Christmas 2007 was a special, fragile time for our immediate family. My brother and sister-in-law were engaged, scheduled to be married in less than a year. My youngest brother, now 14, was barely 4. My grandfather, the patriarch and soul of our family, would not last until the wedding in October. We went to church together on Christmas Eve, as we always did, because when your father is a minister, the choice is simple and made for you.
I suppose it’s worth mentioning that I remember the events from that day as if they occurred on the same day in the same year, but it’s possible this Christmas memory is a compilation. We always went to my dad’s church on Christmas Eve; we always went together. Sometimes my sister-in-law’s parents joined us, sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes Pop was in town, sometimes he wasn’t. Matthew was so little for so long; who can say 10 years later if he was 4 or 5?
But I believe it was Christmas 2007, and what I remember, I remember as clear as a bell. My father, the music minister, got up to sing "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," a beautiful Christmas carol written in the style of an African-American spiritual. In my memory Sandra, the pianist, accompanied him minimally. I sat in between Pop and Matthew – my mom seated on the other side of Pop, Frank seated on the other of Matthew.
The song “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” was first written and recorded in 1934, and for those of us who take our cues from the Christian tradition, its lyrics are haunting. But the first verse my dad sang went fine:
Sweet little Jesus Boy
They made You be born in a manguh
Sweet little Holy chil'
Didn't know who You wus
Didn't know You'd come to save us Lawd
To take our sins away
Our eyes wus bline
We couldn't see
We didn't know who You wus
But at a line in verse two – “De worl' treat You mean Lawd, treat me mean too” – he got choked up, and couldn’t continue. He wept openly in front of the congregation he felt called to serve. I sobbed right along with him, and when I looked at my mother and sister-in-law, learned they were sobbing, too. It was a Mebane family mess, full of ugly crying and beautiful, vulnerable hearts. I wasn’t sure my dad would recover, because once you start crying mid-song, it’s hard to. I know this from experience.
That’s when a man in the back row spoke up.
“That’s all right, Frank. That’s all right. Go on.”
A man I don’t recall, who I might have never met, gave my dad permission to feel the emotions behind the words he sang. I have no idea if they were friends, or if they feuded, as ministers and congregants sometimes do. I honestly don’t care. Because what matters is that, in that moment, one man saw another in his vulnerability and said to him, publicly, loudly: “I see you. I empathize with you. We’ll wait for you.” And somehow, miraculously, my dad finished singing the song.
I’m grateful to Robert MacGinsey for writing such a beautiful song. I’m grateful that my dad sang it during that Christmas Eve service. I’m grateful that neither my incredibly active 4-year-old brother nor my frail 85-year-old grandfather burned down the church during the candlelight service that followed. But mostly I’m grateful to that man who saw the pain of another, touched it and said, “I am here.”
I think of this story every Christmas season, but I thought of it this particular morning because I had a brief back-and-forth on Twitter with one of the mothers of the Sandy Hook victims. Her son survived; her daughter did not. At the time of the shooting, her six-year-old daughter was only slightly older than that 2007 memory of Matthew, and her family has spent the last five years putting itself back together.
But yesterday, on the 5th anniversary, she was just a grieving mother honoring the brief life of her daughter, and if you can believe it, praising God. A picture of her gorgeous, missed child was posted, alongside these words: “I love the Lord. He heard my cry, and pitied every groan. Long as I live, and troubles rise, I’ll hasten to His throne.” Lots and lots of people commented. Some read her words and questioned how she could possibly retain faith. Some read them and felt called to action.
Me? I said nothing, but I understood both reactions. It’s hard to know what this family and others went through and NOT feel abandoned or filled with righteous rage. My primary response, though, is to remember the phrase of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” that my dad couldn’t get through – “De worl' treat You mean Lawd, treat me mean too” – and, consequently, to follow the example of the man who spoke up from the back of the room.
I see your pain, Nelba Marquez-Greene, and for the rest of my life, I’ll do my best to empathize. I’m standing right here, alongside you.