Wednesday, October 5, 2016

AN AFTERNOON WITH FRANCIS

When you drive up Rattlesnake Springs Lane, Sewanee, Tennessee, then turn and climb the hill leading to “Possum’s End,” you’ll enter the domain of The Rev. Francis Xavier Walter and his wife Faye, a clinical psychologist. The domain showcases a renovated 1880’s tobacco barn built of star pine that was transported from Virginia to Tennessee, and which the Walters have made into a large, handsome home. And if you spend an afternoon talking with Francis about his former work, you’ll probably decide that you were in the presence of someone special — in this case, the man who helped launch the famous “Freedom Quilting Bee” in the Black Belt during the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama.

We’ve been friends with the Walters for most of the nine years we’ve lived at Sewanee and have had our feet under their table and eaten fare Faye prepared a la Alabama style several times. The meals were usually preceded by a bit of drama (LOL) that involved six of us acting out plays about the southern culture in southern vernacular even we southerners find foreign to our speaking.

Francis, a native Alabaman, has just completed a book about his life and his work in the Alabama Black Belt, “which has no title yet,” he says, “but you could call it a memoir that focuses on my commitment not to participate in the culture of racism and is also about all the ways race has impinged on my life.”

Francis was born in Mobile, Alabama and graduated from Spring Hill College, a Roman Catholic institution located two blocks away from his home. He majored in English and minored in Latin, then entered the Episcopal Seminary at the University of the South and was ordained a priest in 1957. He spent the next two years as a fellow and tutor at General Theological Seminary in New York City and later served Grace Episcopal Church in Jersey City, a ghetto church. He attributes much of his interest in dealing with racial problems to the “living textbook” of this ghetto church.

Francis was eventually called to become Director of the Selma Inter-religious Project in Alabama, a group comprised of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and other religious entities established in Selma, Alabama to combat racial injustice. Through his work in that capacity and still serving under the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, he became totally enmeshed in the fight against racism. However, when he returned home to Alabama to carry out his work with the underprivileged people in the Black Belt, the Episcopal Bishop of Alabama refused to give him a license to officiate in the state as a priest. He was also monitored by the FBI and had difficulty getting an FHA loan to buy a house.

Francis persisted in his work as an activist. “My mother, Martha, had developed cancer while I was in high school and experienced what I call ‘a repeatable process of opening to the infiniteness of God,’” he writes in two chapters of his book entitled “My Mother and Father Cole” and “Conversion.” In 1951, his mother attended a Christ Church Lenten Preaching Service where clergy she had known for years vested in cassock, surplice, and stole. “As she was leaving the service, she saw a Black man wearing a clerical collar. He was in the last row of pews. One assumes everyone saw him, but she was the one who walked over to the last row of pews and introduced herself to Father Cole. She asked him why he wasn’t up front with the other clergy, and he told her that she’d have to ask the other clergy. My mother turned around, went down the aisle to the door in the parish hall, and headed to the rector’s office. She found the embarrassed answer she received not an answer to her new-honed grasp of the Church as the Body of Christ. Later, she approached the Black president of the Women’s Auxiliary at the Church of the Good Shepherd and told her, ‘I’ve never questioned how colored people are treated by us. But now I know I want you to know I will no longer be part of it. I don’t know what I will do, but I will never again be part of it.’”

His mother’s passion for justice and the Black struggle for equality inspired Francis and later played a part in causing him to initiate his most ambitious project, “The Freedom Quilting Bee Project,” which he helped promote and which became a handicraft cooperative recognized throughout the United States. The project gave granddaughters of slaves who had been field hands an opportunity to show how they had been victims of poverty and rural isolation but were capable of becoming dedicated artisans and businesswomen working with patchwork quilts. Later, the University of Alabama Press published “The Freedom Quilting Bee” by Nancy Callahan, a volume documenting the work of both Francis and the famous “freedom quilters.”

My session with Francis could have extended into the evening as he's an experienced raconteur, but readers will have to wait to read the final, expanded version of his story that will be published by New South Books, Montgomery, Alabama. It’s a fascinating account of the work of the Master of Possum’s End and includes many anecdotes about his childhood, family life in Alabama, as well as his early work as an Episcopal priest.


Francis describes his mother’s conversion as “a kairos, a Greek word for qualitative, not quantitative time: a period in which something special happens.” He closed our afternoon session by saying that his mother’s kairos “shaped future time for her, myself, my family, and who knows else?” I’d say that the “who knows else” includes anyone privileged to spend an afternoon with this engaging priest who made the cause for Civil Rights legislation and fight for racial equality his kairos.

Photography by Victoria I. Sullivan


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