Up until a couple of years ago, and for about a decade, my wife, who is white, was the deacon of a nearly all-black Episcopal church in the Twin Cities. My role as "Senior Auxiliary Member, Self-Appointed" was significantly less official. But while I did not engage nearly as much as Diane did, I was involved more than enough to become good friends with many of the parishioners, many of whom were much older than me, even though I was then in my late 50s and early 60s.
One of my regrets back then (and still) is that I didn't write a book about their lives in the 1940s, say, through the 1970s. My main aims in what would have been the pulling-together of a dozen or so oral histories would have been twofold.
The first was animated by the fact that large numbers of African-Americans in St. Paul and Minneapolis appeared to have had richer social and charitable lives than most people who I know have now, regardless of race. Their fraternities, sororities and other organizations two generations ago were all-black, or just about all-black, as were many of their parties and other gatherings, as they generally weren't welcome elsewhere. But I've seen hundreds of photos and heard dozens of their stories making it clear that many African-Americans back then led full and rich (I keep coming back to the word) — if restricted — lives because of bigotries of the day.
I would add "joyous" to the mix, which I assure is not to suggest any obliviousness on my part, and certainly not on theirs, that life for African-Americans at midcentury was often far from sweet. But the gratifying fact remains: There are too many smiles in the photos and too much laughter and warmth in their stories to ignore.
Please keep notions of "joy" in mind for a moment.
My second aim in writing such a book would have had to do with how I regularly sensed a remarkable lack of bitterness on the part of parishioners who had lived through some nasty times. This included men and women who had grown up and lived as young adults in the South. I may not be the most perceptive guy in the world when it comes to reading minds, and I recognize I wasn't an intimate, allowed to peer deep into hearts. Yet the fact remains that I hardly ever detected bitterness, even though residual amounts would have been justified.
Which leads us to Charleston, S.C., and the murder of nine African-Americans at prayer.
One of the more helpful things I've heard in recent days is the distinction between "joy" and "happiness" in the black church, as explained by a CNN commentator, Van Jones. "Happiness" (in my abbreviation of his abbreviation) is external. "Joy," on the other hand, is within Him. It's "Hallelujah, anyhow." "Hallelujah" despite what can be great pain and sorrow. "Hallelujah" because of great pain and sorrow.
Which brings me back to my wife, the Rev. Diane Darby McGowan, who served at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, in Minneapolis, which merged with St. Phillip's Episcopal Church, in St. Paul, with the two eventually changing their name to Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, at home in St. Paul. When sometime in the last few days I said something about the power of faith at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and beyond, she framed matters as the power of religion.
I favor her amendment, as it better connotes institutions, leaders and traditions — and it's vigorous religious institutions, leaders and traditions we need, precisely, if we are to adequately help millions of people in need as well as successfully take on some of our country's biggest problems. Strengthening marriage leads that litany. But this is not the spot to draw finer distinctions between faith and religion, as if I were equipped to do so.
Simply let it be that whether one calls it faith, or calls it religion, or even if one prefers calling the uniting of Charleston a High Mass of America's civil religion, call it essential and a blessing.
Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment. His most recent book is "Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America's Future."