When I was growing up and attending church, one of my frustrations was the music. I used to think about how the songs in the hymnal were lovely in every way but the formal delivery. Why did it seem somehow inappropriate to insert some feeling and sing them just a bit more soulfully?
Yesterday I went to Bethlehem Grove Baptist Church to attend the funeral of R.L. Walker, the father of my best friend in high school, Roy. They were Roy Lee, Senior and Junior, but the dad was simply “R.L.” and my friend was simply “Roy.” Roy and I don’t see much of each other and haven’t for many years, but when we are together, it’s not much different from when we sweated, strived and survived the harsh football practices of Clinton High School back in the 1970s. Roy went on to be an All-America tackle at Presbyterian College, and I went on to graduate cum laude at Furman University. Both of us have taken our share of lumps in the more than three decades since.
What a service. It left me thinking that, had I grown up in a black church, I might still be going.
R.L. Walker was 80. He was a good, hard-working man. I never knew him well, but it wasn’t hard to recognize his simple integrity, and that was reflected in the mostly humorous stories told of him by those who stood up to pay tribute. It was joyous, not mournful. It’s never easy to say farewell to a loved one, but funerals shouldn’t tear the survivors apart. This may have been the first I ever attended that didn’t.
The music was wonderful, beginning when the pastor, the Rev. Michael B. Henderson, began singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” which had been wafting through the sanctuary as the family was seated. The proceedings were long on emotion and feeling and short on sadness and regret. The man being honored was someone the preacher had taken the time to know. Most of the funerals I’ve attended in white churches seemed as if the pastor huddled with the widow, took a few notes and went through his paces.
R.L. Walker went out with speakers echoing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and singers evoking Lou Rawls.
It was altogether fitting and proper, and that’s sort of unusual in this world today.