{ See the Pilgrim as He Lies with Glory in His Soul }
Steve May

busesWe're all looking for something, seems like. That Sunday I was looking for my gate the Philadelphia bus station, so I asked the guard.
   "Can you tell me where the line for the Pittsburgh bus starts?" I asked, and he showed me, pointing to an aging, dark-skinned black man standing alone in front of the first gate, with a stack of luggage to his right and a straw hat on top.
   "Gate Nine," he said. "Pittsburgh is gate nine, where that man is."
   As I approached him, I could see something gold glistening in the sun, dangling from a chain around his thick neck. A cross? No: It was a Star of David, glowing like it was electrically charged, or possessed. Below, the man's gut bulged out and down, like it had something important inside. His dark hands were callused and covered entirely in scars. His white eyes had turned beige, and were naturally painted blood red. He was the first man in line, an hour early.
   I settled into a spot behind him, set down my backpack and flipped open my black messenger bag—my service module bag. The weekend had been long and hard enough that I wasn't thirsty or hungry, but it was noon and it seemed right to have a bite to eat. So I pulled out the remaining half of a cheese sandwich I'd bought at a Puerto Rican deli in Brooklyn the night before and dug in. The man turned enough to watch me but didn't say anything.
   The Philadelphia bus station was cleaner and brighter than the one in New York, nicer than the one in Pittsburgh. The line for Baltimore/Washington wrapped all the way from Gate Eight to the bathroom area and buzzed with a mish-mash of Chinese, English, Spanish, and an unidentifiable language—maybe something from Central Asia. When I finished washing down the sandwich with bottled water, the man looked me in the eye and started talking, his voice booming through the chatter and noise.
   "You going to Pittsburgh?" he said.It took me several seconds to decipher it, as he had a Southern drawl and a slight speech impediment that kept his meter irregular.
   "Yeah," I said.
   "Where you comin' from?" he said. I meditated on it for a second.
   "New York City," I said. "Where are you coming from?"
   "Here," he said. But I couldn't figure it out.
   "What's that?" I said.
   "Here," he said again. "Philadelphia."
   The conversation continued on that way for a while. He asked me if I was from New York and I told him I was not, but that I was in the process of moving there. He agreed that it was important for a young man to leave home and find himself, and said that was what he did when he was about my age. The dark intonation of his voice and his confident delivery betrayed a certain credibility and level of experience that I was still years away from approaching. I did my best to keep up.
   "Where did you move from?" I said.
   "Loosiana," he said, with his accent reminding me vaguely of that of my grandfather, a small-statured Anglo-Saxon from western Missouri, who quit the teacher's college he was attending when the depression hit and struck out on the rails. He criss-crossed the country in search of work, living for a while in Los Angeles and laboring in Texas before picking up the ironwork trade in West Virginia and Ohio. He finally settled in Mount Oliver, overlooking Pittsburgh, where he met my grandmother. But he would never stay put—travelling for weeks and even months at a time to Detroit, Chicago, Washington D.C., wherever there was ironwork to be done, packing the family into the car for trips to Missouri and Niagara Falls and New York City on a whim. When my grandparents embarked on a cross-country trip in the early Seventies, once my grandfather finally retired, they collected postcards from all the places they went. I still have them, and they are divine: a man's love letters to his home on the road.
   The man in line's story snaked through his youth in Louisiana, when he would spend the summers picking cotton for less than fifty cents a day. He got into weight lifting and could bench-press an obscene five hundred pounds easy. I thought of a guy I grew up with who stuttered badly and also got into lifting.
   "I killed two men with these arms," the man said, the bulges in his forearms and biceps making such a notion plausible.
   In the early Sixties, still making next to nothing and sick of racial intolerance and no opportunities, he split for the more friendly air of the Northeast in Philadelphia, where he settled and started a family, taking a union job with the city's public works department, making a decent wage in the process. He had a great affection for his adopted home, but still loved the South enough to visit several times a year.
   "And that's where I'm going right now," he said. "Loosiana, yes-sir-ee."
   I almost spat out the water I was sipping from, but this, he assured me, was a trip he had been making for five decades now, yes-sir-ee. He used to fly occasionally, and he just flew back for a family function several months before, but that was expensive, and he was retired, so why rush? And anyway, he kinda liked the ride, all nineteen hours of it.
   "It's a great way to do a lot of sight-seein'," he said. And that much was true. The trip read like a river: across the rolling hills of eastern Pennsylvania, up into the mountains through Breezewood and Somerset and down again into Pittsburgh, through southern Ohio via Zanesville, down into the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee, into the murky heat of Mississippi, and finally into the bayou—home.
   "I'm from the bayou country," he said. "Yes-sir-ee."
   Just as the conversation reached a lull—and I began to ponder the possibility of a person having two homes, or more—a tall, well-built black man appeared at the front of the gate and asked if ours was the line to Pittsburgh. We said that it was and he rolled his bag into line, behind me.
   "How are you men doing today," he asked, and we both said we were well. Then the Star of David must have caught his eye, because he asked the man in front of me, "Are you Jewish?"
   "No," the man said. "I'm a Hebrew—one of the original Jews."

The modern Original African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem, the largest single Black Israelite movement in the world, traces its roots to Chicago and the racially turbulent Sixties, when Ben Carter, a charismatic, black, twenty-six-year-old metal worker claimed he had been visited by the angel Gabriel, who instructed him to deliver his community from bondage and return its citizens to their biblical homeland, Israel, which Carter said was actually Northeast Africa. The African and Native Americans, claimed Carter—who renamed himself Ben Ammi Ben Israel Carter—were God's chosen ones: true descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel, started by Jacob's twelve sons, and therefore natural heirs to the Holy Land and all its riches and history.
   With the Vietnam War raging on day after bloody day, race riots still a regular occurrence, and President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society revealed for the idealistic fraud it was, such a notion was not unappealing to some members of middle America's black working class. "America was our Babylon, our place of bondage," Ben Shlomo, jazz musician and the Black Israelites' Community Leader of External Affairs told Adrienne Sanders in a 1997 article for Columbia University's Slant. "Black people in the states are still wandering the desert. They're living with the leftovers of slavery."
   There was a precedent for such a movement going back to 1893, when William Saunders Crowdy, a black railroad chef, had a vision from God calling him to lead his people to a "true religion." Crowdy's Church of God and Saints of Christ proliferated under an agenda of black nationalism, traditional Christian practices, and a strong dose of Jewish identification and imagery, the exodus from bondage being a central theme. They were looking for deliverance, and a home.
   Similar groups were founded in Virginia (with the congregation of the Temple of the Gospel of the Kingdom relocating to Harlem in 1917), Atlantic City, and, in 1915, Philadelphia. According to The Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects, and New Religions, F.S. Cherry, founder of that Philadelphia's Church of God:

taught that God, who is black, originally created black humans, the descendants of Jacob. The first white person, Gehazi, became that way as the result of a curse. The church teaches that Jesus was a black man. Prophet Cherry's followers believe that they are the true Jews and that white Jews are impostors. The church does not use the term synagogue, the place of worship of the white Jews. Cherry read both Hebrew and Yiddish and based his teachings on the Old Testament and the Talmud. The church has a Saturday Sabbath and a liturgical year which focuses on Passover. The church has prohibitions against eating pork, divorce, taking photographs, and observing Christian holidays.

Back in line, we moved away from religion and into hunting, fishing and gardening, the man's favorite pastimes. When he was younger, he would hunt alligators and squirrels. Up in Pennsylvania, he stalked whitetail deer and bears. He had a lodge and liked to go hunting with his sons and grandchildren. Gardening-wise, he made it on television a couple years ago for displaying the largest squash at a fruit and vegetable exhibition. Sometimes he'd comment on the level of voluptuousness of a passing woman—"I'm old but I still love women," he assured me—or field cell-phone calls from excited relatives in the South, always answering the phone, "Mayday, mayday."
   The man behind us, distinguished looking enough, kept mostly to himself, cutting in only to ask questions regarding the details of the bus. He looked like he may have been in the military at one point or another, or possibly still was.
   We all looked toward the gate when the next potential passenger arrived—an elderly woman, wheeling her small suitcase behind her. The address tag on her bag said Duquesne, describing an old Monongahela Valley steel town. She paused at the front of the line.
   "It's all right by us if you stay there," the distinguished looking man said, urging her to remain, the man in the front of the line shifting his things over to make room, inadvertently knocking his straw hat onto the ground. He picked it up.
   "I was afraid you guys would beat me up," she said.

Looking for home, the Black Israelites' Carter first led some three hundred followers to the West African bush country in Liberia for what he described as two years of lifestyle-cleansing, intended to rid the group of bad habits like cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol and prepare it for the more natural lifestyle it would be leading. In 1969, the forty strong souls that didn't give up emigrated to the southern Israeli desert town of Dimona, home to a nuclear reactor and little else, gaining entrance with temporary visas. Israel's Chief Rabbinate subsequently charged that the Black Israelites were not technically Jews, and were therefore not entitled to citizenship under the country's Law of Return.
   In fact, the Black Israelites are unique unto themselves. The Jewish Virtual Library (JVL) describes their religious and cultural practices as follows:

They live according to their own special rules of conduct. Polygamy is permitted and birth control is forbidden. Their leaders decree who will marry whom, performing the weddings and approving annulments. Their dietary laws prohibit the eating of meat, dairy products, eggs and sugar; members must adopt Hebraic names in place of their former "slave names." According to Black Hebrew custom, the woman's responsibilities focus on childrearing and other family obligations. The Black Hebrew's closed society is isolated from the mainstream and all infractions of their rules are severely punished.
In Israel, the Dimona settlement has grown and even thrived, due in part to its high birthrate and, according to the JVL, "because many of them, some with criminal backgrounds, illegally entered Israel using various forms of subterfuge." The JVL estimates that some 1,250 Black Israelites, still lead by Carter, inhabit the original settlement, and in smaller pockets in Arad and Mitzpe Ramon. According to Sanders, the Dimona Black Israelites have become world famous for their upbeat take on jazz and their New World Choir, which sings its own take on gospel music, eschewing Christ for the prophets, places, and heroes of Israel. Additional revenue is generated by the group's seamsters' workshop and from vegetarian restaurants in Arad and Tel Aviv. The Black Israelites acquired legal residency status in Israel in May 1990, with their temporary residency—their legal right to their home—reviewed periodically.

The man and I did not ride together—he was pushing out a kidney stone and had to sit in the back, by the bathroom. I rode closer to the front, in a window seat on the left, next to a man in a blue labcoat and a beard, who read books about Indian spirituality and ate fruit, offering much of what had to the hungry woman in front of us, which she gratefully accepted.
   I slept most of the way between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, but spent the rest of the time watching the landscape scroll past. We passed Carlisle, then ascended into the Alleghenies, passing through tunnels at the Blue, Kittatinny, Tuscarora and Allegheny mountains, stopping briefly in Breezewood in the early evening, the early summer sun painting the sky a majestic, pale blue. I was going home, but the time had come for me to seek a new home in New York, and at that fleeting moment there seemed to be an opportunity behind every wisp of a cloud.
   Last time I saw the man with the Star of David medallion, he was asleep. I'd taken a break from watching the passing hillsides, dotted with cows and goats and grazing whitetails, and got up to go to the bathroom. He was sitting straight up in his seat, with his feet resting on the iron, Greyhound footrest and his head resting just slightly to the side, the twilight casting a dull gold onto his face. Home.

The author wishes to acknowledge the following sources: The Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects, and New Religions; Jewish Virtual Library; Sanders, Adrienne; Slant—the magazine of the students of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

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