On the Passing of My First Born
A wise Counselor to the Youths…
And tireless Worker for the Glory of God
Unlike the Bible waving “Evangelicals” who flaunt their religious piety like the flag pins worn by Republican super-patriots, Sandra lived the Christianity they boisterously preach but never practice. All who knew her understood that Sandra’s commitment to the work of her church was the centerpiece of her life, she didn’t just talk the talk…she walked the walk. Sandra understood that it is our deeds, not mere words, by which we will ultimately be judged. Sandra well understood that, in the words of the old time spiritual, “Everybody talkin bout heaven ain’t goin there.”
Just as she understood that bricks and marble, golden alters, stained glass windows and cedar pews did not make a righteous church. Her faith was of the spirit and was unmoved by the opulent trappings that adorned the temples of the high and mighty. Indeed, she often wondered if emphasizing such material extravagance amidst pervasive spiritual poverty testified to their genuflection before the vices and vanities of Mammon, rather than devotion to the commandment of Jesus Christ to serve “the least” among us.
That Sandra had chosen to follow this Commandment was self-evident in her choice of a church and the humble people she chose to serve. This became immediately apparent to me when I accompanied her to church, a couple of days after visiting Louisiana as a Special Correspondent for the London Guardian, to report on the destruction wrought by hurricane Katrina.
I was so impressed by Sandra’s passionate religiosity and deep devotion to the work her church, that I ended up writing my impressions of what I witnessed and published it under the title “Come Sunday in Brunswick Georgia.” I am not a devout man, and Sandra had more than once called me “an unchurched heathen” to my face, and though she did it with a smile she was only half joking, the depth of her commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ was an amazing grace that touched the soul of even a wretch like me. And before the day was done, it set my spirit a dancing.
I Testified: “Come Sunday things started bustling around the house early as the Christian soldiers arose with the sun, carefully laying out their uniforms so as to pass inspection with the lord. This was the day that the pious saved souls lived for. This was the day that they visited their father’s house and sanctified their souls in the body of Christ. None was more dedicated to this ritual than Sandra… And on Sunday morning I groomed and decorated myself to the height of good fashion and escorted my daughter to the New Covenant Church.
It didn’t take long to discover the high regard with which my senior daughter is held by the members of her congregation. She was admired as much for her artistic abilities as her tireless work on behalf of the church. I would later be shown several billboards for theatrical productions she had presented under the auspices of the church. She had served as writer, director, choreographer, and designer of the sets and costumes.
I knew that by some mysterious alchemy she had managed to touch the sacred fire and become a poet, but I didn’t know that she had also become a multi-talented thespian. And she is lauded for her talents in spite of the fact that she has no formal training in any of these arts. Sandra is a true autodidact. Upon reflection I began to recognize that, like the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach, or the peerless painter Leonardo DaVinci she has found her muse, audience and patron in the church. And that’s about as convincing evidence of God’s grace as I have yet seen.”
Sandra’s masterpiece, her Magnum Opus as an artist, was her musical pageant “From Africa to America,” a wonderful telling of the story of the trials, tribulations, and ultimate triumph of the epic African-American saga. This work – which she conceived, wrote, cast, directed, costumed, composed, and choreographed, each of which represents a separate arena of artistic expertise in the theater – was her artistic apotheosis. It was for Sandra what Johanne Sebastian Bach’s magnificent B Minor Mass was for him, or Handel’s Messiah, or the arresting transcendental imagery of Leonardo’s Sistine Chapel: The were all inspired by the powerful spirit of God!
As I witnessed the service at New Covenant Church that Sunday morning, I discovered the source from whence Sandra’s inspiration sprang. Although even the language of Shakespeare could not convey the full magnificence of my witness, I did the best I could:
“There are many impressive churches in Georgia, grand edifices with steeples that reach for the skies, but Sandra’s church was modest, though well decorated; a church where humble working people could feel at home. Yet in spite of its unpretentious architecture, I’m convinced that if the spirit of God was anywhere in Georgia on that Sunday morning, she was in that little church in Brunswick. You could hear in the music, which was divine. In this holy sanctuary the worshippers were bathed in the word of the lord as it poured from the mouths of passionate preachers, and the word would rejuvenate them and make them feel brand new, cleansed of the sins of this world…
On this Sunday morning the sermon, which they referred to as “Praising the Word,” was delivered by Rev. Catherine Armstrong, the wife in the joint pastorate of New Covenant. She wore her hair in a short “au natural” style, and was both bright and articulate as she delivered a straight forward message on the need for people to stand up and make a stab at achieving their dreams while seeking the lord’s help through prayer. She was both erudite and funny, as she lifted the spirits of the congregants with her sermon. Like the old-time preachers in James Weldon Johnson’s epic poems God’s Trombones, this preacher was a poet, “with all the devices of eloquence at her command.” And she was preaching in just the sort of church the great novelist and folklorist Zora Neal Hurston had in mind when she said: “a preacher must be a poet in order to survive in a Negro pulpit.”
Hence I could see clearly that this, New Covenant Church, was the rock upon which she stood in sickness and in health, the sanctuary in which she sought refuge when she needed a balm to heal her spirit, a sacred space to rejuvenate her soul. It was here that she found her muse, patrons and audience that made her art possible. It was here in the humble house of the Lord in Brunswick that the mystery of her gifts were revealed to me.
Aside from being a creator of plays Sandra was also an actress and songstress, as she ably displayed in her performance of the late great tragic artist “Lady Day.” It was a measure of her self-confidence that she undertook the role of a woman so radically different from herself. It is as if she heeded the advice given to the great American Actor Dustin Hoffman, by the greater British thespian Sir Lawrence Olivier.
Watching Hoffman drag himself on the set every day, barely able to function because he was trying to become the character by putting himself through the ordeals the character suffers in the movie, Sir Lawrence advised him: Why put yourself through such agony, why don’t you just try acting?” Hence the ultimate test for an actors skills is to convincingly portray a character radically different from oneself. That courage, that daring do, that willingness to tackle the difficult task and master it, when coupled with an effervescent personality as sweet and delightful as bubbling brown sugar, is the essence of sister Sandra.
When I think of my senior daughter the words of two great poets come to mind. Speaking of his magnificent and noble Moor Othello, Shakespeare said: “For the elements so blended in him/ All the world could say ‘here was a man.” With but a slight edit for gender and a quicksilver turn of phrase, this is a perfect description of Sister Sandra…”For the elements so blended in her/ all the world could see here was a woman!” A loving mother, true friend, wise teacher, gifted artist, dedicated church member, and indefatigable laborer in the vine yards of the Lord.
The sublime words of William Cullen Bryant, in his poem “Thanatopsis,” an epic contemplation of death, he advises: “So live that when thy summons come/ to journey to that mysterious realm/ Where each shall take his place in the silent halls of death/ Thou go not like the quarry slave at night/scourged to his dungeon/ But sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust/ Approach thy grave like one who wraps the drapery of his couch about him/ And lies down to pleasant dreams.” Rest in piece my beloved senior daughter, none who knew your amazing grace will ever forget thee. For you are the type of righteous transcendent spirit that may come to a people once in a century…if we are lucky. Alas, we shall not soon see your like again…if ever.
Playthell George Benjamin
Harlem, New York
September 5, 2021