Key West to Miami
My journey has finally begun! I started out at the Southernmost Point marker (which I discover, much to my disappointment, isn't actually at the southernmost point) and trundled through the leafy streets of Key West. I stop to tour Earnest Hemingway's house, and get inspired to download 'To Have and Have Not' on audiobook, which I listen to as I head north on US1. I've discovered a fascinating story about Spanish Galleon The Atocha, laden with treasure when she sank off Key West in a Hurricane in 1622. I learnt nothing at all about Dolphins in the Dolphin Research Center. And I went deep water fishing off Key Largo. Amongst many other things.
I arrived into Miami on Saturday, and have met some fascinating people in this most eclectically Cuban of cities. Here's a first draft of a piece for my book: Comments welcome!
I hadn’t been on the road long, but I was quickly losing track of the days. I woke up in Coconut Grove and looked at my watch; it was Sunday. Time for Church, I thought, digging out my iPad and seeing what was nearby. I’ve never been particularly diligent about going to church, but I’ve always enjoyed it when I have been (except, of course, when I was forced to go to Cathedral service whilst still at school; I always found that boring and irrelevant to my life as a growing kid, trying to find my way in the world, trying to chat up girls, trying to play sport, figuring shit out). Back in England, my type of middle-class white upbringing meant my friends and neighbours went to one of two types of church: Roman Catholic or Church of England. Sure, there were all types of worship on a Sunday – synagogues, mosques, B&Q – but broadly my crowd were either Catholic or CofE. Arriving in America, the churches always seemed more complex. I was a Protestant – Church of England back home – but I faced a bewildering choice in the States: Episcopal, Methodist, Unitarian, Lutheran, Seventh-day Adventist, Baptist, Congregational. We’d tried a few out, and loosely settled on Methodist as our preferred service, mostly because of the inclusive, open-mindedness of the church and congregation but also because we had one right next door to our home in Atlanta. I looked for the nearest Methodist Church near me: the Greater St. Paul A.M.E Church. A.M.E? I wondered. African Methodist Episcopal.
It had been a tough week to be black in America. Early in the week, two white police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana had held down an unarmed black man, Alton Sterling, and shot him in the chest and back from close range. A camera captured his horrific death. A few days later, a white officer stops Philando Castile, a popular school nutrition services supervisor, in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Perfectly within his rights, Castile is armed; he advises the officer of this. When reaching for his ID from his wallet in his pocket, per the Officer’s instruction, the Officer shoots Castile in the arm, mortally wounding him. Philandro Castile’s fiancée, sitting in the passenger seat, films it all. There is national outrage, fear and protest. But things turn worse still. Three days later, Micah Johnson, an African American veteran of the Afghan war, takes it upon himself to reap justice. Leveraging his sniper skills, Johnson decamps in a building in Dallas as a Black Lives Matter protest passes by. Johnson looks for white Officers policing the event, picking them off one-by-one. Five white Officers are killed. Johnson, holed up in the building, defends his position. Police blow him up.
After such a week I felt a compunction to visit the Greater St. Paul A.M.E. Church.
The church could be described as the wrong side of the tracks. This was a black neighbourhood: small bungalows, warped in the heat; a clapped-out Red Pontiac Trans Am parked in a driveway; a run-down school. This was in stark contrast to the elegance and affluence of Miami’s Coconut Grove, just a few blocks to the east. I parked up and checked my car for belongings; if I had any, I feared I wouldn’t see them again. It was that kind of place.
The church was concrete, cream-painted with Tuscan terracotta tiles on its gently sloping roof. The front door was glass, aluminium framed, like an entrance to a public sector office. It was smart, well-kept but not unduly beautiful. I walked inside. I was a few minutes early. There were a group of elegantly dressed ladies congregating in the hallway. They all looked at me with a warm smile and no sense of suspicion. “Welcome,” one of them said kindly, taking me be the hand. “Our service starts at tee-un.” (Ten has two syllables in this part of the world.) “Please, go inside and take a seat.”
In a congregation of nearly a hundred, I was the only white person. I took a seat close to the back of the church, self-conscious and feeling conspicuous. Several people smiled kindly at me – really kindly – without any suggestion of ‘What’s that honky doin’ in our Church?’ I was made very welcome. The service started a little late – about tee-un tee-un – with some words of welcome from the Pastor, the keyboard playing gently over him, loud hollers of ‘Amen’ from the congregation following each statement, then, led by the choir, we went into an upbeat ditty, “Praise God From Whom All Blessing Flow.” The keyboard player, shaven head and big bushy beard, smiled throughout, eyes closing, head-wobbling in time with the music. The congregation clapped and swayed, hands raised high. The choir weren’t great – it certainly wasn’t Gospel – but it felt like a celebration.
Prayers and readings were all done by young children, none showing any signs of fear, reading with confidence and conviction. One, Miss Paris Dixon, read a piece entitled A Moment in Our History, tackling the issues with racism and discrimination that I imagined had blighted the lives of the entire congregation in some way. Miss Jamaica Williams read fire and brimstone from Matthew 18. But my favourite moment – and possibly a highlight of my life – came from Miss Chasidey Brown, the smallest, youngest reader of the day. She had a fabulous mop of frizzy hair, parted down the middle, and wore a broad grin as she went up to the lectern; she stood on tip-toes to look over the top of it. “Have we got any visitors here today?” Chasidey asked sweetly. Visitors? I thought. Yes, you do. I gingerly put my hand up. The lady behind me tapped me on my shoulder, telling me to stand up. Everybody turned to look at me; I was the only visitor. Chasidey smiled, pointing at me: “We gonna sing you a song!” The keyboard fired up and a hundred elegant black people sang a song with a chorus of “You are welcome here!” They all meant it, swaying and clapping as they sang. One man came up to shake my hand, his broad grin revealing his four missing teeth. They all gave me a round of applause at the conclusion of the song; I smiled my thank you’s back at them all the best I could then sat back down in my pew and wept. I’ll never know what these people have gone through in their lives, or the pain and suffering fellow humans have caused them, but I knew these were good people and I’d be grateful for being with them on this morning for the rest of my life.