Topher Payne: Have a little faith in faith

So when Trish told Preppy, “Oh, and Mama would have LOVED you,” I took umbrage with the notion.

“Well, she would’ve loved him until she found out he was my husband,” I said, smirking, picturing the steely gaze she would’ve fixed upon him, possibly turning him into a pillar of salt.

“Oh, I think it would’ve been alright in the end,” said Trish. “Mama would have come around just like everybody else in the family. I mean, she would’ve asked a whole lot of inappropriate questions, but that was just her curiosity. She never judged a person for how they lived if it wasn’t hurting anybody —Now, hypocrites, that’s what she couldn’t stand. Like how people treated Bill Terry.”

I remember Bill Terry from my childhood. He was my father’s age, but still lived with his mother. Bill rode around town on a red bicycle, always in a perfectly pressed Oxford shirt and blue jeans. I don’t know what his specific challenge was; in the vernacular of the time, he was “retarded.”

And he was, I discovered, virtually invisible. He would walk into a shop and suddenly every employee and customer would become otherwise occupied. He would speak, and people would behave as though they couldn’t hear. If he was hurt by this, I couldn’t tell. He just kept smiling, and would go about the business of his day.

This is the succinct rejection one experiences in small towns: No one says anything to your face, they just shut you off from their world. Actually, that may not be just a small town thing.

Bill Terry would call my father, and keep him on the phone forever. My sister and I couldn’t believe Daddy understood a word he said. But Bill had been calling my father for 30 years at that point, so the lines of communication were wide open. My father had been taught as a child to show Bill gentleness and patience. According to Trish, Grandmama was disgusted that other parents hadn’t done the same. 

“Oh, it made her so furious,” Trish said. “These people who were in the church every Sunday, every Wednesday, but then they’d walk around town thinking they didn’t have to talk to certain people, wouldn’t give them the time of day. Who did they think they were, you know?”

The principles Grandmama taught to Daddy and Trish, which they passed down to their children, were rooted in grace and kindness. It is within your right to expect the best of everyone around you, but only when you first apply those expectations to yourself. That means opening your heart to people you don’t understand.

That’s the foundation of true faith, in my mind. Faith is not meant to be a barrier from the world around you; it’s supposed to be the means for forging a connection with it.

That’s why Trish is confident there would have been room in Grandmama’s heart for my husband and me. Her faith was strong because it was built upon questioning and evaluating the world she inhabited.

Faith built upon rejecting what you don’t understand isn’t faith at all — it’s willful ignorance. But when you pay attention, when you dare to show compassion, to see life from another point of view, the whole world opens up.

We raised our glasses in Grandmama’s memory that night, and to the example she set:  The challenge set before us in life is not determining who you’re better than, but rather how you can strive to be better.

Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at