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The Role of Spirituality in My Life as a Senior
By Dona L. Irvin
There is no doubt in my mind that the role of religion and the church in my life when I was a child, a teenager, and a young adult in Houston, Texas was very much like the great majority of African-American children in that city. The only differences would be in the degree of involvement and the total immersion of the individual members of my family. Almost all of the black community was Protestant, a small number Catholic, with the majority belonging to Baptist or Methodist churches. Both of my parents played major roles in the activities of Mt. Corinth Baptist Church, one of the highest regarded churches of the time, and insisted that all five of their children do the same until they reached the age to make their individual decisions.
My father, who was very active in all of the community activities that had to do with the welfare of the black community and had a demanding work schedule as a national official of a fraternal organization that offered social services to its thousands of members, was Chairman of the board of deacons, Superintendent of the Sunday School, a bass singer in the choir, and served on many of the church committees.
My mother, a woman not nearly as outgoing and active as my father, directed and accompanied the church choir as its pianist and selected only traditional hymns and Negro Spirituals. She disdained anything that was faintly related to the gospel music that was acceptable to some churches of that day. It would have been impossible for Mt. Corinth to house the key boards, drums, or guitars that are routine instruments in todays spiritual centers. Mama spent many hours of the week in choir rehearsals. Starting in early November of each year, our house was filled with the voices of singers, male and female, practicing their parts in the annual Christmas cantatas. The same was repeated for Easter time.
The most dominant factors in the McGruder family outside of the home when I was growing up were Mt. Corinth Baptist Church and the fraternal organizations that were the sources of my fathers income.We were intimately concerned with the churchs dinners, picnics, concerts, and other functions that augmented its Sunday services. And, many of the frequent social events sponsored by the lodges were held at the McGruder home inside, or outside on the spacious lawns. In keeping with the African- American tradition, the church was a social as well as a religious center for families that did not approve of the popular entertainment offered by night clubs, movies, public dances, or house parties where card games, liquor, dancing, and non-religious music were the main attractions.
When I was a young girl, church attendance was mandatory until the McGruder children reached the age that entitled them to make their own decisions. So I, too, went through the rituals just like everyone in my family did. I heard the hymns, Bible readings, sermons, and testimonies regardless of whether I comprehended the meanings. In later years I realized that I must have absorbed some juvenile understanding of the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and the Twenty-third Psalm. No doubt their influence struck me with some degree of consciousness appropriate to the kind of life my mother and father wanted for me.
Sundays were the time for the entire family to go together to the morning and evening services. In this setting I saw my mother at the piano and Papa singing in the choir, as were all of my siblings. In my early years I was assigned to a pew where my father could see me clearly from his seat with the other male singers, and could signal his disapproval if my conduct was not to his liking. At the close of the service we went home for the special Sunday dinner my mother had prepared the day before because Sundays were holy days that were left as free as possible from household duties. No one touched their knives or forks until Papa had blessed the food, beginning with Dear Lord, make us thankful for this food, and ending with, Bless the hands that provided it and the hands that prepared it. Amen.
When I became a teenager, I was given the privilege of walking alone the approximately one mile back to the church on Sunday afternoons for the weekly meeting of the Baptist Young Peoples Union. There was nothing spiritual about those walks, but I recall a section of the journey as highlights of my weekthe pure ecstacy I felt when the route took me along the front of a honky-tonk place that blasted soulful blues music from inside of the facility. I could not share with anyone my joy in the sort of sinful music that I had been taught to stay clear of. However, regardless of my parentss warnings, I learned to slow my steps as much as possible to prolong my hearing of the rhythms that was taboo in our home. I came upon a clever ruse of untying and retying my shoe laces just beyond the doors to gain a few more seconds of the joy. The beat of the drums, the notes of the pianos, and the sound of the voices was as near to real spirituality as I could get, and it formed the basis for my enjoyment of the music of Billie Holliday, B. B.King, Jimmy Rushing, Ray Charles, and Billy Eckstine through their records in my own home in future years.
In my book, I Hope I Look That Good When Im That Old, published in 2002, the chapter My Churches and My Namespeaks in detail about all of my spiritual experiences, including my continued involvement with Mt Corinth Baptist Church as a young adult and a young married woman, and my attendance at the Sunday Morning Chapel Services and the Evening Vesper Services at Prairie View College when I was a freshman and a sophomore. At Prairie View, although the spiritual value of the services was secondary to the feelings of oneness with my class mates, those hours added to the principles that were taught at Mt. Corinth Baptist Church in my younger years. When Frank and I married in 1937, we accompanied my widowed mother to Mt. Corinth for a while, but we soon allowed the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood to take precedence.
This attitude of independence lasted until we moved to Oakland, California in 1942 and found a new spiritual home, Beth Eden Baptist Church in West Oakland, the section of the city that housed most of its African-American population. Even though Beth Eden was much like Mt. Corinth in terms of congregation make up and worship emphasis, I never became totally involved in its programs, preferring to remain on the periphery. I eventually lost all outward contact with organized religion, but I retained the messages of The Holy Bible as presented to me as a part of my family when I was a young child, and as I matured into full adulthood. I still recognized the importance of their basic truths.
In the early 1950s Frank and I joined Downs Memorial United Methodist Church in Oakland. With this move I met people whose spiritual convictions, devotion to family, and commitment to the welfare of our community paralleled mine. The pastor, also our friend, the late Bishop Roy Nichols, had an effective way of relating the religious content of his sermons to happening outside of the church structure, and leading the membership into community actions that brought about positive changes. In addition to taking part in church programs, I joined church-sponsored protests, marches, picket lines, and political demonstrations. This period, which was during the Civil Rights Era, brought great spiritual growth for me personally, and inspiration to take actions that benefitted citizens with unfulfilled needs. This period of my spiritual life is documented in my book, The Unsung Heart of Black America, which described the churchs activities and the individual contributions of some of the people there.
I loved the music at Downs, which was much like that at Mt. Corinth in Houston; a mixture of traditional hymns and Negro Spirituals, rendered by a well trained choir. Downs was the place where I formed friendships that began when all of us were in our thirties. A good number of those relationships still exist.
Frank and I probably would have continued our membership permanently at Downs Church had it not been for the fact that after we returned from a two-year residence in Ghana, West Africa, our minister had accepted an assignment to a church in New York City. With his absence Downs was not the same for us. Instead of pursuing a search for an acceptable spiritual center, I devoted week ends to family matters, household chores, community duties, and bicycle rides with friends.
This absence of spiritual participation lasted until the deaths of some of my age mates fostered within me thoughts of my own morbidity, followed by a yearning for the comfort of spiritual reassurance. I began to temper some of the long-standing distrust of organized religion I felt because of Christianitys historical approval of slavery, racial prejudice and discrimination, and its blessing of the killing or human beings in war. At the same time, I recognized the need for renewed trust and reliance on God. I reached the state that family love no longer satisfied the intangible demands that were coming to me with greater intensity. I became open to the renewal of some form of spiritual activity.
After I retired in1982 and mentally entered an elevated age status, the upward progress of my life received a powerful thrust with the discovery of Religious Science (not to be confused with Scientology). Like Unity, Christian Science, and Divine Science, Religious Science is a part of the metaphysical movement. It is based upon the teachings of prominent wise thinkers in Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and other faiths. These additional teachings brought a deeper meaning to the Biblical passages I was familiar with, and taught me the realities of the connection between the mind, body, and spirit in all aspects of my lifeabundance, health, love, support, and everything. The emphasis is upon the positive in all matters, physical, mental, or spiritual, beliefs that merged well with the Baptist lessons of my childhood and young adult days, and the lessons of Methodism that followed.
The strongest effect of Religious Science came to me in 1989 during the first hour of the opening session of On Course, a three-day self discovery workshop held at my church, the First Church of Religious Science, Oakland. When the director of the program asked for a volunteer to stand and tell the audience about an existing personal problem, I arose and started to speak about my present difficulties in completing the inprogress manuscript that had come to a halt. But before I finished the end of the first sentence, the director asked for my name. Without thinking about how the words came out, I replied, My name is Dona Irvin, pronouncing it Doe-na, not the usual Donna, the way most people mispronounced it. For some reason, at that moment, and in that safe setting, I said it in the correct way, proudly using the intended pronunciation derived from my mothers maiden name, Donato. And I was fully aware that the word dona also means a gift in Latin, and in Spanish, it refers to a lady.
With one unplanned stroke I had defanged the power that more self assured boys and girls had used to bring shame to me by corrupting my beautiful name, Doe-na into a much more mundane word that referred to a simple piece of food, a doughnut. The moment I uttered it I felt a surge of power and freedom which was reflected by the response from the director when he appeared to be much more interested in pursuing that transformation than in talking about the temporary writing hang up. He sensed the impact of my sudden openness, at age seventy-two, to the way I was addressed by people who did not recognize the existence of an unfamiliar name and didnt make an effort to say it in the correct way. The exchange that followed led me into more understanding of the gigantic step I had just taken in my continuing self development.
Immediately after that I sensed a great improvement in all aspects of my self esteem and self contentment. The stammer in my speech that has been present all through my life continued to diminish, as did my automatic feelings of inferiority. With my concentration upon the spiritual aspects of my life and my emphasis upon prayer and thanks to God for the abundance of blessings in all aspects of my life, I enjoy serenity, and know that all is well with me.
In my earlier adult life the most important things were my education, my marriage, the welfare of my children, employment, sexuality, financial security, a car and house of my selection, an attractive wardrobe, tasty menus, and such. But now with increased age, when I have everything I need to serve as an anchor, there has been a definite shift to a status where physical and mental health have taken a step upward in terms of importance. And, without any doubt, I know that spirituality is the most powerful aspect of all. It is the source of my security and satisfaction.
SPIRITUAL PRACTICES FOR DONA L. IRVIN
Frequent prayer: I give thanks for the presence of God in my life and I expect, accept, and give thanks for the abundance of blessings in every aspect of my life. I give thanks for my physical and mental health. I give thanks for my interest in, enjoyment of, and ability to participate in activities that require physical and/or mental acuity. I give thanks for my husband, daughter, dog, friends, house, car, finances, health care, and all of the numerous niceties that make my existence joyful.
Emphasize positive thoughts; accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.
Drink two quarts of water each day.
Monitor the fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugar, etc. in my diet.
Walk at least four days a week for thirty to forty minutes.
Remember that the more I stimulate myself to use my innate abilities, the more capable I become.
Include in each day at least one chore that requires physical and/or mental energy.
Allow myself the rest and relaxation I need.
Accept the phrase, Ill see it when I believe it.
MAKE USE OF THE FOUR STEPS TO SUCCESS