It was on one of those nights that I sat beside my grandmother when we attended what for me was my first experience with any type of spiritual education or lecturing at one of the evangelical churches that my grandmother loved to visit. I say “visit” since she was ever wary of “organized” churches and preferred to visit all the many and sundry expressions of the Christian religion and the other unconventional ones like the “bush” churches which I will get into later.
I couldn’t help but feel literally worked over at the time, however. While there that night I was thinking of why I was there suddenly refusing to even listen to what my maternal grandfather would have referred to as a “cussed White man,” since the speaker was a white evangelist preacher. All the while I was reminding myself that my sister Aminta, who was also present, was the only other person to look to for consolation. “Some Christian this is,” I thought while observing my grandmother, “The same person who would stand by without saying a word while I’m brutalized by my father and equally mistreated by our youngest aunt.”
At the time we were considered the “enemy” and even cursed at as “the snakes in the grass,” by the household full of women. By then it must have been more than two years of this kind of treatment with no let up since our mother had abandoned us to an abusive father and his relatives who seemed to be equally abusive and hateful. “The enemy,” I thought, as I looked at the images of some foreign looking devil hanging on the walls of the church, “was not the ‘cussed white man,’ but my own family.” It was then I started noticing a change in my little sister Aminta, the other witness to the physical mistreatment I was receiving. She herself, in fact was also being emotionally and physically mistreated by our abusive younger aunt on a daily basis.
My sister, it seemed to me, was the more astute of the two of us as she sat quiet and contemplative at my grandmother’s side. She seemed detached, in fact, as she saw way ahead how our lives would someday be eternally separated. The painful fact was that we were both feeling emotionally lost as children involved in the recent divorce of our parents with no words of comfort coming from any of the adults we knew leaving us only with each other for comfort and help in the rush to maturity and freedom.
Our isolation was so pronounced that even our neighbors catalogued us as “house birds” since we spent most of our days confined to our two-room “cell” in Magnolia building, and as prisoners we would gradually and inevitably become detached from each other, afraid to even discuss the so cherished freedom we both yearned for.
However, that very night in 1945 I was certain that I was no “enemy,” and I remained hopeful particularly after learning the stories of my Uncle Eric and my grandfather, Joshua Reid, who were very unique men, to say the least. Even the congregation at the Evangelical Church that night, which was mostly Westindian, was not the enemy, remembering my maternal grandfather with the original fondness I felt for him although he had not even come to Panama City to see me since the terrible breakup of my parents.
It was about this time that I also began looking forward to weekends with my paternal Aunt Bernice, the perpetual live-in “Zone” maid, whose presence in our home on Saturdays and Sundays became something for me to look forward to. I knew that for her just getting to and from work to home on these weekend get-a-ways was something of an accomplishment since her entire life was wrapped up in serving her employers and their families on the Zone. For her to even attend church was her way of getting some rest from all the work she did as an all around maid, cook and servant.
Attending church had transformed her into my “loving” Aunt Bernice who, although she hardly ever spoke to me about religious or any other matters, took the time on Sundays to keep me with her to attend Sunday service. So, off we would go to church and I distinctly felt that I was going along just to keep her company, as we joined the attendees at church service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church near the National Institute.
St. Paul Services were presided over by the Rev. A.F. Nightengale the priest (and Bishop) who performed Mass since to me the entire ceremony, the rituals and everything they did in St. Paul resembled the Spanish Catholic Church’s rites. It became, in fact, one of my few sources of enjoyment witnessing the Reverend Nightengale at work during the Sunday Service. The all Black congregation and me (still clinging to my Spanish-ness), as one in the audience, observed and listened with interest.
Not long afterwards I also started showing an interest in the little Spanish Roman Catholic Church on San Miguel Hill. It was located behind Magnolia Building and had turned into a landmark in the area of the city where we resided.
At any rate, it was a time of daydreaming for me and a time that caught me analyzing with my inquisitive nature the nature of my people. It was such inquisitiveness, eventually, that prompted me to begin to seriously consider the idea of wanting to be an educated person, and to take religion seriously, as seriously even as the Reverend Nightengale, or any politician I had ever heard of during those times.
At this time I became very reserved with the people immediately around me and would refuse to have any serious conversations with my family or contemporaries about anything I thought to be of worth. I would then escape from home to stand guard outside of what my paternal side of the family called the “Beji-nite” churches.
I sort of became “the spook who sat by the door,” in my spy-like demeanour as I tried to figure out this unusual sect. It seemed to me that these churches were the only really traditional Westindian expressions of church that I recognized and they fascinated me. I even had thoughts of joining them at one point until I noticed that the congregation was almost entirely comprised of Westindian women.
This story continues.