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I didn’t want to join another family. I mean, I had one of my own. I was happy.
I didn’t want to get adopted. But I did. I got adopted by a family who is not like me. And it changed my life.
Here’s the story.
In 2008 I had a rare opportunity. Two United Methodist churches were interested in me for a position as their Christian educator. One was a large, prosperous church located in Pennsylvania and peopled with important people, like CEO’s. The committee that interviewed me was primarily white and they were immensely proud of how influential their members were.
The second church was First UMC, a md-sized congregation located in Somerville, NJ. My interview was held at the parsonage that they had for the assistant pastor/Christian educator. I enjoyed my interview with them. They seemed like regular people. So, the next Sunday (I think), I decided to pay a visit to First UMC to see what their Sunday morning worship was like.
What I noticed right off the bat was that it was more racially and ethnically diverse than the other congregations I had served, all of which had been primarily white. I also was impressed by the passion they had for helping others and for being active in their community.
And then something else happened.
Part way into the service, a Black woman hurried in and plopped down in the same pew I was in. We exchanged a quick “hello.” At one point, she seemed restless, got up, and hurried out of the service. I wondered what was up. When she returned, I asked, “Are you okay?” She nodded and said that she was fine. Then the organist cranked up the next hymn. As we stood, I reached for the hymnal nearest me, but my pew-companion, shoved her hymnal at me and indicated that we were going to share.
I think I’ve mentioned in this blog that I’m an introvert. Sharing a hymnal with a total stranger makes me uneasy. I did it, anyway, though. Obviously, the woman was being hospitable, and it would be rude to insist that I use a hymnal of my own. It also might cause her to think I was refusing because she was Black. And that wasn’t it at all. So I dealt with my introversion and we stood and sung together from the same hymn book.
Aside from the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, this woman was the first person I met at the church where I soon would be starting a new position. (By the way, after nearly 12 years, I’m still at that church.)
Over time, I got to know the woman. She was low-income and hard-working, doing everything in her power to get her three girls education and opportunities denied to her. She was – and still is – a Tiger Mother of the first order.
Since I’m a writer, aspects of this woman’s personality, as well as those of her daughters, have found their way into some of my characters. As I’ve said before, authors frequently borrow their character’s traits and quirks, speech patterns, and appearances from people they know, or are well-known, or have simply passed them on the street. For privacy’s sake, I’m going to give this woman and her daughters the names of some characters that grew out of my association with them. If you are a member of my church and/or you know me, you will figure out who they are. However, there’s no reason for everyone else in the world to know.
So, I’m going to call the mother Matilda, from the Saint Maggie series. And I’ll call the daughters Harriet, Rosa, and Lena, from Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll, although they also make appearances in the Saint Maggie series under different names. All except for Rosa, though. Somehow her name crossed genres.
I believe it was in 2010 that Harriet, the oldest daughter, entered the church’s youth group, Matilda asked if I could pick her up and drive her to the meetings. At that time, Matilda could not drive and did not have a car. I agreed and came Harriet’s chauffeur.
Harriet was (and is still) bright, open, and gifted with the impressive talent of asking tons of questions about a gazillion issues. I seriously loved those car rides with her. I still miss them!
And then it was time for Harriet’s first summer mission trip. It was going to involve home repair and we would be traveling from New Jersey to Tennessee. As the group hopped into vans to head to our destination, I abruptly realized that I was taking a Black child into an unknown situation. And it was very, very scary. Suddenly I was responsible for Harriet’s well-being.
Needless to say, I became Matilda’s stand-in. I don’t know if Harriet knows this or not, but when we made pit stops for bathroom breaks and snacks, I shadowed her all around the minimarts. No one was going to mess with my young friend. Because if they did, I was going to mess with them. Simple as that.
I did that for the entire trip.
I did it for Rosa and Lena, too. If they were in my care, I was Second Mom, or perhaps more accurately Adopted Auntie.
Like their sister, Rosa and Lena were amazing, but completely different. Rosa is articulate, aware, and a budding activist. The biggest compliment I have ever received came from her: “You’re the only person I know who can step out of being white.” Wow. I’m still not sure I’m worthy of that honor, but hearing her say it… what can I say?
The youngest sister, Lena, is shy, soft-spoken, and artistic. She used to show me her drawings. She always seemed to be sketching. I hope she gets the opportunity to let her gifts shine.
I still love all three young women. Harriet graduated from college this year. Rosa and Lena are attending college. I miss seeing them. But, as an experienced youth worker, I know kids grow up and develop lives of their own. Sometimes they re-establish contact with me, but most don’t. Just the same, I wish every single one of them well.
Matilda tells me that I helped raise her daughters. I don’t know about that. But I did my best to be another caring adult in their lives. And if I, an unrelated, white person, experienced anxiety and fear about what might happen to those girls on mission trips and at youth group activities, then I cannot – simply cannot – imagine how parents of children of color make it day after day, year after year bearing that fear and anxiety.
And yet they do it because they must. They do it because they love.
My time as an adopted aunt was life changing. So is knowing Matilda, which is on-going. We have had our share of crazy experiences, including a trip down a one-way street in Philadelphia, a scene that really deserves to be in a book or a movie. I mean, we missed death by car crash only by the grace of God. I’m not kidding.
Here’s the crux of this particular blog. I got to know people of color. I learned to listen. And I learned to love people who were not like me. I was honored to enter their family in my small way.
That’s why I don’t understand a system in which only one group does well, gets the advantages, feels safe, and doesn’t worry about getting killed by someone who hates them. Things have to change.
Black Lives Matter.
Go in peace, friends.
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder