Debra Johnson, fourth from left in the above picture, was my cousin. The photo is about 50 years old. It was taken, almost certainly, at Trinity A.M.E. Zion Church in Binghamton, NY, my church growing up. The young women appear to be in the choir loft.
Debbie was adopted by my great uncle – my paternal grandmother’s brother – Earl and his wife, Jessie. The adoption was no secret. They had already largely raised their biological family, so they were “older” parents to her. But from everything I knew, good ones.
I knew Debbie primarily from church, specifically from singing in church choirs. One group was the MAZET singers, directed by my father, which also featured my sister Leslie (left), Nita (2nd left), and Lauren H. (right). Lauren B. (in the middle) came to church slightly later.
Leslie was closer to Debbie than I was. I mean, guys of a certain age didn’t hang out with “girls,” even girl cousins. But neither of us kept in touch after I left town. I hadn’t seen her since the mid-1980s, possibly earlier. We were Facebook friends, that “the least you can do” relationship tentacle.
One of many things I didn’t know about Debra Johnson is that she continued to be in touch with one or both birth parents, surname Miller, plus her over a dozen siblings. More strange for me is that some of them live in Albany, which is where I live!
She died recently in the Binghamton area, I found out from her sister, my cousin Ruth, who also provided the photo. The first iteration of the narrative was that Debra fell down some steps.
There’s a lot of love showing on her Facebook page from some brokenhearted folks. It’s very touching, even if it’s from people most of whom I do not know.
For my request to Ask Roger Anything, Carla, my friend from the high school choir asks:
Write more about your early memories of your church and school and your family!! I love those stories.
My, that’s tough. There are SO many tales. OK. I was baptized at my church, Trinity A.M.E. Zion Church in downtown Binghamton, NY in August 1953. No, I don’t remember this.
But my church moved when I was a kid to the corner of Oak and Lydia Streets. I took a search on Newspapers.com. “Bishop Walls…senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, will rededicate the former Plymouth Methodist Church as the new church edifice of Trinity.” This was in a story in the 8 June 1957 edition of the Binghamton Press. I vaguely remember him.
It’s fascinating the detail given not just in this story, but all of the religious goings-on in the area. “The present Trinity Church at 35 Sherman Place recently was purchased by St. Mary’s Assumption Church as part of a site as a planned recreational center.”
Ultimately, Columbus Park was built on that site, right across the street from the Interracial Center at 45 Carroll St, where my father Les would often volunteer. Not incidentally, the park has been informally renamed for Assata Shakur.
One-tenth of a mile
The new church location was two really short blocks from our house at 5 Gaines Street. And we’d cut through the parking lot at Gaines and Oak, making the trip even faster. So we really were at church all of the time. I participated in the children’s choir, directed by Fred Goodall, who seemed to be there forever.
WNBF-TV, Channel 12 (now WBNG) used to have telethons. It was either the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon on Labor Day weekend or the March of Dimes or maybe both. In any case, our choir appeared on the station more than once. In fact, between those appearances and being on the kids’ shows, I was on local TV at least a half dozen times.
My paternal grandmother Agatha – emphasis on the second syllable, not the first – was my Sunday school teacher. She and her husband McKinley also lived upstairs from us at 5 Gaines Street. So I saw her a lot, often playing canasta at her kitchen table, until she died in May 1964. She was the first person I knew and loved who passed away.
My father Les would run off the bulletin on that mimeograph machine. I can still recollect in my mind’s nostrils that specific smell. Besides singing in the senior choir, dad also began directing the youth choir he dubbed the MAZET singers, based on the initials of the church, It included the organist’s younger daughter Lauren, my cousin Debra, my sister Leslie, and me. I recollect that we were pretty good.
They had NO idea this was going down, which was the whole idea.
I started looking for a church to attend in Albany shortly after I had sung in the church choir back in my hometown of Binghamton, NY (Trinity AME Zion) in May of 1982 for my maternal grandmother’s funeral. I used to attend there regularly, but for over a decade after high school, I fell away for all sorts of reasons.
The first visit to Trinity United Methodist was June 13, which I remember because the pastor, Stan Moore, spoke positively of the anti-nuke demonstration in Manhattan I had attended the day before.
Not only did I join the choir that December, but eventually became president of the Administrative Board (think Congress) and the Council on Ministries (think the US Cabinet) at different times, not to mention leading a social group called the Ogden Fellowship and participating in a book club for well over a decade. I even put together the church’s community page online.
But the subsequent pastor was pushing for a more “efficient” form of church governance, one that was allowed by the United Methodist Church. I specifically remember one church member, one of the choir folks, ask, reasonably, “Where are the checks and balances?” More than one person shouted him down; “give it a chance.”
So the church was then run my the pastor and his small cabal. There were no regular church meetings unless called by said group or by 10% of the membership, and the latter meeting could only be done about that stated topic. That 10%, BTW, included shut-ins and members who were away, so it was a difficult threshold.
So when the SECOND Spanish-speaking congregation was forced out in January 2000 by the pastor, with the ascent the District Superintendent, less than two months after the English-speaking congregation overwhelmingly agreed that they should stay, I was furious. Extra copies of the letter to the Hispanic congregation from the DS I was passing out to the “Anglo” congregation, because they had NO idea this was going down, which was the whole idea.
I was attending the Hispanic service only because the choir for the Anglo service had been suspended by the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, which had no authority to do so – long story, but it was basically bogus. And the meeting in March to try to “reconcile” the situation was one-sided and terribly handled.
But I didn’t leave over the choir suspension or the Hispanic congregation getting the boot. I left because the church, in ceding its power to essentially one person, provided no way to respond to the injustices. No Administrative Board to appeal to.
The new system WAS more efficient. Efficiency in church governance is HIGHLY overrated.
I brought this up now for a specific reason, which I’ll write about soon.
He wrote, “I have even considered going into the ministry at a couple of points throughout my lifetime.” I responded, “When I was 12, most people thought I would become a minister, and I tended to agree,” to which Arnoldo responded, “I’d love to learn more about your spiritual journey and what led you to have a change of heart about going into the ministry sometime.” My answer: “That’s going to take a blog post. Or two.”
Or more, because, somewhere tied in there, I need to respond to an earlier question from Arthur – no, I haven’t forgotten – about the author Ta-Nehisi Coates, and specifically his atheism.
Let’s start at the very beginning. I was raised in the church, specifically Trinity AME Zion Church in Binghamton, NY. AME stands for African Methodist Episcopal. Like the AME Church, founded a decade before in Philadelphia, the AMEZ church was founded as a result of racial prejudice on the part of the M. E. (white) church, this time in New York City, “licensed a number of colored men to preach, but prohibited them from preaching even to their own brethren, except occasionally, and never among the whites.”
I was baptized when I was five months old. My paternal grandmother, Agatha Green (nee Walker) was one of my Sunday school teachers. The junior choir, under the direction of Fred Goodall, who was there for decades, included both my sister Leslie and me.
When I was nine, I was “saved.” I was at someone’s house on Oak Street, about a half a block from my church, but I wasn’t with folks affiliated with my church, and in fact, I’m not remembering whose house it was at all.
What I do recall was watching a Billy Graham crusade one afternoon or early evening on television. The evangelist Graham had a regular column in one of the Binghamton newspapers at the time. On the TV, he did his usual altar call, where he asks if we in the audience, as well as those gathered wherever he was, wanted to accept the saving grace of Jesus Christ. It sounded good to me. So I said yes.
The secretary to the principal of my school, Daniel S. Dickinson, was named Patricia J. Gritman. Though I don’t remember the process, at some point, Pat asked if I wanted to go to a Bible study at her house on Front Street, a half dozen blocks from where I lived. I attended Friday Night Bible Club for at least five years, as did Leslie. We memorized Bible verses, some of which I STILL know; sang songs; and, according to Leslie, ate a lot.
I was still attending Sunday school at my church, As I got a bit older, my father, Les Green, led a group of kids, including Leslie, our cousin Debbie and me, in a group called the MAZET singers, MAZET being an anagram of our church’s acronym.
At school, I tried not to lord my religion over others, but issues came up. For instance, the vast majority of my classmates found a way to cheat on some written tests in biology, but I was unwilling to do so, to the detriment of my grade.
By the time I got to 10th grade, I had started carrying around my Bible. I didn’t discuss the Book unless asked, but it was my statement of faith.
If someone were to ask me what I was going to be in this period, I probably would have said “a minister.” I got the feeling that others in my church thought so. I was becoming familiar with Scripture, and I was an active church participant, reasonably intelligent, and very well-behaved.
Around that period, I started attending another church on Sunday evenings, Primitive Methodist Church in Johnson City, a primarily white church. Usually, I’d walk about 0.6 mile to my friend Bob’s house, then we’d walk over 2.5 miles to the service; sometimes, we’d walk back, too. This was a more, for lack of a better word, fundamentalist POV.
A funny thing happened, though. As I got even more knowledgeable about the Bible, I found it more confusing, at least if one were supposed to take it all literally, as opposed to reading parts of it as allegory. Part of the problem was sheer mechanics. Genesis 1’s and Genesis 2’s creation stories deviate from each other. If Adam and Eve were literally the first people, who did Cain and Seth have children with?
More problematic was the notion that we American Christians had to send missionaries all over the world to save souls, lest they all go to hell. The narrative was that some person, even a child, in India who wasn’t even aware of Jesus Christ was sentenced to eternal damnation? I had a great big problem with a loving Jesus being part of that, but I received no satisfactory answer. There were other issues, too, but that was the big one, presumably tied to John 14:6.
Then, I started poking at even the most prosaic issues that Christians I had associated with had been telling me. Some thought going to the movies was sinful, or maybe that Disney movies were OK. Playing cards were wrong, even though my Sunday school-teaching grandmother taught me how to play canasta. I never much bought into these minor issues, but they made me much more cynical about the whole faith thing.
Little by little, doubt crept into my previous impenetrable fortress of faith. In retrospect, I find it interesting that I never made any active attempt to find a church when I went away to college in New Paltz, even though there were at least three within walking distance.
Oddly, I did not sing much in college. I certainly never joined a vocal group. I did sing in the stairwells with my friend Lynn, but that was it.
These pictures, above, my “baby” sister posted on her Facebook feed. I was 7 and 52, respectively. The first one, which was for Advent, was in some internal section, but the latter was right on the front page; in case you can’t read it, I’m rehearsing for the Faure requiem.
I reposted them on a Thursday – actually late on Wednesday night – and I was told that I was participating in Throwback Thursday. I am generally so oblivious to social media norms that I did not know that Throwback Thursday was a thing. I HATE doing social media “things”; next time I post old pictures, it’ll be on a…MONDAY.
This is another in those occasional pieces about how I’m surprised that people who know me don’t know me as well as I thought.
You may recall that I previously mentioned a choir member who did not know I was a librarian. On my birthday this month, I was at church. The choir was going to sing for something called First Friday. I see an old buddy of mine from my FantaCo days in the 1980s, but I know him better since he started blogging in the past few years.
He asked what I was doing, I tell him I’m going to singing with the choir, and he says, “I didn’t know you sang.”
I’ve written about how I used to sing with my father and sister, back when I was growing up in Binghamton. I also sang in the youth choir at Trinity AME Zion Church in Binghamton (see picture #1), and the chorus in high school.
Oddly, I did not sing much in college. I certainly never joined a vocal group. I did sing in the stairwells with my friend Lynn, but that was it.
I was in the church choir at First Unitarian in Schenectady for about five minutes in 1979. My real reintroduction to choir singing, though, began with my grandmother’s death in January 1982. She died on Super Bowl Sunday, in Charlotte, NC, but she had expressed a desire to be buried in her hometown of Binghamton, and she was, in May 1982. I got to sing in the choir, and I realized how much I missed it.
I went church shopping. Attended all the FOCUS churches at the time, the UU church in Albany, and about a half dozen others. It ended up being between Trinity Methodist and First Church, the Dutch Reformed Church downtown. During Advent, Gray Taylor, one of the tenors at Trinity, made a pitch for people to join the choir. A sign!
I sang for a week, then not the next two, but by January 1983, I was a regular. Stayed there until The Troubles in early 2000, after which I moved on to First Pres (see picture #2).
So yes, I sing. I’d rather sing harmony than melody. I’m a baritone and can generally find the bass line to any song, even those without one. I sing in the shower. I sing inside my head when singing out loud would be inappropriate.