VIII. Testament of Fire and Lamentations
We may live in a tent or a cottage,
And die in seclusion alone;
But the Father Who seeth in secret,
Remembers each one of His own.
We shall shine as the stars of the morning,
With Jesus the Crucified One;
We shall rise to be like Him forever,
Eternally shine as the sun.
—Judson W. Van DeVenter, “We Shall Shine as the Stars”
The Church of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters was packed for the first night of the revival, with people squeezed so close together that chairs had to be brought from the nursery and the dining hall. Still there were many people standing along the back wall of the church.
And it was hot. A noisy fan labored in each corner, and the stained glass windows of the building were wide open, but the blanket of thick July heat was not thrown off.
I wiped the sweat from my forehead with the tissue I kept in a box in the piano seat. I loosened my tie. As the pianist, I had my own fan, but trust me—this was not a good night for the central air to conk out.
Sharing the pulpit with Pastor were the Reverend Dr. Barry Mc- Gowan—Peachie’s ex-husband—on break from his TV show at church headquarters in Lakeland; the Evangelist Rev’run Lewis from Tifton, Georgia, who had traveled to Miami by chauffeur-driven Winnebago to work his annual miracle; and a white minister who wore no tie.
When the musical portion of the service concluded, I only half lis- tened as Rev’run pronounced sentence on this “weak and abominable generation” with his famous “Lake of Fire” sermon. I knew the sermon by heart. As far back as I could remember, Rev’run had been preaching the “Lake of Fire,” his best sermon, on the first nights of his revivals, realizing, perhaps, that his audience would grow thinner and sleepier, and would carry less pocket change as the week advanced.
It was my job to remain alert, prepared to render inspirational accom- paniment should Rev’run launch into song or melodious prayer. So I picked my teeth, wiped away sweat, fanned myself, yawned, and picked my teeth again without appearing irreverent or inattentive—a simple trick for me since I had been the church’s pianist on and off for most of my life and consistently for the past five years since I had graduated college. The main thing on my mind that night was how I would pay this month’s bills.
If I didn’t get any sub work, I’d have to cut at least ten yards, which worked out to two yards a day—unless I planned to work weekends. My church paycheck, $200, would be cut on Friday, and I could steal an- other $150 from Visa. My MasterCard was maxed out. I would have to borrow the rest from my mother. Or Sister Morrisohn. Perhaps I should definitely cut a few yards on Saturday.
Rev’run was walnut-brown and fat. His head was bald, his lips beet-red. Tonight he wore a double-breasted suit woven from the finest mint-green polyester. His swollen midsection strained against the but- tons. On the pinkie finger of each hand, he wore a gold ring on which was inscribed The Holy Ghost Is with You (his left hand) and Behold the Son of God (his right). The Church of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters frowned upon jewelry, but we made an excep- tion for Rev’run.
Pastor once explained, “Rev’run is a divine instrument of God. Let God alone hold him responsible for his eccentricities.”
Rev’run preached rhythmically in a majestic baritone and punctu- ated his message by stomping a foot or pounding the lectern with a fist. When Rev’run ended a phrase or caught his breath, he grunted his trademark syllable, “AH,” and the congregation echoed his cue with shouts of “My Lord,” “Oh Lord,” “Yes Lord,” and “Amen.”
Rev’run bellowed, “You say your hearts belong to Jesus-AH.”
The Faithful cried, “My Lord.”
“But y’all bearin the wrong kinda fruits-AH.”
“You say you’re an apple tree-AH, but I see bananas on your branches-AH. You claim to be a Christian-AH, but I see malice in your heart for your brother-AH. You say you love the Lord-AH, but you spendin your time makin goo-goo eyes at your neighbor’s wife-AH. All the vices known to man, you is doin ’em-AH. You smokin-AH, drinkin- AH, womanizin-AH. Some of you even manizin-AH. Stay with me now-AH. Yes! You sodomizin-AH. But you foolin yourself thinkin God ain’t lookin-AH. But Oh-AH!—”
“Hallelujah-AH!” he wailed, raising his large hands toward heaven. “I believe the poet when he says-AH, ‘Vice is vice and vice versa-AH.’ And let me tell you, brother-AH, and sister-AH, and mother-AH, and father-AH. You goin to the lake-AH—”
“To the lake-AH!”
“To the lake-AH!”
“To the lake of fire-AH!”
“Hallelujah!” Rev’run shouted. He clapped his hands and laughed victoriously.
The congregation followed his lead. The Spirit was moving.
Sister Naylor screamed and fell to the floor—fainted dead away, except for her trembling legs. The ushers, clearing a path through the extra chairs and stools, rushed to Sister Naylor, threw the velvet shawl over her legs, and dragged her to the back of the church.
Deacons Arnold Blake and Trevor Miron, who had been feuding over money bet on a football game, who had sworn never again to share the same pew, who had come close to exchanging blows at last week’s prayer meeting, found each other in the happy confusion and embraced, tears flying everywhere. It would take more than five dollars to lure them into the lake of fire.
Sister Elaine Morrisohn—president of the Missionary Society—rolled her gray eyes heavenward and entreated, “Try me, Lord. Try me.”
I found her words sadly ironic, for I had indeed tried Sister Mor- risohn, who had been my lover since I was sixteen. She had been my lover for … twelve years. I had been trying Sister Elaine Morrisohn for nearly half my life, and it was good.
Up on the pulpit, Pastor clapped his hands and commanded, “Heed the words of God’s anointed. Heed his words.”
The famous Christian entrepreneur and televangelist Reverend Dr. McGowan, a tall man with a small head, closed his eyes tightly, and soon tears were streaming. He stretched his arms around his torso and began to rock back and forth in his chair. He groaned, “God is good. God is so good.”
Trapped in her web of dark senility, my old grandmother struggled to her feet and began to tell her life story in a loud, rasping voice. When she regained control of her mind, which happened only rarely, she apologized for having spoken out of turn and dropped back into her seat. A few min- utes later she was up leaning on her walker again, saying: “My mother, being part Indian, never used a straightening comb in her life, but she had such pretty hair. Not like this old dry head I got from my father …”
“Try me, Lord,” said Sister Morrisohn. “Try me.”
“Heed the words of God’s anointed,” said Pastor.
“God is good. God is so good,” said the Reverend Dr. McGowan.
The white minister was the only one who seemed to be as unaf- fected by the proceedings as I was.
Unlike the rest of the men, the white minister wore neither a tie nor a jacket, just a simple white shirt and a pair of black slacks, which weren’t particularly well pressed. He sat with legs crossed in the plush throne-room chair, reading the advertising on his handheld cardboard fan. Sweat rolled off his pink face, soaking his shirt. He stared at the front of the fan—Martin Luther King Jr. and family in church. Mo- ments later, he flipped to the back of the fan—the Brigg’s Funeral Home. Then he flipped to the front again, and after that the back, and so on, only occasionally breaking the pattern to wipe away a lock of sandy brown hair that had fallen to the front of his face and obstructed his view.
Was it possible that in the whole building, I alone noticed the man spinning the fan from front to back, back to front?
Yet not even I was prepared for the leap.
The white minister hopped to his feet with a loud thuh-dump. He latched onto Rev’run’s shoulder and slung the fat preaching man from Georgia into the famous entrepreneur and televangelist Reverend Dr. Barry Sebastian-Bach McGowan’s lap.
All at once a hush fell over the church.
When the white man grabbed the microphone, deafening feedback squealed from the speakers. He was about to speak. We all leaned for- ward to hear what he would say. The white minister shouted into the microphone, “Sontalavala, Sontalavala, Ghila! Sontalavala!”
With that, he clapped a monstrous Bible to his chest and leapt from the five-foot-high pulpit without touching one of its seven steps, ran down the path those standing in the aisle quickly cleared for him, and sprinted through the stained glass doors of the church.
We heard a car door slam and an engine fire up outside. Then we heard his tires screeching out of earshot.
I looked around the church, and everyone was stunned mute except for my grandmother, who stood again and lost herself in the oratory of senility: “We had only one mule to cover all that dry, rocky soil, but we prayed to God, and God touched the hearts of our neighbors who lent us their horses, their mules, their strength, but still it wasn’t enough. We had to pack up everything we owned in the world and move down to Miami . . .”
Pastor signaled for me to play a hymn, any hymn.
Rev’run and the Reverend Dr. McGowan, untangled at last, began chattering to each other:
“Was he with you?”
“I thought he came with you.”
“He didn’t come with me.”
The entire church was buzzing by the time I hammered the first chords of “Just as I Am.” When the church finally began singing, it was without enthusiasm. Then Pastor made a faint attempt at altar call.
“Jesus loves even you . . . so come up and get saved before it’s too late. Amen.”
When no one responded, Pastor announced that a meeting of the Brethren would immediately follow. Then he adjourned, forgetting to pass the collection plates.
While I had found service entertaining for a change, I did not stay for the Brethren’s meeting. On my way out, I shook hands with the Faithful, who were polite but abrupt. They were still jittery from the “miracle,” as they were now calling it.
I passed by mothers and children congregated on the cemented space around the flagpole. They marveled at God’s power and pondered the role of the white minister.
Sister Morrisohn stopped me. “You played real nice tonight, Brother Parker. How’s Sister Parker and little Benjamin?” She smiled knowingly. “We missed them in service tonight.”
“Sister Parker isn’t feeling too well tonight,” I lied. My wife Mary was a Baptist, and she had grown to despise the Faithful, calling us a bunch of “dry heads.” In our five years of marriage, she had attended maybe a handful of Sunday-morning services, a few weddings, a few funerals.
“Really?” said Sister Morrisohn. “What did you think of the beautiful witness of that white brother? Didn’t it touch you?” She rolled her eyes.
Aha, I thought, she found it interesting too.
“Yes, Sister, the Spirit was really moving in him.”
“Indeed.” Then she added in a way that only I would understand: “The Spirit hasn’t moved in me in a long time.”
“I’m certain it won’t move tonight,” I said in a way that only she would understand.
We separated ourselves from the crowd of women. We stood a safe distance from each other. We were just two members of the Faithful, the pianist and the president of the Missionary Society, making small talk after church.
“Service ended early, Brother Parker.” (There is an opportunity, she meant.)
“I’ve got to get up early for subbing tomorrow.” (I don’t feel like it, I fired back.)
“Liars too shall have their part in the lake of fire.” (It’s hard being alone, my love.)
“I need to look for some yards.” (Don’t make it any harder than what it already is, my love.)
“You need money?” (You need money?)
“I’ve got some things lined up. Some yards.” (I always need money. Who are you kidding? But don’t embarrass me by giving me any. I’m trying to save what little is left of my pride.)
“Don’t be afraid to tell me if you need.” (I love you, my darling. I would do anything for you.)
“I’m okay. Really I am.” (My life is sh–.)
“I just miss you is all.” She took my hand, a sister in the Lord shak- ing the hand of her brother in the Lord. “I guess I don’t always know my place.”
Sister Morrisohn walked away. I opened my hand to see what she had left in it: two fifties.
Now with ten yards and what I could get from Visa, I’d be but $300 in the hole. Things were looking up.
Of course, I had tarried too long on the church grounds, and now my godsons Elwyn Miron (eleven), Elwyn Jones (ten), and Buford El- wyn Gregory (nine) had surrounded my car, hailing, “Goddy Elwyn. Goddy Elwyn. Wait!”
I had missed Elwyn’s (Jones) birthday party (deliberately). I handed him, painfully, one of the fifties. He took it with a reach-in hug, and then he and the other two in their clean little suits and their shiny shoes skipped away, celebrating with squeals of innocent laughter and prepubescent ideas of what to do with the money. The last words I heard were “Nikes” and “Nintendo.”