Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

In Christ…

The St. Louis of my birth and formative years of the 1950s and 1960s was a segregated town. Blacks lived principally in the neighborhoods of the inner city and those running west and on the near north side. Whites lived largely on the south side, the far north side and, beyond the municipal boundaries, in the suburban areas.

In 1982, I was called to serve a church in Charleston, South Carolina. As I toured the city in search of housing, wherever I looked, though there were areas that were chiefly black or white, in the main, the neighborhoods were integrated. The realtor, noting my surprise, pointed out, in an airy, matter-of-fact fashion, a conspicuous reality of institutional slavery: “The distance between the master’s big house and the slave shacks was never that far.” His point. In the South, blacks and whites always lived in proximity. In this, I recall a Civil Rights Era maxim: “In the South, the white man doesn’t care how close the Negro gets, as long as he doesn’t get too high.”[1]

This apparent, what I deem, Southern racial/relational closeness comes to mind in light of a number of weddings that have been held at Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, Pontheolla’s and my Spartanburg, SC, bed and breakfast and events facility.

On more than one occasion, I’ve had my assumptions (read: biases) overthrown when white couples and black couples have commissioned black clergypersons and white clergypersons, respectively, to officiate at their nuptials. In speaking with the clerics, almost to a person, I discover that their affiliations with those to be wed extend far back into the years and are rooted in long-lived familial and neighborhood connections. Although the church communities of the South (everywhere?), by and large, remain racially segregated, personal relationships of deep affection across color lines have stood the test of time. In this, for me, a blessedly beatific counter-image in these days of rising racial animus, I, with gratitude, sing:

In Christ there is no east or west,

in him no south or north,

but one great fellowship of love

throughout the whole wide earth.[2]

Amen, I say! Again, I say, amen!



[1] “High” used interchangeably with “big”; meaning socio-economically prosperous and/or politically prominent. The other part of the saying is: “In the North, the white man doesn’t care how high the Negro gets, as long as he doesn’t get too close.” I don’t know the author of this aphorism, but Dick Gregory (Richard Claxton Gregory, 1932-2017), a comedian and social critic of no mean genius, and a fellow St. Louisan, was fond of repeating it.

[2] Words by John Oxenham (aka William Arthur Dunkerley), 1852-1941


my Momma: a portrait of a lady – a personal reflection on the occasion of her death

Clara Lolita Roberts AbernathyClara Lolita Roberts Abernathy (December 10, 1915-January 13, 2015) was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the first of two daughters of James Henry Roberts and Audia Mae Hoard Roberts. A few years after the birth of her sister, Evelyn, in November 1920, the Roberts family moved to St. Louis where they joined First Baptist Church.

From her earliest days known by her middle name, Lolita was educated in the St. Louis public school system, graduating from Charles Sumner High School in 1932; three years later, receiving her diploma as a certified music teacher from Kroger School of Music, then, within two years, a Bachelor of Arts degree from Stowe Teachers College.

On March 23, 1943, Lolita married William John Abernathy. To their union, my brother Wayne and I were born. A great sadness of my mother’s life was Wayne’s death in March 1995. A bit more than a year later in April 1996, her grief deepened immeasurably with the death of her beloved Bill.

Lolita was an educator, devoting the whole of her vocational life as an elementary school teacher in the St. Louis public school system. The church was the other major center of her life’s labor. She was a pianist at First Baptist Church and, teaching herself to play the organ, she became the youngest choir accompanist. Shortly after her marriage to Bill, they forged a compromise between her Baptist and his Methodist roots, joining All Saints’ Episcopal Church.

Lolita possessed a warm and welcoming spirit. Though soft-spoken and self-effacing, she was quick of wit, with a charming smile and an engaging lyrical laugh. A gracious host and a grand chef, her kitchen was the origin of varied epicurean delicacies, her oven producing many baked delights. A beautiful mezzo-soprano, Lolita, as she was wont to say (so typical of her penchant for diffidence), “was graced for choral, not solo singing.” Although her voice is stilled, long before by the inexorable encroachments of Alzheimer’s disease and now death, the glory of her life’s melody of love and laughter shall linger as impassioned breath in the heart of my soul.