I sat in the pew between my brother and my grandmother. The mix of Estee Lauder, cocoa butter, and vaseline wafted into my nostrils as the deacons, that row of shiny, gray-suited, dark-skinned men, stood up in unison on no cue other than what was tuned into their psyches. I fiddled with the lacy hem of the slip under my dress before my grandmother’s arthritic fingers gently tapped mine: a prompt to stop because ladies just don’t fiddle with their undergarments in public. My brother’s Buster Browns swung loosely at the bottoms of his legs, and her lips pursed a bit as her perfectly hatted head turned in his direction. When his eyes met hers, a stillness stiffened in his limbs.
“I love the Lord. He heard my cry.” One of those shiny black men, with soft beads of sweat dotting his balding head, let out the loud, relatively quick wail of a verse to which everybody in the church began to moan in slow dragged out tones of reply. All of those voices singing in response a little differently but somehow together sounded like perfect harmony. My grandmother’s soft soprano sounded clearest to me with her being so close and because I had heard her moan like that in the kitchen as she made biscuits or in the yard when she picked figs or when she just sat alone in the rocking chair on the porch shelling pecans and looking out over the Mississippi horizon.
I could barely understand that leading deacon. His southern drawl was so thick, and the simultaneous feeling of deepest sadness and profound joy emanating from the pit of his belly confused me. But somehow everybody else in the church seemed to understand. Light tears being pat away by pink tissues or stiffly ironed, monogramed handkerchiefs proved it.
I could feel water well behind my knees and in the small of my back, but I was afraid to move. The lady in the pew in front of me must have known it, though, because just at the moment I started to get uncomfortable she picked up that Martin Luther King fan, the one we were not allowed to touch, and waved it mercifully, sending rhythmic bursts of her Sunday perfume my way with each backward thrust of her wrist.
“Before this time, another year” another deacon picked up before the previous song was even finished. His voice, more gravely than the first, sounded like he was trying to scratch an itch in his throat with his singing. He had sweat dripping from his chin and his tightly closed eyes seemed to sink completely into his face as he led off verse after verse. Stubby fingers and swollen wrists slid down his protruding belly, and I pictured him a black Humpty Dumpty as I remembered seeing him sit atop the wall uptown with my grandfather. In fact, I realized that all those men standing in that deacon’s row were the men who sat uptown for hours with my grandfather talking about God-only-knows-what because nothing much ever happened in that small town anyway. They laughed easily uptown. In church, a solemn respect hovered about them for the place and moment of which we were jointly part.
Another deacon descended slowly to one knee. In an almost whisper of a cry, he began to pray, “Oh heavenly Father, as humble as I know how, I come to say ‘thank you’ this morning…” He continued to pray as another deacon picked up another verse. I could only hear the prayer now in the pauses of the song, but I could tell that something spiritual was happening in that place. Everyone had a part to play. Even me and my brother by not doing anything to get in the way of the anyone else connecting with the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes, in the still of the morning, like today, where the sticky heat descends over my body, I am transported to the Mississippi of my youth, sitting on the freshly oiled hard wooden pews of Hollywood Baptist Church. I am missing seeing my granddaddy across the church singing about the God I knew he knew personally. I am missing those itchy tights and lacey slips my grandmother made me wear when I really thought I would be struck dead for being bare-legged at church. I am missing the coy, knowing looks and quick smirks that shot between me and my brother. I am missing seeing my grandmother with her head bowed reverently as she sang in that soft soprano next to me, teaching me without even me knowing I was being schooled about how good God really is.
Sometimes, I wish we would bring back these moments in the black church experience more often. I know it’s not fashionable or modern enough for most people today, but I miss it and the people I shared it with so much. And because I get it now…