“Don’t say anything controversial.” Ominous words for an ominous time festered ominously. After years of suffering, Gladys Dillard died. This was not any old death. This was the death of my beloved grandmother. When I was asked to preach her funeral, I knew that this would be a dangerous assignment. You see…my family is filled with bigots. They hate anything or anyone that doesn’t look or act like them. Since it was a funeral, I convinced myself that I had to construct a message that would provide comfort. After numerous attempts to think it through, I couldn’t do it. How do you comfort bigots? Something festered in my soul. Fire struck from on high. I let it burn.
Outlines seem so dead. God’s words don’t need no ordering. Regardless, I had the sermon roughly outlined in my notes. It didn’t matter. I didn’t use it. I just let it rip.
The funeral home was filled with countless people who’ve been openly hostile to me in the past. After viewing my grandmother (+she looked more like a salamander than my grandmother), I bent down to give my grandfather words of condolence and a long hug. I knew that he wasn’t going to like anything that I said (he doesn’t like much that I say in general). In fact, I’m surprised he didn’t stop me. I don’t think he could have. The wind of God was at my back.
Dirty looks and condescending words flowed like wine through the halls of death. When people condescendingly shared that they’d been concerned about me, I responded that I’d been concerned about them too. Before we entered the chapel, I offered a prayer. As my words boomed throughout the viewing room, every ass was chafed. My prayer greatly bothered the bigots…and I hadn’t even got started yet.
The beginning of the service was surreal. Pain festered. Love was somewhere. I was disturbed. Before I knew it, the time arrived. I lifted my robe and scaled the steps. Looking out amongst the bigots, I began to belt out the sermon that my grandmother would have wanted me to preach (especially since she’d met Jesus). The word of God flowed from my lips. Beauty surrounded me.
What are we doing here? Really… What are we doing here? I look down. I see a box. In that box is a corpse and that is about it. Gladys Dillard has done gone and she ain’t coming back. So, why are we here? If it ain’t about Gladys, then who is it about? It’s about us. It’s about what we can learn. It’s about what we can feel. It’s about what we can know. It’s about who we can be. This gathering is not about Gladys…she is gone. We are here to see if we can take a little bit of Gladys with us out into the world. Can we rub up against each other and find a little love at this hour? It’s the only reason that we are here. We are gathered for each other. Shall we love each other in spite of our differences…or better yet…because of our differences?
Anyone who knows Gladys and I…knows that our differences grew with time. Regardless, she never wavered in her love. There are lessons from her love that will remain with me forever…
Some years ago, there was a battle to save the life of Troy Davis…a death row inmate who had been convicted of killing Savannah Police Officer Mark McPhail. There were many questions about the case and many were involved in the movement to save his life. During the campaign, I stopped by my grandparent’s house…with my “I am Troy Davis” shirt on. Upon seeing my shirt, Gladys expressed her disgust. To say that we were on opposite sides is an understatement. Then, something magical happened. “Troy Davis was my brother’s name.” From there, we talked about what it meant to love Troy Davis. In the midst of difference…love brought us together to talk about love. Imagine…love transcending hate through connecting us with each other.
Throughout much of my childhood, I watched Gladys sign receipts, “Mrs. Jack P. Dillard.” One day, I decided to ask why. Gladys responded, “I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it before.” From that day forward, I never saw Gladys sign a receipt with anything but “Gladys Dillard.” She didn’t change to disrespect my grandfather…she changed to respect herself. Gladys was my #MeToo moment before #MeToo ever hit. Gladys taught me about loving myself.
Before her mind left, Gladys wanted to talk. With my hand in her hand she told me, “I love you and there is nothing you can do to ever change that. I am proud of you no matter what you do.” These words will stick with me for the rest of my life. May they embody what we strive to be. Lovers of humanity…no matter what.
As we leave this place, take Gladys with you. God will meet you right outside.
Electricity popped in my veins. God was actually with us. The casket rolled. I could hear the wheels. I felt the bounces. I was right there. After the door slammed, I looked back at the casket. “Well done…grandson…” I actually heard her. I didn’t need anything else.
For the last few days, I’ve received relentless hateful comments, threats and messages from my family about my message. “I’m watching you!” “Fuck you!” “I will never forgive you!” “You might as well have taken a big shit on your dead grandmother’s face!” “Don’t you dare come around here again…” Bigots are going to be bigots. Hate flowed freely. It hasn’t stopped. Such are the ways of cowards.
When someone asked me what I’d like to say to all of these bigots, I declared, “Go to hell.”
RIP GLADYS DILLARD
I know I made you proud.