Some people won’t believe in something they haven’t seen, others refuse to believe in something precisely because they have. When it came to the question of religious egalitarianism, I reckon my people were firmly in the latter category.
Even as a boy I knew that there were as many kinds of religions in our small Southern town as there were brands of chewing tobacco. Religious tolerance was a proud feature of our polite society. All religious faiths were celebrated, as long as they were Protestant.
This diversity consisted of about nine flavors of Baptists and five flavors of Methodists in the county. We had Southern Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Seventh Day Baptists, General Baptists, Regular Baptists, and Independent Baptists; as well as Free Methodists, United Methodists, Congregational Methodists, and Nazarenes. There was also the Church of Christ, but they mostly kept to themselves and we figure that’s the way they preferred it. Even our atheists belonged to at least one of these churches and showed up on Easter.
In school we had read a book that talked about strange religions in far off lands like Burma and Milwaukee where people worshiped cows and dead Germans. But I would imagine we would’ve viewed a man with less suspicion if he’d said Elvis was holed up in his attic than if he kissed a rosary or claimed some vision of the Madonna and Child.
I didn’t actually meet a Catholic until I was nearly grown and a Mexican family moved up to work on my uncle’s tomato farm. The King James Bible was written in English and they only spoke Spanish. Given that disadvantage, nobody thought it would be very Christian to hold their religion against them.
Then there were the Pentecostals. I discovered Pentecostals about the same time I discovered girls. And with just about the same reaction. I was curious, bewildered, enthralled, and scared to death of them.
I saw Celia Kay for the first time on the first day of sixth grade. She was dressed in a light purple blouse and a long jean skirt that went all the way down to the floor. But not straight down. The faded blue fabric had a rather circuitous journey from narrow waist to the wide floor. There were lines that the denim had to follow. Curves to negotiate. Hurdles to cross.
Brown curls streamed down her back like a river of molten chocolate. And the river seemed to roll on and on and on. The kind of river a boy could get lost in, drown, and die happy.
I snuck a peek at her face. Not a trace of make-up. Skin as fair as polished porcelain. Cheeks in perpetual blush. Eyes green and deep, hiding under her curls like some lost Eden. Even without artificial color, her lips were a dangerous shade of red. Then she turned and smiled at me.
I’ve seen Paris shimmering in the last wink of twilight and caught sight of a fogless London on a rare sunny day. I’ve watched a baby take her first steps and a saint breathe his last breath. But it’s that smile that pushes all seven wonders of the world from mind and memory and claims pride of place.
At this point I had seen a few movies. I wanted to be suave and debonair. I wanted to charm this girl who had so bewitched me. My intention was to walk over to her with my head held high and say something so invincibly alluring as to make her swoon. So, smitten as I was, I screwed up my courage and went over and just kind of grunted in her general direction.
She looked at me a bit perplexed. “Did you say something?” She said.
My mind went blank. My mouth went dry. “You ain’t a Babdist are ya?” I said.
She laughed in a puzzled sort of way. “No. I’m Holiness. You know. Pentecostal.”
“Didn’t think so.” I said. “I ain’t ever seen no Babdist that looked like you.”
I think the next thing I asked her had something to do with potatoes. The details are fuzzy. But there was a conversation. And then another. Before long, we were what you might call “a pretty hot item.”
Then she popped the question. No, the other one. “You wanna come to my church with me? You can sit with me.” She said.
“Yes! I do!” I said.
“I won’t be like your church.” She said.
“How do you know? You ain’t never been to my church.” I said.
She laughed. “Trust me.” She said.
“Whatever. Church is church. And I’d like to go with you.” I said. “But I have to talk it over with my folks. What’s your preacher’s name?”
“Everyone just calls her Mother Jones.” She said.
“Your preacher is a girl?” I said.
“Well, not a girl. She’s old. And she’s old time holiness.” She said. Of course I had no idea what any of that meant, save for the bit where it was made clear that she was in fact a female.
“We don’t believe in women preachers,” Grandaddy said.
“The Apostle Paul,” he said, pronouncing it as always, with a hard “T”, “said women shouldn’t be preachin’ down at the church. I expect he figured they did enough hollerin’ back at the house.”
“Well, they say Mother Jones is a preacher,” I said.
“Yes. I reckon that’s her business. Between her and the Lord.” He said. “But they are Holiness folk. We’re Babdist. We get away with a lot of things that Holiness folk can’t get away with. Like watchin’ tv and listening to Merle Haggard sing about gettin’ drunk. Holiness folk ain’t allowed to do that. They have to do all their sinnin’ in Bible ways. Like letting their women preach and rolling all over the church house floor in their good Sunday clothes.”
“They’re still Christians aren’t they?” I said.
“Yes. And most of them are fine Christians. But we don’t believe like they believe.” He said.
“What do we believe?” I said.
“We believe that once a person is saved he is saved no matter how bad he wants to get himself unsaved. Once saved, always saved. Once in the grease, forever in the gravy.” He said.
“What do they believe?” I said.
“They believe if you slip up and sin and then haul off and die you’ll bust hell wide open.” He said.
“And talkin’ in tongues.” He added.
“Do what?” I said.
“Yeah, they get caught up in the Spirit and believe they talk to God in his own native tongue. They call it ‘gettin the Holy Ghost.’” He said.
“If I promise not to get the Holy Ghost can I go with Celia to her church on Sunday?”
He laughed. “We believe in the Holy Ghost. We just don’t believe a fella has to yodel in some unknown tongue for God to understand him.” He said. “And to be honest, “I know a lot of em’. They talk in tongues alright, but they do their cussin’ in English.”
He sat quietly for several long, tedious minutes. “You can go.” He said, finally. “But I’d be careful about gettin’ an aisle seat.”
When I walked into the church with Celia and her parents that Sunday everything seemed normal. Until Mother Jones stepped up on the stage.
Now, you’ve probably heard the old joke about Pentecostal women. “How do you get a Pentecostal woman out of the kitchen? You grease her hips.” This was not true of this Pentecostal woman. She was small. Tiny even. She was not much more than four feet tall and wouldn’t have weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet and with her pockets full of bananas.
She seemed to carry all of her weight in her hair. It was piled up high and tight on her head. Must’ve been a baker’s dozen worth of buns stacked between her ears. Someone told me later that her hair was longer than she was tall. And I believe it.
Everyone grew still and quiet–for the first and last time that day. Mother Jones lifted her hands and commenced humming and swaying. The rest of the people followed suit.
“Mind the Lord, children.” She said. “God is gonna move today. Be sensitive to the leading of the Spirit and mind the Lord.”
Then the musicians started playing. “Send it on down. Send it on down. Lord, let the Holy Ghost come on down.” People started singing and dancing. Waving hands and handkerchiefs.
Soon the aisles filled with shoeless women. Bobby pins were falling out onto the hardwood floor at such a rate that it sounded like some mobster had invaded the services and began cranking a gatling gun.
Some of the men were standing in pews, gesticulating wildly. Others were running in place. The small children who were playing with legos under pews were dodging hair pins and hymn books like soldiers under fire.
Then I heard it. Rapid strings of long vowels and staccato consonants. At first it sounded like someone with hypothermia trying to recite the alphabet through chattering teeth.
Mother Jones said, “That’s it, sister. You mind the Lord. Let God have his way.” And she must have because next thing I know she was making her way to the front of the church ON THE BACKS OF THE PEWS! Her eyes were closed. Her hands were raised. And she was yelling at Jesus and the Holy Ghost at the top of her lungs. Or at least I think she was. I had no idea what she was saying.
This went on for the better part of an hour. Then about the time the deacons at my church would’ve been heading outside for a smoke break, Mother Jones walked over and pulled out a little stool from behind the pulpit and climbed up on it.
“Glad to see Sister Martha re-filled with the Holy Ghost today.” She said. “I’ve been praying that God would get ahold of her. Some of yall need a good dose of what she got.”
Then for an hour and a half she preached what Celia called “Old Time Holiness.” She held forth on the evils of gambling and drinking and watching television. She abominated long tongues and short hemlines. She preached against tassels on shoes and jewelry on women. She bewailed the state of the nation. She lambasted Governor Clinton as a whoremonger. She railed against playing cards and sports and even took five minutes to talk about the demonic influences of dominoes. She admonished the men who wore neckties, “those effeminate cloth necklaces,” and ripped parents who let their children wear short pants. She berated women with split skirts and bare elbows. She chided men who wore deodorant as seducers, maintaining that St. Paul said our bodies are to be washed with “pure water.”
She called people by name and listed the devilments they had committed the past week. She told us all that heaven wouldn’t have us and Ole Scratch would be ashamed to call us his own. And to be honest, I was enjoying the hell out of it.
Just when it looked like she was going to take it upon herself to send everybody to perdition that very morning, she lifted her hands and said, “But there’s room at the cross for you. If you don’t want to go to hell, come make a clean confession. Let God have his way.” And the folks stampeded down to the altar to let her pray for them.
I looked around to find that I was the only one still seated in the pews. She never called my name, but she kept saying, “There’s room at the cross for you too.”
Best I could tell, I had already been to the cross. And I was afraid that if I went down front I’d forget every word I knew of the King’s English.
When service was over Mother Jones came over to me and squeezed my hand. I thought for sure that she was going to let me have it. I felt as though she could peer into my soul and see that although I loved Jesus I was really there because I was in love with Celia. And I just knew she had received a divine revelation concerning the half-empty pack of Red Man in the console of my truck.
But all she said to me was, “I’ve heard them record you’ve been playing on. I like Merle Haggard too. But keep that between us.” Then she winked at me.
While I still don’t approve of women preachers on theological grounds, I still love old Mother Jones. But I started only slipping over occasionally on Sunday evenings. She preached so long on Sunday mornings that by the time we got to the cafe for a fried chicken lunch the Methodists had already eaten all of the white meat.