I was born a white Methodist. I was baptized without my knowledge when I was just a few months old. Yesterday I was reborn a black Baptist, in a baptismal pool at Zion First Black Baptist Church, 16 James A. Moses Drive, in Middletown, Connecticut. This time, 62 years after my first baptism, I freely chose to have Rev. Carleton Giles, my new minister, stand in for John the Baptist. And when I hit the water and was pushed under after Rev. Giles ordered me to "Hold your breath," I was surrounded by my Baptist brothers and sisters, by Susie, my wife, by John Hall, my former minister at the white congregational church, and my old friend Mark Brady. (Mark's younger than I but he's know me for 35 years, so that makes him my "old" friend.) Before being "forcibly" submersed, Rev. Giles asked me three questions: "What is your name?" "Robert Paul Dutcher." "Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?" "Yes." And, finally, "When did you begin to believe?" Now crying, tears of joy which nearly prevented me from getting out my answer, I answered: "When I began coming to this church, in July of two-thousand and ten." Susie later told me of my slip; I first went to Zion last July, in two-thousand and eleven. I suspect the reason for my Freudian slip is this. Until I set foot in my black baptist church last summer, I hadn't experienced religion, Christianity, Christian song and liturgy, or anything remotely like how we praise God at Zion, since the nights of the church suppers at my boyhood Methodist church, when we sang the old familiar church hymns to the accompaniment of an old upright piano.
In my first baptism, way back in the day, in 1950, I imagine I cried like a baby, because I was a baby. This time I cried like a baby, because I'm now a man, and real men cry when they're moved to tears, as I was yesterday, before, during, and after the miracle of my rebirth.
After I got "dunked" yesterday at Zion, one of my sisters, Stephanie, and I greeted each other after the more than two-hour service. (With baptisms we start a half-hour early; when it's also a communion first Sunday of the month, add another half-hour onto the usual hour to hour-and-a half service; that may seem long to you, but I assure you, it's never boring in a black baptist church like mine at Zion; I'd have to be in extremis to want to miss a service voluntarily.) Stephanie, who retired after 30 years as a Spanish teacher in the Milford, Connecticut public school system, joked, with a twinkle in her eyes, and the corner of her mouth turning slightly up as it re-formed her lovely smile, "Bob, I was wondering if you might come up out of that baptismal pool as an actually-black black baptist!" I nearly wet my now-dry pants with laughter. After the baptism the three of us baptizees, a teenage young lady and a teenage young man, and I were led by our Baptismal Spirit Guide, sister Doris, back down to the parish hall in beneath the sanctuary. We were then asked to change from our wet white baptismal clothes in the rest rooms back into our Sunday finest. We were given black plastic bags to store our wet clothes.
Back in Philly, where I was born, my mother was born into a Methodist family. Her mother was born in England, an Episcopalean. Momma's father was a lifelong Methodist and Republican. The Heydrick girls, my momma, Aunt Margie, and Aunt Ellie, all loved to sing at Bridesburg Methodist Church. Granddaddy Heydrick was the Sunday School Superintendent. During the Depression years, my grandfather lost his grocery store because he was generous to a fault and gave too much food on credit. Unfortunately, nobody had good credit in those days. The family went belly-up but eventually Granddaddy paid back all of his creditors.
My parents lived with mom's family at 2407 Spring Garden Street in the Bridesburg section of Philadelphia until they were able to buy a row house in the Frankford section of Philadelphia after my parents moved back from Seattle, where Dad last was stationed by the U.S. Army. We all went to Frankford's Johnson Memorial Methodist Church until we moved to a single-family house in the step-up Northeast Philly neighborhood in 1954, when I was four. At the Frankford church, my only memory is being scared too death by a female youth minister who preached a children's worship sermon, in a room off the main adult sanctuary, about the chains and fires of Hell, which awaited any bad little boy or girl. I didn't care about the girls' fate, but I knew I was a boy, and I must have had some subliminal consciousness of my own badness because I remember running out of that fire and brimstone homily into the security of sitting between mom and dad in the big sanctuary. That was not a good first encounter with Christianity, and maybe it created a fertile field in my mind for the atheism which eventually took root and flowered during my college philosophy years.
The northwest corner of our large home on the northwest corner of Rhawn and Frontenac Streets adjoined the home of the large Irish-Catholic Mountain family. Mary Beth "Betsy" Mountain was a year older than I. Like my wife, Mary Beth was a very pretty blue-eyed blonde person. She was also an intolerant Roman Catholic. "Bobby, you have a Black Mark on your soul, because you're not Catholic," Betsy informed me one day, as we were doing something together which found me listening to this lecture, warning really, by Mother Superior M.B. Mountain, on Frontenac Street, right outside the east side of Mr. and Mrs. Kemper's house. The lecture, the warning, the homily, the accusation, whatever it was, scared the heck out of me. It also had the effect of causing me, unconsciously, to revile Catholicism as an intolerant religion for which I had nothing good to say or think from that time on. Well, at least until I heard of people like Mother Theresa. Come to think of it, what really changed my mind about the Catholics was the person who really turned my head, and the course of my life, and that's my beautiful blonde, blue-eyed, and Catholic wife, Susan Price Dutcher
But before I met Susie, I also started having doubts about my own Protestant religious tradition. After we moved to Rhawnhurst in 1954, my parents switched from Johnson Memorial to Tabernacle Memorial Methodist Church. And that's where I became a devout little Christian boy. I was always a good reader and loved the positive vibes I got when I read the scripture aloud. At 8 years old, maybe 10, I thought I wanted to become a minister. I didn't like the stiff formality of Rev. Donald Miller. He always wore a black "priest's" outfit with a white clerical collar, one of those ones where the white part was a little square in the vicinity of his Adam's apple. Very much like the little white fluff on my son Jamie's cat, Russell, whom I take care of now. The big difference is, Russell is a more inviting creature of God than Rev. Miller, at least to me. I didn't understand much of what Rev. Miller preached, but I knew it didn't make me feel very good inside.
What I did love about the Methodist church in Rhawnhurst was the singing. Especially when we sang the old-time hymns in the basement parrish hall, after a church supper. Somebody played the piano and Roy Diebler led the singing. I remember Mr. Diebler as looking something like Walt Disney. Mr. Diebler had a similar mustache and slicked-back hair, but he wore glasses. Walt Disney was un-spectacled. Mr. Diebler was an enthusiastic song leader. He had a gold ring on the third finger of his right hand, with a purple stone in the setting. It may have been a men's club ring, like a Masonic ring. And when he led the hymns, he made his right hand into a fist and rocked his right arm back and forth, like the pendulum of a very fast clock. There was always a big smile on his face. The piano was an old upright which did not have a perfect sound but nobody paid attention to the imperfections. John Wesley, the circuit-riding English-born founder and chief apostle of Methodism in the United States, believed that the best way to praise God was to sing with enthuiasm and volume. And so we did, back in the 50's in that parrish hall at the little Methodist church on Loney Street in Northeast Philly.
Those were such happy years in my life. I didn't have a care in the world in the 50's and early 60's. School was no big deal and the rest of the time we played outside. There were no cell-phones or computers to check, no video games to play to obsession and distraction from all else, no parents to supervise us or interfere in whatever mischief we dreamed up that day, and no play-dates or other scheduled activities. When my mother signed me up for clarinet lessons one summer, I hated the vibration of the reed when I blew into that licorice stick and had zero passion for the instrument, so I road my single-speed bicycyle to a little forested area between our house and the high school where the lessons were given and hung out there until I knew I safely could pedal home and lie to my mother about how much fun the clarinet lesson had been. Yeah, right.
And then, just when I was getting my grove in my little Garden of Eden, God got bored with me. I wasn't doing anything dramatic with the life He gave me. I'm quite sure God is a frustrated writer. Because He has no body and is pure Mind, he cannot write stories himself. In fact, he can't "do" anything directly. So, wanting to watch some interesting theater, He created human beings and made them in such a way that they'd disobey all his many commandments and enact some pretty interesting dramas. The way God did this to me, and I suspect a few others, was to send flashes of Testosterone coursing through my body at about age 13. By 14, I was a total Testosterone Zombie. At about that time, I've heard I was seen walking, running even, from the Garden of Eden, with my arms raised in front of me, parallel to the ground, and my eyes wide open, with pupils fully dilated. But most noticeably, I have it on reliable information, my mouth was always running at full speed, arguing, always arguing. About anything and everything.
In my teens, my mother required my brother Bill and I to continue to go to Sunday School and church, totally against our own perceptions of what was best for us. "Oh, boys, please can't you go to church? Do it for my sake. Please." I have no idea why it was so important for us to go to church? In my case, it must have been related to the fact that mother had no clue what I was doing in my free time, didn't really care what it was, but figured The Church would make sure Bill and I were kept on the straight and narrow path of righteousness for His name's sake.
In retailiation, I suppose, I made myself a total argumentative pain in the rear-end of my admiring but irritated Sunday School teacher, Harriet Rettgers. Harriet was married, but childless, so she taught Sunday School. She was a proof reader for a book publisher. Mrs. Rettgers always wore very high heels, roccoco plastic colored glasses frames held on her head with interesting loose-fitting temple holders, and mostly smiled when I argued the absurdity of the standard, "Government-Issued," Christian theology, as presented by non-intellectuals to non-college Sunday School "students." It's philosophically easier to tear the Idols of Literal Christian Biblical Interpretation limb-for-limb than it is to shoot deer in a zoo with a heat-seeking shoulder-mounted Raytheon-manufactured missle, from 5 feet away. The only Houdini-like escape for street-smart Christian theologians is The Metaphorical Approach to the text. And it doesn't take an Oxford-educated philosophical-type to recognize this simple fact. Harriet would frequently take me aside, in the small chapel where we had Sunday School, next to the larger main church building, and inform me, warn me, beg me, "Bobby, I know what you're doing. I understand your questions, your doubts, but if you keep this up I'm afraid you'll destroy the faith of the other kids." I don't recall what I said back to her but I do know this for a fact: I didn't care what impact I had on anybody else. Probably, I was pissed my mother required me to sit through these classes, so I did what any self-respecting ruthless, heartless teenager would do: I kept on arguing until Father Time kicked me out of the Sunday School and into a more fertile intellectual field, Wesleyan University, Philosophy 101, taught by the smartest man I've ever met, L. Kent Bendall. Ken co-authored a book about the philosophy of religion when he was in the philosophy department of Wellesley College outside Boston, before coming to Wesleyan. My older sister Carol took an introductory philosophy course with Professor Bendall, hated it, but I wound up with he copy of Ken's book. Carol and I both encountered Ken in the 60's, but she was more interested in music theory and French language fluency. Unlike Carol, I took to philosophy like a fish to water. Carol and philosophy mixed about as easily as thick crude oil and ice-cold water.
I still have the textbook. Fineberg was the editor of this wonderful comilation, "Problems in Philosophy" I think is the title of brief introductions to all the major topics in the history of philosophy and excerpts from the orginal texts. [I'm writing this from the old house we're trying to sell. The book is at Susie's new house, where the book is on a bookshelf upstairs, and I don't want to ask her to go up and look for it to check the title.]The year was 1967. The first topic was arguments for the existence of God. The first text was Anselm's Ontological Argument. "God is that than which none greater can be conceived." Being an existent, so the major premise goes, is greater than being a non-existent, at least in the human conception of what is greater and what is lesser. Inherent in the ordinary, common-sense meaning of the term "God" is having the quality of being the greatest. Therefore, since God is assumed to be the greatest, then He also must exist, or he woudn't be the greatest of which man can conceive. Thus, God exists. QED. There are some philosophical problems with Anselm's approach, but in case you find it persuasive, I'm not quite as heartless as I was at 15, so I won't fire the shoulder-mounted missle I still carry around with me, just in case, at the Ontological Argument. At the moment, in this story, my interest is history, etiology even [of my own religious faith], not ontology generally.
There is, however, a connection, in the present, between my black baptist church and that Wesleyan philosophy class from 45 years ago. Rev. Usher Toler, one of Rev. Giles's assistants, led the first intercessory prayer ritual at Zion in one of the first services I attended there last year. His prayer motif, the theme of his prayer, was that there is None Greater than God. That phrase, "None Greater," resonated deep in my soul. Frequently, after that service, when Rev. Toler would get up to give a prayer in the pulpit in later services, I yielded to my impulse and shouted out, "None Greater," when Rev. Toler was making one sort or other of claims, announcements really, about the power of God. That's the sort of freedom I love about my new church. If the spirit moves you to do something like that, shout out, clap, break out into a dance, you're free to do it. Until I wrote this story today, I was not aware of the connection between Anselm's Ontological Argument ("God is that than which None Greater can be conceived.") and my noticing, and focusing upon, the same phrase when uttered by Rev. Usher Toler.
And as I've suggested at the outset of this story, there's also a connection between my boyhood love of the singing led by Roy Diebler in the Methodist church and the singing at Zion led by Rev. Giles right from the pulpit, or Minister Kathy Burgess, or Willie D., an older former Methodist from South Carolina, or brother Bob Bailey and sister Carolyn Coleman of The Praise Team. When I hear these hymns, many times the same ones I loved as a little boy, or the ones which sprang from the long tradition of the black American Baptist Church which I never heard before I arrived at Zion, I get chills of interest and excitement which course through the same arteries and veins which transport my life-blood throughout my old man's body.
In college at Wesleyan, I stopped going to church, except on trips back to Philly to see my parents and old friends. Then, it was fun to go back to the old church stomping grounds to learn how far I had come, intellectually, from my family, and church, of my birth and boyhood. I also moved from agnosticism to what I thought of as atheism. And so my church-going became fitful, intermittent, until, that is, Susie and I had the first child of our own. Kevin Christopher Dutcher in June of 1976. Then, suddenly, I was seized with the notion that I wanted my son, and any future child God might bless us with, to have a religious upbringing, just like Susie and I did.
And that reminds me that I don't want to forget to mention that Susie, like Mary Beth "Betsy" Mountain was brought up Roman Catholic. Susie went to an all-girls parochial school in Milwaukee, Holy Angels, from kindergarten through 10th grade, when she moved over to Brookfield East Public High School to lend her younger sister Maryglenn Price moral support when Maryglenn decided she wanted a co-ed high school experience. Like Betsy Mountain, Susie was a blue-eyed blonde, although Susie was more beautiful, and much smarter. Susie's an open-minded person and never once told me I had any black marks on my soul because of my non-Catholic upbringing. I have since added black marks to my soul from some of the "bad" things I've done in life, and mostly gotten away with, but I doubt God cares very much what any of us does, as long as we're leading lives of drama and interest, and learning from our mistakes and trying hard not to repeat the really hurtful ones.
So Susie and I found religion again, one we could share, at First Church of Christ, Congregational, 190 Court Street, in Middletown, Connecticut. We've both been very active there. But after I began recovering from my suicidal depression (September, 2010 through December, 2010), and I got a taste of the "uninhibited" life, my friends there found me too much too handle. So I tried South Congregational Church on Pleasant Street, accross from the South Green, at the south end of Main Street in Middletown. That lasted all of June and into the first week or two of July of 2010. Until, that is, the Sunday in early July at South Church when, during the announcement by parishoners of their Concerns I recounted the almost Job-like encounters with tragedy my family was spared on my son K.C. and grandson Liam's second Habitat For Humanity House Building trip to Honduras in June, 2010 and Susie's nearly deadly bicycle accident on July 2, 2010. I was told by a woman who heads the Habitat for Humanity group in Middlesex County, Connecticut, who goes to South Church, in a confrontation she initated with me after the service, "Let me tell you something, Mr. Dutcher. I'm the Vice Moderator of this church. [Maybe she said "Moderator"; I can't recall.] We NEVER hold an imaginary gun barrel to our minister's temple! NEVER! No matter what story you're telling. Okay?!" She didn't say, but in my imagination it was as if she added, "Capiche?!" And I looked her straight in the eye, dead in the eye, really, and calmly and coldly replied, "I'll think about it." And then I walked away from her, left the sanctuary, and entered their parish hall for the coffee and conversation time after the service. After exchanging emails with the pastor of that church, in which she asked me to please not make such an announcement again, I never returned.
One Sunday morning when I was walking from my car to the front entrance of South Church, I saw a black man, brother Hosea Gainer, walking in the direction of South Church. I said good morning to him and he smiled and stopped to chat. I asked him if he was going to South Church, as I hadn't ever seen him there and South Church, like First Church, is almost exclusively a white congregation. Brother Hosea explained that he goes to Zion First Black Baptist Church next to the YMCA, which is right across Main Street from South Church. He said he hoped I'd come to Zion some Sunday to see if I liked it. After feeling unwelcome at South Church for the side of myself I decided to show the Southies when I revealed my near-connection to the Jewish bible's Job character, I decided to give Zion a try and did so in mid-July, 2010. Unlike Lot's wife, who turned to salt when she looked back at the smoldering Sodom and Gomorrah, I never looked back at the white churches, not even in my rear-view mirror.
I felt an immediate emotional connection with my black baptist church culture. I love to dance. I can dance there, in the pew I sit in, either the first or second pew on the right side, or, if so moved by the Spirit, I could dance up the center aisle or in between the first pews and the altar. I love to sing. We do a lot of singing, especially of the old-time hymns of my boyhood Methodist church. I love to emote, sometimes loudly, even shouting out. That's okay at Zion also.
Rev. Giles sometimes dances a bit in and around the pulpit, even down towards the pews on either side of the altar where the church Deacons sit on the left side and the church Officers on the right. Rev. Giles often sings from the pulpit, either to work up the congregation to a fevered pitch, or to calm us down when we're a bit too fevered and he needs to move us on to the next part of the service. He even plays the piano behind and to the left of the altar, back near where the choir sits. On the other side of the rear of the church is the electric organ, the drum set, and the area where one or more guitar players play their musical praises to Jesus and the Lord. And Rev. Giles also emotes, jokes, and viscerally leads us in giving thanks to God for getting us up that morning, making our limbs move, our minds work. Rev. Giles also is a student of the bible. He gives meaty, intelligent, erudite sermons. He's very well-spoken. There's no question he loves to put on a great show, all for the glory of God.
In a recent "Bobs blog" post, I discussed the poem I've come to love, "Be Always Drunken," by the French romantic poet of the 19th Century, Charles Baudelaire. Being drunken, in this wonderful poem, really means being excited by life, high on experience, affirming the goodness of existence. When I say that I've accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, a secular way of understanding what I mean is this. Jesus is the name of a man who once walked the earth. He lived His life in such a way that people who had soured on life, as I had when I wanted to end my life in the Fall of 2010, used Jesus as the occasion to regain their love of life and once again "Be Drunken" on Life.
It is neither necessary nor sufficient to "Be Always Drunken" on Life to be a religious person or a believer in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. One can be Jewish, or Muslim, or Christian, or secular humanist, or agnostic, or atheist, and also "Be Always Drunken" on Life. I am so constituted, by biology and history, as to "Be Always Drunken" on Life in part because of my association with, and experiences in, a black baptist protestant church. I don't care how you find a way to "Be Always Drunken" on Life, but I hope you do.