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A picture of a person in black and white sitting on logs with flowers, sea shells and a multi colored wall
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Reverend Arnold Isadore Thomas is the Pastor of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Jericho, Vermont. In the Gullah Geechee Nation, folks used to place seashells on graves with the belief that folks' souls would go back to Africa.

In this first episode, host Myra Flynn speaks with Reverend Arnold Isadore Thomas, the Pastor of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Jericho, Vermont about what makes a home, a home? It may be a place, or a feeling, or maybe it’s a person you’ve been homesick for. Or a people.

This is the latest episode of Homegoings, a seasonal podcast that features fearless conversations about race. This is storytelling — with soul. Follow the series here.

Note: Our show is made for the ear. We recommend pressing play on the audio posted here. For accessibility, we also provide a transcript of the episode below.

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Sign up for the Homegoings email newsletter for updates on new episodes, events, and more. Sent every other week on Fridays.


Myra Flynn: Last month I had a chance to visit the Second Baptist Church in Monrovia, California, and if you listen to the opening of this podcast you can hear we make church fun.

It’s full of hoots and hollers, big hats and pantsuits. It often has a full band, a choir and more hugs than one person can take. Sometimes the service lasts for three hours and covers everything from God to financial advice or tips on how to “raise those kids.” After church you eat together, sometimes you cry together, sometimes you eat and cry.

Black church is layered, because Black people are layered. So, I thought I’d make a show about it.

I thought I’d make a show about us, because I can’t get past the idea that when it comes to the “great racial divide” and anti-racist work, we can’t fix what we don’t talk about.

So, this is Homegoings, season 1, episode 1. I’m Myra Flynn and here on the show we’re gonna have fearless conversations about race with artists and experts and regular folks of color all over the country. In each episode we'll pick a theme and unpack some of the deliciously layered nuance that lives within each topic.

For the very first episode it seems only right that we talk about home: which may be a place, or a feeling, somewhere you’ve never been and always longed for, or somewhere you hope to return to one day.

Or maybe it’s a person you’ve been homesick for, or a people.

Homegoings 0101 - Homesick - Rev. Arnold Thomas singing

Rev. Arnold Isadore Thomas at his home in Underhill, singing an original song that he wants sung at this own homegoing one day. Arnold is dressed in the outfit he has selected for the occasion. Video credit: Elodie Reed/Vermont Public

Myra Flynn (on tape): So interesting when black people are in a room together in a state like Vermont, how much we need each other.

Arnold Thomas: Oh gosh, yes.

From Vermont Public, this is Homegoings. Welcome Home.

Arnold Thomas: I became a grandfather this past year. Yeah, my grandchild, his name is Jackson, and that's a name from both sides of the family, both my daughter-in-law and my side of the family. 

Myra Flynn: If you’re wondering if this is Morgan Freeman. It’s not. Morgan Freeman wishes he had this voice.

Arnold Thomas: And he's one years old, starting to walk. Looking real handsome.

Myra Flynn (on tape): Aww I’m sure. Congratulations!

Arnold Thomas: Thank you. Thank you. 

Myra Flynn: This is Rev. Arnold Isadore Thomas. He’s the pastor of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Jericho, Vermont.

Arnold Thomas: ...and I live in Underhill, Vermont, and I've been there since 1998. So, I guess that makes it about 25 years I've been in Vermont

Myra Flynn: Being a spiritual leader is in Arnold’s blood. His father, Rev. LeRoy Chadwick Thomas was a minister at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Ohio, so he grew up watching him, and was inspired to begin his own spiritual journey.

And did he ever. Arnold has worked all over the country from New York to Connecticut, Massachusetts to Arkansas. He has a Master of Divinity from Yale University. I didn’t even know that was a thing.

Arnold arrived in Vermont in the late 1990s as the first Black statewide denominational leader for the United Church of Christ. He says that’s akin to being a kind of bishop — though he would never call himself that. And besides his velvet voice, Arnold stands out in Vermont. I actually get the feeling he stands out everywhere.

Arnold's presence is felt before it’s seen. His skin is the color of the classic dark chocolate Hershey’s bar, but his beard is stark white. His eyes are empathetic and gentle. He’s the kind of guy you trust without question. And you know, he’s not really the type to open his mouth unless something real good is gonna come out of it:

Arnold Thomas: Ha Ha whoo! 

Myra Flynn: More on that awesome laugh later.

Anyway, Arnold stayed in his role at the United Church of Christ for seven years. He welcomed the challenges that came with making the church, and the state, a more accepting place. At the time Vermont was debating legalizing civil unions for LGBTQ same-sex couples. And let's not forget it was — and still is —. He worked to create the change he wished to see until he started missing something, or some people.

Arnold Thomas: I became rather isolated in need of a wider community of multicultural folk that I wasn't finding in Vermont. 

Myra Flynn: So Arnold moved his work to New York City. For another seven years, he commuted back and forth from NYC to Vermont, because Vermont was where his home was. He then spent three years in Connecticut and then he got this feeling, a feeling almost he couldn’t control or name.

Arnold Thomas: I felt the urge to return to Vermont permanently. 

Myra Flynn: Arnold felt — Homesick. He missed Vermont. He says he missed being in a place where he felt most connected to a sense of community, where neighbors would bend over backwards to help each other out. He also missed the state itself, the smaller size of it. How the political leaders were not too far away to talk to and work with. And that though the state was small, Arnold’s work to create change had a mighty impact. So he went back.

Myra Flynn (on tape): ...years later here you are.

Arnold Thomas: Here I am.

Myra Flynn (on tape): Awww we’re lucky to have you.

Arnold Thomas: It’s great to be here.

Myra Flynn: The name of this show Homegoings is about more than going home. It’s actually a little morbid. A homegoing is a funeral tradition in the Black community in which Black people believe that the loved one they’ve lost is going home. We’re talking about the big home. Where you go when you die.

And in order to understand a homegoing, you have to understand Black homesickness. Arnold gets it. He actually administers homegoings.

Arnold Thomas: Black people in this country have grown up and been a part of the experience of adversity ever since we set foot on these shores. And homegoing, the sense of homegoing, was one in which if we couldn't experience the sense of freedom, and release, and wholeness, that the condition of enslavement carried with it, then the homegoing service was an was an attempt to express our spiritual sensitivities.

That means that when we died we would encounter, experience that sense of freedom and release that we did not have in the present life. Before Black people embraced Christianity, the homegoing was ... it was a sense that in death we will return back to our homelands in Africa.

Myra Flynn: Given our history of forced migration, I’ll say it’s interesting, the way some Black folks miss Africa in our bodies, even though we may have never been. And sometimes that homesickness feels less about missing a home, and more about feeling homeless, or misplaced, like you don’t belong in the home you’re in.

When I ran the name of this show by a friend they responded by saying: “A homegoing? As a name? Who died?”

My response: Who hasn’t? Our community has lost a lot.

And full disclosure, this is not going to be a religious show. However, when your soul as a people always feels a bit in limbo, you can start to, as Quincy Jones once said, “leave a little room for God.” You start searching for things like strength or divine power, for community, for a sense of welcome and belonging, for togetherness and even — ways to express joy. Even in death we search for joy. So yes, in this story, in our stories spirituality makes sense. You can’t really talk about Black culture without talking about God, and frankly — church. Because people rarely talk about God by themselves. You can’t heal the homesick alone.

Myra Flynn (on tape): What does religion mean to us?

Arnold Thomas: Well, I think for me the Black church was a part of every aspect of life. There is an importance of having a Black church around because again, that provides an indication that there's a critical mass of Black folk that are trying to gain a foothold within that community, and anyone within the Black community who wanted to establish a sense of community with the rest of the community had to connect with the church. That's where you had your politicians, your judges, your entrepreneurs, they were all gathered. And so there was no sense of separation between church and state, because the Black church was the only institution that was controlled by Black people. It's like an extended family. When ... and especially around homegoing time.

Myra Flynn: Homegoing times. We mentioned earlier that a homegoing is a funeral. But maybe not the kind you think.

Myra Flynn and Reverend Arnold Isadore Thomas share a laugh in the Vermont Public studios.
James Stewart
Vermont Public
Myra Flynn and Reverend Arnold Isadore Thomas share a laugh in the Vermont Public studios.

Arnold Thomas: So, it's like, it's not just a funeral or memorial service, it's a reunion of the family, and you come together, and it's a time for both mourning and celebration.  

Myra Flynn (on tape): Why do you think we as a Black culture, prioritize celebration, alongside our grief? That's not everybody's process. For instance, going to a Catholic funeral does not feel that way.

Arnold Thomas: The Black church cannot separate itself from from the realities of this world. Black people are ... we have long realized that you cannot separate the objective of achieving justice and peace and equality in this life. You cannot completely separate it from that sense of paradise in the world beyond. In fact, the prayer, "thy will be done on earth as it isn't heaven" provides the objective that are our efforts to achieve, obtain justice must, in a sense, provide an opportunity for heaven to live on Earth. And so there's no escape.

Myra Flynn: There’s no escaping the realities of this world. I’m not a very religious person, but the idea that you can’t escape reality sounds kind of radical coming from a pastor who deals in intangibles daily, like faith and belief. And I can say, as someone who went to my grandmama’s homegoing, much like the Black church, reality was all that was being served at the table.

I had never seen so many adults in my life, adults who were usually pretty stoic and composed in public, begin weeping, falling, speaking in tongues and then dancing for joy in the aisles. I barely recognized them, because they were expressing ALL of the realities of mourning and the layered grief, rage, joy and healing that comes with loss. It’s not just one thing. In a sense you wouldn’t have even known it was a funeral except my grandmama’s body was right there in the center of the room. It was like a concert/party/banquet/wake.

I’ll let Arnold explain it better. His grandmama also had a homegoing.

Arnold Thomas: She made this arrangement with a mortician before she died, that when she died, she would be dressed in her best. Her BEST — her extravagant apparel, and that extravagant dress, that extravagant apparel, set the standard of how everyone else dressed. There was no such thing as casual dress in a funeral service, especially a funeral service of a matriarch that brought the entire family from all over the country, sometimes different parts of the world together. You dress the best you were able.

Myra Flynn: As a little kid, my grandmama, Myra, whom I’ve named after, was the first dead body I’d ever seen, and what Arnold says here is true. She was in her favorite suit, favorite wig, and had on way too much makeup. And Arnold says the open casket is an important factor in a homegoing service.

Arnold Thomas: Sometimes the open casket was there at the beginning of the service, so that people who didn't have a chance to say their farewells could do so. Even though her spirit had gone on to the next life. The physical presence provided an opportunity for them to at least express to her and the wider community, how sad you are that she is no longer with us or that the deceased is no longer with us. Sometimes it was closed right before the procession began. Sometimes it is kept open throughout the entire service. 

The third important feature of a Homegoing service is the sermon, 

Myra Flynn: This third part, the sermon, it's an instantly recognizable moment in Black services of all kinds. You know the sermon when you hear it, because for a brief time — the music stops. The wailing stops. The bibles open and the heads bow. Everyone becomes porous, ready to reflect, or receive guidance on how to heal or move forward or as my mom says — "how to keep on keepin’ on."

Arnold Thomas: Either the sermon are the remarks of loved ones who knew the deceased and they would provide a chance for individuals to reflect on the joys, the challenges, the character of that individual, the humor that that individual was all about, and just allow an opportunity for people to feel that that person's presence, that person's character, still lingered on in some way within them and among them.

Myra Flynn: The final part of the homegoing service, Arnold mentions, well besides the giant dinner afterwards, is the singing. And in particular, one very important song.

Arnold Thomas: Singing was a crucial part of a homegoing service. And for me, again, my memory of that is such that has kind of mixed feelings, because as a child, the singing portion was an opportunity for people who were grieving and did not have the chance to fully express their emotion out there in the secular world, the church, the Black church became the haven for them to fully express and unleash whatever emotions that were being contained within them.

Women in white uniforms or someone, sometimes they were nurses, but they were certainly attendants who were strategically placed in the congregation to respond to whatever needs that the occasion provided. With me again, as a child, it was what I refer to as the signal tune. And the signal tune was that song that was sung by a soloist with a magnificent voice. And it was during the singing of that song members were allowed to just express whatever emotion was going on inside them, whatever feelings of loss.

For me, the individual who was sitting next to me, and my mother was in the row behind me, but I was sitting in the pew in front of her. You knew during the sermon, she had this hum, this hum of modified grief. But you knew that this was the service in which it she would eventually have that opportunity to unleash it. Well, during the signal tune that came out. She stood up and howled and cried out. And strangely enough, the pew was not well-fastened down. So, when she stood up, just about everyone else had to stand up with her. But the attendants were right there, right there, and managed to pull her from the row and direct her to a place where she could be consoled.

And that's one of the unique and wonderful features, I think about a Black homegoing service. People in the Black church know what others are feeling, know the kind of oppression, and the suppression and the need to just hold it all in. But there needs to be an outlet. And the church provided that space, that setting where you could be yourself without shame, without remorse, without self-consciousness. It was that place where you could truly unleash whatever was going on inside you. And that's the unique features of a homegoing service, but also the Black church that that I miss. I miss very much.

Myra Flynn: Rev. Arnold Isador Thomas, and we’re not quite done hearing from him yet. Here on the show, you can look forward to something I’m calling a “deep listen” at the end of each episode. Sometimes that will be in the form of art, or maybe just a profound moment someone had with some music underneath. I’m hoping you’ll know it when you hear it. Our own signal tune.

Today, Arnold prepared that third part of a Homegoing service for us, the sermon. Actually at a funeral it’s often called a eulogy, and he has a unique way of delivering this one:

Arnold Thomas: This sermon is taken from a musical that I'm in the process of creating. And the sermon is about a revered member of the community. Her name is Rev. Willa Mae Matthews, and she she died at the age of nearly 100 years old.

Myra Flynn: That’s right. This reverend writes musicals! Lucky us. So sit back, take a breath, and let the listen in. This is “The Eulogy for Mother Mae,” from Arnold’s self-written musical Braver Angels.

The Eulogy for Mother Mae

by Arnold Isador Thomas

All praise to God our Alpha and Omega who provides a way out of no way and gives us cause to celebrate even in times of great heartache and loss. I am abundantly grateful for this opportunity to reflect on the life of this God-centered, divinely embodied matriarch the Rev. Willa Mae Matthews. We knew her as Mother Mae. In the nearly 100 years she lived and flourished in the light of God's love, it seemed difficult to imagine a time when she would not be there for us. Yet even in such a time as this, her spirit moves mightily among us and enlivens our souls.

I remember the first time I met her. I was a five-year-old child and my father had invited her as a guest preacher to eulogize the life of my grandmother Everlena, many of us affectionately called Mama Lena. She introduced herself as my Aunt Mae, accompanied by the usual suffocating hugs and slobbery kisses a child of my age tried to avoid. Now I had never recalled meeting her before, but my Lord, this towering titan of a woman, was a presence I would never forget.

You see, my dad knew he was defying the norm by inviting her to preach— women preachers were unheard of in the trenches of my childhood. But that didn't stop Mother Mae. She had a laser focus vision that cared little what people thought and said, and saw only what God wanted and expected of her. And when she declared the Word of God, heaven gave her room, and the devil dared not interfere.

As I grew older and ornery as a preacher's kid tends to do — trying to defy the "Immaculate Conceptions," friends and family have of us — I nonetheless secretly kept track of Mother Mae. Went about disguising my presence at her revivals, just to hear what she had to say, and maybe what I needed to hear. Many of you know, that toward the end of her sermons, she had a habit of breaking into song, singing something we never heard before, as though she dreamt it up on the fly. But I'm convinced heaven was simply whispering a melody she alone could hear. And she sang such a song in such a time I was going through dark moments of my life. When I thought even God couldn't recognize me. But somehow she saw me and in her eyes, I saw the face of God. She preached appropriately from Matthew's Gospel, where Jesus summoned Peter to get out of the boat and walk with him on troubled waters. Hers was a message about the importance of showing up in God's name when another feels forsaken, abandoned and lost in life's stormy seas. She then reached out her hand to me and singing...

"God be with you in your hour of need,
When the way ahead you cannot heed.
When your soul is sinking
And your faith's in doubt,
Let me walk with you upon the sea."

I found God that night in the face of Mother Mae, who reached out her hand and saved me. Many of you also know that her eyesight gradually faded toward the latter years of her life, and she refused corrective surgery feeling she had seen all she needed of this world. But as her physical sight dulled, her spiritual insight sharpened. She could sense your presence, your mood, and your thoughts, both by what you said and left unsaid. And though your presence was a blurred vision, it only made her stare more intensely at you as if she didn't need to see you, to know you. I'm reminded of the Bible passage that says, "The Lord does not see you as mortals see. They look on outward appearances, but the Lord looks on the heart." She was for me, the eyes and face of God. And maybe even the laughter of God, she had a laugh that extended to the length of her breath.

Ah ah, whoo!

You know that! You know what I'm talking about. Especially when it came after one of her "gotcha" moments. I remember a conversation over the phone, during which she scheduled supper at a restaurant. She said, "I'll drive over and pick you up at 7 p.m.." And I said, "That's great. I'll see you... but wait a minute. You can't see." The next thing I heard over the phone was...

Ah ah, whoo!

We'll miss you, Mother Mae. We'll miss you good and faithful servant. We'll miss your smile, your voice and the Word of God that preceded from it. But the one thing that lingers mightily among us, is your spirit, pointing us to the heavenly home where you now abide.

I have set my sails upon the shores.
Where your angels beckoned me to be,
Where my soul is singing without a trace of doubt.
I will walk with you upon the sea.
I will walk with you upon the sea.


Homegoings is a production of Vermont Public. This episode was mixed, scored and reported by Myra Flynn. Myra Flynn also composed the theme music, and the music under The Eulogy of Mother Mae. Other music by Blue dot sessions and Jay Green. Editing by Brittany Patterson, James Stewart and Mae Nagusky.

Special thanks to the Second Baptist Church in Monrovia, California.

As always, you are welcome here. To continue to be part of the Homegoings family:

Corrected: July 26, 2023 at 9:24 AM EDT
The story was updated to correct transcription errors in Rev. Thomas' sermon.
Myra Flynn joined Vermont Public in March 2021 and is the DEIB Advisor, Host and Executive Producer of Homegoings. Raised in Vermont, Myra Flynn is an accomplished musician who has come to know the lay of dirt-road land that much more intimately through touring both well-known and obscure stages all around the state and beyond. She also has experience as a teaching artist and wore many hats at the Burlington Free Press, including features reporter and correspondent, before her pursuits took her deep into the arts world. Prior to joining Vermont Public, Myra spent eight years in the Los Angeles music industry.