An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections
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  • Congregation

    Believe the report of the Lord;
    Face the things that confront you.

        Marquee (front and back),
         Greater Mt. Rest Baptist Church,
         Gulfport, Mississippi, May 2009



    Here is North Gulfport—
    its liquor stores and car washes,
    trailers and shotgun shacks
    propped at the road's edge;
    its brick houses hunkered
    against the weather, anchored
    to neat, clipped yards;
    its streets named for states
    and presidents—each corner
    a crossroads of memory,
    marked with a white obelisk;
    its phalanx of church houses—
    a congregation of bunkers
    and masonry brick, chorus
    of marquees: God is not
    the author of fear; Without faith
    we is victims; Sooner or later
    everybody comes by here.



    This week they are painting
    the North Gulfport water tower.

    Every day it grows whiter
    until it is the color of clouds,

    and the clouds in the heavy sky
    seem whiter still. To paint the tower

    the workmen have erected
    a scaffolding around the tank,

    a radius of poles from which to hang
    the ropes that pull them up.

    From a distance, the scaffolding
    is a diadem, the crown

    on a monument—a glory
    wreath. That is what I saw

    as I drove the flat land—down
    Highway 49—toward home.

    Up close now, beneath it, I see
    what I had not: a circle of thorns.


    After Katrina, 2005

    At first, there was nothing to do but watch.
    For days, before the trucks arrived, before the work
    of cleanup, my brother sat on the stoop and watched.

    He watched the ambulances speed by, the police cars;
    watched for the looters who'd come each day
    to siphon gas from the car, take away the generator,

    the air conditioner, whatever there was to be had.
    He watched his phone for a signal, watched the sky
    for signs of a storm, for rain so he could wash.

    At the church, handing out diapers and water,
    he watched the people line up, watched their faces
    as they watched his. And when at last there was work,

    he got a job, on the beach, as a watcher.
    Behind safety goggles, he watched the sand for bones,
    searched for debris that clogged the great machines.

    Riding the prow of the cleaners, or walking ahead,
    he watched for carcasses—chickens mostly, maybe
    some cats or dogs. No one said remains. No one

    had to. It was a kind of faith, that watching:
    my brother trained his eyes to bear
    the sharp erasure of sand and glass, prayed

    there'd be nothing more to see.


    For Tamara Jones

    The house is in need of repair, but is—
    for now, she says—still hers. After the storm,
    she laid hands on what she could reclaim:
    the iron table and chairs etched with rust,
    the dresser laced with mold. Four years gone
    she's still rebuilding the shed out back
    and sorting through boxes in the kitchen-
    a lifetime of bills and receipts, deeds
    and warranties, notices spread out
    on the table, a barrage of red ink: PAST DUE. Now,
    the house is a museum of everything

    she can't let go: a pile of photographs—
    fused and peeling—water stains blurring
    the handwritten names of people she can't recall;
    a drawer crowded with funeral programs
    and church fans, rubber bands and paper sleeves
    for pennies, nickels, and dimes. What stops me
    is the stack of tithing envelopes. Reading my face,
    she must know I can't see why—even now—
    she tithes, why she keeps giving to the church.
    First seek the kingdom of God, she tells me,
    and the rest will follow—says it twice

    as if to make a talisman of her words.



    On Saturday, when I come to see
    my brother, they call him, over loudspeaker,
    to the tower—a small guardroom
    at the entrance to the prison. I sign my name
    in the book, write R0470—his number—
    and agree to a search, I stand as if
    I would make a snow angel in the air,
    and the woman guard pats me down
    lightly. Waiting for him, I consider

    the squat room's title; how it once meant
    prison, and to the religious faithful, heaven.
    Here, my brother has no use for these words,
    this easy parsing. This time he tells me
    he's changed his name: Jo-ell instead of Joel—
    name of the man who took our mother's life—
    his father, an inmate somewhere else.
    Thinking only of words, I'd wanted to tell him
    the name means prophet. That was before I knew

    it had—for him—been a prison, too.



    Once, I was a daughter of this place:
    daughter of Gwen, granddaughter
    of Leretta, great of Eugenia McGee.

    I was baptized in the church
    my great-aunt founded, behind
    the drapes my grandmother sewed.

    As a child, I dozed in the pews
    and woke to chant the Lord's Prayer
    mouthing the lines I did not learn.

    Still a girl, I put down the red flower
    and wore a white bloom pinned to my chest—
    the mark of loss: a motherless child. All

    the elders knew who I was, recalled me
    each time I came home and spoke
    my ancestors’ names—Sugar, Son Dixon—

    a native tongue. What is home but a cradle
    of the past? Too long gone, I've found
    my key in the lock of the old house

    will not turn—a narrative of rust;
    and everywhere the lacuna of vacant lots,
    for sale signs. a notice reading Condemned.

    I wanted to say I have come home
    to bear witness, to read the sign
    emblazoned on the church marquee—
    Believe the report of the Lord-
    and trust that this is noble work, that

    which must be done. I wanted to say I see,
    not I watch. I wanted my seeing to be
    a sanctuary, but what I saw was this:
    in my rearview mirror, the marquee's
    other side—Face the things that confront you.

    My first day back, a pilgrim, I traveled
    the old neighborhood, windows up,
    steering the car down streets I hadn't seen
    in years. It was Sunday. At the rebuilt church
    across from my grandmother's house,
    I stepped into the vestibule and found
    not a solid wall as years before, but
    a new wall, glass through which I could see
    the sanctuary. And so, I did not go in;
    I stood there, my face against the glass,

    watching. I could barely hear the organ,
    the hymn they sang, but when the congregation rose,
    filing out of the pews, I knew it was the call
    to altar. And still, I did not enter. Outside,
    as I'd lingered at the car, a man had said
    You got to come in. You can't miss the word.
    I got as far as the vestibule—neither in,
    nor out. The service went on. I did nothing
    but watch, my face against the glass—until
    someone turned, looked back: saw me.



    I thought that when I saw my brother
    walking through the gates of the prison,
    he would look like a man entering

    his life. And he did. He carried
    a small bag, holding it away from his body
    as if he would not touch it, or

    that it weighed almost nothing.
    The clothes he wore seemed to belong
    to someone else, like hand-me-downs

    given a child who will one day
    grow into them. Behind him, at the fence,
    the inmates were waving, someone saying

    All right now. And then,
    my brother was walking toward us,
    a few awkward steps at first until

    he got it—how to hold up the too-big pants
    with one hand, and in the other
    carry everything else he had.


    Published in Beyond Katrina (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010).

    Published: 9 September 2010
    © 2010 Natasha Trethewey and Southern Spaces