By Brad Hicks
I recall the brightness of it and the love. Grandma Rodgers would occasionally take me to church with her on Sunday mornings when I was a young boy. She went to West Richmond Friends Meeting, a Quaker church in Richmond, Indiana, on the corner of 7th and Main. One Sunday (I might’ve been seven or eight) my mom dropped me off at the side entrance of the church just before Sunday School started, then mom headed back home to do Lord knows what. I don’t remember if grandma met me at the curb or if I had to go inside the church and find her. I just remember, as was her custom, she handed me a quarter to put in the offering plate.
I was silent and lost in the Sunday School class. Didn’t know a soul. Didn’t know the first thing about the Bible, God, or Jesus. Never heard of Quakers, Christians, or sinners. In those days, church and God were as foreign to me and my family as Kingdom Come. It’s likely that my mom and dad had some vague understanding of God and the gospel but, if so, they never told me anything about it. Come what may, after the Sunday School hour I bounded upstairs to find my grandma.
Grandma Rodgers came across as stoic but kind. She never smiled big, but her presence was a smile. She spoke few words, and the words she spoke smiled. She dressed classy for church and usually wore a fancy pillbox hat or a fedora on her white-haired head. At her church, I just followed her; she knew where to go and what to do. And she made us — her eleven grandchildren as well as her own six children — feel like we were the only thing in her world that mattered; the kind of person who, when you’re with them, you know you’re desirable, cared for, and interesting to them. That’s the way grandma made me feel when I went to her Quaker church. So, my earliest religious experience is a recollection of something like grandma-love.
I followed grandma to our seat in one of the pews and sat confidently beside her, disinterested, bored. Soon after I dropped my quarter in the plate being passed down our row, I only remember one thing about the rest of the church service. I’m sure there must have been hymns sung and announcements made from the pulpit, and being a Quaker church there was undoubtedly a designated time of silence. But I don’t remember any of that. I only remember the man who was preaching and him being surrounded by light, especially his head, as if there was a halo of light encompassing his head while he spoke. To this day, I don’t know what the light meant or represented, if it was real or imagined, and I don’t remember what the man said; I only know that my experience imprinted another seminal religious idea in my memory — brightness. Not blinding light, but warm, inviting brightness.
We all feel the same way about the closeness we experienced as family over the years. All fond memories … at least we choose to mostly talk about the fond and the good memories.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, there were 73 people in my family that I knew — four grandparents, four great-grandparents, 28 aunts and uncles, 32 cousins, and me, my parents and two brothers. Only four of them were faithful, believing Christians — I mean, genuine, consistent, and demonstrative in their faith. They were all women: Grandma Rodgers (my mom’s mom, a Quaker), Grandma Lewis (my dad’s mom, a Pentecostal), Aunt Wanda (my dad’s sister, also a Pentecostal), and my great-Aunt Dorothy (my dad’s aunt, a Catholic). None of their husbands went to church with them, nor, as far as I know, were their husbands believers. And although I had no idea of this fact when I was a boy, I learned later in life that these Christian ladies believed that prayer could change things. And each of them prayed for their families — their husbands and their children and grandchildren. I can only imagine that these grandmas and aunts prayed for our safety and protection, for our peace and provision, and they prayed that we might come to believe and live for the God they knew and in whom they believed and placed their hope.
Growing up in Wayne County, Indiana, I was surrounded by loving, adoring family on both my mom’s and dad’s sides. The 73 family members I’ve mentioned, for most of my early growing-up years, all lived in or near Wayne County as well, except for my Uncle Johnny and Aunt Barb and their two sons, Rick and Jeff. They moved all over the country, military family. And both sides of my family, because we were blood-tied, made it a priority to stay close by spending time together — it never felt dutiful. As Mayberry as it may sound, we all got along and liked being with one another. Throughout the year, we got together for Thanksgiving at our home, on Christmas Eve at Aunt Norma’s, at family reunions in Dublin or Cambridge City (dad’s side), or Glen Miller Park in Richmond (mom’s side), or we’d just make surprise visits (knock, knock, then just walk through unlocked doors to say hello). Some we saw much more frequently than others, but my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles saw to it to keep our families connected. (And when it had been too long since we’d seen Uncle Johnny and his family, when I was eleven, my parents took us on a two-week vacation to Dugway, Utah, to visit them.)
I feel lucky and blessed, as I’m one of the rare adults these days who remembers mostly the love, security, safety, and warmth that I received from my family of origin and my relatives during my childhood. And in conversations with relatives with whom I’m still close and who are still living — usually at funerals, as so many have passed — we all feel the same way about the closeness we experienced as family over the years. All fond memories … at least we choose to mostly talk about the fond and the good memories.
Every family has its sins and secrets. No surprise there. A family wouldn’t be human or replete without them. Some secrets and sins are known when we’re young, others come to light when we get older, others stay hidden forever. Heading into my teenage years, I began to learn of some of the problems that members of my family experienced or were involved in, and as I’m now closing my sixth decade, oh, how I understand better and have seen how secrets and sins will erode and devastate lives and family relationships.
My family’s story isn’t so unique. Most of us can recount the hells that our relatives have gone through or are presently going through, the demons that they and we, ourselves, have had to face.
My family’s story isn’t so unique. Most of us can recount the hells that our relatives have gone through or are presently going through, the demons that they and we, ourselves, have had to face. Though we’ve loved one another well, my family and I have also been hounded and slipped-up by divorce, selfish isolation, all manner of gluttony, greed and unforgiveness, domestic violence, marital infidelity, alcohol and drug abuse, sexual brokenness, child molestation, suicide, and spiritual bankruptcy with no hope in God. And these are only the sins and secrets that I know about and can remember.
I’m spelling out some of my family’s flaws and foibles not to sensationalize how bad we were. Not at all. Rather, I’m relating a paradoxical reality common to, I believe, all extended families: That even within loving families who don’t despise one another, who, in fact, cherish one another, we still do hateful and harmful things to one another and to ourselves.
Isn’t it self-evident that the love of family isn’t enough to deter many of us from despising ourselves? The most nurturing parents can’t deter debilitating anxiety from finding its way into our souls. The most encouraging relatives can’t prevent us from endlessly comparing ourselves to others and hopelessly believing that we’ve fallen short and missed the mark. Most of us put on a convincing all-is-well mask when in public; it’s when we’re alone with our thoughts that the despairing truth comes to bear. Why is this? What the hell is our problem? From where comes the inevitable dark and the drip-drip-drip aloneness and alienation?
I was in eighth grade at Dennis Junior High School when my best friend, Eddie Barnes, asked me to come to church with him. His Sunday School class at First Assembly of God, a Pentecostal church in Richmond, was having a contest and awarding a prize to the kid who could bring the most visitors to Sunday School in a month. I agreed to go one Sunday, and Eddie was able to notch another score on his visitor tally sheet. I can’t remember if Eddie won the prize and I don’t believe he ever thought I would actually take an interest in what the Sunday School teacher was teaching or in what the minister was preaching in the service. But I was listening. Even more, I was hearing. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. Hopeful words that I faintly recognized and that my heart’s eye had seen before: Something like grandma-love and warm, inviting brightness. And being a Pentecostal church, sin was also unabashedly addressed. And it was all … Right and pure and true and hitting my soul’s mark.
At 14, I had lost my childhood innocence in so many ways. Self-awareness and waning confidence had crept into my hubris at about this time, and I was also beginning to internalize my dad’s insecurities and violence. My parents were separated for a time that year, I was starting to experiment with alcohol and milder drugs, running with a pretty motley crew, skipping school. My insides were roiling, and I had no idea where to go, what to do, or who to talk with.
I remember the evening service and the impact the preacher’s words, and what the Pentecostals call the Holy Ghost, had on me — words and atmosphere rife again with love and welcoming brightness.
I’d been attending church with the Barnes family for three or four weeks, morning and evening services on Sundays and some Wednesday nights. Threads of gospel were spinning their way into places protected in me — irritating but not fully uninvited — and disarming me. Easter Sunday had arrived. If I went to church that morning, I don’t recall anything about it. But I remember the evening service that I attended and the impact the preacher’s, Everett Forner’s, words, and what the Pentecostals call the Holy Ghost, had on me — words and atmosphere rife again with love and welcoming brightness, this time with brilliant light exposing the nagging need in my gut.
Sitting in the pew with the Barneses, it was Mr. Barnes, Eddie’s dad, who first saw that I was shaking with emotion during the sermon and helplessly trying to fight back tears. I hoped no one would notice. Mrs. Barnes soon sidled up next to me. They led me in a prayer. I was more than willing. I met Christ that night.
The spiritual stirrings of March 1975, leading up to Easter Sunday, changed the course of my life, and in the years following no fewer than 30 members of my family (of the 73 mentioned above, not including our spouses and offspring) came to know Christ. I’ve seen great miracles happen in the lives of my family — hearts of stone softened and made capable of sacrificial love, confused minds transformed from being shame-ridden to being infused with the knowledge of the truth, and dead men walking made alive again.
It’s my view that spiritual healing in families doesn’t happen without habitual, consistent prayer. I believe with all that’s within me that the prayers of Grandma Rodgers, Grandma Lewis, Aunt Wanda, and Aunt Dorothy, played no small part in the assent to faith that many in my family have made since my early childhood, including me, my parents, and my brothers. These women were the first to walk by faith in my family, that I’m aware of, and I’m forever grateful for their prayers.