Do You Remember _________?

“Do You Remember what you were doing on this day 50 years ago?” “Are you kidding me?”

How many times these days, as cognitive functions begin to slow with the build up of creeping years, does this question crop up in conversations? “Do You Remember ______ ?” Simply fill in the blank if you can. That is the question that after the fact gives meaning to specific past events or thoughts small or great. “Do you remember what we had for supper last Thursday? “Do you remember what the teacher said at the close of class Friday?” “Remember the Alamo!” “Remember Pearl Harbor!”

I do remember as a rambunctious seven-year old coming out of church where my dad was the minister on that sunny December 7, 1941, walking next door to the manse where we lived. Most vivid was the bright blue sky and coolness that comes with early December in north Mississippi. That memory I hold as clearly as if it were last year. I don’t remember much else except I was vaguely aware that something big had happened that stunned a lot of adults around me. But that’s another story.

“Do You Remember what you were doing on this day 50 years ago–April 4, 1968?” “No I don’t.” I checked my calendar in my PCUS 1967-1968 Plan Book and saw nothing to give a clue other than I went to my office at the Board of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia, where I was an associate in the Children’s Work Department. Scribbled in the little calendar square was something designated as “CSS” that appeared on several days that week. It evidently had something to do with an assignment related to consultant service sessions I was working on. April 4 was the Thursday before Palm Sunday but I recall no details.

I do remember distinctly what I was doing on the morning of April 5, 1968! I boarded the Hermitage city bus that turned the corner by our house at 1417 Bellevue to make my daily trip to work downtown at the Ross Building. The Plan Book simply marked the day “Office”–nothing in particular.

The bus turned onto Broad Street and passed the train station. Broad Street at this point had not reached the “finer” stores that graced it in the center of the downtown business district. I looked up ahead and saw an accident between a moving van in the right lane and a car. I saw a crowd standing on the sidewalk looking on. As the bus passed I saw the sign on the side of the van that read “Stringer Moving Company, Columbia, Mississippi!” Standing by the cab in the street I recognized the black driver that had moved us to Richmond a year or so earlier from Columbia. He had also moved us from Amory to Columbia before that.

I pulled the cord and jumped off the bus and walked back to talk with the driver. As I approached him I looked at the crowd of white men standing on the sidewalk and was met with menacing and angry stares. It seemed that their reaction was all out of proportion to a minor accident. Looking back, could descendants of this crowd possibly have fit right in decades later with the violent mob in Charlottesville, Virginia protesting the removal of the Confederate statues?

All of a sudden the dynamics of my standing by the side of my acquaintance took on new meaning. He was all alone in a hostile situation and a long way from home. He began to relax when he saw who I was as he told me what had happened. It seems as he had passed the line of parked cars along the street when one had suddenly pulled out and struck the right side of the trailer near the back wheels. I continued standing in the street with him until the police arrived. The whole matter was cleared up reasonably fast. The driver was not found to be at fault and was allowed to leave without further incident. We bid our farewells as he drove away. I never saw him again.

I boarded the next bus and went on to work trying to sort out what had just happened. I was still puzzled when I walked into my office on the 5th floor of the Ross Building. It was as if the air had been sucked out of the place and a strange dark pall had descended over what was usually a bright and cheerful work environment. Someone saw my puzzled face and said, “Haven’t you heard, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis last night as he stood on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel where he was staying.” No, for some reason I hadn’t heard.

IS THAT WHAT IT WAS ALL ABOUT ON BROAD STREET MOMENTS AGO?

I don’t remember what I was doing 50 years ago on April 4, 1968, but I vividly remember what I did that unknowingly made a difference on the morning of April 5, 1968 in that charged moment standing quietly with my friend on the pavement of Broad Street in Richmond, Virginia.

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Finally Home and Fittingly Named (Part 3)

A weegem Christmas Tale* by w.g.mcatee

1-6-17 The ole guy to Miss J

J, Here it is, hot off the press! [Parts 1 & 2] Enjoy and share if you like. love, ole guy

* * * * * * *

1-10-17 LOVE THE KIDS! Miss J to the ole guy

Hey, I finally had enough time to read this wonderful story. As always well written and fanciful. A couple more ironies. As a child LL* was called Sonny Boy. With the same mystical irony the other day I found a book he had given me after the diagnosis. It was signed Sonny Boy . . . “with gratitude to J who helped me find my way back home.” Kinda resonant with the writing you did about y’alls relationship. And good heavens . . . in the picture you look like him. Love, J

*[LL was J’s late husband that died of pancreatic cancer not long ago; one of my best friends I eulogized at his celebration of life!]

* * * * * * *

1-13-17 SURPRISE Miss J to the ole guy

Dear og, Late last night, in my pajamas, I remembered that I had left a garage door opener in the cabinet outside. Although I often do this for repair people I know I don’t like to leave it out overnight. I decided to get out of bed, turn off the alarm and retrieve the opener. Much to my surprise I stepped . . . barefooted on something  very soft. I was confused, hoped it wasn’t whatever was leaving those unidentified tracks . . . and I realized it was a Fed Ex package. Apparently the driver left it so late he elected not to ring the doorbell. I wasn’t expecting a package. What could this be?

I opened the package and there was a bright eyed young owl, who identified himself as Homer. Homer explained he had come to join the family but would not require the kind of vet bills the cat had recently incurred. He had firm but gentle opinions about where he wants to be. He explained his name was Homer because he was associated with ancient wisdom . . . that he wanted to live in LL’s chest in the bedroom. He eluded to some kind of mystic communication connection . . . something about having been in sensitivity training together. He was very cryptic. He is also very comforting. 

I had not receive a critter for Christmas for many years. However over my Christmas my friend S. Mc. showed up with a completely black bear, even his eyes, very soft and announced I needed somebody to sleep with. She thought he was perfect. The bear, yet unnamed, and Homer seem to have known each other at some point.

Homer has assumed an authoritative position instilling a sense of safety. Would you know anything about the arrival of such a new and loyal family member? Love, J

* * * * * * *

1-13-17 Re: SURPRISE The ole guy to Miss J

J, Hershel and Sonny jumped out of bed, sleeping late again, when the ole guy called them to the den to read the email about their feathered friend they use to call Barnie. (See last sentence of “Finally Home . . . !(Part 2)” They knew the ole guy must have had something to do with his trip to Lubbock. They were thrilled that he made a safe landing way out West in LLano Land (somebody is captivated with LLLLLs) and thought it made great sense that he was now called Homer in his new home. They always knew from the start the he wold amount to something because at times he was such a smartaxx, not just showing promise. They want to know more about his new home and can’t wait to see a picture of their friend, now Homer, in his new digs with that no-name bear. They have started calling him “bb” (for black bear) because they don’t want to forget “Barnie” they knew and this was the closest they could come to that. Of course it depended on what the missus of the house wants to call no-name. Whatever is ok with them. They just hope that someday they can have a family reunion.

The ole guy  went off muttering to himself something about maybe this thing is growing like tough steak–every time you bite it, it gets bigger! But that is what irony and serendipity are all about. Maybe this is the making of a new storybook for second childhoods! BEST OF ALL, THIS IS A TALE THAT REALLY HAPPENED! Love, the ole guy.

* * * * * * *

And still there’s more–in the tales yet untold, yet to happen and be told by those that feel deeply the healing power of simply being in touch!

*Inspired by Cuddlekins Brand stuffed animals distributed by Wild Republic, Twinsburg, Ohio

 

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Finally Home and Fittingly Named (Part 2)

A weegem Christmas Tale* by w.g.mcatee

The week between Christmas and New Years was filled with all sorts of new and exciting experiences. The old guy and his wife made sure we were not stuck off in some corner and neglected. They carried us around from room to room and included us in whatever they were doing–watching “The Young and the Restless” or University of Kentucky basketball games on TV, having a meal, sitting by the fire reading. They would hold us, stroke our silky fur, hug us and talk to us. Our eyes followed them wherever they went or whatever they did. Some days we even got to sleep in under the covers of the big bed. Occasionally when we were left in another room, we would hear them ask each other,”Where are the kids?” or “What are they doing?” We still had no names.

Then one day I heard the wife say something about a doll she had as a little girl. She had called the doll “Herchel” but could not remember where she got that name. She had not thought about “it” for so long. She could not even recall if Herchel were a boy or a girl doll but that did not matter because she loved Herchel so very much. She looked this cuddly little raccoon in the masked face and said, “You remind me of how I felt about Herchel. From now on that is what I will call you!” And that is how finally I got my new name.

The old guy heard what his wife said and thought. I need to give my little wolf friend a name. I want it to be special too. He thought  but nothing came to him. After a day or so he remembered what he was called when he was a child–Sonny. He could not forget the range of feelings he felt when he had been called by that name. Sometimes it was the sting of a scolding. Most other times it made him know in those early days he was loved. Sonny it is!

As far as I knew, that left only little hyena without a name. I was not sure what she would be called in her new home. I did overhear the old guy tell his wife that for the time being he would call her Hi-Ena until he heard otherwise. That will have to do until we find out for sure.

For almost a week now Sonny and I stayed close to home. When Wednesday came, we thought for a moment we were about to be left behind. The old guy and his wife were putting on their heavy coats and getting ready to go make their mid-week trip to their church to deliver meals-on-wheels. They were halfway out the back door when the old guy rushed back into the room where we were quietly waiting. He picked us up. “Let’s go to ride!” We had no idea what he meant but soon we were sitting on the dashboard of their old Camry looking straight ahead through the windshield. It was scary at first but we soon felt comfortable watching all the cars come zooming by as the old guy carefully worked his way through the noonday traffic.

After a short wait at the church, the ice chest with the cold food sacks and the hot pack with warm meals were put in the car and we were off again. They had ten stops to make in all parts of town. We watched the old guy delivering the meals from our dashboard perch. We wondered who was inside the doors where he knocked. At one stop it was the wife’s turn because she had made a special friend of Miss B. that lived alone. Sometimes Miss B. was slow coming to the door because she walked stooped over using a cane. Right before the wife knocked on the apartment door, the old guy jumped out of the car with the two of us in tow. At the door he told Miss B. he wanted to introduce our new pets, Herchel and Sonny, to her. Immediately she forgot how slow her start to the day had been and beamed as she reached out to touch and pet us both. She sighed, “O how they touch something deep down inside me!” Of course we felt warm inside too by her gentle touch.

Back in the car we went to see what new surprises we might find along the way. The next stop was at Mrs. P’s and her husband Mr. E’s house. She always met the old guy and his wife at the door and chat so this was the second time we got to help.  When she saw us cradled in the old guy’s arms she let out a little squeal of delight. The wife told her, “We are starting a new family” and told her our names and how we got them. She looked at the wife and said, “Do you ever let them sleep with you?” With a wry sheepish grin the wife replied, “I do!”

As we drove away the wife remarked, “You know, wouldn’t it be great if everyone on our route had new pets like ours to brighten their days!” After we completed delivering meals, Sonny leaned over to me as we rode home and said, “What an adventure we had seeing new places and meeting new friends. I hope we get to go back next Wednesday!”

One evening right before going to bed, I heard the wife ask the old guy, “What do you suppose stirred those deep feelings in each of us when our new pets came into our lives?” He thought it must be more than cute sentimentality. “Maybe it’s the healing power of simple touch, having a cuddly creature to love and care for. Maybe it’s getting our inner ‘child’ hooked again in playful fantasy making us feel young again taking our mind off our worries of getting old. Maybe it’s just the simple joy of laughing again. Who knows? Whatever it was, it’s powerful.”

The house grew dark and quiet. I turned to Sonny and said, “I thought when we left the toy company we would find a home with a young child. I never dreamed all this would happen seeing the changes we seem to bring to a couple in their eighties and watching others respond the same way they did. What creature like us could ask for a more fulfilling Christmas?”

Right before drifting off to sleep, my last thoughts were, “Although our dream of ending up in the same place did not come true like we had hoped, we finally found a new home and were fittingly named–Herchel, Sonny, Maxine and Hi-Ena! I wonder what happened to our feathered owl friend Barnie we left behind at the toy company? He always dreamed of flying out West?”

But wait, there’s still more!!!

(To be continued in Part 3, courtesy of subsequent email exchanges)

*Inspired by Cuddleskins Brand stuffed animals distributed by Wild Republic, Twinsburg, Ohio

 

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Finally Home and Fittingly Named (Part 1)

__

A weegem Christmas Tale* by w.g.mcatee

Sometime in the middle of the fall of 2016 word circulated around the big toy company that specializes in stuffed animals where we were “born” that all of us would soon be traveling to far away places to bring joy to kids young and old. Another Christmas was just around the corner and what could be more delightful for us furry, scaly and feathered nature-related creatures than to find out where our new home would be. Several of us had become close during the long wait  and did not want to be separated, if at all possible.  We decided that if per chance we did get to be together we would figure out a way to touch someone’s heart  and he or she would take us all.

We had no names at this time but we knew how cuddly we were and in this time someone wold give each of us just the right name. Four of us had hung out together–all babies–a fox, a hyena, a wolf and a raccoon. That’s me, the irresistible raccoon, telling this tale. Finally, we found out where we would be going. And sure enough the four of us would travel together to Lexington, Kentucky to the local food co-op. We were not the only ones going there, but we were so excited that the four would get to see if we could find a happy home together or at least close by. We had not idea where the others left behind would go.

When we got to the co-0p, there was a big display all set up with the other Christmas gifts. We each were placed all around the display so customers could look us over and we could work our magic attraction: “Here, take me!” with sweet and alluring eyes. One day in mid-December a tall, lanky old guy came hurrying by, not really giving us the time of day. He was busy checking off his weekly shopping list without much thought about those last minute Christmas gifts he had not purchased.

Then all of a sudden he paused and looked me right in the face and from that moment on he was hooked. He was familiar with raccoons where he grew up years ago. He checked out all the toy company folk but kept coming back to me. He picked me up and put me in his shopping cart and paused before he started to walk away. We held our collective breath thinking “No. No. No don’t split us up!” Then he turned back. He knew he and his wife were having an out of town guest for lunch to celebrate an early Christmas and he needed some gift for her. He looked some more and finally decided to pick up the little floppy eared desert fox and put her in his cart for the trip home.

When he got home, his wife was so excited. She fell in love with me immediately and I became her new pet! The old guy got out a box and wrote a card naming the foxy lady, Maxine. You see, the guest used to have a real live black and white cat named Max. But he had grown old old and was no longer around. She needed a new pet and Maxine filed the bill. She was an easy keep, no feed, no mess, and loads of fuzzy affection!

Next week the time rolled around for the old guy to go back to the co-op for his weekly shopping. He had been thinking about the Christmas brunch with their younger son and his true love. He thought it would be a nice touch to have a gift for her. He went immediately to the toy display to see who was still there. There was one in particular that he saw last time and liked. But to his dismay it was gone. He saw the big ole roly-poly hyena and thought this will be just perfect. In the cart he went. That was three out of four that wanted to stay together. The old guy had no clue of what he had almost accomplished. He thought his last minute Christmas shopping was done. He had not even seen the baby wolf or knew the pain it experienced in being left behind. Now it was back to the regular gathering of vittles.

The old guy hurried home to show his wife his new purchase. This little part of the toy company remnant was ecstatic! Little fox and raccoon welcomed hyena with open paws! They quietly romped and played enjoying their good fortune of being together, but sorely missed the little wolf.

One day the out of town guest from Louisville came for lunch. After the gifts were exchanged she opened the box where Maxine was hiding. That beaming face and floppy ears were there to greet her as she tore open the lid. She read the note the old guy had penned. What a co-incidence! He young granddaughter had felt Granny needed a new pet, so she had gotten her a purple cat (toy of course) to take Max’s place and had named her Maxine, too! Our guest was so pleased that we had gotten her a second pet. Now she had Two Maxines to love.

Little fox and raccoon became sad again seeing that their friend Maxine was leaving them. But that feeling soon left them when they later saw a picture of the Two Maxines before the Christmas tree at the lady’s house in a nearby town. They knew their friend  had found a happy home and she would not be alone.

The old guy’s wife wanted to get her husband one more gift. She thought he needed a pet also. She finally encouraged him to go back on Christmas Eve to the co-op to see if any of the toy company crowd remained. There were only a few still around. They looked somewhat discouraged at being overlooked in the Christmas rush. The old guy did not see any that caught his fancy until on the backside of the display he spotted the sad-eyed little wolf. It was love at first sight. Little wolf almost hopped in the shopping cart on his own. He was so excited for he had recognized the old guy and knew that he would catch up with his toy company friends he thought he had lost. 

Christmas day finally rolled around and the Christmas brunch of crustless quiche, curried fruit and blueberry loaf slices were underway. After a round of coffee the same box in which Maxine hid was not opened again. And there was hyena beaming out! The love of their son’s life immediately lit up. She remembered, one day when her fun-loving Boxer dog Elsa came home from the vet’s all humped over after a chemo treatment for her life-threatening cancer. She started call her Hyena! Now that Elsa was gone, thie roly-poly creature was a comforting substitute for her. Serendipity Happens!

After the dishes were cleared away the family sat before the gas log stove talking about Christmas past, giving the news of the day a much-needed rest. Occasionally they glanced over at the dining table where the three of us enjoyed playing around the little Christmas tree the son had made out of al old crochet thread cone when he was in the fourth grade. He had glued macaroni elbows ad sparkly things on it for ornaments. A miniature Santa frolicked around us on skis and an angel quietly say a carol. We wondered what the Two Maxines might be doing with their new family.

The time came for their younger son and his true love to head home after the scrumptious brunch. They had left Elsa’s brother Crosby by himself and it was way past time for his afternoon walk. I looked at little wolf and for a moment I thought he was about to cry. Our dear friend hyena was about to leave us. From what I  heard from hearing the family conversation I knew she was headed for a home where she would be loved and cared for. Above all it was across town from here and I was sure we would have an opportunity to visit her from time to time.

Wait, there’s more!!! (to be continued in Part 2)

*Inspired by Cuddlekins Brand stuffed animals distributed by Wild Republic, Twinsburg, Ohio

 

 

 

 

 

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Born of Conviction–The Book

January 2, 1963, became one of those pivotal dates deeply embedded in the lore and psyche of Mississippi Methodists. No one fully dreamed of the consequences, intended or unintended, that was immediately unleashed by the publication of the “Born of Conviction” statement. It was signed by twenty-eight white Methodist pastors and published in the Mississippi Methodist Advocate on this date.

The statement simply, 1) called for freedom of the pulpit; 2) noted that the Methodist Discipline asserted Jesus’ teaching permitted no discrimination because of race, color, or creed; 3) affirmed support of the public school system; and 4) declared the basic commitment of a Methodist minister is to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, not to Communism.

What is perceived decades later as a mild dissent ignited a firestorm in 1963, widely taken as an open onslaught on the public unanimity of Mississippi white resistance. “You challenge ‘our way of life’ and you pay the price.” By mid-1964, eighteen of the twenty-eight signers had left Mississippi.

White citizens and white churches in Mississippi, for the most part, were totally immersed in their rabid resistance to change brought on by Brown v Education and the fall out from what William Doyle termed An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962. Others’ reaction to the underlying injustices and inequities these two occurrences addressed often was one of benign denial or shrouded in a cloak of silence when conscience was pricked.

Mississippi Presbyterians had their moments of struggle with voicing publicly Christian convictions in response to the racial discord and violence erupted in our state. On October 16, 1962, the Presbytery of St. Andrew (of which I was a minister member as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Amory) at its fall meeting became embroiled in a debate over what action it should take with regard to the “crisis and tension following the rioting, and bloodshed within our bounds at the University of Mississippi and Oxford.”

Some felt that we should take no action since this was not the business of the church. Others felt that we should take a stand in support of Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss. It was friend versus friend and family versus family. All sorts of speculation were made about what had taken place there and where blame should be placed. For a while in the morning it looked as if no action would be taken.

After lunch the discussion took on a very serious tenor when two if its pastors strode onto the floor in full battle dress from their encampment at Oxford. They had been called up as Chaplains in the Federalization of the National Guard. Stories of their first-hand experience at Oxford persuaded the body to adopt a pastoral letter to the congregations within its care to remember “The spirit of hatred and strife, which manifested itself in the violence, is contrary to the Spirit of Christ.”

The pastoral letter admonished each of us “to give the Spirit of God that supreme place in our hearts and minds . . . summon those of our communion within our bounds to undertake such a searching self-examination and to turn to true repentance as the Spirit leads them . . . act only in those ways which promote order and peace . . . use their every influence to the end that those officials charged with maintaining order may pursue their task with dedication and with diligence . . . urge our communicants to pray for God’s mercy and guidance for ourselves and for our state and national leaders, that we may praise and serve Him all our days.”

This modest action by St. Andrew Presbytery did not generate the furor unleashed by the “Born of Conviction” statement of the Methodists. No further widespread action by Presbyterian ministers as a group produced any public statements to challenge prevailing massive resistance. Individual pastors did make public stands and found various ways to express their Christian convictions in matters of racial injustices. Reactions by their constituents were mixed.

By the late 1960s many that made stands left the state to other calls. Little comprehensive documentation exists of their actions or their impact. Only individual memoirs and personal files record their experiences. This is not the case for the twenty-eight signers of the “Born of Conviction” statement.

Joseph T. Reiff, a United Methodist pastor in the Mississippi Conference that grew up in Mississippi and graduated from Millsaps College in Jackson, made sure a comprehensive record exists of the “Born of Conviction” statement. Reiff is currently Professor of Religion and Chair of the Religion Department at Emory and Henry College.

Born of Conviction, Reiff’s book published this fall, was a long time coming. It is understandable, since he had the daunting task of weaving 28 signers’ “before, during and after stories” into one cogent narrative. He did it! When he started his extensive research it must have felt like he would never get it done. If Reiff had managed to get Born in some publishable form before 2013, it would not have been the book it is today. Part IV never would have been like it is. To me this is the most compelling part of the book, not to take anything away from the life sacrifices of the “28”.

Reiff was able to move to a much deeper level of insight and perspective on the January 2, 1963 “Born of Conviction” statement because of what took place at the 2013 Mississippi Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Comments made there by those that left Mississippi in the 1960s and reactions by some of those that “stayed and not run” brought into sharper focus a deep divide in perspectives that existed too long without recognition and attention.

The Conference on June 9, 2013 may have been a critical watershed in the on-going narrative. Recapturing in a 2015 context what the “28” did 50+ years ago accentuates its relevance for back then, but more importantly now for today. The icing on the cake is “Legacies,” Chapter 11. “Some plant, some water, and some harvest . . . !”

I have always had an affinity for Methodists. My own narrative I recounted in my memoir, Transformed: A White Mississippi Pastor’s Journey into Civil Rights and Beyond, intersected briefly with N. A. Dickson, one of the “twenty-eight” signers that “stayed and not run.” Dickson served the Methodist Church in Columbia, Mississippi when I became pastor at the Presbyterian Church there in 1964. What we accomplished together to support our mayor as he sought to build community bridges and navigate the mid-1960s roiling social and political waters, made a cameo appearance in Born.

Transformed and Born are companion witnesses to the significant minority of Mississippians that finally broke their deafening, spirit-killing silence and challenged the separate but unequal cultural arrangement that dominated Mississippi’s relational landscape for generations.

My affinity was also more personal. For years I thought myself a “fourth generation Mississippian” because I was counting the four generations of William McAtees that lived there. [I’m IV and now there are V and VI!] Actually a generation of my family existed in Mississippi before the name McAtee entered my generational story. I had two sets of great great-grandfathers, both Methodist ministers that preceded the McAtees in Mississippi. They later linked up when the daughter of one married William I and the granddaughter of the other married William II.

One migrated to Mississippi from Alabama in 1833, a circuit-riding Methodist missionary to the Choctaw Indians, a well-known Methodist “Bishop,” physician, and teacher in a seminary in Alabama. [It is my understanding that the term “Bishop” did not carry the same connotation it does today, but was similar to the title “Reverend,” and referred to the function of “circuit rider.”] The other migrated to Mississippi from South Carolina in 1845, a circuit-riding Methodist minister that served many appointments in Mississippi, including appointments to ‘colored mission points.’

On the basis of these facts, I proudly qualify as a “fifth generation Mississippian” with Methodist DNA! How we became Presbyterians is a whole other story of my Dad being “a welcomed stranger” one Sunday after church.

11-25-15 © McAtee & weegems, 2015           

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Me and Fidel (Part 2) Retrospective on June 20, 1999

On the evening of June 20, in the fading humid twilight at the close of an exhilarating day with its “invisible energy” at the Ecumenical Celebration in Revolution Square, Carlos Ham drove us along boulevards through the once splendor of an upscale Havana neighborhood to the palatial convention center where Fidel holds state events and receptions. From the parking lot we entered a grand foyer where we parted company. I was directed to a room to leave my camera and then stood in the reception line leading to where Fidel was “receiving.” I had no idea where Carlos went.

Fidel greeted each international guest individually. We shook hands. Here I was standing eye to eye with Fidel–being the same height–almost as casually as one greets one’s pastor after the Sunday eleven o’clock service, yet with my insides doing flip-flops not sure what to say. I simply sputtered, “I wish you good health and a long life.” He smiled as his photographer took a picture of the two of us. I often wondered in what file that picture ended up!

I moved to an airy area with two large rooms, each with a huge table burgeoning with a magnificent spread of Cuban edible delicacies and libations no ordinary Cuban had seen in years. Both rooms were filled with guests from around the world, but I did not see my friend or anyone I recognized. I helped myself to a small plate of food and took the requisite Mohito. I stood off by self and began to munch on the goodies.

After a while, Fidel comes unaccompanied into the area where I munched. When he saw me in my clerical collar standing alone he gave a momentary glance of recognition and came over. He said something in Spanish, which I did not understand. He pointed to my Mohito, commented and laughed. I had no idea what he said, but I figured if El Presidente laughed, it was proper for me to laugh too, which I did.

He then reached up and patted me on my right shoulder and said in fluent English, “God Bless you, Sir.” Not missing a beat I reciprocated with a pat on his right shoulder and responded in my best Mississippi drawl, “God Bless you too, Sir.” He then simply smiled and walked away. I took a healthy slug of my Mohito!

In a few minutes one of Fidel’s aids came out to find me. He said I was in the wrong room and escorted me to a smaller room off to the side with a smaller replica of the table of food and drinks I just left. Twenty-five or thirty people were busily engaged in conversation, including my friend that brought me. Special guests were Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in Christ U.S.A.; Rev. Lucius Walker from Pastors for Peace; and Rev. Pablo Oden Marichal, president of the Cuban Council of Churches, who preached at the Celebration that morning.

At some earlier event Fidel had for some reason snubbed Campbell and spent considerable time complimenting Walker for what Walker was doing on Cuba’s behalf. Word got back to Fidel of his earlier slight and he took this opportunity to make amends. Fidel arranged for three chairs to be set in a conspicuous place on one side of the room for him to sit with Campbell and an interpreter. We watched him for fifty minutes or so play nice with Campbell. She responded with diplomatic grace to his gesture.

After they returned to the middle of the room Fidel sought out Rev. Marichal and for another hour Fidel critiqued the morning’s sermon with the preacher as if he were grading a seminarian’s senior sermon. Well after midnight Fidel finally slipped away signaling the “grand theater of the absurd,” some might chirp, was over.

We quietly filed out of this impressive place into the steamy darkness of the parking lot to our cars, each with our own thoughts about what just happened. Carlos drove us in his modest Russian Ladda through the dark deserted streets of Havana back to the reality of Luyano Presbyterian Church. My goose bumps began to subside as I wondered what would be the reaction if we stopped and told someone walking down the street that we had just come from a social reception with Fidel. No one was in sight.

Now sixteen years later in retrospect I pinch myself still wondering what I really experienced that night. All of a sudden it is 2015. Raul succeeded Fidel. This past December President Obama took steps to begin reestablishing diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. Banking and economic development systems rattle into action. All sorts of groups rush to the island to see “what it looked like all these years” before Cuba joins the clutter of 21st century “progress.” Soccer teams schedule matches. Cuba is taken off list of Terrorist Countries. Embassies are set to open in each other’s country. U. S. Legislators dance around lifting the embargo and other travel restrictions. So many barriers yet to breach.

U.S-Cuban Presbyterian partnerships still flourish as they have since the late 1980s. Each Sunday Hector Mendez stands behind the very pulpit in First Havana that had its moment in the sun on June 20, 1999. Carlos Ham returns to Cuba to be President of the Seminary in Matanzas after decade of service at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. Jo Ella Holman, serving as PC(USA) World Mission’s Liaison for the Caribbean, incorporates in her responsibilities oversight of the Cuba study seminars I conducted as International Volunteer in Mission. What other changes loom in the future?

When I see frail pictures of Fidel these days, half of my good wishes came true–long life, not so much good health. I am not naïve. I realize scores of folk are probably outraged that I would even dare utter such good wishes to one that caused them such pain and suffering in the name of “the Triumph of the Revolution.” I am well aware that many dreamed for years of the opportunity I had “to shoot Fidel at close range”–but not with a camera like I did!

What I witnessed years ago is so true today. The more I see, the less I understand. On an earlier trip I encountered an old Cuban woman that issued me a perceptive yet mystifying commentary on Cuban reality: “Life is a carnival, everything is false, nothing is what it seems to be.” Could it also have been a veiled warning about Fidel?

Cuba is a complex place, with nothing more profound for good or ill than Fidel’s stamp and influence on a half-century’s thought and behavior of that island nation. None of that entered my mind on the night we exchanged blessings. I have no idea what really was in Fidel’s mind.

For a moment all complexities seemed to disappear. Absent were all the dynamic ingredients I deem crucial for reconciliation: no ambitious hint that healing of broken relations begins by facing and overcoming fear of the other; no grand awareness that one-to-one opening of oneself to the other in quiet and unexpected ways might bring out the best in each other, making a difference; no looking deep into the eyes of the other with compassion, telling the truth and searching for understanding; no lofty proclaiming one’s love for one’s neighbor in word much less deed.

In retrospect, what happened on the night of June 20, 1999 was to me elementally un-complex, not without significance, never fully understood. In that fleeting moment we simply shook hands and exchanged blessings with a trace of that “invisible energy”–one human being in touch with another–me and Fidel!

w.g. mcatee, International Volunteer in Mission, Cuba Specialist, PC(USA), 1997-2002

 June 20, 1999 pictures

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Me and Fidel (Part 1) Retrospective on June 20, 1999

Back in the early 1990s, I was told on good authority, Fidel Castro went to Columbia, S. A. on some kind of political junket. Right before he returned to Cuba he was holding court during which a petit nun in full habit confronted him on human rights violations. Maybe for a silent moment he was thrown off guard with memories of his early parochial school days until he finally muttered, in effect, “If I had some ones like you back in Cuba, I could talk with them about this issue.”

This started a chain of events that one-day led to my moment with El Presidente–a stretch but still a connection!

One of my Cuban Presbyterian minister friends told me that several protestant ministers and he were watching Fidel on TV back home when Fidel muttered that seemingly un-historic line. “When he arrived home we contacted him saying we would like very much to talk.” Fidel granted them a meeting with him at which time they declared they had been faithful to Revolution and had not fled. They presented a list of concerns about the religious situation they faced daily and changes they would like to see enacted. For example, they asked for time on the State TV for religious programs; permission for religious persons to serve in the government; and people in the government to become members of churches.

They were troubled that their nation’s Constitution mandated an unfair religious preference to the detriment of those they represented and all the many other religious groups present in the country. Fidel seemed puzzled and asked what they meant. “The preference for ‘atheism’!” He replied, “We are a religious people; I never thought about ‘atheism’ as being a religious preference. We will change the Constitution at the next Congress by removing references to atheism from it making it religiously neutral.”

And so it was changes came. This paved the way for the Pope to come visit Cuba and hold Mass in Jose Marti Revolution Square. It provided an opportunity for religious liturgy to be celebrated in the open air in this way. This openness to religion by the government was not a recent grandstand response in face of difficult economic times because serious conversations between the religious community and the government began in the late 1980s when the Revolution was at its economic zenith.

Not long after the Pope’s visit, representatives of the Cuban Council of Churches met again with Fidel. They asked that Protestants be allowed to have an Evangelical Celebration in Revolution Square too, as a matter of balance between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. He granted their wish.

In the month leading up to the appointed day for the Celebration, June 20, 1999, representatives of 49 Protestant denominations prepared for “something historic.” Never before in the history of the Revolution, or in the 500 year history of Cuba, or anywhere else in the history of the Caribbean or Latin America, had so many Protestants–regardless of creed or political ideology–joined together to celebrate God’s message of love, peace and unity so openly.[i] After the fact it was reported over 100,000 people were in attendance.

Four national activities took place in the largest Plazas around the country as part of the preparation, with provincial celebrations in eight other locations. Also municipal celebrations were held in five locations, including one in the Marianao section of Havana on May 30.

It so happened that I was in Cuba leading one of my Travel Seminars (May 24-June 2) for a group from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary.[ii] We were among the 20,000 people jamming the Marianao Plaza, on the surrounding rooftops and hanging in the trees chanting–CRISTO VIVE!!! CRISTO VIVE!!! CRISTO VIVE!!! The air was electric with an “invisible energy!”

That would not be the last time I heard that chanting or felt that “invisible energy!” At the invitation of the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cuba, I was appointed by our Stated Clerk to represent the Presbyterian Church (USA) and joined representatives of Protestant Churches from the United States, Canada, Central America, the Caribbean, South America and Europe at the Evangelical Celebration on June 20.

Still Vivid in my mind about that day

–Hearing pre-dawn celebrants passing Luyano Presbyterian Church where I was staying on way to their buses chanting Cristo Vive!!! I shouted down the refrain from my second story perch; they shouted back waving Cuban and Christian flags.

–Encountering all sorts of buses and vehicles filling the streets nearing Revolution Square; growing crowds on foot from all directions.

–Stifling an uneasy feeling as I waited to have my camera checked, later only to discover it was a “high tech” procedure when I found a picture of a desk on my roll of developed film!

–Mingling with people before the service and feeling the buzz of excitement when Fidel’s entourage pulled up behind the platform a few minutes before the service, then finding his way to a front row seat.

–Walking in front of that crowd as I was escorted to the platform from my fourth row seat to join Rev. Carlos Ham and Rev. Hector Mendez, my Presbyterian hosts.

–Seeing the pulpit from First Presbyterian Church, Havana on the platform that I had helped load in a truck the previous day.

–Watching Fidel’s lips move quoting the Gospel Lesson, the 17th Chapter of John–Jesus prayer for the Church–and asking my friend Carlos if that was what he was doing, getting an affirmative nod.

–Sitting for several hours in the only shade in the Square from platform backdrop as the heat soared with the morning sun; Fidel sitting in front row in his long sleeved uniform and wondering how he was faring.

–Standing only a few feet away from Fidel after the benediction and taking his picture without incident.

Could all this be topped? Stay Tuned!

June 20, 1999 pictures

[i] For details see “Presbyterian Voice,” November 1999, p. 14, CRISTO VIVE!!! EVANGELICAL CELEBRATION, HAVANA, CUBA–June 20, 1999, Eyewitness: William G. McAtee

[ii] International Volunteer in Mission, Cuba Specialist, Led 11 Cuba Travel Seminars for the PC(USA) between June 1997 and March 2002; Represented PC(USA) at Evangelical Celebration, Havana, May 20, 1999           

 

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