Mazie Small wasn't taking any chances that her 16-year-old granddaughter didn't know the ground rules.
The girl had lived with Small in Northeast Washington for long periods throughout her childhood. But when a fight between the teenager and her mother landed the teen back in her grandparents' home indefinitely in February, Small decided it was time for a serious talk.
"Are you sure you want to live with two old people?" Small began, sitting across from her granddaughter at the dining room table.
Tia Small answered yes.
"Well, okay, there's one thing that's a must," Small said. "There will be no discussing it, no negotiating, no compromising."
What Small said next had nothing to do with sex, drugs, curfew or any of the issues that might have seemed most pressing to a grandmother with a teenager suddenly living under her roof. For this grandmother, a black woman raised in the church, there was a higher priority.
"We will go to church every Sunday," Small said.
This declaration came as no surprise to Tia. She had been around her grandma enough to know what practically any child growing up in a household shaped by the traditions of the black church knows: Church is the law. It is the single institution around which the rest of life revolves.
The Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey shows that local black teenagers are considerably more religious than their white peers. Six in 10 black teens said living a religious life was "very important" to them, compared with three in 10 white teens. Black teens also expressed significantly more confidence in churches and other religious institutions.
"We as a people have placed religion foremost in our lives," says Annette Chisolm, co-youth director at Metropolitan Wesley AME Zion Church in Northwest, where Tia and Small attend. "It's part of our heritage. Parents who were raised in that manner want the same for their children."
Tia, now 17, was just 6 weeks old when Small carried her, wrapped in a pink blanket and matching dress and hat, to her first 8 a.m. church service. When Tia turned 4, Small signed her up for the children's choir at Metropolitan. And, with Small's urging, Tia has joined other church ministries.
Tia has hardly glided through her teen years. A difficult relationship with her mother, her own stewing anger and constant movement from school to school brought a kind of instability that at times made Tia question her own purpose. But the faith instilled by her grandmother has helped her through.
"If I wasn't going to church, I would still be wanting to fight all the time, or I might be pregnant or whatever," Tia says. "It really helps me stay on the right path."
Yet just going to church is not enough, Tia often hears her grandmother say. You have to participate, get something out of it, and develop the kind of intimacy with God that requires you to talk to him, hear from him and lean on him in those desperate moments when no one on Earth can help.
These were lessons Small herself had learned as a child, growing up in Apex, N.C., the only girl and the youngest of five children born to Elijah and Claudia Powell, proud sharecroppers. "Mr. 'Lijah," as the church folks called him, succeeded his own father as superintendent of the Sunday school, a position he held for 33 years. He wasn't an educated man, and he didn't possess many things. But he passed on to his daughter, like a treasured family heirloom, the only item of real value he had -- his faith.
Small didn't accept it immediately. Tired of going to church by the time she became an adult, she stayed away for a while. When she got married and had children, she didn't push them to attend church either.
"That's one thing I regret," Small says. "But I just decided I would not make the same mistake with my grandkids."
It's 8 p.m. on a Friday, and Tia is dressed and ready to go.
She is a tall, plus-size girl with milk-chocolate skin and straight black hair that falls just past her shoulders. A bit of belly peeks from between her tight neon-orange shirt ("Always Up To Something," it says in white glittery letters) and the waistband of her fitted bluejeans. The tattoo of her name, there on her right biceps, just underneath the sleeve of her shirt, appears at first out of character.
Tia seems at once innocent (she'd spent the earlier part of the week shopping for a rabbit because she wanted to have something to play with during all those hours she spends alone at her grandparents' home) and mysterious. She explains later that she's had the tattoo since seventh grade. It was a gift from her mom, who surprised Tia by arranging for the tattoo after initially refusing Tia's request for one during a trip to New York.
Just before Tia heads out the door, her aunt, Davia, who has stopped by the family's Fort Totten home, gives Tia's shirt a quick tug. Tia is, after all, going to church. Friday night at 8:30 is youth Bible study at Metropolitan. A dozen or so teens gather in the church's multipurpose room to eat dinner, talk and discuss the Bible. Sometimes they go skating or to the movies (one deemed decent, of course, by the youth leaders), or to other churches to enjoy fellowship with their peers. Tia is president of the group, made up mostly of teenage boys.
The church choir, accompanied by drums and an organ, rehearses on the other side of the stained-glass windows as the teens munch on turkey, ham and corned beef sandwiches and chips. They hold hands and open with a prayer. Then, each takes a turn sharing something about his or her week. One of the girls mentions that she got her belly button pierced. A boy admits to getting in trouble at school when a lighter was found in his folder after a small classroom fire. Another boy says his mother jumped to the wrong conclusion when she returned from work early and found him home from school and some girl's clothes on the floor in the front room. The boy insists that he didn't have a girl in the house.
"Awww, man, that's the story you told yo' mama," one boy says, as the group cackles. "Now, tell us the real story."
Chisolm, the youth leader and a D.C. public school teacher, reins them in gently with questions like, "What did you learn from this?"
Tia likes that Chisolm isn't preachy. "She lets us be ourselves," Tia says. "You wear what you want to wear. You don't have to be like: 'Oh, thank you, Jesus, praise the Lord, amen.'"
Tia goes to church almost every other day -- another Bible study on Tuesday night, and the more sporadic activities, like helping out with the church's homeless ministry or choir rehearsal, in between. She's still a virgin, she says, and she doesn't believe in abortion ("If you lay down and get a baby, you should take the responsibility to take care of it."). Until this summer, she couldn't stand gay people. But while attending summer school at Cardozo High School, Tia met a teenager who changed that.
"It wasn't too hard for me to see she was gay," Tia says. "She always dressed in boy stuff and acted like a boy."
The two girls ended up in the same classes and same lunch period. Their teacher happened to pair them during a group activity, so they started chatting and realized they knew some of the same people. They began hanging out during lunch. One day, Tia says, the girl asked, "Tia, you gay?"
"No," Tia says she told her. "A lot of people don't even like gay people."
"Oh, you one of them?" the girl asked.
"I told her that before I met her, I didn't even like gay people, but I found out they just like me."
That said, Tia clarified her views. "I still do think it's a sin," she says. "But it's between her and God . . . God wants you to treat everyone equally."
Besides, Tia says, there's plenty in her own life that doesn't make her too proud. As a child, Tia, her mother and younger brother moved around often, mostly between the District and Prince George's County. Sometimes, when money was tight or Tia and her mom weren't getting along, Tia ended up back with her grandparents. Once, she stayed with her father, with whom she shares a close relationship. "I went to 13 schools in my life," says Tia, now a senior at Theodore Roosevelt High. "It used to bother me because I felt like people were throwing me all over the place. But it don't bother me any more."
For a long time, though, she felt angry. Tia and her mom clashed often, and, every time, Tia picked up the telephone and punched in her grandma's number. You've got to let go of the anger, Small told her. Just pray about it.
At times, Tia acted more like a bully than a Christian. "I used to think I could beat everybody," she says.
In her sophomore year, she was leaning out of a school bus window, clowning around, when she overheard a schoolmate from Forestville Military Academy in Prince George's call her the b-word. The girl initially denied it, Tia says. But when Tia confronted her a second time, she thought she saw the b-word about to roll off the girl's tongue again.
"I stole her," Tia says, explaining that she sucker-punched the girl and bloodied her face. "Her mom wanted to press charges on me."
Tia was suspended from school. But that's the old Tia.
All those seeds dropped in her heart over the years by her grandmother would sprout at unexpected times. Once, Tia says, when she was about 14, she woke up early one Sunday morning with a strong desire to go to church, so she started getting dressed.
"Where you going?" she recalls her mom asking.
"To church," Tia says she responded.
"Girl, lay down," came the reply.
Tia got dressed anyhow and made her way to a church near her home in Suitland at about 8 a.m. To her surprise, the church was locked. She walked back home.
Another time, more recently, Tia says, she had just argued again with her mother and was feeling lower than she'd ever felt.
"I was thinking, what's the point of me being here," Tia says. "But there was a voice in my head saying, 'There's a purpose for you being here.'"
She hung on. That, Tia says, was the voice of God. It's the same voice that tells her now, when she's out with old friends, to walk away from trouble.
"Come on, let's just go," she says she told friends recently at a party when it seemed a fight was brewing.
A friend replied, "I know that's not Tia wanting to go."
Other times, Tia can't help trying to tell her friends what they shouldn't be doing, but they promptly warn, "Don't go getting holy on me."
But those kinds of conflicts don't occur often, Tia says, because she rarely has time to spend with old friends now that she is attending church more often. Her best friend, whom she still sees regularly, also is a church-goer.
"She tries to put up a tough front," says Small, recently watching her granddaughter a few feet away, chasing around the living room after Muffin, the ample-size, steel-gray rabbit Tia had bought with her own money earlier that day. "But uh-uh . . ."
Small, a retired staff assistant for the Department of Corrections, says Tia is a kindhearted teenager who once took off her own socks and gave them to a homeless man. Small is certain, though, that Tia tried to test her resolve on the church issue soon after moving in.
Small and her husband, Thomas, who is not a church-goer, agreed to allow Tia to attend a Saturday night school dance. But Mazie Small had one requirement: Before leaving, Tia had to lay out her clothes for church. The next morning, Tia fell asleep before the sermon. Mazie Small, sitting next to her, poked her in the side. But when it happened again, Small let her sleep. After church, the two began walking together back to the car, parked a few blocks up from the church at North Capitol and R streets in Northwest. They stopped at a traffic light. When the light turned green, Small started walking and talking at the same time.
"That is the last time you will go to sleep in church," Small said to Tia in a calm but stern voice. "I am quite sure you did not fall asleep on the dance floor last night at the party. If you cannot handle both, then you will not be going to the dance."
Later, when Small retold the story, it dawned on her that her own father had once uttered similar words to her. She had skipped church one Friday night with hopes of going to a party.
"If you cannot go to church," she recalls her father saying, "you will not be going to any party."
The memory of that long-ago Friday night tickled her, and she broke into laughter.
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Q: How important is religion in your everyday life?
Percentage of local teens saying Important
White ... 35%
Black ... 65%
Lisa Frazier Page is a former reporter for the Post's Metro section. She is now director of recruiting and hiring.