It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
I was crawling around the closet on my hands and knees in the bedroom of Aunt Mary's condominium in River Ridge, the heavy old brass family crucifix clutched in fist, looking for purchase, a way to find some peace in her death, something to hold on to as I struggled to imagine a life without Mary. Her constant, nagging phone calls. The relentless badgering over what was I going to do with my life. Why aren't you married yet? When are you moving back to New Orleans? The rough love that springs up among the broken and bent, that was our story—and it was only through Jesus that the story could ever unfold.
This was the last night I'd spend going through Aunt Mary's possessions and papers, I was down to a few more trips to the dumpster and a couple things to pack. But for now, I was in her closet with a mass card from her service, which had been earlier that day, and a small tin cross. I knew I wouldn't be coming this way again and I needed to leave something to connect myself to this place, this suburban New Orleans condo that had been a refuge and a testing ground for our relationship.
For decades it had been a truism that if my phone rang, it was a very good bet that Mary was on the line. Especially if it was Sunday. Sometimes I'd answer, and sometimes not—boundaries, people—but it was a pretty tough deal to imagine a life without those calls. Still is.
And yet in the months since her death in April 2015, I've kept the conversation going with Mary, through Jesus Christ of all people. She's been my spirit guide back to an engagement with the Christian faith that is at once foreign and weirdly comforting and familiar.
I crawled around awhile with the wailing and the howling then peeled up the corners of the carpet in her closet. I stuck the items under the rug, and freaked out for a while.
The service for Aunt Mary was earlier in the day at a local evangelical church converted from a bounce-house by some post–prosperity gospel refugees. They had departed a mega-church run by a false prophet named Jesse Duplantis. Mary had left that church a few years earlier and followed a young pastor, Pastor Corey, to this new and humbler Christian outpost in Metairie, a mile or two outside the New Orleans city limits.
Before the carpet-creeping and the howling and sobbing in Mary's closet—"Tommy! The neighbors!"—I'd attended services at Frank's Lounge, a regrettable but useful dive in a mini strip mall near the condo spread, on Jefferson Highway, a few steps from the Mississippi River. That night the bar was darkened and on TV, Baltimore was burning with Freddie Gray rage.
I pounded a few beers and listened to a gaggle of patrons down the bar as they communicated with CNN, by way of yelling at the television about how awful it was that you people would burn down your own city.
It was the end of a long week. I had hurriedly flown in from California to take care of the posthumous details of her life, send Aunt Mary off properly, get her car repo'd, see friends, accept and give condolences.
I'm weak and foolish, and the beers and the steady supply of cannabis helped get through this business, as did Aunt Mary's brimming supply of Vicodin, which I gobbled like wafers as I chuckled at recollected conversations and activities with Aunt Mary, those oft-repeated set-piece sayings of hers drawn from favorite Bible passages and elsewhere. You know: Opinions are like assholes; everyone's got one.
The drugs are the drugs but I could not have gotten through the week without the support that poured from Mary's community of faith, an evangelical community that I held at arm's length while she was alive even as I participated on occasion in the rituals. Now that she's dead, we're like besties.
I never cottoned to the prosperity gospel that appears to dominate the suburban mega-church scene in the South. I thought it a scam that preyed on people like my Aunt Mary. She was a woman of lesser means who struggled financially her whole life, and who had the wicked gambling-addiction habit to prove it.
But Mary was born again, and it was the friends who had been there all along, the friends laying hands at her hospital bedside who proved to be the rock. They eased the way to my aunt's final destination, and, in turn, eased my way forward into an unself-conscious acceptance of The Word that was impossible while she was alive—mostly because she was such a nag about it.
I said a few words at the service and carried around a back-pocket Worker's Bible all through the week. Raised my hand to be born again as I wept through the service, and collected her ashes into urns as she ascended from this mortal plane, or whatever happened.
It was a real head-turning conversion for me, minus any sort of Linda Blair pea soup purge and exorcisms of internalized Namaste gibberish. This community restored my faith in an evangelical Christianity that didn't have to spend its time beating up on gays and sinful women for their various existential sins and choices.
Theirs was a humble Christianity that grappled with family issues around addiction and divorce, the usual, humble stuff—whose lives were imperfect, much as mine is, and who didn't have a whole lot of heart or time to condemn other people who were also struggling. They might have believed that their faith is "under assault," but within the surface gestures and reactions that come with a hyper-mediated surface discourse on Christ and his whereabouts, you could tease out the contours of an all-but-disappeared evangelical Left with my lumpen-prole aunt in a starring role as the anti-Kim Davis.
If given the chance, I'm positive Mary would have punched the hypocritical bigot and Kentucky county clerk Davis in the face. Or she would have just yelled at the TV awhile. I'll miss yelling at it with her.
When I got back to California after attending to Mary, it was only natural that the Bob Dylan born-again Christian record Slow Train Coming would head straight to heavy rotation.
On "Precious Angel," a great song off of Slow Train, Dylan sings about a woman who loves her some Buddha and Allah, but has nothing to say about man who died a criminal's death. I found that to be a fair enough point, excellently made.
Elsewhere on that same song he sings, "You've either got faith/or you've got unbelief/and there ain't no neutral ground."
Those lines have proven a little bit harder to accept—but they have some special poignancy, given that New Orleans does have a neutral ground—many of them. Those are the grassy areas along the wide avenues where, back in the segregated Jim Crow day, anybody was allowed to walk: Black, White, Creole.
Which brings us to this: No discussion of evangelical Christianity in the South, in New Orleans, would be complete without a pause to reflect on the un-Christian racism that goes on down here as a matter of course, oftentimes in the name of a hard-ass Jesus who is nowhere to be found in any Bible I've read or skimmed on the internet.
The scholars will tell you that Jesus doesn't actually say too much in the Bible, which is where you get this notion of "red-letter" Christianity—as I understand it, his words are highlighted in red in those Bibles, and mostly I see him saying things like, "The meek shall inherit the earth."
Along the way to a warped vision of Christ and his message of peace and tolerance, it seems that the dominant political figures of the evangelical right, many from the South, have essentially conflated red-letter Christianity with a kind of red-letter reading of the Constitution that goes under the rubric of "original intent," and which serves as a kind of hustle that, miracle of miracles, elevates white suburban Christians to the cross. Night after night they preach the Fox gospel, martyred for their bigotry over gays and refusal to give free stuff to the Blacks.
Along the way, the general message from Jesus—compassion, love, turn the other cheek—is victimized by bait-and-switch discourses in the service of a deceitful Christianity.
No surprise there. As the saying goes, everyone has a hustle in New Orleans. Spend a little time here and it will become quickly apparent that there is a vast chasm in how Christianity is preached in the greater New Orleans area, and how it is practiced.
It is preached as a hustle, the same hustle of the Santeria bone-throwers and Ifa spell-fixers in Jackson Square and the Quarter, the same hoodoo-driven hustle as those guys on Bourbon and Canal who ask you where you got them shoes, the tarot card readers and unclean poverty psychics with their grinding flophouse lives. It's a hustle that Louisiana Sen. David Vitter knows only too well: Sin your ass off down in Sodom and Gomorrah, or the French Quarter, then go and pray it all off on Sunday. In the bars as in the churches, "tomorrow is another day." I had my own hustle when I lived in New Orleans and it was: Whatever you do, don't tell Aunt Mary you did it.
Mary was a true believer in this land of believers that run a gamut of fanaticism to Christian Identity supremacists who'd shoot all the blacks for their own good, not just the ones on the bridge trying to escape Katrina.
In a land where Christian gundamentalists inscribe choice biblical phrases on their assault weapons, Mary saw Jesus as peacemaker, and was convinced that we're in the end-times. We talked about it all the time: Upon Mary's death, she believed she'd be headed to the place where there's no pain, no suffering, no need for Xanax or Vicodin, and no more midnight runs to the emergency room.
Yes, Mary believed in salvation, and she shared this belief with the likes of Christian convert and departed Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and former U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann—but little else connected my aunt to those two avowed born-again Christians.
Mary was poor, white and dropped out of high school. She had come up in Christianity through the prosperity gospel channels of suburban New Orleans, white-flight churches with a dignity message.
She had first been a member of the Assembly of God, way back when, the Victory Church where Jim Bakker famously had had his fall from grace. Like a lot of born-again Christians, Mary had abandoned the morose Catholicism of our German-Irish heritage and would come to embrace a faith in Jesus that, while not as celebratory as you'd find in the Black churches, could still offer a rousing revival moment on Sunday mornings. The problem was the tithing: the shakedown that commenced almost immediately upon being sold the message of the day.
The tithing hustle would turn Mary against the prosperity gospel, especially since she hadn't seen much of the prosperity, even as Minister Jesse Duplantis was building himself a big new mansion along the Mississippi River on her dime. Meanwhile Mary was racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills in the many mansions and various wards of Oschner Hospital and East Jefferson Memorial.
The Duplantis mansion was built with an in-house chapel, so as to avoid paying Satanic property taxes to the upscale town of Destrehan And the jet, too, have to mention the jet: Duplantis loved to brag about that jet, purchased, again, on my aunt's dime. He needed the jet, see, to spread the word of Jesus.
Mary's last church, by contrast, collected a tithe that went straight to a local faith-based effort to save child sex slaves from an awful fate. As one of Mary's friends-of-faith put it to me the week she died, this is how you secure your way into good favor with Jesus, a sort of down payment on eternity and the afterlife.
Bobby Jindal might've heard some of that message. Under his governorship, Louisiana continued to be full of cruel and brutal hustles.
Foremost, there was the feverish bait-and-switch routine on abortion rights: the evangelical right in the South is habituated to zealously overplay the abortion card in this grand and unyielding national tug-of-fetus over abortion rights. But when it comes to the actual living babies who are born, the state is strictly pull yourself up by the bootie-straps.
I think of a New Orleans woman named Chelsea Thornton, a forgotten soul cast adrift in the climate of Jindalian indifference, who had severe mental health problems and who murdered her two children one night, just a few awful and poor blocks down from where I used to live.
She drowned one of her children and shot the other one when she couldn't drown him, too, in a corner of town that the post-Katrina recovery had ignored—given the distance from the central tourism zones that took priority. It was a ghastly, unthinkable story, all the more unthinkable for the fact that it was entirely preventable, if an iota of compassion had been directed Thornton's way. She was exactly the sort of broken soul that Jesus would prefer his followers put their attention to instead of whomever they're apologizing for these days.
The disconnect is as murderous as it is inhumane, and the empathy gap has broadened thanks to Duplantis' preachings. I went to his megachurch a few times with Mary and saw Duplantis walk right up to the no-no line—this was around the time of the first Obama stimulus package—to critique Washington liberals like Obama, without actually going there and naming names in a partisan manner, since that would threaten the church's non-profit status, and thus, the jet.
The famous "give a man a fish" Biblical parable looms large among bootstraps hustlers like Duplantis. I like the parable too, but as far as I can tell, nowhere does the Bible say, "Do not give the man the fish."
It simply says that if you do give the man a fish, he'll eat for one day. That's better than not eating at all, no? And you can't teach a man to fish if your policies have gamed the urban public-education system to funnel Black kids into the criminal justice system instead of college.
The message of Chelsea Thornton is that poverty is its own depressant and the only antidote for some is a helping-hand up out of the gutter. The Black church in New Orleans does what it can and often preaches an inter-faith message that goes right at the heart of the problem: the guns, the lack of opportunity, the violence in the home. They don't shy away.
The year was 1986 and Aunt Mary was living in a Kenner condo, downstairs from some of her friends from her Christian community. I was a snot-nosed college sophomore staying with her for the summer.
This was my first visit to the New Orleans area, and I had expected to come down for a summer of fun with my aunt, the resident black sheep of the family who was known to smoke a joint now and again, but never at dusk. That was not to be, thanks in no small part to Jesus.
We were playing pinochle and a husband of one of my aunt's born-again friends explained to me the work he did as an armed robbery detective working out of New Orleans. The detectives, see, they preferred to drive a red Plymouth Fury, so that when you "cracked a nigger's skull open on the hood and rolled him into the canal," nobody would see the bloodstain.
That's not the sort of quote you forget.
I must have given the guy a funny look because the next thing he said to me, Yankee carpetbagger and all, was: "Hey, all y'all's the ones that freed them!"
When in 2008 my father was in very rough shape and holed up in a debased apartment on Long Island, Mary and I had numerous talks over the months about "going the extra mile" (Matthew 5:41) and what that meant in relation to my old man.
We had our moments, but I never got along with my father in any consistently loving manner, and he's the one who turned me away from Catholicism and faith in the first place: It was a common Sunday ritual when I was a kid for my father to accuse me and my mother and sisters of being heathens, drop us off at St. Margaret's Catholic Church. He'd go drink and watch football awhile, leave us there for a couple of masses.
And yet: I was with my father the night he died, sat right there with him as he took his last breath—tough stuff made manageable with the support of my aunt and her knowledge of key Biblical phrases.
The extra mile means that as rough as things were between him and I, there's no place I could have been other than with my father when he was ready to go.
Speaking of the extra mile, I'd hiked a big stretch of ocean beach the night before and camped out in the sand before taking the train those last miles to my old man in the morning. I got there; it was Father's Day and he was ready to die. Mary called him that night to tell her brother she loved him. They never got along, either, but none of that matters now.
Mary had moved to New Orleans in the midst of a rolling family crisis brought on by a wave of deaths among us in the late seventies and early eighties. She faced down a lot of tragedy as a young woman, more than most: She lost her parents, her sister, her sister-in-law, and her best friend in New Orleans over a few years. Very rough stuff.
Mary was a worker her whole life. She waitressed at Shoney's, became a bookkeeper, and, as I like to joke, even took a stab at a career in the pursuit of personal injury lawsuits. That didn't go so well. As much as she struggled in life, my aunt was a fighter who wanted to be happy but had to eventually settle for content. She made the best of it.
My Aunt Mary was kind of like the South itself in relation to the rest of the country: An example of the "difficult relative" who could be at once charming and obstinate in some of her attitudes and beliefs.
It was only through Jesus that Mary could sort out her life and find a place for herself in it—and it was only through her relationship with Jesus that we could have any relationship at all. She was a judgmental and occasionally cruel person, who was also a major shit-stirrer when it came to the pernicious sin of gossip and other people's marriages and money.
When I arrived in New Orleans in 1986, I expected to spend the summer smoking pot with her. Instead Mary had been freshly washed in the blood of Christ, and the summer as a result was kind of not so much fun.
Over the years, our friendship grew and Mary started to puff the stuff again with some of the non-Christian Metairie ladies she had befriended. One night a few years ago we were playing cards at Dolly's, eating Dominos and getting high, and Aunt Mary just sort of extemporaneously shouted out, "Would Jesus approve of this?" as she did the puff-puff-pass routine.
"Aunt Mary," I said, "what do you think the burning bush was?" She chortled in agreement even as she snorted that I was a smartass for suggesting such heresies. I regret that I never got to tell her the one about how Jesus healed the blind with cannabis oil. Maybe another time
For now, the old family crucifix hangs on my wall in California, and I talk to it pretty often. When it talks back, I hear Mary's voice, and it's that same joyful and relieved voice I would hear after I finally returned her phone calls: "Well, helloooooooo Tommy G!"