From the polished oak pews of Churchland Baptist Church, I slump against the side of my mother, scribbling cartoon drawings on the back of the church bulletin. Despite my low vantage point, on any given Sunday there is much to inspire me. Sunlight filters through stained glass as fragments of light flutter around the sanctuary. Jesus as a baby. Jesus holding a little lamb. Jesus suspended from a wooden cross.
In front of me, the choir sits behind the pulpit on an elevated platform. When it is time for a hymn, everyone stands at attention while the choir director Russ Griggs moves his outstretched arms in rhythmn. In matching satin robes, the choir looks like rows of yellow goldfinches perched along the top of a fence. Russ flaps his wings preparing to fly while the others stand and chirp like obedient nestlings.
In between songs, the choir just sits there looking bored as if they aren’t really listening to Preacher Martin at all. I know how they feel; I dont like listening to him either. Every Sunday, he starts his talk all nice, like he wants to be your friend. He usually begins by telling a funny story that has supposedly happened to him during the week, but I really don’t think it’s true. By the end of his talk, he has become all worked up. He is wiping his brow with his sleeve and his face is red.I am not sure what it is , but I am certain we have all done something terribly wrong.
I don’t think Preacher Martin likes me very much anyway. When I ask mama and daddy questions they didn’t know the answers to, like what happened to those poor little babies that didn’t get saved before they died or about the starving children in Africa, my parents invited him to the house for supper so I could ask him directly. Although Preacher Martin sounded like he knew what he was talking about, his answers didn’t make any sense. His God seemed to have a lot of rules and regulations and mine just wanted us to try to love each other. I remember how we sing “Jesus loves the little children…” Even then, I didn’t think it sounded right that God would send you to hell on a technicality.
The baptismal pool is recessed like a large picture window above the heads of the choir. Most Sundays, it is hidden behind a dark red velvet curtain. During special holidays or if someone is getting baptized, the curtains are drawn open to reveal a beautiful scene. Imagine this: the river Jordan winds its way serpentine into the distant horizon, which I now know is just a painting. The front part of the river looks like it is edged in grass, only Mama told me these were called bulrushes, like the reeds that grew in the river where Moses’ mama hid him in a basket. I have never seen a bulrush, but I imagine if I ever have a baby to hide, that would be as good a place as any.
In front of the river Jordan a low glass wall keeps the water (which is real) from spilling out onto the choir’s heads. Sometimes I think how funny it would be if that water would just pour out of there and mess up all those ladies fancy hairdos and wake up that old man sleeping on the back row.
I’ll tell you a secret. During the baptismal, when Preacher Martin steps into the water, his preacher’s robe billows up. I looked real hard and I could see that underneath, he has on plain clothes like everybody else.
Ahead of me sits Patty Wafford. She was at least a head taller than me, even in pre-school. A goody two shoes, she sits up front with the preacher’s daughter Darlene. It nearly burns me up, both of them sharing chewing gum and pretending to listen to every word he says. Patty is awfully smart but everybody knows she is a crybaby. Once, our Sunday School Class had a contest to see how many different names we could find in the Bible for Jesus. I worked really hard to come up with ten or twenty names, even the hard ones like “Prince of Peace” .
Let me tell you, Patty’’s list contained over a hundred. I know she cheated. On the back of my church bulletin, I draw a pair of horns on top of Patty’s head.
As the choir sings, I swing my black patent leathers in midair to the gentle tempo of the music …
“Blest be the tie that binds
our hearts in Christian love.”
I guess everyone is tied to something.