Ruth and James attend the fortieth anniversary of the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in 1994. This church has memories for the whole family—James’s father founded it, and James was married in it. Celebrating the church makes James think back on everything he knows about his father.
The New Memorial Baptist Church is a site of worship, a site of community, and a site of communal remembrance — an institution that reminds Ruth of her late husband and reminds her children of their father.
Andrew Dennis McBride left no money for his wife and children, but he did help create a set of rules Ruth could raise their children by. From poverty his children became college graduates, lawyers, writers, and doctors. James reports that some people say the success of himself and his siblings was the work “of none other than Jesus Christ Himself.”
Although Dennis died without passing on any physical wealth, he contributed instead a philosophy on how to raise a family. For Ruth, who values community more than she values money, this is the greatest gift her husband could have provided her.
Ruth rarely talks, or even thinks about her first husband Dennis. James thinks of her memory as “like a minefield, each recollection a potential booby trap,” and so she avoids potentially triggering memories by refusing to dwell.
Along with her childhood, Ruth has blocked many of her memories of Dennis, because his sudden death is too painful for her to deal with day to day. Instead, she never fully mourned him, which is part of the reason why she is so devastated after Hunter dies, because she’s actually mourning two men instead of one.
James and Ruth do not like the new minister, who hasn’t paid the proper respect to Ruth, one of the church’s founders. He treats her as though she is a white outsider, when in fact she is integral to the history of the congregation. Ruth tends to compare all ministers to her first husband, and unsurprisingly they often fail to measure up.
Ruth was one of the founders of the church, and founded it because she wanted a place where she and her family could fit in, so it seems unfair that after decades of service Ruth is treated as an outsider just because she is white.
At the anniversary, the new minister invites Ruth to the stage to say a few words. She begins her speech nervously, but soon stutters to life and “plows forward, reckless, fast, like a motorized car,” her words barely comprehensible. Finally she slows down, and gives a brief history of the church—she and her husband founded it in their living room, where they sang without an organ. The crowd gets excited, punctuating all of her sentences with “Amen!” She ends her speech by blessing the crowd, and telling them that they are looking at a “witness of God’s word.”
Ruth is nervous to give her speech, but eventually finds strength in God and in speaking about her faith. Through much of her life she has navigated unfamiliar and stressful situations by turning to the Church and its accompanying community, and relying on them to help her get by. Though the new minister initially treated Ruth like an outsider, by the end of her speech it seems that she has received the congregation’s full appreciation.