Author digs deeply to uncover factors that shaped her life
Cindy Henry McMahon is a wife and mother who works in non-profit management in Asheville, N.C. Most anyone would call it a normal life, she admits.
Her life today, however, belies a torturous upbringing with a troubled father. She has been on a long journey of forgiveness that called for traveling old paths, pulling together pieces of history and putting words onto pages.
Telling her story in Fresh Water from Old Wells (2015, Mercer University Press), she said, was like removing a painful splinter that needed to work its way out.
The upheaval in her early life was the result of her father’s emotional struggles and unpredictable decisions that included rage and desertion.
“I had a lot of healing I needed to do,” she told a book club gathering at Vineville Baptist Church in Macon, Ga., where her maternal grandfather, Walter Moore, had been a beloved pastor and denominational leader. “…I needed to understand [my father’s] demons and come to forgiveness.”
“Forgiveness is not a destination,” she said when speaking of her experiences. “It is a journey; we get there and then we go back.”
Her father, Al Henry, was “the handsomest ministerial student at Mercer University” at the time — and just what her mother was seeking, said Cindy. But the mental illness of his mother would eventually appear in her highly intense son.
Al’s commitment to social justice mirrored that of his influential father-in-law. But comparisons ended there.
Walter Moore could take a stand for racial justice in the ’60s and still be revered in his church and get elected president of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Al, who could not find such acceptance, left the conservative Southern Baptists for the more-progressive Congregationalists.
Yet, the Pilgrim Congregational Church in Birmingham, Ala., was not ready for the social change its pastor sought in the 1960s. After participating in the Selma to Montgomery march, he offered his well-sought resignation.
Cindy recalled finding two pieces of white paper from that time. On one, in red, he’d written of God as a consuming fire. On the other, in green, he had penned words from Psalm 11: “Flee like a bird to the mountain.”
“That was my daddy, alright,” wrote Cindy. “Fire. Flight. That was his legacy.”
“This book is built on a lot of memories,” Cindy told her listeners at Vineville Baptist Church. But it is also built on careful, even persistent research.
Cindy traveled to various places where her grandparents and parents had lived to better understand the context of her own life. There were warm recollections as well as painful episodes that shaped her family’s life.
Admittedly, she “grew up during the dark, dark times” of her father’s life.
After Birmingham, Cindy’s family found refuge at Koinonia Farm — the interracial, Christian community founded by Clarence Jordan, her father’s cousin. Cindy was born at that time.
“Koinonia was very much a Christian place,” she wrote. However, the radical nature of human equality was not socially acceptable in rural Georgia. Violent attacks and economic boycotts struck the otherwise pastoral setting that Cindy described as “a childhood paradise.”
Yet, after just a few months, it was the violence of her father toward her mother that surfaced during this time that would chart a long and ugly course for her family.
It was into this context that Cindy was born on May 29, 1966. Digging through the archives at Vineville Baptist Church, she found the Sunday bulletin from that day.
Her grandfather had preached a sermon titled, “Fresh Water from Old Wells.” Cindy had found the title for her book.
Cindy visited Waynesboro, Ga., where her grandfather had been pastor at the First Baptist Church in the 1930s before moving to Macon. She wanted to learn more about the tragic death of Walter and Miriam Moore’s daughter, Sunny.
The Moores had served as missionaries in Cuba and therefore had experiences across racial lines unlike many Georgians at the time. But the greatest test of one’s acceptance and grace is found in reaction to deep personal loss.
Cindy’s detective-like work led her to the man who as a boy called for Sunny to come see him. She darted into the street and was hit and killed by a car.
That evening some men arrived at the pastor’s home with assurance that the black woman driving the car had been found, and that they had the rope needed to lynch her. But the grieved father told them they would need two.
The accident was just as much his fault, he added. Cindy learned that her grandfather had spent that night at the jail to comfort the woman who had understandably left the scene — and to assure her of his protection.
Such a deeply personal and painful story lessens the surprise that the pastor would be called upon three decades later to chair the committee that stood against Georgia Baptists and others when inviting a young African named Sam Oni to become the first person of color to attend Mercer University.
That same commitment to social justice rang in the heart of Cindy’s father. But a hurt spirit and troubled mind played out in a very different life.
Al Henry’s unlikely résumé included service as a hospital chaplain, pastor, farmer, ambulance assistant and more. Then he decided to leave his role as father — and he made it clear.
As Cindy’s sixth birthday came around, he penciled in his daily calendar: ‘FATHER NO MORE.”
When and where his children might see their father was never predictable. His hair and beard grew long, and he took up residence in a tent. His thumb could be out for a ride in any direction.
“His life seemed far away and hard to understand,” wrote Cindy. But she and her siblings tried. One summer they joined their father in the great outdoors in Virginia.
“Even though we were in the woods, living the life Dad wanted for us, it was never enough.”
And when he did come home to be with the family in Atlanta, “he was still far away from us.”
He didn’t work. But he imposed his diet restrictions on his family and made certain they did not celebrate holidays.
PLACE OF REFUGE
Cleo, N.C., is a small, mountainous community that was first an escape and then a refuge for Cindy and her family. Summer camp there provided the Henry girls with a normalcy unknown during the rest of the year.
“Sometimes nothing but the green of Celo could soothe my soul,” Cindy penned in reflection.
In 1976, Cindy’s mother finally “took over” and made the bold decision to move the family to Cleo. “Still unemployed, spiraled lower into paranoia and depression,” her father went along.
The peaceful mountain setting, however, would not end the familiar “rant and rage” that marked his presence in the family.
When her mother finally found the courage to end the marriage, her father wrote to Cindy assigning blame to her for the divorce and wavering on his love for her.
As his troubled life neared its end, Cindy found the courage to tell him of the “really scary childhood” he had created for her. But taking a long first step toward forgiveness, she added: “I’m working on letting it go.”
The road to forgiveness for Cindy has been long and winding — requiring a lot of digging into the past, careful reflection, and putting the resulting words into print.
The extension of grace by others convinced Cindy that the risk of the road was worth taking.
“I was beginning to understand, finally, that this forgiveness — letting go of the pain and protective anger left over from my childhood — could be the greatest gift I would ever give myself,” she wrote. “It would be freedom. At last.”
STRENGTH AND COURAGE
“I grew up outside the church,” said Cindy in response to a question about how her experiences impacted her view of the church.
“When my dad left Birmingham, he left the church,” she continued. “I always felt very much on the outside of church growing up.”
Yet when she and her family starting attending a UCC church in Asheville, she said, the experience provided the perspective and support needed for her to take the needed journey toward forgiveness that played out in her storytelling.
“It gave me strength and courage,” she said of being in a caring, encouraging community of faith. “I don’t think I could have done this without that church connection at the time.” BT
Story and Photo by John Pierce