Listen To Article
Among the many gifts holidays bring is memory, because holidays allow us to connect memories with dates. I have many memories, but I know the date of only a few. The Fourth of July brings childhood memories of finding a place in the world.
We lived in a small town in Southern Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, from 1964 to 1969. On the Fourth of July that first year we had gone down to Main Street for a parade. One of my older brothers was missing in action, but my parents weren’t concerned. This was the beauty of small-town America six decades ago. Kids went off and played without cell phones or adult supervision. My parents knew my brother would show up; their only worry was that he was going to miss the parade.
And what a parade it was—firetrucks and police cars and the mayor and his family tossing out salt water taffy from a convertible. Finally, there was a flotilla of kids on bicycles, and my missing brother—the new kid in town—was in the middle of them, with red, white, and blue crepe paper intertwined in his bicycle spokes. I remember my parents laughing and laughing with delight.
A couple of years later we were having a Fourth of July cookout in the backyard with our next-door-neighbors, good people who had the glorious first names of Ferris and Henrietta. They had a son in Vietnam and a daughter who made inedible brownies in an EZ Bake Oven. On this particular Fourth of July, the skies opened during our picnic and we scrambled indoors. But Ferris didn’t move. He sat where he was, eating a hamburger in the rain. Then he got up and splashed, backside first, fully clothed, into our kiddie pool. Henrietta thought he’d lost it, but my parents loved it, and jumped right back outside and into the kiddie pool with him. The adults were acting like kids and the kids didn’t understand, but it was another of those times of laughter and delight.
Are you old enough to remember the American Bicentennial? I have vague memories from that time of fire hydrants being painted like Continental Soldiers, but I also have a specific memory of church because July 4th, 1976, fell on a Sunday. The term “Christian Nationalism” wasn’t in vogue then, but I can’t imagine a date that could push that door open any wider. I don’t remember our worship service, although I’m guessing we probably sang some patriotic hymns. What I do remember is an all-church barbecue in the church parking lot after the service. Our church had hired a banjo virtuoso to entertain us and his act was pure Americana. There was nothing “Christian” about it. In fact, he drank a few beers as he performed, which was startling given the church context. But it was a sweltering hot day and I Imagine now more than one of our parishioners wished the banjo player had brought enough to go around. The rest of us washed down our potato salad and baked beans with tepid lemonade. Why in the world do I remember the banjo player’s beer? Because it signaled the separation of church and state. Nobody said anything, but there was an unspoken message that our worship of God in our sanctuary was one thing, and our celebration of the birth of the United States in our parking lot was something different. I look back on that now with appreciation.
What strikes me about these memories is that in one way or another they are about belonging. Isn’t that a country at its best? And isn’t that church at its best? Don’t we all just want a place to belong? After a lifetime in the church, I have come to peace with the notion that what keeps me getting up and going to worship Sunday after Sunday is more my sense of belonging than belief. Belief comes and goes and seems to waver all over the place. But I know church is my home, where I belong. I love the church. And I love my country. This is where I belong.
Yet belonging is what makes unreflective celebrations of the Fourth of July so difficult. My family has had privileges–America has worked for my family in ways it hasn’t worked for others. When I remember that Fourth of July parade in our small town, I recall there wasn’t a black or brown face to be seen. In a thousand ways, our small town sent the message “you don’t belong here” to people of color. This isn’t just “woke” blather—my father remembers being assigned a real estate agent by his company to ensure we moved into a white suburb. Put it this way: American history guarantees that Christian Nationalism is never going to be a problem in the Black church.
In a similar way, I can’t help but think this Fourth of July about so many who are struggling to feel they belong anymore in the church. “You don’t belong here” is a powerful message.
I imagine that later tonight, like on every Fourth of July, my neighbors will try to immolate our city in a frenzy of gunpowder and pyrotechnics. I detest this. I detest the noise and bother. I detest that inevitably someone will blow off a finger or damage an eye. I detest what the noise does to dogs and other animals. Most of all I detest the hubris. I simply wish we were less obnoxious.
Give a thought today to those who have been marginalized by our country or the church. And think what you can do to communicate that they belong.
I wish you a humble holiday.