By: Terry Barr
I used to imagine the Holy Ghost as a fog that slept in the rafters
of our church. I thought our music, surging, and shouting woke the
spirit. When It looked down and saw us, It was reminded of how
lonely It was, how much It loved the children of God. Like the wind,
the Holy Ghost wasn’t visible, but we could still feel Its power. It gave
those It touched the ability to speak in tongues, the word of God pouring
out of their mouths in garbled consonants and rolling vowels. This
happens most often to men as they shout with their backs stiff and
straight, their mouths a hollow that the Lord filled with song.
–Ashley Blooms, “Fire in My Bones”
My people were United Methodists, so docile and respectable that their rule was to stay quiet and, thus, reverent throughout the service even when the Black family who visited in 1970 showed up unannounced, even when they were escorted through the main and front left sanctuary door just as the 10:50 am service was beginning (We began ten minutes before the hour so as to get a jump on the local Baptists and beat them in line for seats at the best restaurant in town for lunch after Sunday service.), and even when they proceeded to participate in the entirety of that service, opening the purple Cokesburys set in the back of each pew, as we all did, and singing “The Church’s One Foundation” as if they really belonged here with the rest of us.
As if they were one of us.
They must have thought so, for just before the sermon, they even contributed real currency to the gilded offering plate that snaked through their and our midst, passed oh-so-politely by the church father-ushers in their vanilla suit coats.
Our church people took the “Black” money silently, but in the offices and back rooms afterward, or so I was informed later from my internal sources, our fathers truly united and hissed from their hollow throats the venomous words their tongues formed from their own decidedly learned beliefs.
Still, I have to ask: was it the Lord, or Satan, or perhaps George Wallace who filled our men’s voices?
Which of the three was it who caused our stewards to call to our preacher and help him understand that if he ever tried such a thing again, Holy Ghost or not, he would suffer not the little children to come to him, but the parishioners who would cast him and his wife out into the vacant lot of homelessness that had materialized a couple of blocks down Arlington Avenue. He would be black-balled from Methodism itself, or so I heard, if he ever dared to welcome a Black family to church again.
Our fathers, as I read in the New York Times yesterday, were certainly not alone in their decisions:
In 1958, the Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell, who would go on to found the Moral Majority, gave a sermon titled “Segregation or Integration: Which?” He inveighed against the Supreme Court’s anti-segregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education, arguing that facilities for blacks and whites should remain separate. “When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line,” he wrote, warning that integration “will destroy our race eventually.” In 1967, Falwell founded the Lynchburg Christian Academy — later Liberty Christian Academy — as a private school for white students. (Michele Goldberg, “Of Course the Christian Right Supports Trump,” New York Times, January 26, 2018)
We started a segregationist academy in the bowels of our church, too. One of the early teachers was our preacher’s wife. Someone, at least, learned her lesson. That academy moved after that first year to reconverted chicken coops in the western hills of town. These were, after all, the suburbs of Birmingham, circa 1969.
We were such a polite, servile congregation that the following Sunday morning, we recited the Affirmation of Faith, the Apostle’s Creed; sang the Gloria Patri and Doxology and some hymn I simply cannot remember; and collected another gilded offering as if the previous Sunday morning had never happened.
As if that day had been merely a blip, a momentary challenge to our order of worship, our collective appreciation of and voice to the Lord.
Our quietly reflective public voice to the Lord, spoken only in the responsive prayer portion of our service.
So, no, my people didn’t have what Ashley Blooms’ people did. We never spoke in tongues and would have turned away from the embarrassment had anyone in our Methodist midst, white or whiter, taken it upon themselves or, God knows, been filled with enough mystery to utter such spirit talk.
Despite our Methodist demeanor and my mother’s stern warnings, I did the unthinkable once I learned to drive and could, thus, engineer my own dates.
I went out with one of those Baptists.
I’ve told this story countless times: how when I approached dating age, my mother blessed me to go out with anyone I wanted to (she herself had married a Jewish man), as long as that girl wasn’t a Baptist. She might even have been more okay with my dating a pagan boy rather than a Baptist girl, for when my best friend “came out,” my mother was one of his most strident champions. She had no worries about my sexuality, though I am likely over-assuming here.
Despite her strictures, my attitude toward Baptist girls was, “Why would I exclude any girl from any pool that would consider dating me?” My mother’s religious biases were not my own. Of course, she never admonished me not to date a Black girl, since she never remotely considered that I would.
So, when my first Baptist girl let it be known through a mutual friend—a friend who just happened to be the daughter of the First Baptist church’s minister—that she’d appreciate my asking her out, I acted so cool.
I waited until I got home that afternoon to phone her, hiding in our darkened dining room to make this most important call.
We set our date for the following Saturday night. On that Friday night, our church decided to hold a lock-in for the youth group. The idea of spending a night in a cold, dark church didn’t appeal to me, but whatever standing I had with my peers did. I feigned as much excitement as an impious teenager could. On that night, though, nothing else about me was feigned: not my increasing nausea; not my getting sick in the basement men’s room; not my having to be driven home by my friend Freddy, my shame multiplying with every step; and, most of all, not the phone call I had to place the next morning, cancelling my date.
Everyone else thought my sickness grew out of the frozen fish sticks we gassed to death in the church kitchen oven. That notion made a certain sense and, if true, would have left me feeling more or less sound on Saturday. Yet, I woke with a fever and couldn’t keep any food down. I still wouldn’t recommend gassing fish sticks, but what I had contracted was a classic adolescent stomach virus.
I could hear the mix of disappointment and disbelief in her voice. My Baptist girl later confessed that she thought I simply wanted a way out of dating her. This was but one example of how well she didn’t know me.
I convinced her to put off our date until the following Saturday night—that I truly was sick, especially over cancelling our date. Finally the date arrived, and I remember we went to the Green Springs Four Cinemas to see Travels With My Aunt, starring Maggie Smith. I didn’t know then that the film was based on a Graham Greene novel, and truly, had I known, I wouldn’t have known anything anyway. It was a strange movie choice, and I still don’t know why or how we chose it. What did it matter anyway, since ten minutes after the film started, we began making out?
After the film, we made our way back to Bessemer and to the parking lot up behind the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witness building on 4th Avenue where, within ninety seconds, my date managed to remove both her and my pants in one decisive motion. And then, through our relative fogs, I heard her say, “I’m on the pill to keep my periods regular. But I don’t want to have sex.”
Maybe my mother was afraid, then, of my dating Baptists because they were such fast movers.
In any case, I couldn’t translate the tongue she was speaking in. I was sixteen, a good Methodist boy, thrilled beyond belief that a girl would kiss me this ardently and would be so kind as to remove my pants. I considered this just an early stage of our relationship and decided to take her at her word. A few years later—okay, let’s say a full decade later—it occurred to me that she was most definitely speaking a language that I translated badly, or really not at all.
Undeterred by my slow motion, the following night she invited me to do something else I had never conceived of doing: go to Sunday evening service with her at First Baptist Church. Why shouldn’t I go, I thought? Isn’t this what boyfriends do? Besides, how different could the service be from all I had seen and known at my own Methodist branch?
Very different, it turned out, as while things proceeded fairly normally for a time—hymns, offering, very lengthy prayers—there came a moment that we Methodists term “The Call to Worship,” and which Baptists, I think, refer to as “The Time to be Saved.” On this night, at this moment in the service, a high school boy I knew, Phillip Ward, did what I had only heard rumors about before: he stood up in front of God and everyone and spoke in tongues.
Maybe he had the license to do so since he was our high school’s junior class chaplain. Or maybe he was truly filled by the Holy Spirit and grew that hollow throat. I don’t know, and the other thing I don’t know is how to translate or approximate what I heard him say in the thirty or forty seconds that followed. Maybe he used words like “meshugge,” “meghillah,” “shibboleth,” and “Cthulhu.” Maybe he was speaking Russian, since our high school offered such a course.
Every kid I knew, most vocally Phillip himself afterward, claimed that Phillip went into a trance while speaking in the tongue of the Holy Ghost. I didn’t know what to think, though my deepest suspicion was that he was faking. I don’t know whether my date agreed or not, but I do know that when we walked out of that sanctuary, she suggested we head back to the Jehovah Witness parking lot, where, again, she moved in completely mysterious ways.
We spent a few weeks dating, practicing foreign body maneuvers—maneuvers that never culminated because I wasn’t sure what I wanted, much less what she wanted. And, I have to confess, her touch wasn’t all that pleasant anyway. After all, what could she have known about pleasurable touching and caressing? She was only fifteen.
I was never filled with the Holy Ghost. Maybe I was too
young. Maybe I didn’t believe enough. Maybe I didn’t ask
for God’s spirit in the right way. I didn’t lift my hands when
the choir sang and rarely sang along. I kept my body close,
my hands gripped on the pew in front of me, my feet planted
solidly on the ground. No toe-tapping, no bouncing. . .
I wanted to dance like the others, but I didn’t know how
to unfold myself. I was afraid to be touched by the Holy Ghost.
–Ashley Blooms (75)
I didn’t have a spirit or body filled with the Holy Ghost, either. I have neither the conception nor the imagination of what that would be like. Feel like. To be touched by an angel.
Once, when I was twelve, my church invited a youth minister from beyond our congregation to witness to my Sunday school class. This was so uncharacteristic of my church, perhaps of Methodists in general, but I suppose someone there knew about fast girls and parking lots. There must have been ten or twelve of us, many of whom were my good friends outside of church and generally scoffers and doubtful posers about any religious experience. The youth minister had us sit in a circle, him included, bow our heads, and then he suggested that there was one simple thing we needed to do if we wanted to be filled by the Holy Spirit and have eternal life:
“Just raise your head and meet my eye,” he said.
At first, I wondered if such a thing could be real, but if being saved were this easy, why not do it? What could it cost? It didn’t matter that I had already been christened as a child, that I was a full-fledged member of the church with my very own Revised Standard Edition Bible, my name etched in gold on the cover. This was a booster, a guarantee. Supplemental insurance.
I raised my head. I met his eye.
I don’t know if anyone else did so because afterward, in the safety of our walk to the nearby bakery, we all denied even thinking of doing so. None of us tough guys would admit to the weakness of wanting to be saved. Maybe we feared that the touch we would get from whatever spirit might be available to us might actually move us.
I don’t know.
What I do know is what happened when I raised my head; when I met this twenty- or twenty-one-year-old minister-man’s eye. I had never seen or heard of this man before. But I definitely saw him then, when he met my eye, when he winked at me. And when he smiled, only for me.
I looked down quickly, and neither in that moment nor in any of the millions that followed, through the rest of that “lesson,” through the main morning service, or through our family’s traditional Sunday roast beef lunch was I filled with anything other than the deepest sense of “creep-out.”
I don’t know how it is that a twelve-year-old can know what he shouldn’t know, what, if all else is good and equal, he shouldn’t have to know. But in that moment, that time and place on the third floor of our church, I suddenly knew something I had never thought about before.
I don’t know why the spirit of the Lord is so often coupled with forbidden acts or desires; though, I’ve long sought these answers.
I thought of these scenes of my youth again, these uncomfortable, rebellious, and nominally religious moments, as I finished reading Ashley Blooms’ essay, “Fire in My Bones”:
I was afraid to be touched by the Holy Ghost. I was afraid
to be touched. I was afraid that no touch could be good,
because I had learned and was learning still that some touches
hurt…What I can’t forget: five-year old me, lying on my back
on my abuser’s cold basement floor, my breaths ragged as I
stare at the place where mushrooms grow from the dark
earthen walls. The stench of cold earth mixed with the mothballs
scattered in the corners to keep the snakes away. (75-6)
I wrote my own ending of sorts regarding the Baptist church of tongues, maybe regarding the guises of supposed holy men, too. When I was seventeen, I was invited back to that house of worship by my high school choir teacher, who was also music director for the First Baptists.
I had been taking choir as an academic subject ever since seventh grade, always with Mr. Fleming, our choirmaster. Who knows where he ranked as “effective,” as “motivating,” as “developer of young voices.” Over the years, he chose very strange arrangements for us: “Yellow Bird;” “Cantante Domine;” “When the Foeman Bares His Steel (Taranta-ra Taranta-ra).” He did try secular, popular tunes, too: “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head;” “Windy;” “We’ve Only Just Begun.” There was also some song about Noah’s Ark, where, apparently, some “animal” in dialect asked “Who dat Chevin’?” Our zenith as a choir, or, rather, in our offshoot Boys Choir, was our performance of “Down in the Valley,” for which we received “1’s” at district competition and would have been invited on to state had some of our boys not been caught by the buses smoking.
Poor Mr. Fleming. He tried so hard. In ninth grade, he auditioned us for the spring musical, The Pajama Game. I have no idea what he or anyone else was thinking in 1971 about staging this musical. Most of my friends and I were listening to Santana, Led Zeppelin, and Jethro Tull; others to War, Stevie Wonder, The Temps. Yet, we also clandestinely admitted liking AM hits, such as “Teach Your Children,” “I’ll Be There,” and “Spirit in the Sky.” The Youth in Christ group at school even hosted Religion Emphasis Week, where at the start of each day’s assembly, someone would try to “rock us out” by playing “My Sweet Lord” or “O Happy Day.” But they omitted, sadly, “One Toke Over the Line (Sweet Jesus).”
I tried out on a whim for the chorus of Pajama Game, but I never practiced beforehand and didn’t realize that my audition song, “This Guy’s in Love with You,” was pitched too high for my voice. Fleming made me feel as good as any choirmaster could after my voice broke on the fourth line:
“Don’t worry, I have a good sense of your voice,” he said.
So, while I didn’t make the cast of that musical, (Fred Kiker, whose voice wasn’t any better than mine, did because he chose a song that fit his range: “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”), Fleming didn’t forget me, either. I got a short trio-solo in “Down in the Valley” when I was a sophomore. And then, in my junior year, Fleming took a greater chance on me.
I was in the choir at First Methodist, and our choir director, Mr. Pinion, would occasionally stage Sunday evening musicals for our youth. It was a no-brainer in the sense that, at most, our Sunday evening service drew thirty parishioners. When we performed “Lightshine” at least we had a few more parents in the congregation. I don’t know if Fleming heard about our success; one of the rival Baptist churches in town asked us to perform at their evening service; though, we had to leave out any semblance of the choreographed square-dance number, since, usually, Baptists and dancing didn’t mix.
This is the point at which Ashley Blooms’ story stops me.
In her Appalachian Baptist church, when the singing started, the women swayed and stomped their feet to the rhythm of the hymns. Despite all they had seen, despite all that had been done to them, despite the handprints on their arms. I didn’t know that Baptists, especially women, could dance in church. After reading Ashley’s story, I wasn’t sure why they still wanted to—how they were able to pretend that what had happened to them hadn’t or, at least, how they kept the faith to ignore what had happened or get beyond it.
I guess no one told the youth minister at South Highland Baptist about what was going on in the mountains above us, the dancing, that is.
However Fleming heard about our performance, or if he did at all, he remembered me. Staging a new religious musical for First Baptist, Celebrate Life, he thought my high school baritone would be perfect for one of the three male leads. He also chose my co-Methodist best friend, a true tenor, and so “Go Methodists,” right? My innocent choirmaster let into the Baptist midst a closeted Methodist gay guy and me: a boy who didn’t believe in tongue-talk and who had decided to never again raise his head to meet the gaze of a would-be spiritual host.
For three successive nights we danced (!) and sang in the Baptist sanctuary, and in the ironies of Art and Religion and Life’s Great Celebration, my part allowed me to assume for one scene the holiest of Christian figures, writhing in mimed agony to the whipping perpetrated by the Romans just before they settled him for good.
I did the scene as faithfully as I could and then sung along with the chorus, matching eyes with several earnest Baptist girls (none being my fast date from the year before), who looked at me with a certain kind of fire as the musical culminated with,
“HE IS ALIVE, HE IS ALIVE! HE IS ALIVE!”
I was never much of an actor, but in that moment, I understood the art of making others believe what you don’t. What I can’t.
But I can’t leave the story here, because I can’t let you think I am unmoved by the sacred, or at least by sacred music. In the days when I went to church begrudgingly but faithfully, I sang every hymn that was ordered, whether I was in the choir or on the eternal back row of church youth. Singing was the only part of the service that ever meant anything to me. Even when I was a kindergartner not wanting to be separated from my mother, I stopped crying long enough to enjoy singing “In the Temple.”
I didn’t cry for love of spirit in church, though, and the hymns, as beautiful as they often were, never moved me to rejoice or ask to be “saved.” Nevertheless, there have been two occasions when I have felt through sacred music something like a spiritual calling. They are strange moments, but then, isn’t that how the Holy Ghost works?
There is an episode of The Andy Griffith Show where early on a Sunday evening, Andy and Barney harmonize to “The Church in the Wildwood,” Andy accompanying them on his old six-string guitar. Maybe it’s the peace of their voices, the nostalgia of the words. All I know is that I want to be on that porch with them every time I view that episode: “No place is as dear to my childhood, as that little white church in the vale.”
The other moment comes in Junebug, the 2005 film directed by Phil Morrison. Centered on a North Carolina family and its prodigal eldest son, the film takes us one evening to a family night supper at the local Baptist church. The youthful preacher asks the son, George, to favor the collected with a song. George has apparently done this on many occasions in years past, before he escaped the church and his family. Together with two other sinners, he sings, “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling,” to the tears and wonder of his mother, his sister-in-law, and his new outlier wife. I’ve seen the film many times and use it in my Southern Film class. Every time I show it, I have to turn my face from my students during this scene because they shouldn’t witness their professor crying, especially over a hymn. Yet, I do cry, and I wonder if it is only because of the refrain, “Come home,” or if it’s more?
In these moments, I’d like to be sitting with George’s family, and I wouldn’t wince if the preacher came over and blessed me.
Still, that’s not the same as believing. It’s just not enough.
Is it, Ashley?
For even though I didn’t encounter or experience your horror, or come close to your still-watered hopes, I nevertheless share your depths: “Maybe I was too young,” and “Maybe I didn’t believe enough,” either. And you could say, couldn’t you, that once I did meet the wink and the leer of a man whose tongue told me that’s “all I had to do to be saved.” I can fairly ask, then, am I saved or not? Is the intention good enough to countermand the actuality? But maybe I’m just playing with semantics, with hollow-throated and hollow-intended words. It’s feeling the spirit that counts, right?
I think more about these moments today, when self-proclaimed religious people want to give passes to the powerful despite their violations of sacred, moral, and constitutional norms. Despite their refusal to denounce those who brandish hate with tiki torches or, yes, enameled or wooden crosses.
It’s just like 1938 or 1967. Same as it ever was.
World without end?
And so, for whatever it’s worth, I am the same, too, as I’ve ever been: that traditional spirit—Holy, Sacred, full of mystery—just isn’t anything I’ve ever felt or had. Or truly believed.
Terry Barr is the author of Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother and We Might As Well Eat: How to Survive Tornados, Alabama Football, and Your Southern Family (Third Lung Press). His work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, storySouth, Hippocampus, Wraparound South, Flying South, Full Grown People, Eclectica, and Vol 1 Brooklyn. He blogs at Medium.com/@terrybarr and lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.