Monthly Archives: November 2017

Sunday in District Six and Table Mountain

2017-11-19 13.49.36On Sunday the conference journeyed to the Moravian Hill church in District Six. In the 19th century this was a working class community to the south of Table Mountain. People of many ethnic groups lived there together and worshiped in a variety of churches, mosques, and synagogues. The Moravians built a beautiful and had an active ministry, especially among folks who had moved from rural areas to work in Cape Town.

But during the Apartheid era the government decided that Cape Town needed to be made into a “modern” city and that District Six should be only for white people. Hundreds of thousands of people were forcibly removed from their homes, which were then destroyed. The people were sent to shanty towns where there were no schools or most modern facilities. The Moravian congregation was removed and the church building was almost demolished, but instead it was given over to the university and was used as gymnasium. After the end of apartheid the building was returned to the Moravian Church and a new congregation is being formed.

Some of us rode buses and others walked to the church for a rousing worship service in multiple languages with an inspiring sermon from Bishop Joemath. He was one of several bishops present. We managed to take a group photo outside the church.

After the service we took buses to the District Six museum. That museum is primarily for local people rather than tourists, and so it is probably not surprising that the bus drivers took us to the South African Museum instead. We corrected the mistake and arrived at the proper museum. It was hard to fit a hundred people in the museum, which is housed in a former Methodist Church.

The museum moved me to tears. It is dedicated to the memory of the people who were forced to leave. I have rarely been in a museum that was so thick with memories and emotions. It is a sacred space. Some of the people who were relocated serve as guides in the museum. Our guide spoke with such joy about what it was like to be a child growing in District Six and about her multi-ethnic family. Some people had assembled “memory suitcases” of items from their old homes that showed what they loved and valued. We heard about apartheid and the resistance to us.

The museum director praised the Moravians for the key role they played in the resistance effort. She said that the best schools were run by the church and that Moravian teachers taught politics as well as religion. She called them schools of resistance. She told us that the museum is not for tourists, but Moravians are not tourists. It is our museum, too.

I had lunch with a German fellow named Neals and I mentioned that I was planning to play hokey and go to Table Mountain on Monday. He told me that the weather would be bad that day, but it is perfect now, so he and a fellow German named Christina were planning to go to the mountain right after lunch. I asked to be included in the trip and we picked up Crystal from Trinidad. We felt a little guilty for skipping the musical event planned for the late afternoon, but the trip will be a special memory for me for years to come.

The mountain is one of the oldest mountains in the world, and it forms an impressive backdrop to Cape Town. We rode the cable car up to the top and spent a couple of hours hiking up there. Some areas were a bit challenging to an old man like me, but it was worth the effort. We had such fun as a group. Crystal was particularly effervescent. The landscape is very rocky but there are a variety of beautiful flowering bushes. The view from the top is overwhelming. From one direction you look out over the city and across the harbor to Robben Island where Mandela was imprisoned for so many years. From another direction we could see the Twelve Apostles mountains. And in yet another direction we could look out over the beaches to the southern Atlantic stretching to the horizon. The ocean was especially beautiful as the sun began to set.

When I got back to the hotel people told me that my face was glowing. It was not just the effect of the sun on my pale skin. After days of being indoors in meetings, it was rejuvenating to walk across the rocky mesa under a blue sky. My new heart valve is working well. Even though my hips and back were aching from the excursion (especially the cramped cab ride) I felt so good. Not surprising I was ravenous at dinner. After talking to Julie and Madeleine on FaceTime, I went to sleep in gratitude for a beautiful and meaningful day.

Valley of Grace

Genadendal – November 17, 2017

Today we made an excursion to the historic Moravian village of Genadendal. On the way we passed by some of the poorest areas of Cape Town and the surrounding townships where corrugated tin shacks were built side by side for what seemed like miles. It was a sobering contrast to the beautiful tourist areas at the Victoria Waterfront and the bounty of our meals in the hotel. The end of apartheid has not changed the poverty that so many people face in South Africa.

This trip was one of the main reasons I came on this trip. Genadendal is the place where the first Moravian missionary to Africa, Georg Schmidt, came in 1737. At that time it was called Baboon Valley. The Khoi people lived there and maintained large herds of cattle. Schmidt had made friends with some Khoi and they invited him to come and preach the gospel in the valley. He had learned that the Dutch settlers treated them like wild animals and frequently shot them. Moved by compassion and compelled by his own religious experiences, Schmidt went to the valley. He was unable to learn the Khoi language with its complicated clicking of the tongue, but some of the Khoi knew Dutch and he held classes to teach them to read. One of his early converts was a woman named Vehettge Tikhuie who learned to read the Dutch Bible and conduct pray meetings. He planted an orchard that included a pear tree. After six years, he left South Africa because the colonial authorities wanted him to assist in their policy of subjugating the Khoi and taking their land. And he had problems with the Dutch Reformed Church. Fifty years later, Moravian missionaries were finally allowed back to the Cape and they went to the valley. They found that Vehettge had kept a small church going, and she still had Schmidt’s Bible as a cherished possession. And the pear tree was blossoming.

The Moravians proceeded to build a beautiful village that included a forge, grist mill, school, pottery, and other industries. One of the governors of the Cape Colony visited the valley and renamed it Genadendal, which means Valley of Grace. Throughout the 19th century Genadendal was famous as a thriving community of “colored” Moravians living with white Moravians. The people were well educated and more prosperous than the average non-European S. Africans. When Schmidt’s pear tree was destroyed in a storm in the 1840s new shoots emerged. One of them was selected to become the second pear growing out of the original roots. Now the third generation pear tree is growing strong.

After the Anglo-Boer wars, the English lost possession of the Cape Colony and an independent republic was established by the white colonists. They instituted the regime of apartheid that rigorously separated “white”, “blacks”, and “colored” people. Genadendal was a special place in S. Africa when apartheid laws were ameliorated by the church. Once apartheid was ended and all South Africans were allowed to vote, Nelson Mandela was elected president. He visited Genadendal and honored the unique witness of the Moravian mission in the Cape. He even changed the name of his Cape Town presidential mansion to Genadendal.

Our guide through the museum and the town was Rev. Chris Wessels whom I have admired for years. Wessels was born and raised in Genadendal and became a pastor and scholar. He also took an active, non-violent role in the anti-apartheid movement. In fact, he was arrested a couple of times. Now he is retired, but he lives in the village he loved as a boy and still has a couple of heads of cattle. I brought him greetings from folks at MTS where he studied several years ago. He showed us the impressive museum and restored buildings around the town. We saw too many things to record them all here, but I think we all have a better appreciation for what true Christian love and hard work can do in a world that is filled with violence and hatred.

It was so wonderful to see the pear tree and walk among the graves of the missionaries who died in the valley. We saw the spot where Schmidt built his house and where Vehettge (renamed Magdalena at her baptism) lived. And we sat in the beautiful church where first the Tanzanian brothers and sisters and then the English-speaking brothers and sisters sang songs of hope and faith. And then we had lunch. I was at the pan-European table with a Swede, German, Albanians, and a Latvian. We talked about Christianity and the American president while enjoying local beef, vegies, and beets. Not surprisingly I slept part of the way back. Donna Hurt and I did discuss the history of apartheid and the work of Mandela and Desmond Tutu on the road.

Many of the younger people (under the age of 57) went down to the waterfront for shopping and dinner. My group did not really shop but we did wander around until we found a pub where we had some South African wine and seafood. It was a good time of sharing food on each other’s plate. I’m afraid I was the only one who liked the jalapeno poppers, but the calamari was excellent. We talked about home and family, which we are all beginning to miss.

Mission Conference, day 2

I was a bit tired this morning after my late night, and I must admit that I missed one of the presentations. It is a shame because I heard it was rather provocative. I did hear a paper on the history of missions from the Reformation to the 20th century, but I’m afraid it was rather familiar ground for me. A pastor from Latvia did devotions, and though his English is not good, his talk was delightful. Very Zinzendorfian. He and I have spent a lot of time together discussing the history of the Moravians in Latvia.

My lunch table included the head of the Cuban province, Angelica (my former student from Peru), the indefatigable Thomas Baucom, Dena Fortuzi, and Vjoltka (not quite spelled right) of Albania. Angelica said that I pronounced my one remembered phrase from Spanish class well. A donde vas, Thomas? The best part of the conference has been the mingling at meal times. During the sessions I am sitting with Julius from Uganda and Joan from Jamaica with Bob Hopcroft from England behind me. Bob told me stories of his time in Labrador, some of them harrowing.

Much time was spent in small groups today. I went to a workshop with Peter Vogt on the Moravian Treasures curriculum that he edited. It was a very good discussion with some helpful feedback on revisions. Not surprisingly the most animated discussion was how Moravians do or don’t do lovefeasts in various provinces. There were so many people to talk to at dinner, it was hard to eat. After dinner I was interviewed by a German journalist named Egon Koch for a story he is writing on the Moravians in South Africa.

I did take time to check in with my class in Bethlehem. They watched a pre-recorded presentation I left for them and made comments online. I really enjoyed reading their reaction to the class material. What they all seemed to like best was the guided meditation I recorded for them. I have to admit that I missed my students. That may be why I keep hanging around with students at the conference instead of the church officials. I’m not really good at this networking thing!

After dinner we had a singstunde prepared by Nola Reed Knouse of the Moravian Music Foundation. It was a multi-lingual hymn sign with as many as six languages sung simultaneously. At times the room was really rocking.

After the singstunde I spent some time with a young man who is just beginning his studies at the Uni of the West Indies and is thinking of seminary. Very smart and personable young man named Dominic. This trip was not for seminary recruiting, but I don’t think I’ve ever talked to so many people wanting to study at MTS! I also shared a beer with Justin Rabbach, the new Director of the Board of World Mission. I think he is the perfect person for that job. Smart as a whip, clever as a cobra, and a likeable as a panda.

And then a much earlier bedtime, but since I couldn’t sleep I watched an episode of Stranger Things. Sometimes I think that should be the title of autobiography.

Unity Mission Conference

Yesterday was a full day. The conference began with the expansive breakfast buffet. I saw my friend Emmanuel from Milami Theological College in Tanzania and gave him some things to take back to friends there. I also brought a suitcase full of academic books from the faculty of MTS for the library of TEKU. It is much cheaper to bring them as checked luggage than to ship them directly. After breakfast was worship with songs in many languages. Bishop Gray led the music and Bishop Abraham gave the sermon.

We have Moravians from 36 different nations here. That is simply amazing. English is the official language of the conference but there is translation provided for those who speak Spanish. It is still amazing to me that I know so many people here from so many different lands.

The keynote address by ……. Was very good and very challenging. He is a missiologist from South Africa with an impressive pedigree. We had a nice long chat later in the day about missions in an era of religious pluralism. We were behind schedule because there was a lengthy response. So we did not have much time in our small groups, but I did meet a young college student from Alaska. She is a Moravian from the Bethel area who is in school in Fairbanks. Like me, this is her first time to South Africa.

My address was immediately after lunch, which is always hard because people are ready for a siesta. I gave Karel August a flashdrive with the presentation on it and he had copies printed for the audience. Only after the lecture did I realize that I had given him the long and uncorrected version. O well, now everyone knows that I make mistakes and change my mind about things! I had to speak slower than usual because of the simultaneous translation, but there was still ample time for questions. I discussed the differences between Moravian missions in the 18th century and the 19th century and acknowledged some of the negative aspects of the mission, such as the church’s involvement with slavery. Jørgen Boytler told the audience that it was the first time in a gathering of the Moravian Unity that these things had been talked about.

Part of my talk was on the important role that women played in the Moravian Church and Moravian mission in the time of Zinzendorf and how this was suppressed after his death. That generated a lot of discussion from the women in provinces outside of the US and Europe. I even told them about the adoration of the Holy Spirit as Mother and how that was suppressed.

My intention was not to blame people for the decisions they made because they were goodhearted people trying to do the best they could in their context. But we need to be honest about the past and not romanticize. We cannot learn from our mistakes if we do not see them. But my main purpose in looking at this history was to give us courage to make decisions and take the risks that we are called to take in our age.

I had dinner with Rev. Angelica Regalado, one of my former students, and Adriana Craver who will take my classes online as part of her studies at Wake Forest. A young man named David from South Africa ate with us. Part of what I love about my job is being with students and gaining energy from their enthusiasm and ambition. We talked about the immigration and refugee crisis in America and what the Moravians can do to help. And we talked about Salem College because Angelica and Adriana are both alumnae and I used to teach there.

The evening address was by Jindrich Halama, one of the Moravian Church’s finest scholars. He is also a pastor in the Czech Province. He is an ethicist rather than a historian and his talk moved quickly from missions in the old Moravian Church, the so-called Ancient Unity, toward what it was like for the Moravians living under communism.

After the talk I met up with Br. Boytler and the Albanian delegation for some of their national beverage and very honest conversation among friends. Among them was one of my current students, Dena Fortuzzi, who is an amazing person. She will be the first Moravian to be ordained in Albania. I promised to attend the ceremony when the time comes. For now though we are working on her plan of study through distance learning. I talked to several people who wish to study at MTS through distance learning, including a pastor from England who wants to study Moravian history on his sabbatical.

It was after midnight when I went to bed after a challenging and beautiful day.


Day 2 – Cape of Good Hope


I woke early and went down to the elaborate breakfast buffet. Even though it was not yet 7 a.m. the restaurant was packed. I think it was a bus tour. I made arrangements with the concierge for a half-day trip out to the Cape leaving at 1 p.m. and settled down in the room to work. I guess in that regard I am a true Moravian!

Wilson the tour guide collected me in the lobby and we drove to Long St. to pick up the rest of the group on the tour. They were three young women from Chili who were on a trip around the world. They started in Norway, made their way through Europe and Southeast Asia and were now in Africa. Delightful young people just out of university. It took us a while to get out of Cape Town, but it was nice to see more of the city. We drove along the Victoria Road south along the western coast. Clifton, Camps, Hout Bay. Some of the most expensive real estate in Africa with beautiful beaches. Chapman’s Peak offered a beautiful scenic view of Hout Bay. At one beach we saw a black flag flying to warn swimmers of sharks! From there we turned east and crossed the peninsula on very twisty roads until we came to False Bay.

The bay got its name from the early European explorers who thought they had rounded Africa and were heading toward India only to discover that they were in a massive bay. The peninsula has many little bays off of the big bay. To the north and east is Stellenbosch, which is vineyard country. I haven’t tried any wine yet on this trip. Maybe tomorrow after my presentation. We passed through Simonstown (where there is a naval base) to the Boulders. Cape penguins have established a colony at the Boulders. They lay eggs on the beach under the bushes and the babies live there until they are large enough to swim. There were hundreds of tiny penguins and almost as many tourists. Simply wonderful to behold. While we there I ran into some of the Moravians from America who are also at the conference. Such a pleasant surprise.

We drove south down the eastern side of the peninsula to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Preserve. On the way we stopped to look at some ostriches. The preserve has many species of native flora called fynbos. The plants cannot grow in any other soil. Some have white flowers and look like snowballs on the hillside. Others are large bushes with beautiful yellow flowers. Others are pink and purple. It is a very hilly and rocky landscape covered in these hearty bushes bursting with color. It is almost otherworldly, and I thought how little imagination sci-fi movies have when they make alien landscapes. This was one of the most unusual landscapes I’ve ever seen. It seemed uncouth to be driving through it instead of riding a horse bareback, but I wonder if a horse could make its way through the tangle of vegetation. And it would be dangerous, Wilson said. Puff adders, black mombas, and other venomous creatures lie in wait for the unwary. Roses may have thorns, but the fynbos have fangs.

We saw the monuments that the Portuguese explorers had left when they “discovered” this land. It was a great adventure for them to have sailed all the way from Lisbon on wooden ships down the coast of Africa, but of course humans had lived here for thousands of years. Finally we came to our goal – the Cape Point. It is a steep climb, but there is a funicular if you prefer. Cape Point is a narrow jut of rocky land at the entrance of False Bay. From the top you can look out over the Atlantic and toward the Pacific. It was thrilling to be there. I’ve heard about the Cape of Good Hope since I was a boy in school, and I never thought I would stand there. I decided to call my dad to let him know that I was standing where the great adventurers stood, but he mainly wanted to talk about his health. Such is life, I suppose. I saw more Moravians on the way up and down. My companions were surprised I knew so many people!

On the way out of the park we saw a male baboon on the side of the road, his fur covered in blood. We assume that he had been beaten in a fight. Wilson found a place to pull over and there we saw the rest of the baboon colony. Mothers with babies in arms. Toddlers tumbling over each other. Older baboons eating berries from the fynbros. And a large male who had probably just had a victory over his bloodied rival. We did not dare to get close. In the distance on the hillside was a herd of antelope.

The trip back to Cape Town was much faster and less scenic. Wilson filled us in on the history of apartheid and we drove past the prison where Mandela was confined for several years after he had been on Robbins Island. It was a sobering thought that the American consulate is near that prison. He dropped me off at the hotel in time for dinner. I walked in and found over a hundred Moravians from around the world enjoying a large buffet. I saw so many people I knew from other settings: from my teaching in Cuba and Jamaica, from the Women’s Conference in Suriname, from Denmark and Germany. I ate with Donna Hurt of Winston-Salem and Angelina Swart from South Africa. The new president of the Moravian Church in Cuba saw me and began to dance because she remembered that I had danced in worship in her church in Havana.

Tomorrow I give my paper on the history of Moravian missions and will share in the discussions. I am afraid my paper may be controversial, but I will be presenting it in a country that overcame the injustice of apartheid and now stands tall among the nations of the world. It gives one hope.

Cape Town

Cape Town Journal

I am in Cape Town for an international Moravian Mission Conference that will last from Wednesday until Monday. I will be giving one of papers for the conference on Wednesday. It will briefly look at Moravian missions in the 18th and 19th centuries. There will be about 200 Moravians here, and I know several of them who are coming from the US, Albania, and Tanzania. I have an entire suitcase filled with books and other material that I am giving to people.

I arrived in Cape Town about 11 p.m. on Sunday night, November 12 and was greeted by members of the Moravian Church who took me to the Garden Court Hotel on Nelson Mandela Boulevard. It was a long day of traveling that began with a drive to Newark, N.J. It was strange that I was starting on a trip across the world at the same time that the body of my Aunt Ima were being interred in North Carolina. Since I had a long wait for my flight I wrote down some of my memories of my aunt on my blog. The night before leaving Julie and I went to Bucknell to have dinner with Madeleine. I was glad to see her before leaving. And Sarah was home for the weekend, so I could say good-bye to her as well. She had just returned from Venice. I never imagined growing up that my family would be able to travel like this! I wish Julie could have come with me, but with Thanksgiving coming and work demands it was best for her to stay behind. So I kissed her good-bye and headed east. I left my truck at the home of a former student named Helen who lives near the Newark Airport. She dropped me off at terminal B.

The flight to Paris was uneventful and reasonably pleasant. Comfortable seat and good movies to watch. I took a short nap at the Charles DeGaulle airport before boarding the Air France flight to Cape Town. That seat was much less comfortable and was crowded. The food was good and they provided champagne and other pleasant beverages, but I was very tired and my joints were aching. I slept a little watching various movies, including Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. After eleven hours of cramped travel we mercifully landed in Cape Town. I feel so guilty complaining about traveling thousands of miles in 24 hours when I think of people like La Trobe who sailed for months from England to South Africa risking his life from storms and poor food. Here I was drinking champagne and eating potatoes au gratin complaining that my back hurt. But at least La Trobe got fresh air and could watch the porpoises frolicking alongside the ship while sailors sang shanties.

The hotel is very nice and I have a large room to myself on the top floor with a view of the harbor. I slept through breakfast the next morning, but I had brought an emergency granola bar that sustained me until lunch. Granola bars are my lembas (for you LOR fans). A nice taxi driver named Caesar took me down to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront where I was able to exchange currency and enjoyed the life of the tourist. Cape Town seems more like a European or American city than an African one. It is very modern with large highways. Everything is very clean and the people are very friendly. Caesar tried to convince me to move here. It is a little tempting, I must say.

The defining geological feature of Cape Town is Table Mountain. All day the top was shrouded in clouds. It is called Table Mountain because most of the top is flat, but the side of the mountain looks like a lion’s head. There is another sharp peak across from Table Mountain that is called Signal Hill. I enjoyed seeing how the clouds on the mountains changed during the day from white and friendly to blue and threatening. Hopefully I can go to the top later this week. There is a cable car that goes up 3000 feet to the top.

I treated myself to a huge lunch of salmon with a salad completed by panna cotta. I sat outside where I could watch the tourists, mainly German it sounded, walking past the historic clock tower. The walkway sometimes moved to make way for yachts proceeding to the inner harbor. There were buskers, including a brass quartet – trombones and a trumpet – playing a Miley Cyrus song. I wondered if the trombonists were Moravians. And another group playing African xylophones. I did some shopping for the family. There are lots of jewelry stores with beautiful Tanzanite stones and diamonds, of course, but that was all well beyond my price range.

I happened by a boat that was heading out for a half hour harbor tour so I jumped on with several Germans. It was nice to see Cape Town from the water even though the weather was cloudy. On the horizon was Robbins Island where Mandela had been a prisoner for over 20 years. At one point it had been a Moravian leper colony. If I had more time I would take the trip to visit there. The highlight of the harbor tour was finding a family of Cape seals on a large bouy. They were just waking up and the young ones were started to frolic.

I took a cab up to Bree and Loop Streets where there were much better African shops and spent a long time browsing until a sweet lady showed me some scarves in a lovely material. I ended up buying quite a bit from her, including a blue hippo. That’s more of an Egyptian thing than a South African thing, but I know a little girl who’ll love it. I treated myself to a massage, which eased the pain in my back and hips.

I walked back to the Waterfront. It was over a mile, but I need exercise. Unfortunately I got a little lost because I was following road signs designed for cars and I had to cross a multi-lane highway, but I made it eventually. I found a little plaza with statues to four Nobel Peace prize winners from S. Africa and a German lady took a picture of me next to Bishop Tutu. There is a very cool artisanal food market in an old power station right by the plaza. Unfortunately I wasn’t hungry even though they had everything from sushi to samosa to traditional Africa pap. I settled on a mango smoothie and wandered back to the main part of the waterfront to listen to the African xylophonists. I picked up some take out falafel for dinner in my room. I tried calling Caesar, but the calls did not go through so I grabbed a different taxi back to the hotel with less money but feeling good.

I opened the window and sat on the terrace to eat my dinner and called Julie. She was on her lunch break. It was good to talk to her, but my internet time abruptly ended in mid-call. I spent the evening doing college work and eventually fell into dreamless sleep.

Aunt Ima

Aunt Ima

My aunt Ima Misenheimer was buried today. I couldn’t be there for the funeral because I am on the way to Cape Town, S. Africa. It’s hard to be away from home at times like this, but I did make the trip to North Carolina last month so I could see her and say good-bye. Her spirits were good. She decided to stop dialysis and face death with dignity in hospice. She was 80 years old and had lived a long and full life. She had lived alone since her husband Joe died 13 years ago, and had been even more alone after her sister (my mom) and brother Randy had died. Randy’s wife Pat took care of Ima during her last years. Pat is one of those saints who doesn’t look like a saint. She’s a tough little woman with a wicked tongue who does what needs to be done – especially when no one else will do it. She was just the friend Ima needed. My brother Keith and his wife Susan also looked in on Ima, as did my nieces Nicole and Jodie. That’s what family is for. I haven’t heard yet who all was with Ima when she died, but Susan told me she lifted her arms to Jesus and asked him to take her. And he did.

Pastor Cheryl Cottingham did the funeral and wrote Ima’s official memoir, but I want to talk about the woman I knew for 56 years and remember some of the things she did for me, my brother, and my sisters. She and my mom were best friends and talked on the phone for an hour or more each day. And I guess I spent more time at Ima’s house as a boy than any place other than my own home.

Ima and Joe couldn’t have children of their own so they adopted a baby they named Kenneth. He was a couple of years younger than me, but we spent a lot of time together. Kenneth was a difficult child. He was extremely robust and didn’t suffer from any of the illnesses I faced. I was asthmatic and had allergies and just never had the same kind of energy he had. I loved to read; he didn’t. I was generally obedient to my parents; Kenneth was constantly challenging his mother and father. He could be destructive and violent. But I was bigger and stronger than Kenneth and most of the time we got along well. He often slept over at each other’s houses, and Ima used to take us to the pool, movies, or anywhere Kenneth wanted to go. She always paid because she knew my dad never gave me money for such things. I didn’t even know to be embarrassed. Of course, for Ima, it was relief to have someone else entertain Kenneth.

The Misenheimers lived about ten miles from us. I know that because sometimes I rode my bicycle to visit them. They had several acres of land that included fields, a creek, a fish pond, and woods. Their neighbors also had similar spreads. Like everybody else in Forsyth County in the 1960s they had large gardens that required a lot of tending in the hot sun, and Ima canned beans and other vegetables. We had even more land and larger gardens, and my father expected me to spend hours each day in the summer weeding and picking. Ima and Joe rarely asked me to do anything other than to play with Kenneth.

I doubt they had any more money than we did, but they seemed rich to me because they bought Kenneth anything he wanted. Sometimes I was jealous, but he shared freely and we sometimes spent all day playing with Hot Wheels or riding his go-cart. There was a huge pile of sand under some pine trees where we could play in the shade in the heat of day, and he had a whole set of Tonka trucks that we used to build cities. We also went fishing, but Kenneth wasn’t very patient, so mainly we hiked through the woods and played in the creek catching crawfish and building damns to make swimming holes. And climbing trees. Always climbing higher and higher as if we were trying to find out if there really was a God up there somewhere.

Ima was a stay at home mom, which was pretty normal in those days. So she was always in the house or sitting on the front porch while Kenneth and I played. She always wore men’s clothes, mainly jeans and a button-up shirt with the sleeves cut off, because they were more comfortable to work in. I don’t remember ever seeing Ima wearing make-up or jewelry other than a Timex wristwatch. So she wasn’t like most of the Southern ladies I knew or like anybody I’d ever seen on TV. Sometimes, though, I thought my mom was a bit like Lucy on TV and Ima was a bit like Ethyl Mertz. She was this tough little lady who loved my mom dearly.

She also helped take care of her mother, Grandma Brown. All of the children came by to see Grandma at least once a week, and Ima usually took her to buy her groceries and medicines. One day they were in the check out line and Grandma kept asking Ima if she had remembered to get her pills. Finally, Ima said real loud, “Yes, mother. I got your birth control pills right here.” The check out girl started to laugh, and Grandma replied “I wish I had had them 40 years ago.” My family is funny, not nice. One time when my mom and Ima were both in their 60s, Momma took a frozen sausage and smacked her on the head laughing.

Ima was a smoker. A lot of people smoked cigarettes in those days, but my dad hated smoking and hated Ima for smoking around us. I always thought that was a little odd since my dad started chewing tobacco when he was eleven or twelve years old. He always had a cup with him that he spat the foulest tobacco juice in and which made the car and our house smell. But somehow that was okay while cigarette smoke was devil’s breath. When I say Ima was a smoker, I mean that it was hard to imagine her without a cigarette in her mouth. I think she smoked Salem, which were named for our hometown Winston-Salem, but maybe it was Kool. I watched a lot of old movies on TV in those days and the women all smoked and looked so languid and sensuous. Ima smoked more like a sailor.

Between the sun, smoking, and worrying about her son, Ima’s face was tanned and wrinkled by the time she was forty. I thought she was beautiful. She had a face like my grandmother whom I loved. It was a face that showed that she had lived, and when she laughed her whole face lit up. I can see her slow clearly sitting on her low ceiling, crumbling front porch on a humid summer day drinking ice tea out of a jelly jar with a cigarette smoldering in her fingers laughing at some story my mom had told. Who needs those pale insipid angels with their harps when you’ve got an Aunt Ima?

I ate many a meal at Ima’s house. Most of them she cooked. Sometimes it was just fried baloney sandwiches or beanie weanies, which were two of my favorites. Other times it was fried fish that we had caught in the pond or fried pork chops. Always there were two or three types of vegetables and mashed potatoes or sweat potatoes. And a slice of white bread. Since I am by nature and vocation an honest man, I cannot say that Ima was a good cook, but she knew that. Momma was the good cook. Ima knew how to feed you. Best of all, she didn’t mind how you ate it so long as you sat at the kitchen table with the family. Elbows on the table, shoveling potatoes in your mouth as fast as you could so you could get back outside before the sun went down. That was fine. Seconds, thirds. Sure. Spilled your Kool Aid? Don’t worry, that’s why we got paper towels. It was so different from eating at other people’s houses, and I loved it. And Ima and Joe never yelled. They didn’t yell at each other or at us kids. Sometimes I could see in their faces just how disappointed they were at one or the other of us, but they never yelled.

I don’t know if I have ever felt freer anywhere in the world than I was at the Misenheimer place. Whenever I did something wrong or stupid, Ima and Joe just made sure I wasn’t too badly hurt and then patch me up and send me back out into the world. I don’t think either one of them ever hugged me or said “I love you” or any of that sissy stuff that made boys squirm. She said “I love you” with every Band Aid or application of mercurochrome. That stuff stang something awful and left you with red streaks that looked like blood, but we just accepted that as the price of healthy living. You never cried because you were cut and scraped and bruised. You saved your tears for the important things in life. You cried alone in the middle of the night because of the evil of the world. I never heard Ima cry, but I’m sure she did.

Kenneth was a wild child and I think Ima hoped that me and Keith could somehow civilize him. I did teach him to play chess and sometimes he would settle down long enough for a game. Occasionally he even beat me. But I did something really bad to Kenneth by accident one night. I never thought Kenneth could be hurt. He seemed indestructible, but he was human like the rest of us. I had a BB gun that I loved. Like many boys in those days I played Army and cowboys and Indians and other games that were mainly about shooting and killing people. I set up a shooting gallery in our basement and did target practice several nights a week. It was an air rifle with a wooden stock and you pumped it up before each shot. One night Kenneth and I were taking turns shooting and he was being his usual hyperactive self. He stood in front of the targets and told me to shoot him. I wasn’t going to do that, but he just kept dancing around daring me. I lift the rifle and told him to move, just like Chuck Connors on TV, but the safety was off and I pulled the trigger. One shot. One little brass round ball. No aim. It should have hit him in the arm or leg or chest and we should have laughed about him and told stories about to this day. But no. In the eye.

My dad rushed him to the emergency room and the surgeons did what they could, but they could not save his eye. I had blinded my cousin, one of my closest companions. I was twelve or thirteen and had done the unthinkable. And what did Ima and Joe do? They told me it was okay. They still loved me. Even Kenneth forgave me even though he still has a glass eye. Even though I ruined any hope he had of playing baseball or football or any sport that requires 3D vision. They forgave me and continued to invite me to their home.

My life and my cousin’s life diverged more and more after that. I would go to college, answer a call to be a minister, and get my doctorate. Kenneth got into drugs. He painted his bedroom dark purple and listened to heavy metal. He started skipping school to do drugs and then started stealing from his parents. He broke or stole anything of value and sometimes even threatened them physically. They had to deal with the police and the courts, and I saw Ima diminish. The wrinkles grew deeper, but not from laughing and smiling. Eventually Kenneth was sent to a reform school where he got his GED. Ima was so happy when Kenneth finally married his girlfriend. I did the wedding under the shade tree with Kenneth and Donna and their three kids.

During those dark years, my sisters Reenea and Lynn got married and had babies. They were poor and lived in a trailer park out in the country. Ima loved her nephews and nieces and did whatever she could to help my sisters. She was like a second grandmother to them. Often my mom, sisters, brother, and the kids would all gather at Ima’s for the afternoon. I still remember sitting underneath the enormous shade tree (Live Oak I think) with kids running loose and Ima taking delight in their laughter while she and Momma talked about the sufferings of this world. So much suffering that women endured in those days. So much pain.

At some point in those years Ima and Joe started coming to our church, Hope Moravian. It was an old country church where we all felt loved and welcomed. The Rev. David Merritt had recently become the pastor. He was a country boy whose family was similar to Ima’s family. And he had the same wicked sense of humor. They hit off. Ima even bought a dress to wear to church, but she was happiest helping Joe mow the church yard. Whenever possible she would take the kids outside so they wouldn’t disturb people. I think she just didn’t care so much about preaching.

After David took a new call, he was replaced by a pastor who had been a classmate of mine in seminary. He was a good kid, but got mixed up with fundamentalists and his preaching became very judgmental. It was all about sex, mainly how bad it is. And about abortion. I remember after one sermon Ima was steaming. She grabbed me in the parking lot and said “I don’t care what that preacher says. I’ve read the Bible cover to cover and it don’t say a thing about abortion.” It took a lot to get her to come back to church. Well, maybe not a lot. It took David Merritt coming back to Hope. David helped her through many years of difficulty, especially as Kenneth’s kids started doing drugs and getting into trouble. One killed a man and is in prison. One died of an overdose. Another went to jail for drugs. But the worse things got, the closer Ima got to David and to Jesus.

Then her health started failing. Years of grief and toil and smoking slowly took their toll. When Joe died she sold the house and land and moved into a little apartment. She loved for people to come and see her, especially my nephew Erik who lived nearby. But then Erik fell prey to his own demons and slipped deeper and deeper into alcoholism until finally he got blood sepsis and died. He was only 40. My mom died later that year, and it was a blow to Ima.

I moved away to Pennsylvania after that to be a professor. Ima told me once that she was much twice as smart as me. She finished school in 12 years, but it took me 24. I didn’t see much of Ima after I moved, but I am glad I got to see her one last time. She was dying and we both knew it. But we didn’t talk about that. We laughed together remembering funny stories from the past. I think I told her I loved her. But I think she knew that anyway. It is so hard to say good-bye.

Ima was ready for heaven, but I don’t know if heaven is ready for her. I do know that God is going to have to answer for a lot when Ima gets a chance to talk to him. She loved Jesus because Jesus knew what it’s like to suffer, but God the Father was more than a mystery to her. I don’t think Ima ever did a cruel or evil thing in her life, but she suffered greatly from others. I’ve got no answers for her. But when I get to heaven, I’ll have a chat with God, too, and thank him for giving me that beautiful woman to ease my own suffering and grief. And I’ll let him know that she don’t like to wear dresses like those other angels. Give her some old jeans and boots. And while harp music is okay, she’d rather hear some banjos. And is it really wrong to have a smoke in heaven?