The more slowly Jamiel tried to open the back door to the stairs leading to Gus’s apartment, the more the door hinges seemed to squeak. As he climbed the steep staircase, he tried to find the spot on each step that creaked the least, but the nails in the old wood wouldn’t cooperate as his heart pounded against his chest. He froze in panic when he thought he heard the door at the top opening, but it remained shut as the adrenaline rushed through his veins. Three years in the same house, Jamiel had never met Gus face to face and he assumed the worst. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally reached the top. There wasn’t much of a stoop, so he stood one step down from the top and knocked gently on the door hoping that Gus was out early this rainy Saturday morning. He almost fell backward as the door swung open and Gus glared down at him from the opening. “What do you want?” he grumbled.
Jamiel had argued all evening and early this morning about having to talk to Gus concerning the other day, but Celia was more than determined and he knew he couldn’t win when he saw that look in her eyes. Here Gus was peering down looking perturbed and impatient. “My mother—I mean, I wanted to say I’m sorry for using your porch the other day.”
“You rent the apartment. It’s your porch to use.”
“Okay, but there were friends over that don’t pay you rent.”
“That group of hoods are your friends?”
Jamiel shook his head, “So, just because they’re black you assume they’re no good? Thugs, bangers, crack-dealing jacks!”
Gus could tell that he hit a nerve. “And you’re here to tell me they were over to discuss Chess Club strategy for your next meet?”
Jamiel had no good retort, turned and headed down the steps with a muffled, “Peckerwood,” as he reached the bottom. He tried to walk off his frustration with Gus and not following through with his mother’s instructions to stay respectful and sincere in his apology. He was also supposed to offer to do some work for Gus around the house and he obviously never got to that. He knew that the gang on the porch that day was exactly what Gus thought, but he also knew them in ways that he thought Gus would never do – as human beings trying to survive an impossible set up obstacles as young black men in the neighborhoods they did not choose to be born into.
Jamiel knew the short interchange with Gus would come up with his mother at some point. This was one reason he didn’t groan as he normally did when Celia woke him up for Sunday morning church services at the Hope Baptist Church located halfway between their old and new neighborhoods. Even though it was unlikely to see any of the guys from the old neighborhood up on a Sunday morning, he worried about running into them as they walked the South End streets to the church they had attended since he was born. He knew that attending church and building his faith was non-negotiable for his mother, but he did convince her to let him out of Wednesday evening Bible study classes. The Hope Baptist Church was a mainly black congregation deeply devoted to Christ, family, and character. This was one of the few places Jamiel was exposed to men who believed that manhood looked very different than those on the streets. They were committed to their marriages, to being a father to their children, and to being a follower of Christ’s example. Most men dressed in their best, and often only, suit, tie and shined shoes to show respect and honor to God. Women wore dresses and hats to show the same example to their children.
As much as Jamiel felt it was time to stop attending church as so many young people had, inside he felt something here that attracted him. Here he felt community, humility, decency and had his only exposure to male mentors and father figures that were so lacking in his daily experience. The man who made the deepest impression on Jamiel and many other parishioners was the pastor, Rev. Richard Obasi. Rev. Obasi had not only built up a vibrant and active community within the doors of their church, but courageously involved himself in the streets, youth, and families of the neighborhood to foster a healthier place to grow up and raise a family. He walked the streets and talked with black youths both in and outside of the many gangs that ran these them. He became close to Jamiel over the years and was as concerned as his mother about the strong influences that may impact pivotal decisions he would make in the coming years.
As Jamiel and Celia approached the front entrance of the small but impressive church, Rev. Obasi smiled and greeted them both, shaking Jamiel hand and hugging Celia. “Good as always to see you Jamiel. It’s getting time to think about which college will be lucky enough to have you.”
Jamiel always knew that his mother believed in him but it felt different to know that someone else cared about and had confidence in him. “I have to make sure I get through high school first, Reverend Rich, but I’ll let you know if I can find a college that we can afford.”
Celia looked up at the minister and gave a smile that held the years of gratitude she had for his mentorship and example to her son. “Looking forward to your sermon as always, Reverend Rich. Especially on Palm Sunday.”
“If I hear that beautiful voice of yours singing, that will be inspiration enough to let the Holy Spirit guide my part. Take care of that good man with you.” Celia nodded and made a smile while her eyes communicated concern.
Celia was social as she greeted the many supportive friends she had been blessed with in this place over the years. Jamiel thought about the contrast of how unadorned the inside of this Baptist church was as compared to the Catholic Church at the St. Francis School he was now attending. He had asked his mother about this and she told him that a Baptist was more about a strong individual and decisive commitment to being a Christian. It was an emotional and unambiguous experience for many of the parishioners here than Jamiel himself had yet to experience himself. What he did experience was a connection to his African heritage through the rhythm and cadence of the music, the strong sense of community and belonging, and feeling that all aspects of life were part of a sacred way of looking at the world. Rev. Rich’s sermons were heartfelt, sometimes emotional, and always connected to the struggles of everyday life for most of the congregation he took the time to know personally. Today he talked about preparing for Holy Week and Easter Sunday.
After the service, there was social gathering in the adjoining hall that Celia was on the committee to coordinate each week. As she busied herself with greeting people and serving coffee and donuts, Jamiel stood against a wall observing the scene. While there were no requirements to be black, everyone at the service and now in this hall was all of color. When he was here for these few hours a week, he did not think about himself being black, but just another person in this hall. While he didn’t want to get up early and go to church every Sunday morning, he did feel more relaxed and at home here than in a world where he knew he was primarily defined by the color of his skin, “the black boy.” The only thing he could think about as Gus Busbi glared down at him at the top of the stairs and judged his value as a human being, was that it was defined by his being black, and another worthless hood from the projects. It made him angry again, but now he knew why he felt that way so intensely the day before.
Marnie, a sixteen-year-old girl, started to walk towards where Jamiel was standing and he caught sight of her out of the corner of his eye. For the moment, he felt glad that he was wearing the suit and tie. For some reason, girls seemed to love it when guys were dressed well. Maybe because of how the boys in the neighborhood normally dressed? Marnie always liked Jamiel. Now at seventeen, he stood six-foot-three, with an athletic build and a handsome face. While Marnie hadn’t talked to Jamiel very much, she knew that any son of Celia would have to be a good person, something that was important to her. When she reached Jamiel, she looked up and said, “Hi, Jamiel.”
“Uh. Oh, hi, Marnie.” She knew he was shy with girls and smiled at him as she looked at his features more closely. Jamiel was starting to look more like a man and she liked his nervous smile.
“You go to that Francis School, right?”
“Ya. It’s St. Francis, but I wish I was still going to English and around the neighborhood.”
“Ya, right, and waste your brain on people trying to drag you down. I think you should be glad you’re getting a chance to do something with your talents.”
“Talents? What are you talking about, girl?”
“You know what I’m talking about—boy. You’re smart. You’re athletic, and you got character to be somebody—somebody good. Don’t waste it hanging with that gang I’ve seen you with more lately.”
Jamiel couldn’t believe this girl had talked so assertively with him. He hardly knew her and she’s telling him what he should be doing with his life. Before he could respond, Celia was waving him over to the kitchen serving counter to help with something. Jamiel turned back toward Marnie and just looked at her without being able to think of anything to respond with. He did notice how pretty she looked as she waited with a turn of her head, but nothing came out as he pointed to the kitchen and left her standing there. Marnie smiled and shook her head as Jamiel made his way through the parishioners, who were gathered in groups conversing with their tea and coffee in hand, until he reached his mother to help clean up the kitchen.
On the walk home, Jamiel was quiet as he thought about what Marnie had said to him. Did she really think he was all those things she said she saw in him? He finally heard the end of his mother’s question, “—did it go with Mr. Busbi yesterday?”
“It was fine. Everything’s all set.”
“So what chores did he ask you to help with?”
Jamiel was stuck. Why did she always ask him things he’d prefer to lie about on the way home from church? “We didn’t get that far.”
Celia stopped in her tracks, “Jamiel. Exactly what do you mean, ‘We didn’t get that far’?”
She could tell when Jamiel was uncomfortable with talking about something, but she was determined to have him follow through on this. “Mom, the conversation was short. I apologized and he seemed like he didn’t want to hear it.”