Friday, March 23, 2007
Dionne Spencer made a quick left turn off Fourth Street and pulled her red Nissan Sentra into the parking lot of her home church. It had been a year since she’d last attended Sunday services and after parking her car on this sunny November morning did a final check of her makeup and hair. She wanted to make certain that she looked as good as she did when she first slipped on her stylish pink suit, put on her black hose and heels and sashayed her five-seven body out of her apartment near the University of Louisville campus.
She got out of her car and strode nervously toward the front doors of the church building once she was satisfied that her appearance passed muster. She entered the one hundred thirty-eight year old Greater Hope Baptist Church just as the choir began singing a rousing version of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. She decided to go to the restroom to recheck her appearance one last time before sauntering into the sanctuary.
She made her entrance as the organ music faded and the congregation was still on an emotional high from watching their award-winning choir rock the house. She started to take a seat in the back pews but remembered that Reverend Oliver asked her to sit on the front row when they’d had their conversation in his office a few days ago. She wasn’t going to disappoint him as she pivoted on her heel and ambled toward the front pews.
Reverend Lorenzo Oliver rose his six-three frame from his chair and strode to the pulpit. He looked over to his left and spotted Dionne sitting on the front pew flanked by Sister Zerline Elliott and Sister Doris Thompson. He observed two longtime members of the church seated two rows behind her, pointing at Dionne as they shook their fancy-hatted heads and whispered to each other. He noticed Sister Elliott clasping Dionne’s right hand as Sister Doris Thompson whispered in Dionne’s left ear. He smiled at the trio and glanced at his wife Althea before he began speaking.
“Let the congregation say amen.”
“Thanks to Brother Jordan and our choir for that wonderful rendition of one of my favorite hymns,” he said while opening his book-marked Bible to the section that he’d selected earlier that morning while proofreading the final draft of his sermon.
“I’ll start with a reading of the Word from Matthew, the nineteenth chapter and the tenth verse. ‘For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.’ Thus ends the reading of the scripture.”
He paused for a moment to survey his congregation before he continued. “Now, you may be wondering why I chose that particular passage. It’s because I’ve been concerned over the last three weeks about anonymous comments that I’ve been receiving about one of our members from various people in our congregation.”
One of the deacons began to nervously shift his body position in his chair at the base of the pulpit as Reverend Oliver continued. “This person was baptized by me at age ten. Sister Althea and I have had the pleasure of watching this young person grow up and become an outstanding adult despite the tragedies that have befallen them.”
He paused for a moment as some members of the congregation shouted amen to his last statement. “When this person’s parents and grandmother were tragically taken away from them several years ago, she didn’t give up. She buckled down, did an outstanding job in the classroom and got that high school diploma. This person is now attending U of L as a Governor’s Scholar.”
He looked over at the beaming young woman and took a sip of water from his chalice. It shouldn’t be any secret that I’m referring to Sister Dionne Spencer. I did not stutter saints, I said SISTER Dionne Spencer. Some of you are aware that she informed Sister Althea and I three weeks ago about the reason for her long absence from our church family. She is undergoing her transition to womanhood.”
Dionne looked up at Reverend Oliver and nervously smiled as Sister Elliott put her arm around her. “Now, I am astounded by the people who have come to us and openly suggested that we cast this young person out of our church. It’s ironic that some of the folks who proposed this haven’t been members of this church a hot minute. Sister Spencer’s family served Greater Hope faithfully for many years. You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
There were murmurs of approval by several congregants as others fidgeted uneasily in the pews. “Just two weeks ago we had an amendment pass in Kentucky over same-sex marriage that made a group of people second class citizens. The charge was led by people who I’m ashamed to say, call themselves Christians.
“Amen.” replied some of the members.
“I was concerned that the passage of this amendment would foster a climate of intolerance in the commonwealth for our gay, lesbian and transgendered brothers and sisters. I am appalled that the intolerance has surfaced in my flock.”
Reverend Oliver wiped the sweat that was starting to bead up on his forehead with a small towel and resumed speaking after taking another sip of water from his chalice.
“As a civil rights veteran who was at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday I beg to differ. Christians don’t promote intolerance. They should be the people helping to eradicate it. Christians don’t promote hatred of their fellow man. They should be uncompromising advocates for loving all their fellow human beings.” Reverend Oliver said with his voice rising.
“God belongs to all of us. His Son Jesus stood up for downtrodden people. That is my one of my charges to keep as a minister. I am a voice for the voiceless. I am an advocate for my community. If no one else will speak up for the suffering people of my time on this earth, I will. As your pastor I will not tolerate any attempts by members of this congregation to strip Dionne of her membership in our church family.”
As Reverend Oliver surveyed the congregation he noticed that the fancy hatted ladies sitting behind Dionne had contrite looks on their faces. He paused to let those words sink in before he stepped onto the sanctuary floor and strolled over to where Dionne was seated.
“Sister Dionne is a Christian who happens to be transgendered. She has a different outer shell now than what she grew up with. It’ll take time for us to get used to the new one. She is the same person that many of you love and respect. I’m pleased to have her back. I look forward to Dionne contributing her talents toward making the Greater Hope church family the best it can be.”
The rest of the service was a blur to Dionne. She shed a tear when he mentioned her late grandmother Pauline and her membership on the usher board. He also reminded the congregation of her grandmother’s last whispered words from her deathbed as he closed his sermon. After Reverend Oliver offered his final prayer and benediction, the congregation rose and filed out of the sanctuary. Dionne picked up her black crocodile print purse and chatted for a few minutes with Sister Elliott and Sister Thompson before she prepared to leave.
“Yes, Sister Thornton?”
“Jamila and I are going to Jay’s to eat dinner. Would you like to join us?”
“Thanks for the invitation Sister Thornton, but I already promised Sister Elliott that I’d come by her house after church.”
“Okay. Maybe some other time?”
She opened her purse, pulled her sunglasses out of the case and put them on before she stepped outside into the bright fall sunshine. She was stopped a few times by various members expressing their support for her before reaching her car. As she unlocked it a full-figured woman she recognized as LaTasha Cole and her slim-waisted friend Sarita Sanders approached LaTasha’s battered blue Chevy Caprice. It was parked directly in front of hers, and once they spotted Dionne deliberately adjusted the volume of their conversation so she could hear them.
“I don’t care what the pastor said.” thundered LaTasha. “I ain’t talking to that drag queen.”
“You got that right.” Sarita agreed. “The deacon was correct Thursday night when he said that there’s no room for he-she’s in heaven.”
“What a waste. First that fine Brother Jordan, now this wannabe woman. What’s the world coming to?”
“Girl, I’m gonna have to find me another church,” Sarita said as they climbed into her car cackling to themselves before they drove off.
Dionne was a little hurt by the comments as she clambered into her car. She expected negativity from LaTasha. They’d never liked each other and had been going at it since elementary school. Sarita’s comments were a shock, but she understood her frustration. She was told by a U of L classmate two weeks ago that Sarita liked her previous male persona. Dionne started her car and headed back to her apartment to change clothes before heading over to Sister Elliott’s Newburg area house.
Thirty minutes later she was standing in Sister Elliott’s living room perusing the photographs on the fireplace mantel. The first one that caught her attention was of Miss Zerline and her late husband Walter dressed in formal wear for a Derby party. Even though she’d recently passed her sixty-third birthday, Zerline was still an attractive honey-brown woman who looked twenty years younger. She had a figure that put the younger women of the church to shame. Much of Dionne’s evolving sense of style had come from observing her over the years.
Dionne shifted her gaze to a photo of her grandmother and Miss Zerline. It was taken several years ago on a church bus trip to the Black Expo in Indianapolis. They’d fallen asleep on the return trip to Louisville and were leaning on each other’s shoulders. It reminded her that they’d been best friends since their Kentucky State college days.
She glanced at her Waggener High School graduation photo. She frowned, but not because the photo was of Don. Her feet were starting to hurt after wearing these pumps for a few hours. She gingerly walked over to the couch and pulled them off after she sat down. She rubbed her feet for a few moments to get the soreness out before putting them back on.
“I see you’ve already learned one of the first lessons of femininity.”
“You’re gonna suffer to look good.” she said as they chuckled.
“Very funny, Miss Zerline. So when’s dinner gonna be ready?”
“When you come in here and help me cook it.”
She smirked before kicking off her pumps and getting up to join her in the kitchen. She’d always loved to cook. Since Zerline didn’t have a child of her own to pass her mouth-watering recipes down to she taught Dionne after she came to live with her.
They spent the next two hours working to finish cooking before the guests were slated to begin arriving at five o’clock. Dionne sensed someone staring at her as she prepared the salad. When she turned Zerline was intently watching her before she gently sighed.
“Nothing, baby. I just recalled a day when your grandmother and I were talking in the teacher’s lounge. She always remarked about how much you looked like your mother.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“Well, now you REALLY look like your mother.”
They both laughed as Zerline’s conversation topic switched. “I was proud of you this morning.”
“I was gonna have to show up for church sooner or later, Miss Zerline.”
“I’m glad you did. Too many people in your situation have turned away from God. I didn’t want that happening to you. That’s why I stayed on you so much about going to church.”
“I wasn’t planning on letting it happen. I wanted to give the hormones a chance to work on me before I came back to Greater Hope.”
“Good. But you know I was getting concerned.” she said. “Your grandmother said to me on her deathbed, ‘Zerline, take care of my grandbaby.’ I had every intention of honoring my soror’s last request ”
“You did a great job. I appreciate everything that you’ve done for me. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, baby.”
“I’m getting my degree in a few months. But best of all I’ll be walking across that stage as Dionne ”
And you’ll be happier than you’ve even been in your young life, thought Zerline. “Your grandmother and I discussed that before she passed. She knew that you were unhappy. She was aware that you were getting picked on, teased and ostracized by other kids.”
“When someone we love is involved, there’s not much that happens in a school district we work in that we can’t find out.” Zerline said as she opened the oven door to check on the cornbread. It wasn’t done yet, so she made a mental note to check on it in a few minutes.
“You got that right. She was in my teacher’s classrooms more than Mama and Daddy were.”
Zerline paused and smiled as another memory of her soror flashed through her mind. “Umm hmm. Pauline taught a child several years ago that had a gender identity issue that wasn’t positively addressed.”
Dionne’s eyebrows raised. “Who was it?”
“Grandma was Pinky’s teacher?”
“Yes, she was. Pauline noted how badly Pinky’s life turned out after his parents tossed him onto the streets. She said that he was one of the smartest kids she’d ever taught. She was adamant that wasn’t going to happen to you.”
“Yes, she was. It’s hypocritical how some Black people treat kids with gender identity issues. If Pinky had been arrested for a crime and was on trial at the Hall of Justice, they would’ve been shouting their child’s innocence to every TV camera in sight.”
Dionne nodded as she continued “She felt that had Pinky received the love that was needed at the time, there’s no telling what he, oops she could’ve accomplished.”
The doorbell rang as Zerline was pulling it out the oven. “Don, can you get the door for me? That’s probably Doris and Reba now.”
Dionne frowned as she heard her old name. Zerline noted the change in demeanor on her face. “Sorry, baby. You know it’s gonna take me a while to get used to your new name.”
She nodded and smiled as she walked over to hug Miss Zerline, then headed to the front door to let the early arriving dinner guests in.