The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

July 7, 2016

A Peculiar People –Real and Really Weird Christianity in the French Quarter

 But ye are… a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” — 1 Peter 2:9

All supernatural events are odd-ball — they are super — above — the natural way of things, the same-old same-old.  The way a lot of Christians in America play church is traditional, predictable.  Some churches pride themselves on doing things in the way their great-grandparents did. Usually, the people who attend such churches are rather traditional themselves.  They do not tend to have run-ins with the police.  They do not tend to end up dancing on top of a table at a party. They tend to own khaki pants.  They do not tend to own cars with flames painted on them after the age of twenty-five.

I was never one of those Christians.  I was not raised in the church.  I got saved at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.  The day before that supernatural encounter, if someone had tried to shove a Bible tract into my hand, I would have yelled at them about my friends dying of AIDS who were condemned by vocal evangelicals on television as suffering God’s punishment for sodomy.  Where was God’s punishment for arms dealers, for greedy bankers, for deadbeat dads?  I would have shouted at them, and if they had been from one of those traditional churches, they might have misunderstood me.  They might have thought I was persecuting them for evangelism, not shouting, as Jesus did, at the hypocrites.

The day after becoming a Christian, I traveled to Bethlehem — this was right in the middle of the Intifada.  I arrived in the village by taxi cab in the late morning; there were children in the street who smiled and called out the one word of English they all knew — “hello.” Businesses were open with shop keepers who wanted to sell me souvenirs.  I made my way to the church of the Nativity, saw the spot traditionally marked by celibate monks as the spot of Jesus’ birthplace — which to me looked like a gilded frame for a large dinner plate, not a place for a woman’s body to give life.

bethlehem16

The hole represents the exact spot where Jesus is said to have been born. That hole is the size of a large dinner plate.

As I puzzled over the choice men made of how to mark a birth, an experience that all women see quite differently than they do, I heard shots outside.  It was afternoon, and the uprising had begun again as scheduled daily. I decided I ought to leave sooner rather than later.  The only business still open was a bar just a few feet away from Jesus’ birth manger with a large terrace.  The manager explained to me he could get a cab for me, but it would be at least an hour before one could come.  I ordered a whiskey, all they were serving, and joined war correspondents who were at least two drinks ahead of me, and waited.  Nobody shot at us.  I saw Israeli tanks going one way, children with rocks going another way, the occasional adult man with a gun and a Keffiyeh on his head running after or way from the tanks. I looked at the old church across the square and thought of that missing dinner plate.

I knew I was a Christian, that Jesus was real, that He had died for my sins, that He had conquered death for me, that He loved me.  I also knew that I was going to have to be outwardly a very different kind of Christian than the people who had evangelized me with well-flossed smiles and peaceful lives.  I had met the real God, but He had sprung out of a world of madness to save it in the midst of chaos. The ABC Family Channel could never save a lost soul like mine.  The Christ of the empty tomb, the void in the floor  within earshot of brutal battle — that Christ could redeem a person like me.

Returning to America, I joined the church across the street from my New York City apartment because they had invited me to volunteer for their AIDS hospice.  In New York, most Christians understand the God who is peace in the battleground because city life is filled with gangs and greed of a more establishmentarian flavor.  I felt more or less understood as I studied the Bible and grew in my faith.

Down South, though, more often than not, when I have joined a Bible study, I feel like an odd-ball Christian.  I love my Christian brethren down here, but too often, I tell stories like the one above when we talk about Jesus, and they stare at me as if I were from another planet.  The Bible teacher asks, “How does this verse apply to your own lives?” And we go around the circle to share.  Most of them say things like, “I realize I have been scared of not getting that promotion, but God must have a plan for me,” or “I need to be more careful to teach my children to pray to God when they are scared at night, not just ask me to turn on the light.”  I say, “I’m not scared of much, but when that man pulled a knife on me late at night when I was on my way home from clubbing, I managed to tell him confidently,  at least confident-sounding, that I didn’t want to have to hurt him. Thinking now as a Christian, I think I would have tried to evangelize him after he put the knife away, before he ran away from me into the dark.”

They love me with the love of the Lord, but bless my heart, I am the weirdest Christian they know.  I am in their prayers, and I am grateful.  They are in my prayers, and they are grateful, too. But I am what one of  my college boyfriends used to call a freakazoid to these lovely, khaki-wearing church folk from white suburban church world with music of limited rhythms and short sermons.

As some Southerners say — I told you all that to say this: I have been church-shopping in my new city of residence, New Orleans, and I may have found the church that keeps the missing dinner plate of the Nativity.  I have found a church where I am not odd-ball.  I am the least weird Christian there.  I have abided in a deep state of surprise since last Sunday morning, when I met them all, and they were all really Christian and each more of a freakazoid than I am.

Vieux Carre Assembly of God Church is located in the heart of the French Quarter, just a couple of blocks away from Bourbon Street, a place where people go to see or be strippers or prostitutes, do drugs, get stinking drunk, or even to find a voodoo priest who will curse enemies for a price, using spiritual forces of destruction to do so.  There is therefore literal satanism with storefronts on the street, and there is figurative bondage to Satan in the addictions and exploitations of the neighborhood. It is a culture of bars and dark shadows in rooms, people laughing who aren’t really happy, people slurring their words as they fall off of stools.  It is ugly, the sorrow painted as mirth, down there.  It is not a party.  Parties happen in other parts of the town.  Bourbon Street is the longest crooked finger in America, beckoning those who need love and comfort to harm themselves in the name of joyless “fun.”  It is a tourist tenderloin, a place to come to get obliterated, a site for slow suicide.  Vegas is fun sometimes.   The rest of the French Quarter can be fun.  Mardi Gras is fun.  Bourbon Street reminds me of the old neighborhood around New York’s Port Authority bus terminal that got cleaned up in the nineties — there was a spiritual vacuum there to suck the lost into sex shows in Times Square and into a drug culture that killed a lot of people.  It was a sad place.  There are wrought-iron embellishments on some buildings on Bourbon Street, but you wouldn’t call it pretty, not in the section I mean.  Anyway, that’s where Vieux Carre Assembly of God worships and witnesses two nights a week.  It’s a tough mission field, a spiritual form of combat triage and surgery on deeply broken hearts.

But understand that Vieux Carre AG is kind of crazy, like Fellini directed a film about a church right after he directed Satyricon. When I walked in the door, of the very small church, hung with mauve and gold draperies, with a few short pews in a low-ceilinged old building on the Rue Dauphine,  I was immediately offered two kinds of pie. They do this before every service on Sunday,  it seems, and they eat their pie in the pews.

The pastor, Paul Gros started us out with an a capella traditional singing of one verse of the hymn, “He Has Made Me Glad,”  but thereafter, another man, the associate pastor, sat at the piano, and the rest of the praise and worship happened like we were all at a piano bar.  He clearly had the talents of a piano bar pianist, though I don’t know his testimony.  Nobody stood. Almost nobody sang along but me as he played mell0w-jazz versions of old hymns, transitioning as one might as a piano bar pianist, with phrases like, “does anybody remember this one?” It reminded me of nothing so much as a bar I used to go to on Sheridan Square, near the new Stonewall monument — the Monster.  Downstairs is a disco where I danced with my gay friends and often got mistaken for a very convincing drag queen; upstairs older gay men gathered to sing show tunes together.  After a good sweat on the dance floor, I often went upstairs to sing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria,” or “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.”  It was fun.  It was communal.  But those songs weren’t hymns, not exactly. The non-participation of the church goers disturbed me as I sang “Hallelujah” with the pianist. One lady with many piercings in her face sat quietly while she ate a half gallon of chocolate peanut butter ice cream she had brought with her to church, one supposes to go along with the pie.

Macaw

Is this macaw a missionary?

We took communion together, and then the pastor mentioned that one of the men he witnesses with had been detained the other night by a police officer on Bourbon Street — why?  Not because he was in a state of near-nudity, something that will not get one arrested.  Not because he was vomiting in a gutter, also not an arresting offense.  He got detained because he had brought a large parrot with him out to evangelize.  Yes, pasties and thongs are allowed on Bourbon Street, but not exotic pets.  I kept thinking about the exotic dancer imagined in A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole who worked with a pet bird, and who was developing an act to cater to “the bird trade” on Bourbon Street.  I guess birds are offensive  somehow. But then I realized — a parrot?  To evangelize? Who uses a big Macaw to bring someone to the foot of the cross?  Who does that?  It was odd-ball.  I sense that this church is more conservative politically by a lot than I am, which is not unusual for me as a Christian on the Left, but I will say this — they are a lot bolder than I tend to be on a day to day basis, and they truly invite everyone in a spirit of love to join them, even bringing a parrot with them to, I don’t know, evangelize the leftover pirates on Pirate’s Alley.

It was tempting to dismiss this church — after all, it was a lot more bizarre in its tactics and activities than I am, and I am used to being the weirdest Christian in the room.The thing is, though, that as I sat there singing piano-bar-style hymns and asking myself — why is their nativity scene still on display in July? Why birds? Why pie? Why  ice cream in  the pews? — I felt the presence of God with a power I have only felt it occasionally.  The last time I felt it was at Times Square Church, a church with a deliverance ministry not unlike Vieux Carre’s deliverance ministry, witnessing to tough customers in the old, scary Times Square, addicted, hooking, homeless, hopeless.  I thought I might fall out (faint in the Holy Ghost) while the gentleman flashed his gold rings like a toned-down Liberace over the ivories and asked me, “And what about this song?  Do you remember this one?” I did remember it.  I remembered it well. It  was a hymn about healing.  The words declare that there is no one else like Jesus.  Indeed, there is not; he was and remains out of the ordinary, a sort of odd-ball, really.  I thought I would swoon as we prayed.  It was tonic.  It was a palpable presence of God for the battles of the city.

Therefore I say unto you — beware the non-peculiar church.  If nothing challenges you there, it might not be a real Christian enclave. Beware the unloving bless-her-heart church. Beware the hypocrites hiding behind churchiness wherever they may lie.  If you are already a Christian, I thank God for you.  Hallelujah.  But know you are sitting on a terrace while a battle wages around you.  You, too, have to figure out just what kind of Christian you are going to be.  Better to be your weird, real self than a fake churched-up, jacked-up facade that hides your lost layers still left. Go reach a person who is hurting.  Help him. Help her. Maybe bring a parrot.  I have never tried that. But apparently, it is powerful enough to get you arrested in at least one satanic stronghold in this odd-ball country.

Vieux Carre Assembly of God is located at 433 Rue Dauphine Street.

 

February 16, 2016

The Genesis of Elvis: What Origins Tell Us About Where We Go

I taught a student at the University of Mississippi who is a cousin of Elvis Presley.  As Ole Miss is less than an hour’s drive away from Tupelo, where the Presley family has long lived, this was not so surprising, really, but as a Carpet Bagger, I was charmed by the

Elvis birthplace 2

Elvis was born in this shack during the Great Depression

implications of my encounter with Elvis’ DNA, still responsive — not an Elvis sighting but a confirmed Presley sighting, surely.  This Presley was blond, almost exactly the King’s height and body shape, and he had piercing blue Presley eyes. As he took his final exam in my modern American Literature section, I silently tried to will him to burst into a chorus of “Hound Dog,” but to no avail.  If he had for some odd reason fallen prey to rock n’ roll hypnosis, it would have been the second-most rock-fantasy-fulfilling thing that ever happened to me, second only to the time I danced onstage in Paris for a half hour in a go-go cage with another band leader named Elvis, this one with the last name Costello.  But Elvis of Tupelo’s cousin did not once seem all shook up.  His hands might have been twitching and his knees weak, but that wasn’t because of love or music.  He might have been concentrating on the essay question of the exam. So despite wishing fervently for this young man to jump up on his desk and start throwing scarves off his neck into a screaming female crowd, instead I realized that we could not go on together with suspicious minds, and I gave him his semester grade and said adieu.  He wasn’t Elvis, and no amount of hoping could make him so.

elvis birthplace 1

Seventeen dollars gets you what they call the birthplace experience.

As it turns out, I found myself at a car dealership last week in Tupelo, getting my tires rotated, and I realized I really ought to go visit the birthplace of the American icon.The museum isn’t like the Met, where one donates as one chooses, and then one sees masterpieces. They wanted seventeen bucks to tour a diorama room, the two-room shack in which he was born, the relocated and renovated Assemblies of God church building in which Elvis first sang hymns, another chapel built for those who wish to marry in — let’s admit it — a more authentically Elvine Elvis Chapel than the one they have in Las Vegas — and to watch some films.  They had life-sized cardboard cutout Elvis dolls, they had a multimedia presentation of Elvis’ church services which were almost exactly like the church services I regularly attend, only people dress like it’s the twenty-first century and there are microphones, and they had a film  to let me know what any listener knows — that Elvis was influenced by both African-American blues traditions and Country music.

But the epicenter of the museum was the humble house where Mrs. Presley gave birth to a

Elvis birthplace 3

Elvis emerged here.

boy.  There was neither electricity nor plumbing.  Elvis’ father was not a financial success, even by the standards of the Great Depression, and they soon  lost the home and had to move elsewhere.  Looking at the metal bed in which Elvis crowned, I was somehow reminded of my trip years ago to Bethlehem, where I saw the birthplace of Jesus, which monks who had never witnessed an actual birth marked with something that looked like a large gilded dinner plate on the floor. And I realized then that the Elvis  I was seeking in this poorly ventilated shack was no more discernible than the golden Middle Eastern floor platter made Jesus appear in the flesh before worshippers there , alas for the worshippers like me of the King of Kings like Elvis and like me.

After all, what had I come to see? Down the road, there were somewhat updated versions of the same two-room shack’s architectural design, surely home to people of the same class as the Presleys during the 1930s. Today, they have plumbing, electricity, and aluminum siding. Is there rock greatness in those shacks?  At least they contain the living, not the dead. The Elvis I sought in his cousin and in his kitchen is dead — and yet, I say long live the King. The King is gone. And yet he is everywhere. All Americans are heirs to Elvis countrythe kingdom of Elvis — the bad fashion sense, the fatty foods, and yes, the rhythm, if we let our insides shake like a leaf on a tree, as he sang to us. Elvis might have lived in a shack, but he became as prosperous and as lost as any American can. He is the style without the substance, the default position of portions of American life, the gender performance, the hazy-eyed side-burned hunka-hunk of us burning.  We burn like Elvis burns.  There are sightings to this day. Elvis is not a saint but a relic, touch the reliquary, and what a chill I got — we are all shook up.  We are shaken.  We are seeking out a dream of ourselves, of who we have meant to be or who we have accidentally become. The genesis of Elvis, his birthplace, is like the rock at Plymouth, Massachusetts — we visit it to find America but find ourselves instead. The King is dead.  Long live the King.  Don’t look in the platter, look in the mirror for the next Elvis sighting.  If you were born here, right here on this platter, on this gold  record, then you are an American.

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