Iowa Writes

ANDY DOUGLAS
Articles of Faith


Big-boned women in flower print dresses and pill-box hats rise spontaneously from their pews. Great urns of magnolia and iris radiate splashes of color across the dais. A dark-suited man booms music from somewhere deep in his chest.
      The speaker is on a roll, wiping evangelical sweat from his brow. He’s praising the Lord. He’s telling stories.
      “Thomas had tremendous gifts. He had a generosity of spirit.”

      Most African-Americans in this insular Iowa town are descendants of those who came to work in the meat-packing plant. Many of them live beneath a railroad trestle in a section of town known as “the flats.” There are racial fights at the high school.
      Thomas lived uptown. He directed his church music program, mentored youth, and did community organizing, gliding effortlessly through his days in his wingtip shoes, crisply ironed denim pants and cashmere sweaters.

      “Thomas had a special quality,” the speaker says. “Let’s not forget what happened with Sister Oates...”
      Cries of “Amen” ricochet through the sanctuary.
      I lean forward in my pew. Thomas told that story to me himself only weeks before he died.

Big-boned women in flower print dresses and pill-box hats rise spontaneously from their pews. Great urns of magnolia and iris radiate splashes of color across the dais. A dark-suited man booms music from somewhere deep in his chest.
      The speaker is on a roll, wiping evangelical sweat from his brow. He’s praising the Lord. He’s telling stories.
      “Thomas had tremendous gifts. He had a generosity of spirit.”

      Most African-Americans in this insular Iowa town are descendants of those who came to work in the meat-packing plant. Many of them live beneath a railroad trestle in a section of town known as “the flats.” There are racial fights at the high school.
      Thomas lived uptown. He directed his church music program, mentored youth, and did community organizing, gliding effortlessly through his days in his wingtip shoes, crisply ironed denim pants and cashmere sweaters.

      “Thomas had a special quality,” the speaker says. “Let’s not forget what happened with Sister Oates...”
      Cries of “Amen” ricochet through the sanctuary.
      I lean forward in my pew. Thomas told that story to me himself only weeks before he died.

      The hospital room resembled a florist’s shop, flooded with get-well cards and shiny Mylar balloons. Thomas lay propped on his bed, looking out of place in the frumpy hospital gown.
      Seeing how thin he had become worried me. But Thomas was upbeat about his chances.
      “I know I’m going to beat this thing,” he told me. “Listen. A few years back, at a revival, there was a woman who was lame. We were feeling the spirit, you know, and something just came over me.”
      “I decided to wash her feet. So I did, and then I laid my hands on her,” he said quietly. “And believe it or not, that woman rose up and walked.”
      I stared at him, at a loss for words. The story was not easy to come to terms with. But I trusted Thomas, and so, after the initial shock, I believed. Besides, here was evidence of a relationship with God that might see him through this illness. That was something worth believing in.

      The eulogist continues: “Thomas loved people. He knew that love was what kept things going.”
      The mention of love raises an unvoiced question. For all the recognition of Thomas’s spirituality, his character, there is a part of him not being acknowledged here today.

      One evening months earlier Thomas and I sat in his antique-furnished drawing room. A fringed lamp cast a soft glow over the room. We had recently become friends, and as he was always happy to talk about clothes, I had asked for advice.
      He flipped carelessly through the pages of slick men’s magazines, pointing out styles he appreciated.
      “You can go a long way with a good pair of jeans, a long way,” he said.
      Then, coming upon a particular article, he let the page fall open on the floor. A young man in uniform stared unashamedly into the camera’s eye, next to an article entitled “The Gay Marine.”
      Lingering over this page, he looked pointedly at me for a moment. I was a little slow on the uptake, but then it dawned that he was trying to tell me something.

      Being black in a conservative town had to be difficult. To come out as gay would have complicated things immeasurably.
      Traditionally the African-American church had come down hard on homosexuality, portraying it as a particularly odious sin. I suspect that Thomas’s church would not have supported this side of him, despite his position of leadership there. Perhaps his life had been one long tango between the poles of self-assured expression and guarded restraint.
      Thomas was not coming on to me that evening. He was simply using a chance juxtaposition of images and text to tell me something critical about himself. He was showing faith in me.

      The congregants break into song: “There is power, power, wonder-working power....”     

      A month after he told me about Sister Oates, Thomas died.
      I was left with grief, and vague misgivings. How much strength does it take, I wondered, to keep a secret?

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


ANDY DOUGLAS

Andy Douglas is a graduate of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He lives in Iowa City.

This page was first displayed
on December 04, 2006

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