[Ladd] Just As I Am | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

[Ladd] Just As I Am

I was baptized when I was 13 in a Southern Baptist church in Neshoba County. I wasn't particularly spiritual; there was more anger and selfishness and confusion in my heart than love. I couldn't have been ready to live a godly life; I didn't know what it meant. I just walked down the aisle because everybody else was doing it.

My church had done nothing to instill actual spirituality in me. It seemed filled with people there for appearances—in other words, hypocrites who didn't seem to care much about the people they hurt, with some exceptions, I hope. They would send lots of money with missionaries to other countries, but seemed to care little about the poor people right there at home, especially the ones who didn't look like them. All white, of course, the n-word flew easily among people at my church, even as they talked about righteousness.

The event that sent me packing was the day a wife of a church deacon walked up to me while I was talking with friends and grabbed my arm and yelled at me to stop trying to steal her husband. I stared in disbelief; I certainly didn't have designs on the old coot, my probably-50-year-old Sunday School teacher who liked to joke with all us girls. I later learned that he was a womanizer, so I felt some compassion for his wife even as I despised her. I never went back. I don't think those people had anything to teach me. They had told me to be righteous; no one had bothered to show me how.

I didn't know I was already on my path. I am not a Southern Baptist today (unless it's like the Hotel California), but I am very spiritual. I don't belong to a church, but I enjoy a variety of types of church services, especially if they're lively, diverse, and have great music and people who love people. Big, colorful hats don't hurt, either.

I also have admired the teachings of a variety of spiritual leaders—from Jesus to Buddha to Marianne Williamson to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Dalai Lama (not an exhaustive list, by any means). I believe in seeking your own light that best illuminates what you're supposed to do in the world to leave it a slightly better place. I believe in religion that celebrates the human spirit and encourages its followers to go below cheap indicators of good and evil, and get to the real stuff: how you treat your fellow human beings (and animals and the Earth, while we're at it). I've tried to find my soul, so to speak, to forgive myself for things I've done wrong to myself and to others, to overcome my avarice and distrust.

The spiritual path, I believe, has to be personalized; kind of a like a snowflake, no two are alike. And some may not even look spiritual to those looking in. I happen to believe we all are here to serve a purpose and the success of our spiritual journey depends on accepting or rejecting that role—much more so than only participating in the window-dressing of religion.

Reconciliation is part of my journey. How can I use my gifts to best do the "Lord's work" of fostering understanding? Can I use my gifts to help overcome race divisions in my home state—divisions that are at the heart of so many of our ills?

The words "divine intervention" can sound a little pretentious, but perhaps we should take it at face value. Mr. James Meredith says that his mission to be the first black man to integrate Ole Miss was a "divine" assignment. Some people might roll their eyes at that, but I don't. He clearly was chosen to do what he does and accepted it. I believe I was chosen to do what I do.

After Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were killed in my hometown, I stood with my mother on the court square, squeezing her hand as Dr. King marched through my town, with people we knew hurling rocks and spewing hate toward the stoic spiritual hero. I cannot muster the image of Dr. King from that day—I was 4—but I've always believed that his sermon of determination that day penetrated my small soul, choosing my journey for me. Social justice has been my religion as long as I can remember.

I vividly recall being so distraught by a depiction of a lynching on TV that I ran out of the room and my mother had to wash my face with a wet bath rag to calm me down. "How can they do that to people?" I choked out between sobs. I must have been in the third grade. I remember her often saying stuff like, "Donner Kay, yo body ain't big enough for yo heart."I often wondered how some people expected to get into heaven after being so mean here on earth.

My journey has convinced me that religious choices and beliefs have to be very personal. It doesn't just happen in church on Sunday morning, although it certainly can. There are moments when we choose to be baptized, take a personal savior, profess a life lived for the Almighty. And there are times that we search for our soul in other ways. Over the years, as a waitress, a bartender, a deejay, a secretary, and finally as a writer, editor and teacher, I found my spirituality in bits and pieces, as some of my suspicions were confirmed, others proved wrong, and lessons came in strange places.

Finally, I realized it was time to come on back and worship at the altar I call home. Here I could look my own people in the eye and say, "I'm sorry for what my forebears did to yours. Will you join me to help heal the wounds? I'm ready." That sheer act of spiritual courage—for this woman who ran for 18 years from her painful memories and her apparent calling—has freed my heart and soul like I can't tell you.

That's why when someone, with a whole lot more anger in their heart than I have these days, calls me a "liberal do-gooder" or a "namby-pamby" or "some white woman with fancy degrees" trying to "sashay in" to "save" people (as someone blogged on our site recently, in a discussion about causes of crime), I can smile even as I might shed a quick tear at the sheer meanness that's still among us. Such words sting, but not nearly as badly as those hurled at Dr. King 40 years ago. Seeking and accepting one's spiritual path, one's personal savior, is not supposed to be easy. Others don't have to understand, but I'm trying to "save" my own soul by doing my job.

I truly believe the adage that God, however you define Him or Her, works in mysterious ways. He teaches lessons in unexpected places, like on Beacon Street in Philadelphia, Miss., in the middle of a virulently angry mob so blinded by hate that they couldn't have been farther from God. We have a choice of whether to accept those teachings, the real lessons of spirituality. Watching Dr. King that day, I know in my heart that I absorbed his lesson that you have to stand up for what's right and against what's wrong—the real stuff—no matter how loudly someone yells at you.

The Lord's work must go on—regardless. Have a blessed holiday.

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