What the Tree Remembers

As I walked out of the library and into the main foyer that led to Pastor Sadie's[i] office, I was met by Elder Zimmerman, who I had been friendly with in the past. Imposing, he stood nearly six feet and muscular to my five foot frame. He had a glorious gray beard, neatly trimmed, with sideburns to match, and wore black ill-fitting trousers with a white button down shirt. His large hirsute hands rested near his thighs. Simple, rectangular wire-rimmed bifocals nestled atop his hooked nose. I said "hello" as I looked past him to the office door of my pastor.

"You should be coming through the back door," he said to me.

"What?" was my stunned response. But before he could reply, my pastor came out of her office, quick like a cheetah pouncing on unsuspecting prey. She stood as defiant as a by-any-means-necessary Malcolm X, meeting his stare with a glare of her own. They stood nearly eye to eye, she not much shorter than he, firmly planted like a century old Redwood tree. Determined not to blink, she looked him in his bespectacled eyes, demanding what he meant.

He didn't back down, nor did he buckle. In fact, he actually repeated himself, stating that "people like me" should be coming in through the back door. Perhaps he was confused. Just because he was dressed like it was 1950s Selma didn't mean that these were those times. It was 2011, after all. My president was Black.

In that moment, I flashed back to all the other times I had realized that church was not a safe place for me.

* * * * *

The first time, I was about seven. The sunlit colors dancing in all their splendor through the stained glass windows of my Catholic church always mesmerized me. Church was such a fascinating place to me back then, full of magic and wonder. I liked to skip through the nearly empty sanctuary after mass, dressed in my black patent leather Mary Janes with white ruffled socks. That day, my dress was red with a small colorful butterfly pattern and a sash at my waist. My thick long hair had been neatly parted into equal geometric patterns. The intricate partings each held a ponytail with a colorful bauble at the scalp and barrettes that clicked and clacked at the ends as I ran.

I stopped at the first station of the cross and examined it, curious and contemplative. Carefully, I walked to the next station. I recited the opening prayer: O my God, my Redeemer, behold me here at thy feet. From the bottom of my heart I am sorry for all my sins, because by them I have offended thee, who art infinitely good. I will die rather than offend thee again.

I walked to the next station cautiously, and somewhere in the distance, near the altar, muffled sounds commanded my attention. I carefully followed those sounds as I walked further and further away from the sanctuary. Once I arrived at the sacristy's slightly ajar door, the sounds were much more clear. I took in the contents of the sacristy before me, my eyes focused on the gold chalice that I'd never seen in any other location other than the Credence Table.

The sounds were louder now, deep and guttural, sounds that preceded modern language. I had stumbled onto two altar boys, in various stages of undress, their albs haphazardly strewn about. Their pale white faces flushed red with shame. Their gangly awkward limbs tangled and intertwined with one another.

I took in the scene, not fully understanding what was before me, but knowing instinctively that it was not a moment intended for my gaze. I let out a tiny gasp as I dropped the rosary that my Ya-Ya had given me, after she'd had it blessed by Pope John Paul II. The tenderness with which the boys had caressed one another turned into a frantic urgency to get their clothes back on, once they discovered me discovering them. Impatient for me to unsee what I'd seen, they began to scurry, grasping at whatever they could to hide their nakedness, as Adam and Eve did in the garden of Eden. They clumsily and unintentionally knocked over sacred vessels in the process. A prepubescent voice heavy with anger and embarrassment screeched, "Get out, get out, you little Black bitch!" his voice cracking and going up several octaves on the last syllable.

Tears burning the inside of my eyelids, I backed away slowly and turned before I allowed them to fall. I ran through the rectory, then the Blessed Sacred Chapel, and into the narthex, where I found my mother talking to the priest. I hid behind her skirt, not sure how to explain my tears, or what I had just witnessed.

* * * * *

Years later, I moved away from home to live with my mother's cousin, in Ohio, for a school term. One day this cousin, a deacon at his small Baptist congregation, asked if I wanted to go to the church with him. Really, it was a demand masquerading as a choice. I'd already learned that resisting his demands was futile. He was a member of the quartet, and they would be rehearsing that night. He wanted to open up the church before the other members arrived and get the sound system adjusted properly.

With him, it had started out innocently enough. A boob graze at the dinner table, as he asked me to pass him the mashed potatoes. Or him accidentally coming into the bathroom as I showered, though he and his wife shared a fully functioning en suite bathroom. Or his demands for a hug throughout the day, as he'd press his pelvis against me while gyrating back and forth. And then, sometimes as I did my homework, I'd feel him staring at me.

It was best not to anger him. It was even better for me to be pliable in his hands, so he could shape and form me, as God had in my mother's womb. He'd only visited my room twice that week, which was two times less than he had the previous week. The threats of violence had become more scarce, and he hadn't punched me in more than a month. Progress.

The only thing I could think was that my prayers were finally being answered.

This cousin had once lamented to me that I was a "Jezebel," a temptress, which was why he was coerced into having his way with me, by forces beyond his control. So, I'd prayed not to be those things. Our Father, who art in Heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come. When those prayers went unanswered, I'd prayed to be more pious. Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

Once that prayer went ignored, I repented for my many, many sins. I repented for those awful things, as he referred to them, that I'd made him do to me. I repented for all the ways my 14-year-old body had caused an insatiable stir within him, the way my hips would distract him from doing the Lord's work. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

When all those prayers failed me, I hoped. I hoped my breasts wouldn't cause him to avert his eyes from the work of his hands. I hoped that he would stop forcing himself on me. I hoped he would stop staring at me, with lust in his eyes. I hoped that his wife would finally put a stop to this.

Then, lastly, I hoped I would die. For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

But this day, as we sat in the church basement, I gathered some hymnals for the quartet. I tried to make myself busy, so as to distract him from his goal. I didn't dare speak a word, believing my silence would render me invisible. As quiet as snow falling, he was upon me. Before I had a chance to react, he put his hand underneath my skirt and began furiously groping me, demanding I repent for my wily ways. As he started to tug at my underwear, I felt them begin to give way to his overzealous hands, and then I heard a rip.

Suddenly, there were sounds—footsteps from up above. Startled, he quickly pushed me away from him, with more force than necessary. I hit my head on the pew, and immediately began to cry from the pain.

Amos, another member of the quartet, had made his way to the basement. Flustered, this cousin tried to make small talk with Amos, as I began to rise up from the cold floor. Amos asked if I was alright, but before I could respond, this cousin assured him that I was. Stating that I was just clumsy. Then, he demanded that I go upstairs and get cleaned up.

Afraid to fully meet Amos' eyes, and even more afraid to stand up fully, I sensed that Amos knew something was amiss. This cousin gave me a familiar glare, and I knew my fate, once we returned home, should I disobey him. My eyes silently pleaded with him to allow me to stay in the basement. Slowly, I stood fully erect, attempting to clench my thighs tightly together, as this cousin and Amos watched me while I exited the room. I proceeded to walk slowly to the door as when my underwear fell to the ground.

In that instant, Amos knew what had happened prior to him making his way down the stairs—we all knew, and we all knew the other knew. They both looked at me, this cousin with pure contempt, and Amos with a look that I still can't quite explain to this day.

"You ready for the spring musical?" Amos said to the cousin, breaking the silence, as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. As if a pair of underwear falling from a 14-year-old girl wasn't cause for alarm.

* * * * *

Those two memories carried me back to the present moment.

We three knew what Elder Zimmerman had meant by that statement. In the end, Pastor Sadie told him that he was being inappropriate, and that I was welcome at the church, and free to come in whichever door I pleased. He left in a flurry, never acknowledging or taking responsibility for the words he'd spoken to me.

After that incident, I stopped attending church. I found sleeping in a much more rewarding way to spend my Sunday mornings. Nearly a year after this, the elders (of which he was no longer one) asked to visit with me. They wanted to know why I'd stopped attending. I chuckled as I thought to myself that it had taken them nearly a year for my absence to be noticed—strange since I was the only Black person in the congregation.

Reluctantly, I agreed, and they came to my house.

I was direct in my assessment of what had occurred. I used no frilly language to soften the incident or make them comfortable. I could hear anxiety in their voices, as they questioned if I was certain it had happened the way I'd remembered it. They stammered and rushed through sentences, defending and trying to excuse the actions of Elder Zimmerman. I smiled and inhaled slowly as I examined each of them with eyes of someone who has learned to watch closely, to see what is not being said. My nose flared instinctively as I repeated to them something I'd heard my Ya-Ya mutter many a time: "The axe often forgets what the tree remembers." The person who has been hurt remembers who injured them, while the person causing the harm has reason to forget what they have done.

I told them it had happened exactly as I'd recounted, and that they could speak with Pastor Sadie to verify my recollection, since I had no equity in this. My voice didn't matter, since I wasn't saying what they wanted to hear. Especially since I wasn't saying what they wanted to hear. The oppressed will never make the oppressor understand their plight, any more than the lamb will be able to get a wolf to sympathize with them about their slaughter. People tend to see what they want to see, and ignore what they don't.

Several years have passed since that last incident, and I still carry the weight of it with me—I can't shake it. I've since moved to another city, and thus a new congregation. I sometimes think about the situation with the elders; I often wonder why my words weren't enough. I also wonder if the line of questioning would have been the same if I were white and he Black.

Black folks aren't typically afforded the luxury of credibility.

Victimization of Black women isn't allowed, since we have always been survivors. Since we were brought here in chains, we were never allowed to be victims. Whatever our fate, it was also our fault. Some people's stories are prioritized and believed over others, while others are blamed, victim-shamed, or not believed at all. Voices like mine are ones that often go unrepresented, ones that often aren't allowed to speak, or our humanity goes unacknowledged. My Ya-Ya would tell me, "It's not a Black woman's job to carry the weight of the world all the damn time," and it's not—yet unconsciously we do.

The best we can do is to try to see people for who they are, and adjust our expectations accordingly. In some instances, that means having no expectations at all.

[i] All of the names in this piece have been changed.

About the Author

Ivanna Johnson-McMurry

Ivanna Johnson-McMurry was born and raised in southern California, and now lives in Colorado, where she is a member of First Mennonite Church in Denver. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel.