When I was growing up, my family did not, with any regularity, go to church. That’s a common story these days, but it was downright odd when I was growing up in Mississippi in the 1970s.
“What church do you go to?” was an obvious and inevitable question, and whatever answer you provided was as encoded with advance meaning as the very color of your skin.
Not that we would have admitted not going to church, if anybody had asked. We just hadn’t gone that Sunday. I was perfectly happy to stay at home, because the start time of Sunday School coincided with the start of Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo cartoons on Channel 3. That when it was still early enough on Sunday morning that the day seemed full of promise and possibility, a whole day to flop on the floor, before the bright light crossed the room and fell.
Sometimes on Sunday mornings, WLBT would air half-hour religious drama programs of the kind that were used to fill programming holes, and one week, I found myself drawn into one, that took place, I remember, on a suburban street flooded with sunlight, which meant, to my child’s eyes, that it must have been set in California.
The story revolved around a teenage white boy who arrives as a foster child to a middle-class black family. The 70s may have represented a big move forward in race relations in Mississippi, but the notion of a black foster family to a long-haired white boy seemed unimaginable.
My own parents had been moderately courageous in supporting integrated public schools, but as time passed and my father died, my mother had become racially embittered anew, given to paranoid musings about the lost world before “everything changed.”
In the show, the father of the family is burly and authoritative, while the mother is an aproned stay-at-home mom, cleaning the tiny, pin-neat house. There may have been a school-aged son—I cannot now recall—but there most definitely was a bubbly little daughter, her hair tied in bouncing pigtails. (And were they adorned with the pony-tail ties that were decorated with rainbow plastic gumballs?)
The white boy is sullen, angry, immediately rude to his new foster family, and clearly convinced of his racial superiority. I seem to remember him rising from a dinner table and slamming back his chair; I do recall the foster father, gentle but firm, correcting the boy’s behavior.
The little daughter, though, is as enchanted by the white boy as much as he is as annoyed by her, and speaks to him cheerfully despite his laconic responses.
It is she who is the catalyst for the plot’s action: Just as the boy is being ever more sucked into bad company and down the wrong road, something happens to the little girl. Either she’s hit by a car, or threatened by the (white) thugs he’s been hanging out with—of this, I have no memory.
What I do remember is, at the moment the little girl is hurt, the dormant moral impulses of the white boy spring into action. Finally, he sees in the girl a fellow human being, and in that moment becomes one himself.
He holds her in a stark reverse pietà that is burned into my memory: when the girl is saved, he, too is saved, and he and she both return home, to the home that is now, in spiritual truth, both theirs.
I’ve scoured this story in my memory for years—is it just another representative of a “Magic Negro” narrative? Yes—but even by dint of sophisticated analysis, the story continues to yield up its power to me. It made me want the racial chasm all around me to be healed, but even more (I identified, you see, with that angry white teenaged boy), it convinced me of the reality of sin, my need to be redeemed.
And it also convinced me of the reality of mysterious, unexpected grace.
Unexpected grace was exactly what I found when at last, at the age of forty-three, I decided to go searching for that program, and that episode.
Not even sure of where to begin, I typed into Google, “religious TV show Sunday morning.” One search led to another, and through the miracle of algorithms and a confessional culture, I found an underworld (Behind-world? Other-world?) of tributes by devotees of these very kinds of programs:
On a comment page on the Internet Movie Database for the show Insight—is this the one, I wondered? Did I remember this show, too?—I found a wealth of recollection:
- “kgall62 from Long Island, New York”: “Back when I was young and partied way too much, I knew it was time to call it a night after ‘Insight’ aired in the wee hours of Sunday morning....”
- “emailly from United States”: “I watched this show infrequently throughout the 1970s, but some of the episodes continue to haunt me today....”
- “turnip-7 from Baltimore, MD”: “An Orthodox Jew’s view on Insight”: “I always enjoyed watching this show on Sunday mornings before...I had to get ready for Hebrew School.”
And, perhaps most poignantly, this post from someone on a similar quest to mine:
“Greg from Kalispell, Montana”: “Thank you IMDB, and Mike, and Kenneth, for allowing me to touch this puzzle that has been on my mind all these years…Please write to me if anyone has knowledge....”
As a result of my research efforts, I’ve deduced that the show I was watching was not Insight, but This is the Life, produced by the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. But there are no extant copies, though, no Internet episode summaries to consult. Imagine that, in this age of information saturation, a mystery still just beyond my grasp?
Maybe you know it? Maybe you can also remember the episode that struck my life, and, as corny as it sounds, left me with a wound that set my heart free?
Please write to me if anyone has knowledge....