"Paint It Blue," a photograph by Heather Evans Smith from her self-published monograph Blue, published in 2022 © The artist
Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist
By Joshua Peacock
I glance at my parents as the busy diner buzzes around us. Some patrons look hung over, others are sober in shorts and t-shirts. Conversations and the smell of coffee rise to the rafters. My mother likes the eggs Benedict at this J. Christopher’s, so we’ve met here for breakfast during my parents’ visit to see me in Savannah, a town I now call home.
I notice my parents’ age. My father’s hair has receded at least another inch. What’s left of his jet-black locks are oiled down to his head, the strands streaked with bits of gray. He’s dressed in a long-sleeve shirt with patterned brown squares cut by thin white strips. The heavy shirt is tucked into blue jeans, despite the eighty-degree weather. In over three decades of life I’ve only seen him wear a short-sleeve shirt once and that was on an island in the Caribbean when no one was around.
Long-sleeve shirts help conceal his manliness and thereby keep women from lusting after him, as he believes.
My mother mirrors his modest look in her blue jean jumper that runs to her ankles, a white long-sleeve shirt underneath. I’ve never seen her wear makeup. Her dyed black hair has thinned with age and now fans off in whatever direction it pleases. Her round face is gentle, framed by simple glasses in front of green eyes. She wears no earrings. No rings on her fingers other than her wedding rings. Her only other jewelry is a thin gold necklace with a simple heart-shaped charm. They ask me about my life. I tell them jokes and about my plans over the noise of the restaurant. There is always a strange juxtaposition when I am with my parents. While I share so much with them, I do not share their modest dress or modest ways and so together, we look as if we are from two different tribes.
As we head to the exit, I am thinking of places to take them. They’ve come down to the coast from my small hometown in East Tennessee, a trip they make two or three times a year. We have the whole day to explore Savannah and we’re in the middle of the historic district. But in terms of what my parents want to do, it’s a restrictive list. No bars. No art museums. No carriage rides. No walking tours. No boats. Mother has little patience for activities that require physical engagement due to some health issues, and we’ve already done the infamous Savannah trolley tour.
My father, the furniture designer, Pentecostal preacher, and former Catholic, and his wife, the semi-retired accountant, also a preacher and former Catholic, enjoy simple things, like going to church.
In her retirement, my mother sews beautiful quilts with patches of scripture on them and gives them to people as gifts. She likes watching Jeopardy! each night and getting every one of the answers right.
Mostly, they enjoy spending time with their three sons and their grandchildren. Every time I see them, they remind me more and more of the Presbyterian parents in A River Runs Through It, their modest dress mirrored throughout their lives and actions.
Whereas I used to hate how different we were as a family from all my friends’ families—what I thought was the average, middle-class white American family—I admire my parents now. They live their life honestly according to their values. You cannot find any hypocrisy in them—hypocrisy being one of the easiest traits to find in the modern Christian world.
We exit the restaurant onto the corner of Liberty and Abercorn Streets and loiter for a moment while cars zip by on the divided road. We watch tourists wander up from the oldest cemetery in Georgia to any of the other landmarks dotting downtown Savannah. This is a city that lives to preserve its colonial and nineteenth-century past. Cobblestone streets. Brick mansions. Tree-lined public squares. But it’s also a place that offered me a fresh start in 2011, when I moved here with my brother, who was in the Army.
I see Lafayette Square a block in the distance and glance up at the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist, or St. John’s as Savannahians call it. I chuckle a bit. I turn to my parents and ask a question I know they are not expecting: “Can I take y’all to church?” They know that I chose a different path than theirs and it did not involve going to church.
Living in one of the oldest cities in America, where the remains of two centuries are so visible and well preserved, is like existing inside a very hot museum. The city invites its transient residents, like me, to breathe in its history at a leisurely pace. Over the span of my decade in the city, I’ve been slow to discovery. Sometimes, I accidentally find a new place that I’ve never been and peek inside.
My parents look at me with jaws dropped, surprised by the question. Not only do I not attend services here, when I visit them back in Tennessee it’s a struggle to get me to go to their church.
But today they accept my invitation and follow me across Liberty Street. I have a big grin on my face as I explain that St. John’s is a historical landmark open to tourists when it is not having mass. The French Gothic style Basilica, anchored at Lafayette Square, has stood for nearly one hundred and fifty years, withstanding fire and hurricanes. It continues to hold mass for the faithful.
Up the marble stairs, we look up at the towering cathedral resembling Paris’s Notre Dame, and its twin spires, adorned with golden caps and crosses, seem to cut into the blue Savannah sky. From any direction you walk to St. John’s, you emerge from under canopy oaks to a tree-less clearing on the corner of East Harris and Abercorn Streets. There’s an odd feeling of being naked under just the shadow of the spires and not the ubiquitous cover of live oaks.
A few tourists are outside, walking past, taking photos, or sitting idle, waiting for a trolley to pick them up. We crane our necks back to see where the towers end.
Inside, the grand church expands into a cross-shaped, monolithic room. The nave, like a wide marble river, runs beneath the vaulted roof overhead. It terminates at the massive altar with the inscription, BEATI QUI AD CENAM AGNI VOCATI SUNT, which translates as, “Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.”
On either side of the nave sit rows of long wooden pews under vaulted ceilings set just a little lower than the center one, their arches supported by marble pillars adorned with gold. The canopies above the pews are painted heavenly blue and dotted with golden crosses to remind those sitting under them of the salvation they find through the death of their Christ. It is a breathtaking work of art, each line and shape reaching toward the sky as if directing attention above and not to the hell below.
We mostly have the cathedral to ourselves. The church’s guardian tells me to remove my hat, out of reverence. It stays on my side until I am out of his eyesight, then I put it back on. I do not share his god, nor his reverence. I see only a building made by man and I like wearing my hat to cover my balding inheritance.
My parents and I venture up the main aisle and split at the altar. My father, as he often does, wanders off into his own world of contemplation and exploration. He’s a dreamer and an artist both with a drawing pen and with words in the pulpit. He explores the stations of the cross, the five-foot sculptures nailed to the wall between the stained-glass windows—aide-mémoire of his youth as an altar boy in a Catholic church in Detroit, Michigan.
I follow my mother the other way, toward the small table of votive candles, set in an alcove with a life-size sculpture of a crucified Jesus behind them.
“I am going to light a candle for my brother,” she says. Her sibling recently passed. I ask her if that’s appropriate given she’s not actually Catholic. “I was baptized. I can do what I want,” she says firmly.
Her stubbornness puts the question to rest. She slides a dollar or two into the offering box and lights a candle. I smile a bit at her rogue nature because I recognize how much I inherited from her when I think of my own stubbornness.
We take a seat on the second row of pews and admire all around us. The soaring ceilings, the painted frescos, and the empty, cavernous feeling of holy ground. There is no one around now. My father has wandered off somewhere and it’s dead quiet. When we talk, we whisper so as not to disturb the saints painted above.
While it is beautiful and serene, I see a building financed by a murderous and bloody history where an estimated millions suffered under the hand of a church determined to conquer the world through crusades and inquisitions. All masked with a face of charity and goodwill. But, for a few moments, my mother and I sit quietly. It is peaceful. My thoughts drift off. Contentment settles in.
Then she turns to me, breaking the silence to say, “You know, Josh. When I was a kid, this was my refuge. You don’t know how bad it was at home. I couldn’t stay there. I would run away and come to the church. It was the only place I felt safe.”
But I do know how bad it was for her. Throughout my life, I’ve heard the stories from her and her siblings of how their parents physically and emotionally abused them. I heard about Grandma’s multiple nervous breakdowns—that one incident with the chainsaw. I heard about her father’s drinking. I heard how he suffered heavily from wartime PTSD, after fighting against his Nazi first cousins, after freeing prisoners from a concentration camp. When I was young, alone in our living room, I fumbled through some books and Bibles in a basket beside a chair. There, I found my mother’s diary and the horrors inside. I never told anyone what I read that day.
My mother and her seven siblings—all baptized as Catholics—left their Indiana home as soon as they could, but some could never escape the abuse, turning to addiction to cope. Most found refuge in a Protestant faith instead of their Catholic upbringing, turning to a new kind of salvation.
In her teenage years, she began dabbling in what she calls “witchcraft,” mixing it with heavy drug abuse. In her bedroom, all alone, she witnessed the head of a demon fly through her window—she swears it was no hallucination or drug-induced fantasy, but a real experience. Fearful, she ran to her mother, whose only remedy was to take her to a Catholic priest. The priest made her repeat a prayer of renouncement to banish the evil spirit. Walking out of the church, she felt a great relief. The incident galvanized in her psyche and became a spark for personal revolution.
In the summer of 1974, after graduating from high school—where she dealt drugs to classmates and invented “goth before it was goth” as my uncles would later describe the way she dressed—she packed her belongings and moved to Connecticut. For four months, living with her brother Mark who had joined the Navy, she attempted to escape her troubled life and the drug abuse. But, the same habits and lifestyle followed her to New England.
Soon, she was back in Indiana, looking for a reprieve, in the very place that had stirred all her troubles.
In her bedroom one night, she made a simple choice. She was tired of the way she was living. She silently accepted salvation, in the Protestant form, and began the journey to the modest and loving person she is today. She left Catholicism, becoming part of a growing movement of Pentecostals. Her friends, who were groupies for a rock & roll band, had all discovered the Pentecostal movement and soon they were going to church together instead of concerts.
She fell in with a group of non-denominational Pentecostals based in Cleveland, Tennessee. There, during an altar call, she literally ran into a young man from Michigan, a recent ex-Catholic himself. After dating for six months, they were engaged. I was born nine months after they were married.
Through her new faith, she found peace from a troubled childhood. She learned to love and to be kind and to let go of her anger. The church has always been her sanctuary. In later years, she took in her own mother. She cared for Mimi in her final days, showing a kind of love that was never really reciprocated—a kind of love she learned from her faith.
To me, Mimi was the fun grandmother. She sparked in me a love for the arts that began my own journey in life. We spent a lot of time alone together. In my teen years, she taught me to paint, and we would sit on her porch and drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. I didn’t see in her the person my mother had endured when she was young.
Church was never a sanctuary for me. It was more of an obligation that turned into a prison. For more than twenty years, I faithfully followed my parents to their small Pentecostal church three times a week and to tent revivals and to pastor conventions. But later, I came to resent it. I felt as though something had been stolen from me. Time had been taken from me. Time exploring a world that didn’t begin and end with religion. I came to the point where I didn’t even like walking into a church.
One late fall day, on the steps of my apartment in Iowa City, where I was finishing my bachelor’s degree at the University of Iowa, I felt a loneliness I had never known. I stared into the Midwestern sky. I surrendered my faith and belief in any deity, finding my sanctuary in secularism, in a complete abandonment of religious notions. As I walked back up to my apartment, comforting peace replaced vast loneliness and I settled into a new path and new value system that didn’t need grand cathedrals or a pious life.
Inside the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist, on that spring day, my mother’s words echoed through me and opened a vision of who she was. “When I was a kid, this was my refuge. It was the only place I felt safe.”
For years, an anger had settled in my heart. It lingered there, always. I resented her for my sheltered upbringing. I never understood why church was such a big deal to her and why it was forced on me—and that made me angry.
I felt like I heard my mother speak for the first time that day, telling me why her faith was so important to her. I looked over at her as she sat in the stillness of the church and saw a little girl who was hurt deeply. I saw how she turned to abusive mechanisms to cope and then found a new salvation, allowing it to transform her into a thoughtful and caring person.
In a flash, like Paul on the road to Damascus, I finally understood why her Christian faith was so vital. And though it will never be vital to me, I saw why she only ever hoped it would be. I found my own salvation in that moment.
Mother and I rejoin my father near the altar and saunter to the exit. Outside, the tourists continue their photos in front of the church. Mother talks more about her life as we walk down the block and beneath the blanket of oaks to escape the heavy sun. We decide to head to Broughton Street, to an art store so my dad can stock up on a few supplies for his business. For my mother, from now on, a visit to Savannah will never feel quite complete without visiting St. John’s, lighting a candle, and saying a prayer, a reminder of her journey and the sanctuary that saved her.