I received news via Facebook very early this morning that my paternal grandmother, Big Mama, died. She was 86 years old.
As far as I know, Big Mama did not die of anything in particular, nor is it really necessary that she should have died of something in particular. At 86 years I think a person has a right to die without anything being ‘wrong’ with them at all; you are old and you have died, that is all.
She used to say that she promised the Lord that if he let her keep her mind, she would serve him all her days and that if you ever saw her not serving the Lord we should pray for her mind. Well over the last few years, my grandmother did experience mental decline but she keep serving him anyway.
When I received the news I told my wife that I had expected my grandmother to die this year and was in fact hoping that it would happen when I travel back to the US this year during the holiday break. I do not mean to say that I was looking forward and hoping for my grandmother’s death as that is by no means the case. I mean only that I had hoped to be there when she died so that I could mourn and celebrate with the family. And in any case some years back she told me that she wanted me to preach her funeral. I am not sure that is now possible, but we will see.
This request of hers, that I preach her funeral, leads me on to further reflection as I consider her life and her death. One of my cousins mentioned that she was the matriarch of the family. Truer words have hardly been spoken. How can one remember, mourn, and celebrate the loss of someone who fully fits that description? It feels as if the queen of a minor monarchy has died and I am one of its princes. (Too bad we don’t have any princely money.)
She was in fact a true matriarch, the woman around whom a tremendous constellation of family and friends of the family revolved whether they knew her personally or not. Her matriarchy was not built on the basis of a large family: she had only 4 children, and 12 grandchildren – not especially huge numbers as such things go. And the family was not, in the strictest sense of the word, the center of her matriarchal power. Sure, years ago we would gather at her place during Christmas to eat and all that, but it has been a quite a long while since that tradition died (to be honest it was not at all one especially enjoyed by our ‘branch’ of the family tree, that is my father’s children; we were not really upset when that tradition ended but that’s another story). No the matriarchy of my grandmother was built on something quite different and is something to which I am, in a very real sense of the word, an heir. It was built on the church.
You see my grandmother was the founder of the church in which I grew up. Family sat at the center but many others came, seeking their soul salvation, looking for the truth, desperate for deliverance from sin, from death, from the challenges of life. They came and became connected to us, to the family that sat at the core of things. They came as friends of the family, sisters and brothers-in-law, wives and husbands turned ex-wives and ex-husbands who stayed even though they were no longer married into the family but were still part of the church and thus part of the family, the Lord added to their numbers those who would be saved. They came and they were drawn in not just to the church but into the family so that everybody seemed to be related even though only a few of us actually were. The church was the family and the family was the church and we who were in both could scarcely tell where one ended and the other began. So my grandmother was matriarch beyond the natural family — she was mama, and big mama, and pastor all at the same time to a great many people.
She was my grandmother and my pastor and she reigned as pastor of the church for more than 35 years until she abdicated the throne to my father, her eldest son and chief heir to her ministerial and pastoral legacy. I use the term ‘reigned’ intentionally for that is how it felt to us, or to me at least since all our lives we, the children of her eldest son, grew up as I imagine royal heirs grow up except in this case we were being groomed for ministry.
It was only natural. My two uncles were both younger than my father and were not really the church-going type. The youngest one, though now in ministry himself, came late to it after many years of wandering as a prodigal. My aunt, older than my father, was consistently inconsistent and besides she smoked and played the numbers, two giant no-no’s for anyone aspiring to leadership in Pentecostal Holiness circles. So it fell to my father as the one called to ministry early, and consequently to us his children. So we learned about all the workings of ministry and the dynamics of leadership not so much as children of the church but as dynastic heirs to a priestly inheritance.
So it was that she reigned in the church and ruled in the family, combining in herself the sacred and the familial role in such a way that the two dimensions of power are inextricably linked for me. It is nearly impossible to separate my remembrance of her as my grandmother from my remembrance of her as my 1st pastor.
I still remember her preaching in such a way that it seemed hell itself would open up and swallow you where you stood for the sins you’d committed that week.
I remember her leaning on the pulpit looking with the serious face on those who were tarrying there for Holy Ghost power because it wasn’t the Holy Ghost until she said it was, no matter how much you cried or screamed or rolled on the floor.
I remember her running, when she still could run, and dancing before the Lord with joy even when she couldn’t really anymore.
I remember when I shared with her my sense of calling to the ministry… how she looked at me but seemed to be looking through me. (I think if more people had to sit in my grandmother’s living room to talk about their calling to ministry while she looked through them too quite a few of them might change their mind and decide they weren’t called after all.)
For the other branches of the family (the children of my father’s 3 siblings) the mourning and remembrance will be different… of course it would be. Her relationship with them was different than it was with us. For them I think (though I can’t be certain) they experienced her as Big Mama or Mama first and pastor second whilst for us it was perhaps the other way ’round.
She was my grandmother though and not just my pastor. And she loved us and we loved her not just as a pastor but as a grandmother. If it wasn’t for her none of us would be here. I will miss her, indeed I already do.