Category Archives: Delta

In the Garden

Last Sunday as people were filing down the aisle of Myers Park United Methodist Church to receive Holy Communion, the organist played a brief passage from “In The Garden”, an old hymn written in 1913. Hearing it, I was transported to another time and place, Mississippi in 1968, to be precise, to Brazil Baptist Church, a small country church where I had worshipped with my grandparents every time I visited them, which was often.
I was fifteen in 1968, still largely innocent, my young life still unmarred by grief or loss, the only members of my extended family, two uncles, had passed away before I was born, but that would soon change.
Our country was in turmoil. The war in Viet Nam was raging. Inner cities were burning. School systems were struggling with desegregation. Tupelo, where my family lived, had so far avoided most of the racial tension tearing so much of Mississippi apart. With Freedom of Choice in effect, our schools were slowly integrating. Full desegregation would be completed within a year with no riots and very little rancor.
The Rascals, Cream, and the Doors provided the soundtrack that summer with “People Got to Be Free”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, and “Hello, I Love You” respectively. But in a year that had already seen the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” might have better exemplified the times.
As was my want, I was spending a couple of weeks with my father’s parents on the farm outside of Brazil before school started back up in September. I was headed to high school. A sophomore. As irony would have it, the Democratic Party had scheduled their convention and the Brazil Baptist Church had scheduled their annual revival for the same week, August 26-30, 1968.
The sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, had dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination and was replaced by his VP, Hubert Humphrey. An early frontrunner RFK was dead. A strong peace candidate in Eugene McCarthy was gathering delegates even as George McGovern began collecting former Kennedy delegates. The Democratic National Convention had all the makings of a circus, just not the one we expected.
Pop no longer actively managed the farm, but still checked on the fields every day. I would drive him on his rounds and to visit friends. I would take both Pop and Cat to the clinic in Sumner for their B12 shots. In the evening we would watch the news as we ate supper. Pop and Cat, who had lived through the Spanish-American War, the Great Depression, two World Wars and the Korean Conflict, multiple assassinations, race riots and lynchings, shook their heads again in disbelief.
They were inveterate readers of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal and devoted to the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC, current on local, national, and world affairs. However, nothing in their long lives had prepared them for 23,000 uniformed police and National Guardsmen with tear gas and nightsticks descending on 10,000 young protesters in one of America’s great cities.
As an obedient, first-born, rule-following child, I was as appalled as they were. That would change too, but not yet. My life was still too insular, too sheltered.
After supper we would head to Brazil Baptist Church where a Revival was in full swing, the gospel preached nightly and voices raised in hymns of praise. After church, we would return to the farm and Pop and Cat would head to bed, usually by 8:00. I would sit up to watch the drama of the Convention play out on TV. Or turn their huge box radio to a station in Memphis or New Orleans and listen to Top 40 radio which was still vibrant.
Brazil Baptist Church had been founded in 1940, and the solid, brick building had been erected in 1953, the year I was born. It was carved right there in the cornerstone on the southwest corner to the left of the door. My grandfather Pop had been instrumental in both. He even led the singing on Sunday morning, his rich baritone rolling through the small sanctuary. He and my grandmother Cat still attended and supported the church.
Mike Pinion was a local boy and church member who was attending Mississippi College. That summer he was involved with the Revival in some capacity and convinced a young teen-aged girl from Webb, whose name I cannot recall, and me to sing a duet one evening. Reluctant I may have been, but relent I did. Pop and Cat were delighted when I told them. The young woman and I selected “In the Garden”, rehearsed throughout the week, and sang for the congregation on Thursday night.
Now that I have grandchildren in whose accomplishments I rejoice, I have some idea of how Pop and Cat must have felt hearing me sing in their church, particularly Pop who had led so many hymns in that very sanctuary.
Sadly, within a year Mike would be dead, killed in a car wreck. Three years later I would enroll at Mississippi College. By that time age and health had compelled Pop and Cat to move into an apartment with their widowed daughter, Sadie, who was a nurse. That was the last summer I would spend with my grandparents.
College and career, marriage and relocations pushed me literally and figuratively further and further from that little church. I learned grief and loss first hand, losing close friends and eventually all of my grandparents.
Forty years after that last summer with Popo and Cat, my wife Sherrie and I took Dad to the Delta to visit the places of his youth. Alzheimer’s was inexorably stripping away his memories. It seemed like the thing to do. It may have been forty years, but I drove the 115 miles from my parents’ home in Tupelo to Brazil without a map, as unerringly as if I had driven it only yesterday.
We pulled up at Brazil Baptist Church. The church was locked, but the condition of the building, fresh paint and clean windows, the mown grass and edged sidewalks, and neatness of the tiny, adjacent cemetery indicated that it was still maintained and in use. Sherrie took a picture of Dad and me in front of that little church.
It would be another six years, the summer of 2014, before I passed that way again. Mom had succumbed to cancer the year before and now her brother Jim had been taken by a stroke. On the drive back from his funeral in Greenville, I detoured through Brazil.
The churchyard was unmown and weedy. A heavy padlock was attached to the front doors. The cornerstone had been removed, chipped out of the surrounding brick. Delicate tendrils of honeysuckle clung to the brick on the western-facing wall. Several window panes had been shattered leaving gaping black holes like hollow, lifeless eyes. I peered through the jagged holes in the panes at the dim sanctuary, every pew still in place, the pulpit a lone sentinel, hardwood floor scuffed by thousands of dress shoes, work boots, pumps, and high heels. So many congregants, so many sermons, hymns, revivals, marriages, and funerals. I turned away a little older, wiser, and sadder.
In the fall of 2015, Dad died. In the summer of 2016, Mom’s sister Jean, the last of Mom’s nine siblings died. I attended her funeral in Rome, Mississippi, again detouring by Brazil on my way home.
I was shocked. The church was gone. Tall stalks of corn rose from the ground where it had once stood. The old oak tree still shaded the small cemetery, surrounded now by a cornfield.
All of this and more flashed through my mind in an instant as those few bars of “In the Garden” rang out in the stately sanctuary of Myers Park United Methodist Church, a flood of thoughts fleeting like a series of shooting stars that only register in the mind’s eye after they have passed.
Memory. At one moment vivid, full and complete, then imprecise, vague and frustrating. I can remember the lyrics to “In the Garden” but not the name of the girl with whom I sang that duet. Did Mike handle the music only or did he also preach that revival? I could get in my car and drive 600 miles to where that church once stood without a map or a single wrong turn, but I cannot remember a single other thing about that revival.
Sherrie had seen me wipe a tear from my cheek and asked me about as we left the sanctuary. I tried to explain, shared the high points, but what I could not convey was how transient that time had been, that hovering moment on the cusp of maturity, or the depth of loss that had washed over me, how memory had flooded in carrying all else away. Just an instant, an instant that my meager skills cannot begin to convey or contain or encapsulate in a thousand words.
“I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.”


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The Most Southern Place in the World

Just read Richard Grant’s New York Times article “Sweet Home Mississippi” which stirred up more memories and emotion than I would have expected.

I have not lived in Mississippi in 37 years or the Delta in 53 years, but I will always think of Mississippi, in general, and the Delta, in particular, as home. I was literally born on the banks of the Yazoo River because that’s where the Greenwood-Leflore County Hospital is located, right on the riverbank. Except for a brief sojourn in Drew in the heart of the Delta, I never lived further than three blocks form the Yazoo River until our family moved to Tupelo the year I turned nine.

I attended Davis Elementary School, named for Jefferson Davis, of course, for two-and-a-half years. I spent weekends and summers on my grandparents’ farm two-and-one-half miles north of Brazil, a town consisting of three stores, two churches, a school, and a relocated post office still named Stover after its original location a mile-and-a-half north of Brazil. A spur of the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad ran through Brazil but did not stop. The nearest train depot was Sumner, site of the infamous Emmitt Till trial, and yes, I use the term trial loosely.

My first best friend’s great-grandfather was one of the first white settlers in Leflore County and a major landowner. I like most of my friends growing up am descended from Confederate veterans of the Civil War. My playmates at school were all white; my playmates on the farm were all black.

To this day I am both drawn to and repelled by my home. Its heritage of poverty and brutality is abysmal. The reality of the place is confounding to one who knows its history. On a personal level race relations are more amicable than an outsider might expect. My grandparents and their family bought all their clothes from one of my grandfather’s best friends, a Jewish merchant in Webb. Almost every little Delta town had a Pang’s Store operated by a local Chinese family, probably descended form railroad workers. No one gave a second thought to shopping there. Migrant Mexican workers followed the harvest north through the Delta every fall. My mother’s family, farmers too, relied on their help during the cotton harvest.

It is a land of contrasts: the crushing poverty of a family living in a tar paper shack and stately, old multi-generational homes of comfortable excess; the staggering beauty of sunset over a cypress brake, verdant green foliage etched against a fading crimson sky, and the heart-breaking decay of once-flourishing little towns crumbling into vine-choked gray shells; the soft cry of mourning dove over fields shimmering with the early light of dawn and the harsh roar and clatter of soybean harvesters at work into the night; black, white, brown and yellow children at play in parks and ball fields and segregated churches and country clubs and private schools.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Delta, the thing that always seems to get a visitor’s attention, is that its people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, age, income, or profession, are open-handed, kind, and friendly. To neighbor and stranger alike. Sir, Ma’am, Hon, and Sweetheart are all used liberally and sincerely, without artifice.

In all honesty, I do not know if I could go back and live there. Maybe I could, maybe not. I have been gone a long time but am still pulled back regularly to visit. I cannot escape it, nor would I. What I do know is that to this day I draw strength from having been born and raised there. Whatever I may be, I am because of that place, the most Southern place in the world, the Delta.

So, thank you, Richard Grant, for taking me back. And for adding “Dispatches From Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta” to my reading list.

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