Authors: Robert Morgan
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
FOR MY SON BEN
I would like to thank the staff at Algonquin Books for their unstinting help with details both artistic and practical, and especially Shannon Ravenel for her inspired and inspiring work as editor of this and many other books.
The first Pentecostal service Pa ever took me to was held in a brush arbor up near Cedar Springs. The preacher was a fiery little man named McKinney from Tigerville, South Carolina. I was just seventeen and curious to see what was going to happen.
“Is this the kind of service where women roll on the ground?” my sister Florrie said.
“Sometimes they do,” Pa said, “if the Spirit moves them to.”
“Who do they roll on the ground with?” my brother Locke said. He was always making jokes and making light.
“Won't do to mock other people's worship,” Pa said. He had attended Pentecostal services when he was a prisoner at Elmira, New York, during the Confederate War. He was just a boy, and they had prayer meetings in that awful camp where they sung and danced to keep warm by the froze river. When I was a girl he would tell about it, about one prisoner who was a preacher and could make anybody speak in tongues just by looking at him. That preacher could raise hisself high in the air while preaching so he was talking from way above. “It made us forget we was cold and hungry,” Pa said. The preacher's name was McKinney and he was the papa of the one now holding services at Cedar Springs.
“McKinney said he would survive the camp if he had to live on icicles and cockroaches, and looks like he did,” Pa said.
Preacher Jolly at the Baptist church had condemned the brush arbor meetings. He said it was the devil's work to come into a community and stir folks up and have them talking out of their heads. He said preachers like McKinney got folks all confused and quarreling and then went on their way. Preacher Jolly said the baptism of fire was just rot and the only baptism to count was water symbolic of the blood. He said anybody attending the brush arbor services was liable to lose their letter in the church.
The more people talked against the Pentecostal Holiness meetings the more curious I was to attend. My mama before she died was an Old Regular Baptist and I remember hearing her argue with Pa when he attended a revival in South Carolina. I was just a girl and hardly understood what they was talking about, but I knowed it made her angry for Pa to go to Pentecostal meetings.
“The Spirit speaks to people different ways,” Pa had said.
“Ben Peace,” Mama answered him, “I don't want my children to ever witness such shameful goings-on.”
They had quarreled about the meetings for weeks, until the revival was over. And the next year she died of the fever.
My brother Joe was courting Lily then and they went with Pa and me in the wagon to Cedar Springs. It was Dog Days, before fodder-pulling time, when they had revivals back then. To get there in time we had to start when it was still daylight.
“It's a way for Ginny to get out of doing dishes,” Florrie said as we left. She always did say the most cutting thing.
“Who does the dishes when you're out with David?” I said.
“At least I ain't going to disgrace myself by hollering and rolling on the floor,” Florrie said, and flung spoons in the dishpan.
“Ain't you?” I said, and slipped out before she could answer. She had already bragged to me that she had laid down with David and I didn't pass up many chances to tease her about it.
When we started out in the wagon you could hear grasshoppers clicking in the weeds. They sounded like a million timepieces ticking. And jarflies sung back in the oak trees like baby rattles shook so fast they blurred. By the time we got to the river road the crickets was ringing in the grass. It was the big black crickets called meadow moles and they rung all over the pasture hill and in the brush along the road. They sounded like tiny chisels pinging on rocks. “Six weeks till frost,” Pa said, as he always did when he heard a meadow mole.
There was horses tied to trees and wagons in the field around the brush arbor. The MacBanes had built the arbor out of poles, and nailed pine limbs on the poles. It looked like a green chapel carved from shrubbery. The arbor smelled of resin and sawdust and shavings spread on the ground. Some folks had brought their own chairs, but most set on benches of rough lumber.
We set near the middle of the arbor. Lanterns had been hung on either side up front, and there was one lantern on a pole in the center. The katydids got loud as a grist mill in the
trees by the time it was dark. “Where is the preacher?” I whispered to Pa.
“He will come,” Pa said.
There was an altar in front and a pulpit of rough pine. One of the MacBanes, I think it was Hilliard, climbed up on the platform and said, “We will raise a hymn.” The MacBanes ever was the best singers in the valley, and Hilliard was supposed to be the very best, after his uncle Ben. His voice was so pure you felt it was the true voice and all others was just mocking it.
“The Spirit speaks first through music,” Hilliard said, and begun lining out “Revive Us Again.”
“Amen, b-b-brother,” someone called. It was Joe.
Hilliard sung slow at first. He said a phrase and then sung it. He said another and sung that. “You all sing with me,” he said. “The Spirit is right here with us in these woods. I can feel it. Can't you?”
“A-a-a-amen,” Joe stammered.
As we sung I begun to notice something. Everything around me was changing in some way. The lantern light was still the same, and the people the same, and the smell of the pine resin was still the same. But it was changed too. It was sweeter. And I thought how time was more intense and sweetened by music. I felt closer to the people. They was still the same but I saw them different and better. I had on my same white blouse, but it begun to glow in the lantern light like pearls or opals.
When the song was over we heard somebody running. They come lickety through the leaves and trees outside. It sounded like somebody running for their life. And just as I was wondering who it could be this man leapt out of the dark into the brush arbor and right up on the pulpit.
“The devil was chasing me but I beat him,” the man shouted. Everybody laughed. It was Preacher McKinney. He wiped his brow with a handkerchief, and stood right on top of the pulpit. “Got to move fast to outrun the devil,” he said. He paused and looked around. I felt froze. I couldn't take my eyes off him.
“Thank you, Jesus,” Lily said beside me.
“Do you know what it is?” the preacher said. “Do you know what it is that is so sweet?” He paused again and looked from one side to the other. Then he looked right at me. “It is the fellowship of time with eternity,” he said. “It is the communion of flesh with spirit; it is this world rubbing up against the next.”
His words was thrilling. He was saying just what I had often felt, what I had thought and only half understood before.
“We cannot put off these rags of flesh,” the preacher said. “But we can wear them in the Spirit and close to the Spirit. We don't have to be dirty and miserable. We don't have to feel sorry for ourselves. We don't have to be lukewarm. We can live in the light and close to the light. For the spirit is here, right now.”
It felt like the burdens of my life started falling away. All the tedium and work, all my quarrels with Florrie and my sadness after Mama died, my disappointments because I had big hands and feet and because the boys stayed away. My worries about what things meant and what I read in books got suddenly trifling.
I looked at the preacher and he looked right into my eyes. It was like I was about to say something but couldn't. There was words at the tip of my tongue but I couldn't speak.
“You can have the baptism of fire,” Preacher McKinney shouted. “The baptism of water is not enough. You must have
fire. And once you have the fire you cannot fall from grace. The dryhides and the washfoot Baptists won't tell you that. They'll tell you one dip in the branch or mudhole and you are guaranteed a seat in heaven. They talk like their plunge into the dirty creek is a ticket to paradise.”
He stopped and wiped his brow with a big white handkerchief. He turned to the other side of the congregation. “Well I'm here to tell you hell is full of washfoot Baptists,” he said. “And the water is dried off them quick in eternal torment. You've got to fight fire with fire. Just like you caseharden a nail to make it stronger, or fire a pot in the fiery furnace to make it last. It takes the second baptism to see you through.”
“A-a-amen,” Joe shouted. He jumped up and put his hands on either side of his mouth as if calling a long distance. But what come out was a chatter and buzz. I thought he was stuttering, but he was speaking too fast. It was the opposite of stuttering. He must have spoke half a minute and I did not know what he said.
“Bless you, brother,” the preacher said. “The Lord has made you a vessel of his word. Bless you all, my darlings in Christ.”
Lily begun to shake beside me. She shook like she had been through a cold river and then stood up in the wind. The look on her face was froze, but her body jerked. She bounced in every part of her. Without seeming to try, she walked out into the aisle. I stood back to let her go by. She walked up the aisle twitching and wrenching herself sideways.
“Bless you,” the preacher said. “The Spirit is in you also.”
As she walked toward Preacher McKinney, shivering and shuddering, Lily did not take her eyes off him. She held her
head stiff, while her whole body was dancing in spasms and seizures.
“Bless you, honey,” the preacher said. And as he said it she dropped to the sawdust like she fainted. I stood on tiptoe to watch. She fell to the ground and kept jerking for a few seconds, and then she started rolling. She rolled from side to side, as if struggling to get loose from bonds. She kicked in the sawdust as if pushing away from a bank or shore.
“The Spirit is right here,” the Preacher said. “It is not in some dryhide Baptist church and not in Greenville. It is not in some fine building, and not in Washington, D.C., or New York City. It is right here in this brush arbor tonight, and it is here to change our lives. It is here to baptize us forever.”
Lily had cut all ties to being stiff and vain, to being prideful and full of self-regard. Usually she worried all the time about how she looked. She even put on airs a little. She was vainer about her clothes than any woman in the valley. But on the ground she spun and swam as if in a river of spirit, beyond ordinary concerns, selfish desires.
This is a new level, I thought to myself. This is a new dimension in our lives. And yet it seemed an old dimension too, something I had forgot since I was a girl. I could remember letting go that way when I was little. This is a new beginning for you, I said to myself. From now on things will be different.
Pa had took out his handkerchief and was waving it. Tears streamed down his cheeks, but he did not make a sound. He held the handkerchief over his right shoulder and waved it, like he was signalling to somebody, or shooing away flies.
“Send a message to the devil to stay away tonight,” Preacher McKinney said. “Let's tell him he might as well go back to hell. He ain't got no business here.”
I looked at Preacher McKinney's eyes and he looked at me. My neck locked like steel and I couldn't take my eyes away and I couldn't close them. I didn't know I was saying anything, even though I felt my tongue move. But it felt like I was raising above myself, even while I stood still.
Everybody had turned to look at me. And the preacher said, “Bless you, sister, the Lord has made you a vessel for his Word tonight. Through you has flowed the sweet honey from the rock and in your mouth is the light of stars.”
A great burden was falling away and I was at ease for the first time in years. The striving and struggle dropped away. The worry and the need had washed away. I felt poised on the instant, and happy in the very nick of time. I need not worry that my hands and feet was not beautiful and my lower lip puckered out when I was thinking. It didn't matter that I had never had a real boyfriend though I was almost seventeen, or that Florrie had been with David and I hadn't hardly been kissed.