I thank my God upon every remembrance of you.
From ages 8 to 15, I was a member of a church called The Power of Faith Evangelistic Ministries—at least that was what the white-lettered name typeset on the electric blue awning said, out front. All we ever called it was Power of Faith.
The address was 5242 Park Heights Avenue, and it was right across from the famed Pimlico racetrack. During Preakness season, you could see the thoroughbreds galloping when you stood on the sidewalk after service. A few years into my attendance, some Asians opened a greasy spoon called Pimlico Chicken & Fish. There was bullet-proof glass separating them from us.
They sold chicken boxes—five wings and fries, slathered in ketchup of questionable freshness from a gigantic unmarked bottle; “shrimp” as big as three fingers; soda rumored to have been chemically engineered by White folks to sterilize African American men.
We ate there at least once a week.
It was its own world, Power of Faith, all the more surreal right now, from the vantage of adult reflection. To adequately describe the experience of growing up there, you would have to have access to certain points of Christian reference. You would need to have some concept of the Chick tract—and what it feels like to be 12, trekking through the Park Heights community, handing them out to drunkards and addicts and shop-owners.
You would need to understand how Children’s Church or Youth Group can feel like a kind of orphanage, just by virtue of its isolation from our parents’ main service experience, and how in our temporarily parentless haven, we spent much of our time relying on and confiding in a group of kids we saw up to three times a week.
You’d have to know what a shut-in and a three-day fast are, how it might feel to show up at your church after dark, with a blanket, a pillow, a grumbling stomach, and an excitement to whisper conversations to your friends, while your parents paced the sanctuary floor in prayer.
You’d need to be able to wrap your mind around being one of two teenagers left in that darkened sanctuary on a Friday night, waiting for your respective parents and listening on in silence while they commanded demons to exit some woman’s body in the church basement.
This was no ordinary upbringing. These were no ordinary church services, of the type that last two hours, where you leave your worship experience and your Sunday morning relationships at the exit door till next time.
Power of Faith was in your blood. Being a member there was like marrying into a family; even if you got divorced (read: left and joined another church), you still considered all the people you’d inherited there your aunts and cousins and sisters.
Whenever a new family joined, we children immediately checked out their kids, hoping to graft them into our group and see what unique energy they’d bring to the collective. Fortunately, most members were super-involved and showed up for Wednesday, Friday and both Sunday services, so we spent loads of time bonding with new kids.
Everyone in Power of Faith’s youth group was known for something. Lashawn was a genius and a singer; she’d grow up to become a physician. The Brebnors were three siblings from Trinidad; they’d let you live in their home for whole summers if you wanted and for an only child like me, that was a singular experience, being part of a home that was bustling with noise and laughter and drama, that was rife with rhythm and creativity. But it wasn’t until Nikia came to the church that I understood what it might be like to have a sister.
I’d been a member at Power of Faith longer than most of the kids in our group, but I’d always felt slightly isolated. I’ve always been retreating in large group settings and because of the infrequency of my smiling or laughter, I was often mistaken for sullen. Nikia wasn’t as socially withdrawn as I, perhaps because she had a number of brothers, but like me, her smile had to be earned, her humor was wry and she tended to stand off from a big crowd on occasion, to observe.
I had my first crush at Power of Faith. It began when I was ten and lasted till long after I left. Even now, I remember that boy with a kind of wonder. And when I think of what I’ll tell my daughter about love, it will begin with a description of the infatuation I felt for him.
Our entire youth group knew about that crush, but they were mostly polite and empathetic enough not to tease me mercilessly for it.
When the Walkers arrived from St. Louis—a single mother, her adolescent son and pre-adolescent daughter—the chemistry of our group was forever altered. The son, Jason, made fast friends with the guys in our gang; his easy grin and infectious laughter immediately put people at ease. His lanky, boyish good looks made him a hit with the ladies, too.
With the Walkers’ arrival, Power of Faith had its first encounter with liturgical dance. Jason’s mother, Laurene, had founded a troupe called Namyanka, which delicately blended African movement and worshipful music and gesturing. His preteen sister, Jessica, who had been dancing since she was two, was the troupe’s star performer. Jason played the djembe during a selection of numbers.
A few of the girls in our youth group joined and I was one of them (another was a tiny girl close to Jessica’s age who’d grow up to become Jason’s wife). I’d soon learn I didn’t have the confidence for public dance performance. That was more the domain of Dejelle and Jacqui Brebnor, whose long, lithe limbs seemed made for graceful gesticulation.
But there was something truly thrilling about being a part of a Namyanka rehearsal. Even now, I look back on our performance of James Weldon Johnson’s The Creation with an awe I only reserve for the works of art that have made the deepest imprints in my heart. It was while rehearsing for this that I began to really understand how amazing the Walker family was. As Sister Laurene recited Johnson’s words like an incantation and Jessica flailed and whirled with urgency and elegance, Jason kept our rhythm with his drum.
With each strike of his palm or the heel of his hand, he seemed less the elastic-limbed boy we saw performing pratfalls in the church parking lot and more a man-in-the-making, more the warrior-hunter he would’ve been if he’d been raised in the Africa whose music he’d learned to so fully invoke.
It was with this dual perception I would always regard him. Jason was part prankster, part math scholar; part hip-hop, part classical enthusiast. He was his mother’s joy and his sister’s protector. He was kind, even when teasing. No matter how goofily he’d guffaw at a joke, you just knew that quite soon he’d grow into the disciplined, responsible soul his mother already trusted to steady the pulse of entire performances.
He did. Jason grew up and became a husband and father to four daughters. He was a loyal and trustworthy friend. He was still in close touch with many members of our Power of Faith youth group.
And yesterday, he died.
I hadn’t seen Jason since I left Power of Faith over 15 years ago, and we didn’t talk much even when I knew him. I could probably count our conversations on a hand. But he, like everyone I encountered there, had remained tenderly preserved in a snow globe of memory. There, I can access them all—and the flurry of emotions I felt about them—instantly and when I do, I feel as close to them as if I’d just passed them a note during praise and worship yesterday.
So it is no small thing to have lost Jason Walker. And as I reflect on his passing, I want to send this transmission out into the ether.
To Nikia and Eugene and Dejelle, to Jacqui and Rashid and Jaye, to Tonya and Booker and Theodore, to Chris and Damont and Philip, to Tami and Kim and Markia, to Angel and Shawn and the Mathews siblings, to Lashawn and April and Raheem, to Paulette and Tia and Terrell, to Jason and Jessica and TJ, to Carlos and Emmanuel and Jonah, to Sherman and Katrice and Tasha, to Kenya and Ronald and Kenyetta, to everyone whose names I’ve forgotten, to all those who’ve faced death before the rest of us:
I love you all. You’re never far. I’ll see you soon.