for not bringing our families to Sunday school.
Their rebukes were given "in love," they assured us, although sometimes it sure didn't feel like it. But they would be the first to drop to their knees and go on a fast for you if ever you got into any serious trouble. I figured I needed them on my side, and they simply loved me to death for having the gumption to meet with them in prayer twice a week.
In addition to being the pastor's wife, Grandmother held the distinct honor of being district missionary, which meant she was in charge of a network of four or five churches. She and some of the other sisters decided to start the morning prayer so that God, in their words, would do something special for the district churches and their families. This was no women's social. It was business. And each morning that the women entered one of the churches in the district, they were stone-faced and purposed like they were going to go 15 rounds with the Devil.
On those prayer mornings, usually inside one storefront sanctuary or another, we'd cry out to the Lord, eyes shut tight, as we laid our burdens at his feet. Afterward, we'd have a group testimonial session in which we each proclaimed what the Lord was doing in our lives. It was like a free therapy session.
On those mornings, as I washed my face and got dressed, I often wondered why I was seeking the counsel of a bunch of grannies or spending so much time on my knees. It seemed so ineffectual to pour out my soul and never see any miracles or wonders, such as fire raining down from heaven or something more practical -- like a job.
Meanwhile, some of my friends thought I had turned religious fanatic. They laughed whenever they saw me on the way to church. It bothered me a lot, but given the pressure I was under, I needed something to cope. Given the alternatives of drinking, drugging or womanizing, I figured I was better off wailing with the little old ladies.
One morning after prayer in the fall of 1982, Grandmother and I sat in her Cadillac outside the red-brick apartment building where I lived.
"Grandmother," I said tearfully, "I just give up. I can't even dream anymore."
"You can't stop dreaming or you start to die," she said, her words half-sung. "Oh no, baby darlin'. You can't stop dreamin'."
I wasn't sure how far my dreams would take me or how they would end. I still couldn't afford to buy shoes for my children, their toes bunched and half-corned. My own shoes still had holes in the bottom of them. My only suit was so worn that the lining inside the jacket had withered. And, for a time, we didn't have a refrigerator and resorted to keeping our milk in a Styrofoam cooler.
But a few months after that morning when Grandmother rekindled the dream, I decided I had nothing more to lose -- except precious time. I enrolled in a junior college, which eventually led to my career as a writer, to decent work, to a proper foundation for my children -- the two youngest of the first three who live with me, the one who has come since my new marriage and my oldest son who lives in Chicago with his mother. He is 19 now, the same age I was when I got married. Lately, I've found myself looking back on those days with wonder.
I know now that much of my own initial misgivings about the prayer group really stemmed from manly young pride. Maybe what really irked me was that these women, in the twilight of life, had a strength and power that I greatly lacked. It was a power that still believed God looked out for the souls of wayward sons and daughters whose lives had ended up in shambles.
Those morning storefront prayers taught me some things: that real faith is found not in the tangible, but in the ability to see beyond circumstances, no matter how bleak, and to observe oneself through the prism of possibility; that faith begins with the smallest seed of hope planted in a fertile heart; that it is this faith and hope that is so severely lacking in poor communities, not another government program; that poverty is a matter of the spirit. I later realized that during most of my life I wasn't poor -- just broke.
"I don't know how I made it this week," I remember testifying at True Vine one Sunday back in 1982. "I don't know how I'm going to make it. . . ."
My knees felt weak, the world all around me becoming an agonizing blur.
"You can make it brother!" a sister shouted.
"You can make it," intoned another. "Hold on to the Lord!"
The organ revved. The congregation clapped, raised their arms and voices in praise. And I began to feel the electricity.
"But I know God is going to make a way," I said, beginning to feel revived.
"His word said, weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning!" I began to leap and dance across the red carpet. Grandmother shouted, too. It wasn't long before I finally began to realize that if joy and deliverance were to come on that proverbial morning, the night wasn't even close to being over.
But at least there was hope.
John Fountain is a reporter for The Post.