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She wore KKK robe to show-and-tell, now directs diversity program

Mentors talk about Thompson-Pound Art Program and its director, Debbie Anderson

Debbie Anderson, program director for the Thompson-Pound Art Program, leads Wednesday afternoon teen mentors in salutations during a week of workshops preparing the mentors for the upcoming camp.
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Debbie Anderson, program director for the Thompson-Pound Art Program, leads Wednesday afternoon teen mentors in salutations during a week of workshops preparing the mentors for the upcoming camp.

Five decades ago, she was an eighth-grade girl who wore for show-and-tell her aunt’s KKK robe, symbolizing the intolerance she was taught in church and at home. Now, she is a woman who wears the T-shirt symbolizing the diversity program she directs.

How did that happen?

To answer that question, Debbie Anderson shares her personal journey, from believing in only one way to celebrating many ways. This journey has several pivotal points, transforming her from condemning others to collaborating with them.

For the past 15 years, Anderson has directed the Thompson-Pound Art Program, the Chattahoochee Valley Episcopal Ministry’s free week-long summer day camp for 60 diverse children ages 6-11 and 20 teen interns and mentors, who learn about various religions while creating a unity art piece and performance. The 2017 sessions are this week in the Columbus State University Rankin Arts Center.

In an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Anderson, who also is musical director of the Springer Opera House, reflected on her personal journey.

‘The part that’s so scary’

In the 1960s on the outskirts of Athens, Ga., Anderson was raised in a strict religious community. The pastor at her fundamentalist Baptist church “was so certain that he knew the right way to God, not even other Baptists were able to be on the right path,” she said. “So what I learned as a child was a very narrow view of truth and how to know God.”

In fact, Anderson said, as integration spread in the 1960s, “My church came up with a plan: If any black people walked in the door, they would be escorted out.”

Educated in a segregated system and living in a whites-only neighborhood, the lone black person Anderson knew then was the woman who helped her mother clean their house. And the N-word was a common term her family used.

“That was normal,” she said.

But it didn’t feel like hate, Anderson said. “It was just the way it was,” she said.

Anderson “revered” her mother’s favorite brother, the fun uncle who frequently visited and played canasta all night long.

“Playing cards was a no-no at church,” she said, “so they kept that a little secret.”

A bigger secret: This uncle was a chaplain in the Ku Klux Klan.

Her accountant father was transferred closer to Atlanta. They moved to Decatur, where Anderson attended Avondale High School, which included eighth grade at the time. That year, in her Georgia history class, she chose to do her oral report on the KKK because, for her presentation, she knew she could get an authentic outfit -- the one her aunt wore.

Anderson didn’t wear the infamous pointed hood and mask, just the robe, and she doesn’t remember what she told the class, but her message was clear.

“None of the bad things about the KKK registered with me then,” she said. “I wouldn’t have called it racist. … I don’t know what I would have thought at the time but that white people were somehow better than anybody else in the world.”

After her presentation about the KKK, Anderson recalled, nobody in the class commented, except her teacher asked where she got the robe.

“It was very quiet,” Anderson said. “My teacher’s eyes were really big, and I thought she was impressed with how good I did. I thought I was going to get an A, and I think I did, but I was just happy that I had such a nice show-and-tell.”

Anderson thought then that the KKK’s purpose “was to make sure people knew that white people were superior. … I knew that it burned crosses, but somehow that didn’t seem bad to me. … It was normal. That’s the part that’s so scary.”

But even then, Anderson started seeing cracks in that view of the world. Also in high school, Anderson and one of her brothers visited a teacher who had moved to Virginia. On the bus, they met a musical black man – and they sang with him during the trip.

“It might have been one of the first times I experienced something with a person of color and it wasn’t about them being a person of color,” she said.

When they returned home, they excitedly told their mother, Anderson recalled, “and she was like, ‘You did what?’”

She and her brother responded with a question that didn’t get an answer, Anderson said: “What’s wrong with it? We enjoyed that.”

‘My experience was not what he said’

While Anderson was attending the University of Georgia, her parents divorced. Her father was church treasurer and a deacon and her mother taught Sunday school, but the majority of the congregation condemned them for their divorce. Her parents “were somehow not good enough Christians,” she said, “because, if they were, then their marriage would have stayed together.”

This shunning prompted her to wonder, “If God loves people, then what’s that about?”

At the University of Georgia, where Anderson earned a bachelor’s degree in music, she got involved with the Baptist Student Union, which her church considered too liberal.

“My pastor I grew up with pretty much disowned me because I did that,” she said. “I was associating with people that couldn’t clearly be on any good path, except that I met really good people there. It didn’t make any sense to me, because my experience was not what he said.”

It was another time she couldn’t tolerate the intolerance.

“The dissonance was that these people were thoughtful at the BSU,” she said. “They cared about me and cared about what I thought. They spent time kicking around ideas about God and about what life meant to be connected to God. They weren’t afraid of my questions.”

And they weren’t afraid to help Anderson when she lapsed into judgment. She recalled arguing with a male student one year older than her about whether “heathens in Africa were going to hell.”

“He embraced the idea that God loves everybody on the Earth,” she said. “It was the first time I ever heard anybody kind of say it’s not what I decide. Where I grew up, my connection to God was about my choice, that I had to accept Jesus as my savior in order to be connected to God. In this argument, it was the first time anybody ever put the idea in front of me that maybe it was God’s choice that people were connected to God, and we just have to recognize that there might be many ways to do that.”

Anderson wasn’t fully ready to accept this revelation, so she grabbed him by the shirt and hollered, “No, they are all going to hell!”

Embarrassed, she felt herself overreacting and wondered, “What is this? Maybe that wasn’t who God was.”

And this guy, seemingly a blasphemer but suddenly a role model, compassionately took her hand and told her, “It’s OK.”

Anderson concluded, “That was an important moment. … One of the things I internalized in that church was that I need to be right all the time and I needed to do everything right and I needed to be perfect.”

Another college experience continued Anderson’s turnaround. At a foot-washing ceremony during a BSU retreat, she was paired with a black woman.

“That was one of the biggest gifts I was ever given,” she said, “because she was a wonderful person. Being put in a place of service like that forced me to look at her as a person.”

The Georgia BSU also was a blessing for Anderson because that’s where she met Ron, the man who became her husband, the late Springer Theatre Academy director who died from cancer last year.

Ron was “very supportive” of her transformation, Anderson said. “He and I had a lot of theological discussions, about God and people and how God views people,” she said.

‘Embraced working collaboratively’

By her late 20s, Anderson moved in 1978 to Wisconsin, where she and Ron worked in a Milwaukee theater company.

“I had pretty much let go of any connection to the faith from my childhood,” Anderson said, “because it did not serve me.”

The theater group “embraced working collaboratively,” she said. “… People were not my adversaries anymore. I didn’t need to protect my ownership, whether that was writing music or helping to write a play.”

Or deciding who was righteous. So she told her KKK story to these friends and coworkers as a sort of confessional, explaining how she grew up.

Their reaction: “Laughter but in a way that was unbelievable,” Anderson recalled, because the woman they knew was so far removed from that eighth-grader in a KKK robe. Even the one black person among the eight colleagues in that conversation didn’t object to Anderson’s story.

Anderson’s reaction: “I was part of the laughter … It was great to be a part of a group that did not chastise me for that.”

Gradually, as an adult, Anderson realized her upbringing denied her the freedom to think for herself.

“I couldn’t reason,” she said. “I could only spit out what they told me.”

To receive health insurance and free rent while still working in the theater company, Anderson and her husband became the sextons of an Episcopal church.

“Little did I know,” Anderson said with a smile, “that hanging out with Episcopalians would become a really important thing.”

‘Talking about it’

Anderson started singing in the Episcopal choir and joined a theology class.

“I was with people that could discuss differences and their ideas about God – and not get up and walk out of the room,” she said. “They didn’t care if you agreed. What they cared about was talking about it.”

One of the books the class read was “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Rabbi Harold Kushner. So this woman raised as a fundamentalist Baptist was studying a Jew’s book with a bunch of Episcopalians.

“It was one of the first times that I ever was in a discussion that talked about the qualities of God and that I could have an opinion about them,” she said. “It was incredibly powerful.”

Anderson noted, decades later, “That book is why Ron said, ‘God didn’t give me cancer and neither did the Devil.’ That book informed Ron and me in ways that would just explode later, when you start to live life.”

Also during one of those classes, Anderson recalled, “Someone said, ‘Jesus did not have to die,’ and I fell apart. I could not wrap my head around that, because in the church I grew up in, everything was based on the fact that Jesus did have to die, that somehow that was God’s plan and God’s way of saving the world. So to sit with people and consider the idea that Jesus didn’t have to die? I cried for several weeks, because that concept blew everything I had ever thought about God out of the water.”

She didn’t discount or even condemn that assertion, as she would have before being exposed to new ideas.

“I started to be OK with not having an answer,” Anderson said. “Ron and I had many, many, many discussions like that. … He grew up in a very liberal (Southern Baptist) church that took an educated approach to theology. It wasn’t an emotional approach, which is what I grew up with.”

The exploration of different concepts whetted her appetite for more.

“I was ravenous,” she said.

Anderson joined a women’s theology group. She led a Lenten study on inclusive language in the Episcopal service. She took a nine-month course called “Journey to the Beloved of the Soul,” which used myths from various religions to guide personal growth. She also dabbled in the Unitarian and Universalist church classes.

She learned the eastern religions’ concept of chakras, the seven centers of energy in the body, and she explored Reiki, a Japanese technique for stress reduction that promotes healing through laying on hands.

“Theology is a very personal journey, not a group consensus,” she said.

As her world grew wider, she realized her narrow upbringing had betrayed her. Sometimes, her evolution of thought felt more like a revolution and it was scary, but it always was thrilling and affirming.

“I was like a sponge,” she said.

Callings

After moving to Columbus in 1996, so Ron could work at the Springer, Anderson was concerned her personal journey would be diverted. But while taking care of their son, Max, and following four years of church hopping, she found a spiritual home at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. There, she heard about the Thompson-Pound Art Program, which had started in 1995.

Michelle Waddell, who was the education director at St. Thomas, also was the director of TAP. She asked Anderson to be one of TAP’s teachers, and Anderson taught the children a song she had written for her “Journey to the Beloved of the Soul” class in Milwaukee. It’s called “Callings”:

Blessed are the feet of those who travel this road — passing, in time, the banal and sublime.

Walking through the darkness, crossing over the line — toward the distant voices as they call.

So heed them, receive them, believe in them and you will recall feeling the One True Light.

Blessed is the sight of all who open their eyes. Sleeping is done. The vision’s begun —

Passing from the dreaming to the stillness beyond. And you hear the voices when they call.

So heed them, receive them, believe in them and you will recall seeing the One True Light.

We are companions on the road, knowing the pieces are the whole.

Blessed are the woundings, for they show us the way out of the pain — and out of the blame.

If we follow, they will guide us home unashamed. And the distant voices call your name.

So heed them, receive them, believe in them and you will recall being the One True Light.

Feeling the One, Seeing the One, Being the One True Light.

Anderson declared, “That’s what TAP is about.”

She taught at TAP the next year. Then in 2002, Barbara Thompson and Vicky Partin asked her to be the TAP director, after Waddell had moved.

“There never was any question I would do it,” Anderson said. “I had met people that were interested in having a bigger world view at TAP, and working with children to start kids learning about other people that are different from them seemed like the most wonderful opportunity I could ever have, because I knew what it was like to have a narrow view.”

TAP gives its participants, Anderson said, “a safe place to share their faith and their culture and their different world views, where nobody is trying to change their minds. Nobody is proselytizing anybody. This is informational. And people are sharing very important things about themselves without fear of being hurt, physically, of being told that what they believe can’t be true. It honors and allows people to understand the different paths that people are on in this world.”

Not just another gig

Anderson is an accomplished singer, having performed with her brothers on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in 1990. She has prepared choral and instrumental ensembles at the Springer since 1998 and became its full-time musical director in 2015. She also sings at her church, St. Thomas, and in the professional chorus Cantus Columbus.

And then there is her role as music director at Temple Israel in Columbus. Her singing for Jewish services started in Milwaukee. The organist in her church there also played at a synagogue and invited her to be part of an eight-person choir for the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

At the time, it was just another gig.

“I was trying to make a living as a singer,” she said. “It was wonderful music.”

Anderson sang the Hebrew by using the transliteration, although initially it didn’t feel like a spiritual experience. “The music still touched me, but the doing of it was so technical.”

She sang there for a few years. In Columbus, around 2001, somebody recommended Anderson to Flo Hiatt, then the music director at Temple Israel, which was looking for a new singer – and Anderson was looking for a way to earn extra money while still taking care of Max.

She was one of three or four who rotated every Friday, and they all sang together during the High Holy Days. Anderson started learning the meaning of the Hebrew prayers she was singing.

“I wanted to do it in a way that showed respect,” she said. “… It amplified my understanding of God; it did not make it smaller.”

Now, she is the temple’s music director.

“My being integrated into the Temple (Israel) community in Columbus, it’s a piece of being here that I think has allowed me some very practical ways to internalize the meaning of a different faith that does not threaten my worship in my Christian church but allows me to experience and not just appreciate but worship alongside and in some ways, because I sing there, help lead it,” she said. “I always say I get more out of that than I give.”

All of which has led her to this conclusion:

“The thing I had to give up that probably was at the root of all that I was taught is that there is only one right way to know God,” she said. “And that is a tough one, I think, for all faiths. You see it in every faith. … There is an underlying theme that I can’t be right and you be right at the same time. And I say why not? Because God is bigger than any of the ways that we experience God. God can hold all of them, and there’s a lot of resting I can do in that.

“I don’t feel like I have to have an answer to every question that comes up about God or life or whatever. There’s a lot of freedom in that. And the two things, that God is love and that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves, are pretty common among all religions.”

Anderson smiled and added with a chuckle, “And you know what? That’s plenty of theology for me now. I don’t feel compelled to have some complicated way to understand how I’m related to God or how you’re related to God. It’s wonderful to not be tied up in knots about that and trying to prove that your house of cards is the only one that’s going to stand up.”

Ultimate test

The ultimate test of that philosophy came the year when two teens asked Anderson whether they could include atheism among the faiths that TAP would discuss that week.

She conferred with the adult co-planners and told them, “Look, we have to do this. These kids have been at TAP, one of them for 10 years. How am I going to say no?”

They agreed.

Anderson added, “It was a very safe environment. It was not about proselytizing; it was about sharing their own journey.”

And she didn’t hear any complaints.

“It went great,” she said, then laughed. “Nobody called me and left a dirty message on the phone.”

Anderson has shared some of her upbringing with the teens at TAP. When she tells them that some of her relatives were in the Ku Klux Klan, Anderson said, “Their eyes get very big. I don’t always feel compelled to say that, but when kids in there have experiences that are very personal that they share, I feel like, ‘I’m not going to let you be alone in that. It’s OK to say it.’ … It lets them know that they’re doing very important work, and it’s work that they can be proud of, and they are, in a very small way, making the world a better place.”

TAP teen mentors SaQuoia Tette and Ian Dooley called Anderson the “most open person.”

“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, she’s super supportive,” said SaQuoia, a rising senior at Smiths Station High School. “To me, she is like the ultimate example of tolerance in the community. If you have a problem, you can just come to her and she’s willing to listen to you and she’s there for you.”

Ian, a rising junior at Columbus High School, said Anderson “just treats everyone really nice — but like genuinely, doesn’t just have a script she reads. … She sees you for who you are and acts positive about that.”

SaQuoia said it’s “very inspiring” to understand the background Anderson has overcome and to know “you can form your own beliefs and you can act on your own beliefs and be able to go out and help spread acceptance and tolerance to others.”

TAP is a program of the Chattahoochee Valley Episcopal Ministry. CVEM executive director Martha Robert said the program’s message is “even more powerful” with Anderson’s background. “She came from an upbringing of hate,” Robert said. “She was taught bigotry but learned in some real significant ways that’s not the way that everybody else thinks.

“Debbie knows, out of her experience, that really the only way we can shift our country’s conversation is person-to-person. That’s where you learn to trust people and to let go of the biases that you learned.”

Epilogue

Last year, at TAP’s end-of-week celebration in Temple Israel, some of the stronger participants and their parents hoisted Anderson in a chair and danced her around the social hall, a traditional Jewish way of honoring someone.

“Being in that chair, it’s an experience that confirms everything about what TAP is and what I want it to be, that we can be integrated with each other in a way that does not threaten. That’s what coexistence is,” she said. “… It’s a way of understanding, and all of those understandings overlap in a way that allows us to recognize that we are more alike than different and we all have the same needs and our paths are good.”

Asked why she agreed to publicly share this story, Anderson explained, “The world is a different place now. When very many factions, and with this last election, are splitting people up and so are ideologies across the world, in terms of fundamentalist religions and ISIS and you name it, we need more messages about more people who believe in and work at living together with our differences and not let that scare us, because, right now, too many people don’t think you can do that.”

TAP’S ORIGIN

Tom Thompson, who was on the verge of being ordained when he died in 1995, had served on the board of the Chattahoochee Valley Episcopal Ministry. Donations in his honor totaled more than $4,700. CVEM officials decided to start something new to continue the legacy of Thompson, who was an arts enthusiast. The Pound part of the Thompson-Pound Art Program is in honor of Columbus artist Barbara Golden Pound, who died in 2003.

HOW TO PARTICIPATE

TAP has reached capacity for 2017, but there are other ways to be involved in the program this year:

▪ Donate supplies or snacks.

▪ Sponsor a child. TAP is free for children to attend, made possible by fundraising. Donate $150 to sponsor a child’s attendance for the week. An extra $10 will help pay for the field trip to the Day Butterfly Center at Callaway Gardens, part of the 2017 TAP theme “Transforming Me to We.” Checks can be mailed to CVEM, P.O. Box 5811, Columbus, GA 31906 or donate online at CVEMjubilee.org.

▪ For more information, call CVEM at 706-327-0400.

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