How the death of my grandmother impacted my faith.
I do remember the 23rd night of September, and death was changing the mind of this pretender. What was this pretence that I so casually charge? That we may both discover in this considered reflection.
That bitterly cold night, on the backdrop of a sea of burnt-orange foliage carpeting my driveway, I learned rather unceremoniously that my Grandmother had died. I sat in my car surrounded by the quiet patter of autumn rain in a pensive glow and little did I know I was about to take an unplanned journey into really understanding her fascinating world. The burnt orange carpet strangely reminded me of my grandmother’s warmth and it was as if she was with me at that very moment. There was so much I didn’t know about my grandmother and funerals have a way of ushering in a rude and wet awakening, a baptism of tears into the weaving storylines of the dearly departed. I was about to discover who God was to her: in revelation and experience; and what she saw as her divine purpose and spark in life.
My Grandma was a retired headteacher and carried herself with that stern and disciplined poise which could command the silence of the largest room without an utterance. She had an incisive tongue that was apt to wittingly identify nonsense but equally tender enough to console and encourage. I spent childhood summers at hers where I had momentary escape from the aggressive modernization of life in Kingston Town and began to discover myself. On my Grandfather’s farm, I had the frankly unwelcomed opportunity learning to cull chickens and gut fish, getting to grips with the hand-hardening ropes of countryside life. However, I would steal away every chance I got to spend quality time in the kitchen with grandma where we cooked up a special relationship on these 6-week vacations. In between watching her bake and hearing her almost musical way of storytelling, I got to see beyond her stiff, decorated and polished exterior to witness the warm, sentimental and supportive interior. I remember her smell, it was like freshly picked chamomile with a hint of jasmine, her hair was always pristine and even at home, she seemed always dressed ready for an unannounced guest and her eyes shone brightly behind thick but fashionable white frames while telling funny tales from her past classroom adventures with her students. Hugging Grandma was akin to laying on a familiar mattress that instinctively knew your curves, and nestled in where you ached. She did, however, give a hard telling off that made you feel a little sickly in the pit of your stomach; as if God’s heavenly hosts disapproved. She was hard to please but easy to love because no matter how much you screwed up, you were never a lost cause.
Her home was spotless with warm mahogany furniture that decorated every room and she paid attention to the detail of every corner of her abode. But apart from her kitchen, my favourite place to escape to was her understated, basement piano room. After dinner, I’d often sneak through the library down the shiny tiled staircase into a mostly dimly lit room where I’d often find my Grandma fingering out the melody to her favourite hymns. I’d try to make myself invisible so could have a sort of private concert but it was as if she could hear me approaching and she would call me to sit on her lap as she sang the sweetest hymns to the Lord.
A fervently praying grandmother is more than just a black cultural icon to me, it’s my lived experience. I grew up seeing her living faith in practice but knew nothing of her theology perse, I took greater notice of her worn and blackened knees clocked from shifts of daily bedside prayer. She had a verse for every malady, a proverb for every conundrum and a chapter a day was the prescription to get to glory. She was a member of the Anglican church, active in her church community and women faith groups and had most of the hallmarks of a traditional and conservative faith. Her faith was deeply personal yet outwardly manifested in her passion for justice: She fought for every vulnerable child in her care to ensure they got the education they deserved.
The days to her funeral rushed on by and I had to make my way from Ol’ Blighty to Jamaica and I had only a few days to come to terms with it all before flying back home to work for the Man.
On the morning of the funeral, we made our way down to the churchyard at the cool crack of dawn. There is something spiritual about the winding country roads of Clarendon in the fresh morning air, the breathtaking views of the tapered hills peppered with lush fruit trees, streetside vendors, wandering goats and women heading down to the market helped to soothe some of the angst entangling my heart that morning.
On arrival, the church looked really old, set on the grounds of an uneven graveyard littered with thousands of beige tombstones as far I could see. As the car pulled into the unpaved car park, the dust settled unveiling an overwhelming arch which circumscribed the entrance to the church auditorium, and there her casket lay for viewing. I glanced remorsefully at her lifeless body, as stiff and slender as I have always remembered her frame, and her face seemed sternly engraved with disappointment. The rest of the morning was an incredible re-telling of her life’s legacy from politicians, ex-students, family and friends and I felt increasingly inspired yet strangely detached like I couldn’t claim that inheritance fully in my current state of religious conflict. Her experiences and understanding of God was part my heritage, but having been somewhat rudely awakened to how far my understanding of God seemed to depart from hers, this caused despair in my soul, that climaxed just around the time she was six-feet-under.
After the crowds dispersed following a celebration of her life, I returned to her home in the cool hills of Mandeville, Jamaica for an afternoon of pensive reflection. I spent several hours perusing my grandma’s library of books on prayer, theology and recollecting the stories of her nearest and dearly departed from the funeral earlier. Her faith glowed with a newfound attractiveness and made mine look, feel and taste like decomposing canine roadkill on a Jamaican highway. A feeling that I had let her down came over me like a cold, reluctant shower. This reinitialised an unconscious centre of shame that weighed every departure from how she believed or practised faith as another blemish of dishonour on her legacy. It’s like the only way I could honour her now in death was to become and embody what she was in life.
This driver of shame, and an emerging fear that I may not have much of a chance to redeem my failures, compelled me to mirror her faith and demonize the ways I had arrived at my own nuanced faith; a faith that was uniquely mine. Faith is both communal and personal, theological worldviews are developed in the crucible of our lived experiences and the religio-cultural backgrounds of the communities from which they emerge.
As a black man who migrated from the Caribbean at the age of 16 to the UK where I have spent more than half of my life has a cultural experience that is bound to impact my faith journey in ways that differ from those who’ve ever experienced migration. So yes, the way that I came to understand black political imperatives from the scriptural narrative, or the importance to affirm women clergy or the dignity of queer people as more than what white-heteronormative-patriarchial assumptions of scripture ascribed, were all legitimate parts of my theological story.
In the light of my re-discovery of my grandmother’s faith legacy at the time of her death, I began a 6-month journey of stripping away anything that I deemed too progressive, anything that my Grandmother might have deemed a doctrine of demons. I ghosted friends whom I felt were doctrinally too progressive, left social media spaces that I deemed a habitat of heresy and began to subsume the most conservative-leaning, traditional positions on almost every theological issue I could find with the misguided subconscious inkling that I was honouring my grandmothers legacy by doing so. It felt like I was offering a penance that would redeem the previous path of religious deconstruction that led me so far away from what she modelled doctrinally. The truth became apparent over time that much of this conservative overcompensation and reverting to “orthodoxy” was mediated by my shame and wanting to replace it with honour. I was grieving, and the little boy inside who just wanted to please his grandma was going about it the way he thought he ought. This was hurtful and confusing to many who were inspired by my public theological journey, my willingness to ask difficult questions of the text and approach it critically. I was willing to discard such careful and thoughtful theological work and those who inspired it to the wayside to “save my faith” in my grandmother’s honour.
I wasn’t honouring my Grandmothers legacy by tying up myself in what I presume to be her religious expectations. My freedom only came by realising and self-correcting this detour from being myself. Writing this section reminded me of a quote one of my favourite Toni Morrison quotes that helps me get through: Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.
There has to come a time in life where you take responsibility for your destiny and freedom to chart it. You can’t sit in denial, perpetuate the same ridiculous cycles over and over again and claim to be maturing.
I believe we are to honour the traditions of those who have gone before us as they were shaped by their cultural context. From the theological, religious, sociological, philosophical and even economic. It’s the African way.
But too many of us were taught that the righteous path to honour and esteem the traditions of our ancestors, our parents our heritage was to perpetuate them entirely, with a few arbitrary caveats.
And it shows.
This has led us at times, to our own detriment, towards a well-intentioned emulation of concepts, beliefs, rituals and choices that no longer serve us in our particular context. We can honour the dignity, the sincerity and even the wisdom of our heritage without an unquestioned allegiance to all it stood for and I think this especially matters when it comes to what we believe about God.
Sometimes dysfunctional grief manifests as increased religiosity often associated with a concealed emotional and even physical self-neglect. When my grandmother died, I should have gone for grief counselling instead of wrongly assuming my increased religiosity to earn her honour was a healthy coping mechanism.
I love my dear grandmother, her legacy remains with me and I carry her essence everywhere I go, but my faith and spiritual path are my own to discover and chart. Doing a theological overhaul was not necessary to prove my love and respect for my grandmother’s faith nor make my faith more spiritually valid. A faith built on pretence cannot sustain you in a crisis — , especially the COVID-19 pandemic. I am doing the emotional work I needed then, right now and it’s better late than never. I continue to honour my Grandmother’s legacy as I celebrate what would have been her 95th birthday on the day I posted this reflection as I affirm my faith and walk in my spiritual understanding. I wrote this to honour her memory and to tell my story of finding home.
“Reinvent yourself over and over and over and over and over until you find home. There is no timeline for the soul.”
― Malebo Sephodi
I close with lyrics to a song lyric I penned and sang at her funeral on October 5, 2019.
You closed your eyes for the last time, I wasn’t ready.
You took the breath of a lifetime, I wasn’t by your side I couldn’t say goodbye.,
You spoke your mind, for the last time, I wasn’t present.
Gave your last smile, for the family. I wasn’t there in time. I couldn’t say goodbye
It’s comforting to know that good memories keep you alive in me.
All the days of old that you stayed with me comforts me as I grieve.
I know I wasnt there in your final breath, I hope you will forgive.
But here I stand singing with bated breath I miss you till I see you again.