This Sunday I had a real moving conversation with David Gibson, the choir director of our church. We were discussing during my sermon people who influenced our faith. He shared how his grandmother is part of why he is a Christian who loves the Lord today.
Hearing David share about how the faith of his grandmother shaped him got me thinking. The power of grandmothers in our lives is something we often don’t take time enough time to reflect on.
Most of my grandparents died when I was too young to remember them, but one of my grandparents, Myrtie Mclamb Barefoot, left a lasting impact on me. In fact, in looking back, I realize she is part of why I am a progressive Christian too. Thanks to her I am today a progressive redneck preacher.
My earliest memory of Grandma Myrtie (or Ma Barefoot, as we all called her) is the taste of caramel. Before her stroke, whenever we would visit her at her old country home in Blackman’s Crossroads her soft, strong wrinkled hands would greet us with a pat on the head, a hug and then an old fashioned caramel chew. I can still remember the comfort I felt with the taste of caramel in my mouth and those wizened arms holding me tight. I think that will always be for me what safety and love feels like.
Grandma Myrtie had a grand old house with the sort of porch you could imagine someone sitting at for hours, looking out over waves of tobacco fields, while sipping cold sweet iced tea. Though farming was long over for her, behind her home was a large tobacco barn. I can remember climbing into it and running through it with a cousin while playing a game of hide and seek on one visit.
A little after her husband, Grandpa Charles, died, Ma Barefoot moved into our house. Approaching her 90s this grand old lady no longer could easily care for herself. A stroke, the loss of her husband, and just the frailty of her many years took a toll on her. So Ma Barefoot moved into our three story home in the city and lived with us until my early teens, when her health became so bad she had to be placed into a nursing facility.
Even though she had moved out of the family farmhouse, Ma Barefoot continued to be a southern belle. I remember her crisp, exact speech. Unlike grandpa Charles she was well educated – a school teacher – and just like she did with her charges, so she encouraged us to use good English and clear speech. I can still hear her rich cultivated southern accent as she spoke to me, always telling me something aimed at educating me and whetting a desire to learn.
One day, probably around the age of five or six, I had taken Ma Barefoot’s hand and walked with her around our little suburban neighborhood of green manicured lawns, so different from the rolling fields of Johnston County, as she began a history lesson.
“You know, this city where you live, Micah, it almost became the capitol. Back in the days of the revolutionary war, it is here they signed the bill of rights,” Ma Barefoot began.
I walked, awestruck and jaw agape, in wonder at the wisdom of her years, as she began to tell me the story of Fayetteville where I lived and the great state in which I had been born. I did not understand as I do now that Ma Barefoot meant the capitol of our state, North Carolina. So visions of Ronald Reagan (the only president I have ever known at that tender age) getting sworn in at our market house building filled my head.
The many talks Ma Barefoot had with me like this helped create in me a love of learning. The fact that she was a woman of strong faith also impressed me. Throughout her life she always spoke with honesty and compassion. I never remember her saying a harsh or hateful word about anyone.
I still remember how, as a fervent Missionary Baptist, Ma Barefoot would always have daddy drop her off at a local Baptist church (we attended somewhere else) to take time for her beloved Jesus. Also I recall how, when she was later living at the nursing home due to poor health, she would end each day praying every night for each of us and asking “Lord let me see another day to be here for my children and grand-children”. Ultimately one night she ended her prayer “Lord take me home”. That next day she had congested heart failure and died. I have always known on some level that moment did not end her life but ushered her into a new and more vibrant life in the presence of God.
Following that day there have been moments I have sensed this so strongly it has sometimes been as if Grandma Myrtie was standing right beside me again. I remember one point, after a turning point in my life. I had moved from the restrictive sort of ministry I had grown up in – where women, gays, and a long list of other folks were given second class place in the church because of the denomination who ordained me holding onto some of the slave-holder Christianity I spoke about last blog. I had left that type of ministry and begun the sort of ministry I do now which is welcoming of all. I had experienced a lot of rejection and loss by former friends and colleagues who felt I was abandoning my values and my Christianity by welcoming gay and lesbian couples into the church. It hurt. My family members didn’t understand what I was doing, and in many ways I felt very alone, cut off. Those who grew up in the south where we prize family so much know how painful that can be. I remember waking up one night, sitting bolt upright. I had a dream more vivid than real life where I walking down a winding country path and ran into Grandma Myrtie again – but strong and healthy like I’d never seen her. She wrapped her arms around me and said “I am proud of you, Micah, for what you are doing. You are doing the Lord’s work and he will take care of you”. When I woke from the dream I felt the strong presence of her there with me, and knew in some way she was still looking down from heaven and praying for me, rooting me on, in my journey of faith. With the words “I am proud of you” in my ears, still feeling those loving arms around me, tears of gratitude poured down my face.
I have thought many time about that dream since, though I’ve only shared about it with a few people. The dream reminds me not just of the fact Grandma Myrtie continues to live in a fullness of life with God I can only begin to imagine. It also reminds me that is one of the gifts she gave me was how through her I found the way toward my progressive Christian faith. The love of learning that Grandma Myrtie placed in me at such a young age helped me realize that learning, questioning, and growing are not contrary to faith but a part of loving God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind. Her example gave me a foundation where when I so both creation and evolution both make sense, I knew God did not require to pick between science and faith. I can use head and heart. It gave me the freedom to later realize if my science book said being gay was not a choice or a sickness, and my Bible say marriage is a gift of God and blessing to the world, I could affirm both by blessing same-gender marriages and saying hate is not a family value. Her love of family demonstrated to me an example of love and service to others I strive to walk in today. Her love of God expressed in those nightly prayers for another day to live and help her family which ended with a final prayer to go home to God leaves me with an abiding sense that in our darkest moments, God is with us. And that in our final moments we face not an end to be feared but the ultimate embrace by one whose love is as deep as Granda Myrtie’s was to all her grandchildren.
Have you, like David and me, had a southern granny that helped you find a progressive faith of your own? If so, please share it with me.
In honor of Grandma Myrtie and all grandmothers out there, here is a song about the power of a grandma.
Lets honor those who have gone before us, shaping us to who have gone before us. That’s another lesson Grandma Myrtie gave me.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie here.
Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,