Poetry

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I Was a Proud Southern Christian

by Lionel E. Deimel

 

I was a proud Southern Christian—

Proud that my country was a Christian country,

Proud that my conscience was formed by Christian teaching,

Proud to defend traditional values

Against the new, the untried, and the secular.

 

I attended all-white schools and went to church each Sunday,

Drank from “white” water coolers,

Used “white” rest rooms,

Sat in the front of the bus,

Ahead of the moveable sign that proclaimed “For Colored People Only.”

 

I saw colored people every day,

But the only ones I knew were the sexton at my church and his family;

I did not know the Negro;

I did not understand him;

Nor did I understand my father when he disparaged the Black race.

 

The images from Little Rock were disturbing:

Why was Federal intervention necessary?

Why did black children want to go to a white school where they were unwanted?

Integration was soon imposed on the schools where I lived;

Even my high school was integrated, if only slightly.

 

I went to college up north—to another country, really—

To a place that was not a Christian country,

A place where liberalism was taken for granted,

A place where the conservative voice was beneath notice,

To a country that honored Abraham Lincoln, not Robert E. Lee.

 

I came to love Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, and Peter, Paul & Mary;

I might have developed a fondness for Bob Dylan had he learned to sing;

But I could not join in when my friends sang “We Shall Overcome”;

I complained to my black friends that Martin Luther King would be hailed as a martyr,

His reward for being a troublemaker and having the good fortune to get shot.

 

My vote for Richard Nixon turned out badly;

I voted for some third-party candidate in the next election;

Carter’s country was a different kind of Christian country,

And Regan’s Christian America gave me pause;

I was not so proud to be Christian in a Christian America anymore.

 

I almost joined the Women’s Movement,

Though I was slow to see the point of it;

I never supported the Equal Rights Amendment,

Whose effects were hard to imagine;

Maybe they would not have been so bad.

 

When did my politics change?

Perhaps when I realized that true Christianity is about love,

Not about how to hate or about telling others how to live;

Perhaps when I began to think about what Jesus told us,

Not what others told us about Jesus.

 

I have always loved girls,

So I am often asked why I care about gays and lesbians;

Alas, I have much to atone for;

I fought the Civil Rights Movement and hindered the Women’s Movement;

I need to be on the right side this time,

 

For Christians are called to show concern for all,

Especially those whom some feel free to scorn;

To recognize the pain of others and seek to take that pain away;

To strive for justice and reconciliation among God’s people;

And to care for creation and all its creatures.

 

I am proud to be Christian in America—

Proud that my values are rooted in love and enlightenment;

Proud that my country embraces religious freedom,

Even though it sometimes forgets what that means;

Proud to strive for a better America for all people.
 

 

Liberty Enlightening the World

 

This poem is, of course, autobiographical. I grew up in a New Orleans household that was not racist, but which largely took a Jim Crow society for granted. I began to think of myself as a conservative under the influence of a junior high school teacher and a border radio station. Since then, I have experienced a long recovery. Who would have expected me to become the first president of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh!

This poem was inspired by Langston Hughes’s “I, Too.” I began writing it on 8/18/2009 and finished it two days later, after several rounds of minor edits.

— LED, 8/20/2009

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