What a Fellowship
By Judah Leblang/2003
In August 1997, I made a special visit back to Cleveland to represent my family at a memorial service for my godmother Donna’s son Lonnie, who had died two years earlier. Since Lonnie had been a member of the little church where Donna was a ‘mother’ and senior member, the service was doubling as an afternoon fundraiser.
The goal of the congregation-one they were moving toward in tiny increments, year by year–was to connect their modest sanctuary with the warehouse-like building next door, tearing down the wall between them. The second building, which served as a reception hall, was really just a large concrete-floored room, looking desperate for paint and a makeover, like the ugly duckling at a high school dance.
The day before the big event, Donna asked me to say a few words at the service. Though I didn’t know Lonnie well, I could speak of knowing Donna, who had worked for my family as a “cleaning lady” from the time I was 8 until I was pushing 40. I told her that I’d think of something to say if it would please her. She nodded and said it would, and I started to perspire-heavily. Donna’s grandchildren-Lonnie’s children–would all be there, folks I’d heard of but had met only once or twice. How would they feel about my presence at their father’s memorial service?
But I could hardly say no. I knew that Lonnie was Donna’s treasure, a boy she’d raised into a man during the hard years of the Depression and World War II, when opportunities for black women ranged between slim and non-existent. After Lonnie’s sudden death from a heart attack back in 1995, Donna seemed to fade into herself, her mahogany skin grown darker with loss. One thing that kept her going, she said, was her love for my brother Alex and me. Over the course of 35 years, we’d bonded with her in a way strong as blood. During my weekly phone calls she’d remind me that “I love you just like one of my own,” and I’d feel her words surge through the telephone line, connecting Cleveland to Boston to Cleveland in a circuit of something stronger than electricity.
As a child, I hadn’t always appreciated the love and discipline she dished out with her cooking. A religious, conservative woman, she ruled with an iron hand. One morning when I was in high school, I plopped down at the kitchen table and reached for my Frosted Flakes, keeping conversation to a minimum, so as not to disturb my sleep-induced fog. Donna, never one to mince words, said, “You get in the bathroom and wash your hands before you sit down to eat-and you playin’ with yourself all night long.” This was something men and boys did-and they damn sure wouldn’t be eating at her table until they had gotten themselves right. There was no point in arguing; I meekly did as I was told.
When I was in middle school and my father was felled by a massive heart attack, Donna helped my mother nurse him back to health. Over the years, she had always been there for my family and I. But as she aged, the tables turned a bit. Later, my brother and I (along with her grandchildren) made sure that Donna had what she needed-a new winter coat for Christmas, or a trip to Boston to see her “grandbabies” (my brother Alex’s children). As I drove down through East Cleveland’s Forest Hills neighborhood toward the church, I felt honored to be escorting Donna to the special service for Lonnie and the building fund.
Greater St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church is the grand name of a small storefront chapel that stands on Euclid Avenue in East Cleveland. The two yellow-brick buildings would look unimpressive to a toddler, crouching low on the edges of Cleveland’s East Side ghetto. I entered the sanctuary with Donna leading the way, her face a mask of determination to see the service “went right.” She’d planned it all, had arranged for a reception afterward, had recruited friends from far and wide.
Sitting in one of the front pews, I fidgeted on the orange velour cushions. Donna was on my left, decked out in one of her ’40’s-style feather hats and matching shoes. The hat’s gray feather shot outward from her head, streaking up toward the dropped ceiling of the sanctuary. The service began as the elders welcomed the small congregation.
They were aptly named; the youngest was about 75, with gray hair and a deep voice that echoed in the small room. And being a Baptist church, folks didn’t just sit around and quietly murmur their prayers, as I soon discovered. This particular congregation fervently sang a hymn called “What a Fellowship,” with the chorus of “What a fellowship, what a fellowship, what a fellowship we have in Jesus” in a call and response pattern, at various points in the service.
The Minister, a distinguished-looking man with cocoa-colored skin and a gray natural, called the congregation to prayer in a rich, melodious voice. “We trust you Lord, we thank you Lord.” There were about 50 people in the chapel, most elderly, all various shades of tan and brown. And one pinkish-colored gay Jewish man, trying to keep a low profile. It wasn’t easy.
Donna’s grandchildren were there too, all grown and ranging in age from 35 to 50. I chatted with them before the service, hoping they’d be all right with my little speech. Sitting next to Donna, I was praying for divine inspiration-though I doubted God’s existence at the time-when I heard the minister call out in his musical voice-“And we are blessed today with the presence of Donna’s other son, who has come all the way from Boston, just to be here for Mother Donna.” My face turned hot; I hadn’t expected such a build up. Donna often told me that Alex and I were her “other sons” but I didn’t know she’d shared that tidbit with the minister.
I mumbled “speak from the heart” to myself as I made my way to the pulpit and looked out on a sea of strange faces. Two minutes felt like twenty as I told the congregation of the love I felt for their “Mother Donna.” Tapping in to a centeredness that surprised me, I said that though I didn’t know Lonnie well, I did know he was a source of pride for my godmother, and that “the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.”
I stumbled and quavered a few times, and finally floated back to my pew with a relieved sigh. Sitting down, breathing again, and flanked by Donna and Larry–Lonnie’s son-I felt the warm embrace of family enfold me in that storefront Baptist church.
Then the minister threw open the floor for other “testimonies” and I waited for Lonnie’s children to get up and share. It didn’t happen. There was a long silence instead, while I muttered epithets under my breath, cursing myself for being the only speaker. Just as I was about to crawl under my pew, Lonnie’s cousin Sandra called out to testify.
“Jesus is in charge of my life,” she said, and a chorus of “amens” bubbled up from the congregation. “I want to praise the Lord and thank God for our brother Lonnie’s life, and to remember his spirit.” Heads nod, Donna smiled and the service rolled on. The Elders shared, a few more hymns ensued, and after several more calls of “Praise Jesus!” it appeared the program was about to end.
Unfortunately, the minister decided to throw in a short sermon, since he had a captive audience. The theme of the sermon was, “The end of the world is coming so y’all better get right with Jesus.” I started to sweat again, since my people and I had never been “right with Jesus.” I’d never even visited a Baptist church before. But I respected the minister for his sincerity and faith.
I really started to tremble when the minister launched into those “abominations” that warn us of an impending judgement day. “The end of the world is near,” he said, and my ears pricked up.
“There are abominations takin’ place in the land!” the minister shouted, his facing clouding over with anger. Abomination number one was, “Men are laying with men.” After hearing that, I didn’t pay much attention to numbers two and three. Instead, I reminded myself that I was surrounded by family, and my ordeal was almost over anyway.
The service rolled to a rollicking conclusion with another call to Jesus and we adjourned to the “reception hall” for a modest reception. Donna’s friends and family brought out bowls of punch, cookies, macaroni and tuna salad. I met assorted friends and relatives, her 65-year-old goddaughter, and various great and great-great grandchildren. Everyone was gracious; many began by saying, “I’ve heard so much about you.” I looked around the simple room with its concrete floor and folding chairs and thought of all the fancy churches and synagogues I’d seen in my lifetime. Even without the decorations I was used to, this room seemed to contain more love than most.
Whenever I go back to Cleveland, I stop by Donna’s house. We go to lunch and talk about old times. If the weather is fine and the season is right, I take her to an Indians baseball game. Saying Donna is an Indians fan is akin to saying the Pope has a mild interest in religion. Over the years, as my family connections have waned due to death and my own apathy, my devotion to Donna has deepened. A few years ago, I called to tell her I was planning to visit Cleveland in August.
“That’s wonderful!” she crowed. “I’m having another service for Lonnie. You can take me.” I gulped, feeling like I had given my all back in ’97.
“Well you know I’ll be there,” I said, mustering my enthusiasm.
And I was. I came, I saw, and while I didn’t conquer and I didn’t speak, I did enjoy the moment. Most of Donna’s immediate family didn’t show; it had been four years since Lonnie’s death, and they’d had enough of memorial services. But I was there, sitting next to my Godmother in her ’40’s style hat and matching shoes. When the congregation rose, I rose. When they prayed, I prayed. “What a fellowship,” they sang. What a woman, I thought.