On an old Bible, newly found

THROUGH A TOWNIE’S LENS

By Jock Lauterer
Columnist

Dear Reader: This essay is excerpted from “Keeper: a Brother’ Restoration,” a work-in-progress book project — a photo-homage to my late brother, Nick, who died at 15 — physically from a biking accident, but emotionally from the loss of our father after a traumatic separation and divorce when he was 7. On the other hand, I was only 2 at the time, and thus, with no living memory of a man named Dad, was unscathed. At least at the time.

Decluttering a dingy top bookshelf at our mountain cabin, I come across a sacred serendipity, an old bible, its once proud purple hardbound cover faded to a dusty burgundy.

Hot off the presses from Viking, March 1952, this modern bible, titled “The Living Bible,” was gifted to us by our mother the same month it was published. On the flyleaf Myra penned carefully in her characteristic permanent blue fountain pen:           

“For Nick & Jock —
            From Mom
           — on Easter 1952”

Then below, in reverse order of birth, she lists the family names and birthdates,  beginning with Nick, then me, followed by herself, then our absent father, Arch, followed by Myra’s parents, Charles and Lionne Rush. One can’t help but notice that only the Rush lineage makes it into Mom’s gift bible. If our father had a family, to us they were invisible.

Cradling the bible in my lap like an infant, I struggle to remain objective: Here are the pristine but yellowed pages, devoid of marginal scribblings that our mother so enjoyed, and no dog-eared or earmarked pages; evidence says this book has never been read, sitting on the top shelf at the cabin for lo, these many decades. Awaiting this moment.

If a book can emanate energy, then here is surely one—a Bible clearly trying to tell me something. That Nick’s mother would give her two boys, 12 and 7, a newly minted and modern copy of “The Living Bible” begs the question: What was the mother really trying to say with this gift, if not to give her boys some sort of spiritual grounding?

I flip open the bible, and utterly by chance, my eye rests on a passage from Ecclesiasticus titled “Advice to a Son,” and I catch my breath.

Advice to a son? Only 2 at the time of our parents’ abrupt separation in the fall of 1947, I was too young to be accorded the privilege of paternal guidance. But Nick? At 7 1/2 when it all came apart — surely that father-son relationship would have involved plenty of loving advice — maybe not so lofty and elevated as this old passage,  but still, the very stuff of becoming a man:

“Whatsoever is brought upon thee, take cheerfully, and be patient when thou art changed to a low estate. For gold is tried in a fire, and acceptable men in the furnace of adversity.”

Being raised by a single mom, any advice we boys got came from She Who Must Be Obeyed. And as to our religious life, we started out Presbyterian because that’s the church our grandmother attended. But that all changed just as this very bible was making its way into our bookshelves, for 1952-53 was a period of great social and spiritual upheaval in the lives of several white churches in Chapel Hill — particularly at the University Presbyterian Church, where its liberal and activist pastor, Charles M. Jones, was investigated, 1952-’53, by the Presbytery and condemned for his involvement in the Civil Rights movement and his work to integrate the previously all-white congregation. Research shows that Jones chose to resign rather than allow himself to go through the indignity of being fired.

When, in July 1953, he left the church, 68 parishioners walked out with him to establish an independent, non-denominational inter-racial church called the Community Church of Chapel Hill. 

And here’s the heart of the matter:  Myra, Mom, our mother — was one of those Civil Rights activists who walked out in protest and in support of their beloved pastor, “Charlie” Jones. Significantly, Myra, the Bohemian idealist, cleaved away from her own politically conservative mother, Lionne Rush, who chose to stay at the more traditional (read: segregated) congregation. (Note that Charlie Rush, our grandfather, the gentle and passive old Quaker, attended Friends Meeting and thus wisely stayed out of the fray.)

Now, I look at the old Bible again. Taking it in my hands, I feel a new sense of gravity; does the old Bible not seem to weigh more than it did before?


Jock Lauterer is a longtime photojournalist, honored in 2020 by PEN America as a “Local Journalist Hero. He is a senior lecturer at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media and is the retired founding director of the school’s Carolina Community Media Project. The author of six books, Jock is also the winner of the 1998 National Geographic Magazine Faculty Fellowship, among his many accolades

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