870: Hymn to Church Basements

870: Hymn to Church Basements

870: Hymn to Church Basements


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

Recently, I lost a cousin who at one point was like a brother. He was only two weeks older than me. I treasure the few pictures I have of us as kids. In one, we are toddlers in a playpen cheesing in front of the camera; in another, it’s Easter; we are dressed in Buster Brown shoes, red turtlenecks, and leather vests.

Sadly, he became addicted his whole teen and adult years. Not too long ago, the Pew Research Center reported nearly half of us “have a family member or close friend who’s been addicted to drugs.” But I swear, and hate to admit, that most of us could have guessed that statistic based on anecdotal experience.

I’m feeling some kind of way about his passing. I know drug and alcohol dependence arises from a number of factors: economic, social, psychological, genetic. Yet I held out belief he would someday overcome the powerful forces that severely addled his life. Though rooted in optimism, this was a heavy expectation given the frequencies of his relapse. To be honest, my wish for his sobriety underscored an urgent and maybe selfish need. I did not want to be seen as exceptional.

We grew up together with the same advantages, under the same roof. He should have had an equally fulfilling life. With its violence, drugs, and petty crimes, I resented all that our upbringing signified. It was one of the factors that motivated me to achieve in school. I needed to claim a different reality than our origins. This herculean task makes anything that looks like success into some sort of “escape.” But the fact is, where I’m from, the odds are stacked.

To run away from all that, meant I had to run away from him, too. My complicated feelings are also tied up with my inability to help him while he was alive. No amount of lent money or unconditional love could shake him out of the cycle of substance abuse. However, it gives me comfort that he had friends on his journey. He found emotional care among those in his support groups and rehab, places family members even with the best of intentions could not reach.

Today’s poem exalts the unadorned spaces where those on the journey to recovery find acceptance and community.

Hymn to Church Basements
by Joan Kwon Glass

This world loves a grand cathedral: 
its righteousness and pulpit, 
purported sanctuary of redemption, 
holy spire & stilled saints,
history of fire & painted glass.
Pews where congregants pray & worship, 
troubled by questions they hope someone 
has answers to.
They wait on their knees to be forgiven.

But where are the songs of praise 
for church basements?
That lower level, that rock bottom room
sunken & reverent with flickering lights, 
water-stained ceilings & coffee-stained carpets, 
its full moon of chairs that appear
every night at 8:00 because a crackhead
made a commitment.
We don't kneel in church basements.
Instead, we squat against walls 
& stand arms crossed in doorways.
We sit slouched & messy, look each other in the eyes 
& say, I am an addict and I don't want to die

& oh God, is this not a kind of miracle?

I prefer my angels banged up & salty,
chubby from eating cookies instead of shooting dope.
They pull splinters from their wings,
hug the newcomer too tightly,
shake their heads at me when I don't raise my hand to share. 
No matter how tough I try to look, no matter how long it takes, 
they say keep coming back, kid.

Tonight, the addict who overdosed last month, 
the one who had to be revived with Narcan,
is making the coffee.

“Hymn to Church Basements” by Joan Kwon Glass from IF RUST CAN GROW ON THE MOON © 2022, Joan Kwon Glass. Used by permission of Milk and Cake Press.