My Mother loved her family and she loved Jesus. One of her favorite songs was Jesus Loves the Little Children and she followed a Southern tradition of picking a cute little nickname to be called by her grandchildren. She chose Sugar, perhaps hinting at “give me some sugar”, a down-home metaphor for giving or receiving a kiss from a child. A cherished early memory of Mother was her asking me to give her some sugar, which she often did. Sugar’s maiden name was Ruby May Bell which became Ruby Bell Turnipseed when she married my Daddy, George Turnipseed. She died at 83 in1993 from congestive heart failure and was a proactive, caring Christian all her life. She required my brother Sam and me to kneel by our bed-side and say a prayer every night before she tucked us in when we were little children.
Our regular nightly prayer was: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray to God my soul to keep. God bless my Mother and Daddy dear and Heavenly Father draw me near. God bless me now and help me make a good little boy for Jesus sake. Amen.”
When I was a naughty boy my mother didn’t hesitate to whip my little behind. Mother’s favorite weapon for punishing us was a switch she made from a small branch cut out of a bush that would sting my bare legs below my little boy’s shorts. The switching I remember the most was when I was about 7 years old and repeated the f---word in front of her. I heard it from an older boy and had no earthly idea what it meant. Mother said I had used a dirty word and must be punished, without ever explaining to me what was dirty about the f---word. I was confused and had no idea why saying the f---word required punishment and was a bad word like taking God’s name in vain. I understood that God D---and even damn were no-nos. It was okay to say darn-it, durn-it or dog-gone-it but not damn-it. My reaction from the misunderstood switching is my excuse for my life-long fondness for cursing. My wife Judy doesn’t like me using such four letter words either and wouldn’t watch South Park with me because Eric Cartman and his fourth grade classmates were “potty mouths” who used the s---word incessantly and other four letter dirty words. The f---word is dirty, lowbrow and illicit but if you use hifalutin words like sexual intercourse it is socially acceptable even though they mean the same thing. George Carlin was my hero for ridiculing the hypocrisy about seven dirty cuss words being socially unacceptable and even illegal when multi-syllable words with Latin roots were both socially acceptable and legal for radio and television.
Mother’s strong religious beliefs ran in the family. Mother’s Dad was the Reverend Frank O. Bell, known in our family as Poppa Bell. Poppa was a full-time carpenter and part-time preacher in the Church of the Nazarene who left the poverty of rural Mississippi and came to Mobile, Alabama to make a living. We lived in a western suburb of Mobile and Mother took us to Sunday School and Church every Sunday at the First Church of the Nazarene in Mobile. In those days the Nazarenes were mostly working class white folks who believed in salvation and sanctification and would wail, shout and moan when the Holy Ghost took hold of them.
At least once a year a big revival meeting was staged every night for a week with visiting evangelists and a gospel band putting on a big show for Jesus in a huge tent with sawdust on the floor that was set up next to the small brick church. The preachers shouted that you must be saved by Jesus or burn in hell. Either get right with Jesus or suffer everlasting damnation! When I was about 6 years old an evangelist gave the altar call for salvation as everyone sang Just As I Am Without One Plea, O' Lamb of God I Come To Thee. The preacher stood at the altar and waited for the sinners to come down, crying and moaning to be saved. But if you didn't come on down, he came out into the congregation after you.
The preacher, whose slick shiny hair glistened under the tent lights, came down to me sitting next to Mother who was saved and was waving her hand and singing along with her eyes closed. The preacher grabbed me by the shoulders, shook me and shouted, "Son, Are you saved, Are you saved?" I didn't really know, because I couldn't get the feeling it appeared the others had, as they mournfully wailed things like, "Oh, Yes, Sweet Jesus." Then the evangelist said, "Son, if a drunken driver crashes into your Momma's car on the way home and you and your Momma get killed, she will go to Jesus in Heaven where the streets are paved with gold, because she is saved--but you will burn in Hell forever!" By then I was afraid and crying, but still refused to feign the feeling of salvation. I had seen articles in the National Geographic Magazine with nice looking young children who were Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists and I did not think they were going to burn in Hell because they weren’t saved by Jesus. Even at that young age I sensed that something was wrong with religion that uses our greatest fear of the unknown -- the fear of death -- to frighten folks into salvation. I now understand that some religions use the fear of our mortality to prosper.
In Sunday School we studied Joshua and the battle of Jericho. God told his prophet Joshua to totally destroy the enemy. Joshua 6: 21 says, "...they (the forces of God led by Joshua) utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, ox, sheep and donkey, with the edge of a sword." Then God's forces burned the city and took the silver, gold, bronze and iron and put it in the "treasury of the house of the Lord". I couldn’t understand why God would tell his prophet to kill every living thing including little children. The teacher said it was to teach us obedience to God.
I told Mother that I was afraid and did not want to go to church anymore. Not long after that, we started attending the Methodist Church, where Jesus' salvation was still the only way to Heaven, but at least the Methodists didn't scare you so much with Hell and the Devil as the Nazarenes had. Daddy’s family was mostly Methodist and his cousin became a prominent Methodist minister and Bishop. I liked Jesus' instruction to “do unto other as you would have them do unto you.” I didn’t want to hurt anyone and did not want anyone to hurt me. But many of the Old Testament teachings were about killing people in the name of God. The Methodist church was more open, less narrow minded and saw good in other denominations and faith traditions. Mother became even more spiritual and faithful as a Methodist. She sang in the choir and never missed being there every Sunday. She believed in her faith and became an advocate and activist for peace and social justice who not only talked the talk but walked the walk.
Mother was a leader of the United Methodist Women of the Western North Carolina Methodist Conference and attended so many meetings at the Lake Junaluska Methodist Conference Center and Retreat in the Smoky Mountains that we teased her about the lake being holy water for her. Working with another church program she became an avid supporter of the United Nations and its efforts for world peace and went to New York to attend its sessions. She was much less nationalistic and provincial than most of her friends and neighbors and saw the importance of the United States working with other nations to find peaceful solutions to world problems.
Mother enjoyed visiting religious sites and events in the United States and elsewhere. My two brothers and I gave her a 60th birthday trip to attend the Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavaria, Germany which is staged every 10 years.
Mother’s spirituality inspired my religious journey away from narrow fundamentalism to a belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all people, everywhere. My wife Judy and I attended United Methodist and then Presbyterian churches almost every Sunday (like Mother taught me) for several years until we became Unitarian-Universalists in 1983. I was a State Senator and a progressive candidate for Congress in 1980 when I was asked to speak at the Unitarian Church in Columbia, South Carolina and discovered that several of their members were volunteers in my campaign who shared my beliefs in social activism. We began attending, agreed with its non-sectarian agenda of “deeds not creeds” and became members. I’ve visited many churches and religious gatherings throughout South Carolina to promote progressive politics and social action. Some worship services try to frighten folks to Jesus, and some are boring, but many others are interesting and inspirational with charismatic preachers and happy gospel singers who fill you with joy. Their diverse ritual and entertainment styles remind me of my own evolving religious experiences.
Mother’s example created awareness in me of the importance of spirituality in our lives. Jesus might not be the only way to the truth, but he had the courage of his convictions to give his life in his non-violent struggle for peace and justice. The stories of Jesus in the New Testament portray him as a fearless martyr for social justice and he is probably the most worshipped religious icon in human history. Along with such great prophets as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus lived an exemplary life and died for the cause of peace and justice. I never thought of Jesus as my personal savior who would get me into Heaven when I die. But Mother did, and she started me on my journey toward understanding what life is about.
I am thankful for my family and friends who have helped me along the way, but most of all for my Mother who brought me into the world. Through the years her ol’ time religion grew into a new and stronger belief in the power of love and the inherent worth and dignity of all people.