Just off of Lincoln Circle at 1310 East Capitol Street, NE, in Washington, D.C. sits the House of God The Holy Church of the Living God The Pillar and Ground of Truth The House of Prayer for All People. This is the church that Marvin Gaye’s father, Bishop Gay, originally started at 9th and O Streets NW. The Church is in a row house and has been there for the past 40 odd years. This is the church I grew up in. This is the church where I met God and the devil. This is the church that led to Marvin’s fate. This is the church, riddled with abusers, including the late Bishop Gay, which I escaped.
My therapist asked me last week, after I told her the story below, how I could attend any church after what I survived at The House of God. All I can say is that I am a woman of faith, but there were many years that I was agnostic and even atheist and then I began to practice other faiths, Orisha, Unitarian (they treated me as badly as the people at the House of God) and then I found my way back to the Episcopalians, a faith I practiced with much fear while in foster care—because I had been taught that anything other than being Hebrew Pentecostal was the work of the devil.
I vaguely remember seeing Marvin Gaye at the church at 9th and O Streets when I was four or five, but I did not know his music as we were forbidden to listen to it because we were told Marvin had gone to the devil’s side and was using his music to please sinners and not God. His father, Bishop Gaye, would come to D.C. over the course of my time as a member of the church and he stands out in my mind. While I do not remember the last time I saw Marvin, I do remember the last time I saw his father.
It was the summer before he killed Marvin. Bishop Gay showed up at 1310 East Capital Street, NE decked out in a white fur coat and rings on every finger—some with fat diamonds. I remember he sat down at the piano that was just to the right of the pew I was sitting in and played a song. I remember that we children had over heard the adults and later whispered “Bishop Gay is gay.” We knew exactly what we were saying. I was 13 and by then I had started sneaking with my friends and listening to Marvin’s music on the radio. Sexual Healing was very popular. I remember that we heard over that same radio the Sunday Marvin was killed.
The Sabbath (we attended church on Saturdays as we were Hebrew Pentecostal) after Marvin’s funeral, Bishop Solomon, the head of our church in D.C., stood up in the pulpit and said, “Listin’! Listin’ ta what our Chief Apostle is quoted in tha papa as sayin’, ‘Marvin gave his life to tha world.’ Sinners. They think that was a blessin’, but our Chief made it clear, Marvin gave his life to tha world, not God ‘n he goin’ ta hell.” Nobody talked about where Bishop Gay was going since he had killed his son.
I would not learn all the details until 25 years later when I began to research the history of the church. I realized Marvin and I grew up with abusive sociopaths for parents. Before I went into foster care my mother tried to kill me three times. How many times did Marvin’s dad try before he succeeded? In our church they would beat us—the children—some times in front of the congregation and at others times in the pews. When they preached, “Spare the rod, Spoil the child,” they meant it.
Last Sunday at the church I attend here in D.C., St. Margaret’s Episcopal, I was a lectern and was supposed to read from the book of Matthew. I was a little disappointed because I prefer reading the Old Testament—misplaced nostalgia—and the reading was from Isaiah 58. In my childhood church we did a call and response every week between the Bishop and the congregation at The House of God from Isaiah 58 and I know the entire chapter by heart. In the end the reader for the Old Testament did not make it to church and so the verger switched and allowed me to read it.
I had not rehearsed it at home and I grew up reciting the King James Version (KJV) and we use the Revised Standard Version (RSV). Yet, this was not my only stumbling block. As I sat in the pew waiting to read I remembered the last time I read Isaiah 58 aloud. I was 13 it was the summer before Marvin’s dad killed him. It was a day that changed me forever and gave me the strength to not become Marvin in the end.
The House of God is in session from sun up to sun down and there is a two-hour lunch break. I would eat and then go upstairs to the rooms above the temple, find a couch and read.
This particular Sabbath I was reading a book called, “The Truth About Me & Bobby V.” I was not one for love stories, but the cover had a picture of a Black teenage girl on the back of a moped holding on to a boy. I had only seen Black people on the cover of, “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry,” and “Let the Circle be Unbroken.” I was delighted to see a Black girl with long straightened hair and so I checked the book out from the library. Normally, I would read and make it down to the temple just before service. That week I got lost in the story—Bobby V was made up, she did not have a boyfriend but wanted to fit in—and was late. I came back to reality when I heard the dying voices of the opening hymn, “This is the church of the living God. Living God; Pillar and Ground of the truth. The House of Prayer for all people. Commandment keepers are we.”
There was no way to sneak in the church without my mother seeing me, as she was an usher that week. I walked in, ignored her and stood in a pew far to her right but in the back. The Bishop stoop up and called the first verse of Isaiah 58, “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins.” My mother hissed, and I looked over at her and she mouthed, “Where were you? Whatchu been doin?” I answered with the congregation, “Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God.” I smirked, turned away.
Then she was right next to me, the call and response continued as she grabbed my purse and found my transgression. In between the call and response she yelled as she held up the book, “Ain’t this somethin’? Nasty. The Truf ‘bout me ‘n Bobby V.” The congregation and Bishop continued and so did I. “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?” I was not going to be shamed, but then Claudia, my mother, slapped me, hard in my face. And between the pause of the call and response of Isaiah 58, I screamed, “I am sick of this shit!” Wham! She slapped me again. I snatched my book, put it back in my purse and headed for the door and said it again, “I am sick of this shit!”
I ran into the vestibule and out the main door, down the stairs, I looked to my right, Lincoln Circle Park. I looked to my left just a long sidewalk and so I ran left. I could hear the congregation answering the Bishop in my mind, “And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.” I ran in my light blue and white skirt and shirt—summer colors for the church—and I remembered Lot’s wife and I did not look back until I heard, “Cookie! Cookie!” I slowed, stopped and turned to look at her. There she was, my mother, breaking off a huge branch from the tree. I just watched. “Cookie,” she commanded, “Come back hea’!” I turned away from her and looked down the street and when my eyes met nothing, I knew there was not anything for me to run towards. I was 13 and so I walked back. There were many more beatings, black eyes, bloody lips and attempts to kill me by my mother before I was finally set free from her and that church.
Then, last Sunday, I sat in the pew and waited to go into the pulpit and read something that is forever linked with violence and death in my mind. When I looked out at the congregation I was not just making sure I was translating (that is reading what was in front of me) in my mind from the KJV version into the RSV, I was translating my abuse and rewriting the story into hope and healing. I was amazed at the power of the words and the challenge and I could see Cookie running because she knew that one day she would, “…be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.” At 47 I stood as Taylar and read aloud for the first time in over 30 years the beginning of my survival. I was sick of that shit and I said it in The House of God. I wonder if Marvin had been so moved as a child if his life would not have ended at the hands of his abusive father.
The answer to the question of how I am able to attend church is this: I am a woman of Faith—many faiths—and the words in the Bible are like poetry to me. It was not “church” that harmed me, but people—my mother and other adults—who abused me and other children in our church, from the beginning of its creation, and Marvin Gaye was one of those children long before me. The church I attend now is made up of people who know that life is about creating a Just, Equal, and Inclusive world and this is how I turned that one day at age 13 into something that will now forever be a part of my healing, survival and living.
“What’s Going On?” Marvin sang, but nobody knew until it was too late.