John Fountain as a little boy.
This essay was originally broadcast and published with National Public Radio's "This I Believe" series.
By John W. Fountain
I believe in God. Not that cosmic, intangible spirit-in-the-sky that Mama told me as a little boy “always was and always will be.”
But the God who embraced me when Daddy disappeared from our lives—from my life—at age 4, the night police led him away from our front door, down the stairs in handcuffs.
The God who warmed me when exhaust poured from our mouths inside our freezing apartment where the gas was disconnected in the dead of another wind-whipped Chicago winter, and there was no food, little hope, and no hot water.
The God who held my hand when I witnessed boys in my ‘hood swallowed by the elements—by death and by hopelessness—; Who claimed me when I felt like “no-man’s son,” amid the absence of any man in my life to wrap his arms around me and tell me, “everything’s going to be okay,” to speak proudly of me, to call me son.
I believe in God, the God who in all these times allowed me to feel His presence— whether by the sensation of warmth that filled my belly like hot chocolate on a cold afternoon, or whether it was that now familiar voice that rippled as do waves over a calm sea whenever I found myself in the tempest of life’s storms, telling me over and over and over again—even when I have been told I was “nothing,”—that I was something; That I was His; And that even amid the desertion of the man who gave me his name and DNA, and little else, I might find in Him sustenance and the substance of what children find in men who choose to be fathers.
I believe in God, the God who I have come to know as father; As Abba—Daddy.
I always envied boys I saw walking hand-in-hand with their fathers; I longed to stare eye to eye again into the face of the man whose name I bore; I thirsted for the intimate conversations fathers & sons have—about the birds & the bees, about things, or about nothing at all—simply feeling his breath, heartbeat, presence.
I could find no tears that Alabama winter’s evening in January 1979 as I stood finally—face to face—with my father lying cold in a casket, his eyes sealed, his heart no longer beating, his breath forever stilled. Killed in a car accident, he died drunk, leaving me at 18 inebriated by the sorrow of years of fatherless-ness.
It wasn’t until many years later, standing over his grave for a long overdue conversation—that as I told him about the man I had become, about how much I wished he had been in my life—that my tears flowed, as I realized fully that in his absence, I had found another. Or that He—God the Father— had found me.
John W. Fountain is a professor of journalism at Roosevelt University and author of “True Vine: A Young Black Man’s Journey of Faith, Hope and Clarity.”