Woman of God

Avis Collins is the minister at the Apostolic Awakening Fellowship, a conservative church in Duluth, Georgia. Known as Mother Avis by her church family, she promotes herself as a black conservative who’s opposed to gay marriage, extra-marital sex, race mixing, and government entitlements. She grew up in a mainstream Methodist congregation, but became a fundamentalist following the fallout within her family from the deaths of their parents. Her church promotes family values and economic empowerment, and, in practice, their philosophy is a curious mixture of feeding the homeless while criticizing them for a lack of initiative, promoting Jesus’s teachings, while encouraging church goers to become entrepreneurs, and welcoming members of all races, just so long as none of them try to intermarry. As of 2011, Avis boasts a following of over four hundred parishioners, and their services are a rousing mixture of amplified Gospel, warm, welcoming fellowship, and fiery rhetoric delivered by Mother Avis.

In the late-00s, Avis’s ministry came under scrutiny when it was discovered that a number of the white parishioners in her majority black congregation were active members of the Klan, drawn by her message of racial separatism. This set off a flurry of news reports locally, with people on all sides of the controversy giving interviews, black congregants who stated they would not share the pew with racists, contrasted with those who said that so long as they mind their manners, all are welcome, versus white members, who tried to minimize the situation, citing Mother Avis’s powerful preaching as the reason for their devotion. It all culminated in Mother Avis giving a well-received interview on Good Morning America, where she remained cheerful and positive, and stated the situation demonstrated, “The power of Christ to unite people of all backgrounds and philosophies.

Still, the church remains controversial, with the IRS constantly questioning their religious exemption, some believing them to be more of a religiously-oriented business rather than the classic definition of a church, given the many products they sell, from essential oils and scented candles, to prayer blankets, videos and recordings of the choir and fellowship band, and others suggesting racial motives for the microscopic level of scrutiny they’re constantly under. Mother Avis tries to remain above the fray, with one notable misstep, where she commented harshly on what she termed as “sodomites” in a news report about the PRIDE Festival in Atlanta, which drew protests from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Following these challenges, the church instituted a public relations fellowship, which clears all requests for statements, and carefully monitors any outgoing missives for content, as well as largely shielding Mother Avis from unscripted press appearances.

One of the church’s harshest critics is a blogger known as Lady Midnight, who not only publishes a weekly column, where she tackles religion, politics, and human rights, and often uses Apostolic Awakening as an example of religious excess, but she also frequently posts disparaging criticisms on the message board at the Apostolic Awakening website. She’s consistently the only negative poster to whom Avis will personally reply, and their sometimes voluminous exchanges often betray not only serious animosity, but also a great deal of familiarity between them. In one such exchange, Avis stated, “You should be grateful the Lord blessed you with the opportunity to be an inspiration to others, rather than the sullen, withdrawn shell of the woman you once were.” While most congregants are either spiritually uplifted or totally befuddled by Mother Avis’s attitude toward this irritant, a few of her closest confidants are aware that Lady Midnight also happens to be Avis’s younger sister, Annabelle, with whom Avis hasn’t spoken directly for more than a decade.

Paralyzed in an automobile accident in Cobb County in 1990, Annabelle turned away from religion during her recovery period, breaking the heart of her minister father, and, in Avis’s view, hastening the deaths of their mother, who suffered a stroke in 1998, and spent the remainder of her life in a vegetative state, and their father, who suffered a massive coronary in 2000. Following their father’s death, Annabelle supported their older brother Alfred’s decision to take their mother off life support, which Avis vehemently opposed. The youngest brother, Avery, a singer, rapper, and actor now based in Los Angeles, who calls himself EZ-AC, eventually sided with Alfred and Annabelle, causing Avis to drop her opposition, and sever all ties with her family. Within a year, she began her ministry in a small storefront in downtown Duluth, and began recruiting members by preaching on street corners.

House Band, Jack Standridge

As far as endings go, Jack Standridge had one of the best. He simply went to sleep and didn’t wake up the next morning. A Marine, who served in Korea, he came home to Decatur, Georgia, where he found a job with his father’s insurance agency, eventually taking over the business when his father retired. Along the way, he married Nancy Belmonte, a lively woman he met at Georgia State, and together, they had three children, two sons, Rex and Lawrence, and a daughter, Claire, who they lost at age eight to a congenital heart defect. Just before the kids started school, he and Nancy bought a nice home in Avondale Estates, now devoid of all but the two of them, though the day before the house had been filled with family, Rex, his wife and four kids, stopping in on their way from Florida to Chattanooga.

Nancy, always an early riser, discovers when she comes to rouse him for breakfast, that Jack is cold, not breathing, but wearing his customary smile. She mostly remains calm, allowing herself only a few sniffles as she goes into another room to summon the authorities, then begin the process of alerting the family. Grief will come later, when it’s official, when all the details have been ironed out. Then she will mourn.

By eleven that morning, Lawrence has arrived from Ansley Park, where he lives with his partner Elijah Parker, who’s in Washington until the end of the week, and Claire Belmonte is there. Claire came to their home at age sixteen, after running away from a nightmare situation in Middle Georgia. The Standridges welcomed her into their home and family, and Claire remained with them for nearly four years, taking Nancy’s family name as her own, completing her high school equivalency, and starting junior college as a sound technician. Though she moved into Atlanta just prior to her twentieth birthday, she remains close with the family, stopping in at least once a month, and her relationship with the Standridges has been more like that of an adopted daughter. By the time Lawrence, then Claire arrive, the medical examiner has come and gone, verifying what Nancy already knew, that Jack passed, quietly, in his sleep the night before, and transporting him to the coroner.

There’s already a small crowd there, mainly close neighbors alerted by the police cars and coroner’s van that something wasn’t right, and universally complimentary of the man now gone. Nancy alerted Rex, but insisted he and his family continue their brief vacation, and come by on their way back, when arrangements will be more formalized. Having finished most of her self-appointed duties, Nancy now finds herself seated on the couch, surrounded by Claire, and Barbara Stewart, her next-door neighbor, who have taken over the roles of chief comforters, Barbara constantly assuring Nancy that “Jack’s in a better place”, and Claire inquiring frequently if Nancy needs anything. From here, Nancy entertains a continuous stream of well-wishers as word of Jack’s passing filters throughout the enormous community of those who knew him. She finally relaxes, and settles into the role of grieving spouse, knowing fully well that she will need to make many difficult decisions in the days to come. The most difficult arrives a few days following the funeral, in the person of an agent representing Walker Development, inquiring about Nancy’s plans for her property, and promising a competitive offer on the home.

Depending upon one’s point of view, Walker Development is either a dynamic force for revitalization around Atlanta, or an unfeeling corporate behemoth, mercilessly dotting the landscape with gaudy, overpriced McMansions that only the super-wealthy can afford. As young people from the suburbs of the Atlanta Metro area have moved back into town, fueling gentrification in formerly minority neighborhoods, Walker, among others, has been there, encouraging them to demolish the older structures in favor of new, more upscale dwellings, which the developers will, of course, design and build. The previous residents, many of whom have lived in the neighborhoods their entire lives, suddenly find the costs of taxes and utilities becoming unbearable, and always, the developers are there, offering low-income residents just slightly more than the “book value” of the property, to encourage them to move on quickly. Once they’re gone, the modest homes are replaced with vastly more elaborate structures, which sometimes sell for a thirty to fifty times the cost to the developer, and which increase the stress on the crumbling infrastructure the city or county maintains. Along the way, old neighborhood names, kept alive by the elderly black residents, who learned them from their parents and grandparents, get resurrected, as the Fourth Ward becomes The Old Fourth Ward, and the areas south of the tracks from Chandler Park and Lake Claire become Kirkwood and East Atlanta Village. Once-quiet little neighborhoods find themselves overrun with coffee shops and corner bars, and choked with increasing traffic, as non-residents flock there, sometimes from as far away as Bartow or Henry County, to sample the local ambience.

The representative from Walker is a first contact, a young woman, who’s very deferential and self-effacing, complementing the home, and expressing sincere condolences for Nancy’s loss. She doesn’t stay long, and leaves a few brochures for Nancy to look at “when the timing is right”. Nancy knows, however, that once she’s on their radar, the contacts will increase, and become more insistent, phone calls, mailings, and visits, not just from Walker, but from any number of developers or real estate agents. She doesn’t relish the thought of having her family’s memories demolished, but without Jack, staying no longer seems desirable for her.

The Handmaiden

Peace statue, Atlantic Station, Atlanta, GA.

Leah Walker steps up to the door of Rosalind Duchard’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts and rings the bell. She’s there to meet with Rosalind and her husband, Paul, about a request they made of her at a previous meeting. Leah is still undecided on what her answer will be, but Rosalind has promised to have a legal agreement drawn up to spell out everyone’s responsibilities and the legal consequences of everything.

She’s met at the door by Paul, a man in his fifties, somewhat overweight, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, and a madras shirt.

“Leah,” Paul says, with little enthusiasm. “You’re early. Rosalind isn’t back yet.” He makes no effort to invite her in.

“Can I come in anyway?” Leah says.

Paul considers it. “Oh. Yeah. Sure.”

He steps aside to allow her entry.

In the year since becoming Rosalind’s lab assistant, Leah has come to regard her as a mentor and friend, and Rosalind has successfully wrested from Leah’s aunt, Margaret, the title of “second most important” woman in Leah’s life. Around MIT, faculty, staff, and students recognize that talking to Leah is almost the same as having Rosalind’s ear, and some faculty members prefer Leah’s accessibility to wading through the sea of interpersonal issues they have to navigate to work with Rosalind. Leah and Rosalind spend most of the day together, and many evenings, depending on the time of year, or the grants Rosalind is managing. Their close working arrangement often draws the ire of Rosalind’s husband.

Leah has only had a few interactions with Paul Duchard, but they’ve been icy and uncomfortable. He always greets her with a stern look, and an over abundance of sighs and eye rolls. She’s found his reactions rarely change, regardless of how polite or friendly she tries to be around him. On the occasions they’ve been alone when she’s visiting, any interest she shows in getting to know him is met with monosyllabic responses, and it isn’t out of the ordinary for Paul to excuse himself whenever Leah and Rosalind are talking, even when they’re chatting and not discussing academic matters. Leah suspects Paul may have Asperger Syndrome, but whenever she’s broached the topic with Rosalind, she always dismisses Leah’s suspicions, telling Leah she just needs to get to know Paul better.

Paul leads Leah to the living room, where she sits on the couch. He takes a seat in an overstuffed chair that has a guitar leaning against it.

“You play guitar?” Leah asks.

“Yeah, picked it up when I was in high school,” he says. “Some of my colleagues in the Math department have a jazz band. We play at clubs around town.”

“Really? I never knew that,” Leah says.

“Well, there’s a lot you don’t know about me, Leah,” Paul says. He folds his hands in front of him and glances at the clock. “Rosie should be here anytime now.”

They sit in awkward silence for several minutes.

“Can I ask you something, Paul?” she says. “I mean, since we have a little time.”

“What is it?” Paul asks.

“What exactly have I done to piss you off?” Leah says.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Paul says without facing her.

“Like hell you don’t,” she says. “Almost from the moment I met you, all I’ve gotten is attitude. You’re short with me. You give me a hard time every time I call here for Rosie. I’d just like to know what’s behind it.”

Paul sighs. “There’s no big mystery, Leah. I don’t like you. No reason. You just rub me the wrong way.”

“Perfect,” she says. “Another one of those guys, eh?”

“Those guys?” Paul says. “What does that mean?”

“I’ve been dealing with guys like you my entire life,” Leah says. “You’ve got some kind of bug up your ass about strong women, or women in science, or whatever.”

“My feelings toward you have nothing to do with your being a woman in science,” Paul says. “Do you honestly think I could have married Rosalind Worthy if I’d had any reservations about that? If not for other factors, I’d probably be your champion.”

“What other factors might those be?” Leah says.

Paul stares at her, considering something. Finally, he says, “Your father is Paxton Walker isn’t he — the Walker behind Walker Development?”

“Yes, he is,” Leah says.

“I wasn’t sure at first,” Paul continues, “but after Rosie gave me a few more facts, I pretty well confirmed it.”

Leah shakes a finger at him. “You’re from Atlanta. Rosie never mentioned that.”

“She knows I went to Tech,” Paul says. “But she doesn’t know much about my early history. I’ve been a little mysterious about that, and she hasn’t really pressed me on it. It’s mutual. There’s quite a bit I don’t know about her past either.”

“Okay, spill it,” Leah says. “What’s your beef with my father?”

“You’re no doubt familiar with Dunkirk Estates?” Paul says.

“It was my father’s first major development deal. It made him a millionaire,” Leah says. “You lived in Dunkirk Estates?”

“No,” Paul replies. “My family and I lived in The Commons, which is what we called the neighborhood your father demolished in order to build Dunkirk Estates.”

“Wow, small world,” Leah says, mostly to herself.

“Yeah, too small, apparently,” he says. “We were sent packing, along with a community of over fifty families after Walker Development greased the palms of county commissioners to have them claim eminent domain on our homes.”

“So, call a lawyer,” she says. “If you had a valid claim to the property, you could have fought the county’s decision.”

“We couldn’t afford that,” he says. “Besides, the bulldozers were out there the following morning. We barely had time to finish packing.”

“What does any of this have to do with me?” Leah says. “I’m not my father. I was a child when he built that development.”

“No. But you benefited from it just the same, didn’t you?”

“For your information, my father and I had a parting of the ways before I started MIT,” Leah says. “He’s not paying for any of this.”

“What difference does it make if you’re being financed directly from him or through your trust fund?” Paul says. “You’ve still gotten all your advantages from his blood money. It’s what got you here.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” she says, “the mastery of coursework and long hours of studying were hardly a factor. Do you even know what my GPA was at Wellesley? That’s not a walk in the park, you know. Plus, I was jointly enrolled here for my last two years.”

“I’m not discounting your intelligence or drive,” he says, “but you’ve had opportunities handed to you most people cannot imagine.”

“You don’t seem to be doing so bad, yourself, Paul,” Leah says. “Whatever your upbringing, you seem to have overcome it.”

“Was there ever any question where you’d go to school?” Paul says. “Any doubt you’d be able to finance it?”

Leah looks away. “No. Not really.”

“Well in my case, there was quite a bit,” he says. “My family couldn’t afford to send me to school. My mother and father both worked outside the home just to scrape together enough to keep a roof over our heads. I’ve had to work my ass off most of my life for opportunities you routinely take for granted. You’re right. I’m doing very well now, and I earned every damn penny of it.”

“What’s that they say about the sins of the father?” Leah says.

“Look, I don’t hold you personally accountable for the things your father did,” Paul says.

“Could have fooled me,” she replies.

“You need to understand,” he goes on, “there were lives connected to every dollar your father made and you benefited directly from all of it.”

Leah stares at him a long moment, then shakes her head and chuckles. “Kind of ironic, isn’t it, the role I may end up playing for you and Rosie.”

“That’s Rosie’s idea, not mine,” Paul says. “I told her I couldn’t care less if our children were Jewish. I haven’t set foot inside Temple since the day I watched them bulldoze the only home I’d ever known.”

“Then why me?” Leah says. “There are at least five Jews on her Wall of Stars. Esther Gershon outshines me in pretty much all her academic accomplishments. She’s not married yet.”

“Rosie insisted,” he says. “She has this criteria in her head; math and science; Jewish; you don’t want children of your own. You seem to meet all her requirements. She calls you her star student, or something like that.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Leah says.

“How should I know?” Paul says. “Rosie says all sorts of crazy stuff. I tried to tell her the edict to marry proper Jewish women was from Ezra, post-exile. It’s not even mentioned in Genesis, but she’s obsessed.”

“Yeah, I wondered about that,” Leah says. “I seem to recall Leviticus has provisions for men carrying on their family line — surprise, surprise — but I don’t recall it being very explicit about women. Well, there’s Ruth.”

“Also Second Temple period,” Paul says.

“Yeah. Whatever,” Leah says, waving her hand dismissively. “Look, I’m not terribly enamored with the idea of future offspring sharing your DNA either, though, granted, they’ll definitely kick ass academically. This isn’t about us, though. It’s about Rosie.”

“Agreed,” Paul says.

“It’s not like we’ll be otherwise bound to one another,” Leah says. “If Rosie comes through with the agreement I requested, I’m prepared to wash my hands of the whole affair once the donation is done.”

“I could get behind that,” Paul says. “Plus, I have to agree. Given your academic credentials, any offspring should definitely have a strong math and science foundation. You’re a scientist; your father was an engineer. What did his father do?”

“He was a grocer,” Leah says. “Walker Groceries in Georgia and the Carolinas.”

“Multi-generational privilege, what do you know?” Paul says. “A typical southern tale.”

He picks up his guitar and starts improvising a Jazz riff. “Are you musical?”

Leah shakes her head, with a chuckle. “In high school, I tried trumpet, violin, and saxophone, and was pretty horrible on each one. If I get enough wine in me, I can usually do a mean Blues harmonica, but I doubt Dylan or the Stones will be calling anytime soon. As far as singing, I can usually hold my own in a chorus, as long as there are enough other voices to drown me out.”

“Yeah, I don’t have much of a voice either,” he says. He improvises several more bars on the guitar.

“You’re pretty good at that,” she says. A thought comes to her. “Say, maybe you can explain something to me. What is Rosie’s deal with May 23rd?”

“What do you mean?” Paul asks.

“When I asked her to be my thesis advisor, she didn’t want to take me on without knowing me better,” she replies. “So, I suggested she could hire me as her lab assistant.”

“Right.”

“She was showing me some stuff afterward,” she says, “how she does her grading, what not. The subject of my birthday came up — it was a couple of days away — and when Rosie learned I was born May 23, 1969, she sort of freaked out. Well, as much as Rosie freaks out.”

“What did she do?” Paul says.

“She walked away from me, thinking,” Leah says. “Then she stared at me a long time and confirmed I was born May 23, 1969. After that, she said, ‘Isn’t that something?’ Then she told me she’d reconsidered and agreed to be my advisor after all.”

“That’s odd,” he says. “But, like I say, I don’t know much about Rosie’s past. She’s never mentioned anything about that date. Her birthday is in March, and we were married in June.”

The front door opens and closes.

“Guess that’s Rosie,” Leah says. “Looks like there’s no turning back now.”

“It’s looking that way,” he says.

They face the door, to await Rosalind’s entrance.