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.

 

March 9, 2016

Shouldering the Dangers of the Pentacostal Church

“Then let mine arm fall from my shoulder blade, and mine arm be broken from the bone.” — Job 31:22

Beloved readers of this blog, I write to warn you of hazards you may not have considered in choosing whether or not to attend church.  It’s true that a good church shepherds the lost soul to paradise, but have you considered all the dangers of worship, particularly if the church you attend is loving or expressive?  I have survived a serious, nay, let me call it a medieval danger, and I am barely unraptured enough to have both feet on Earth to tell you about it.

ShoulderSurgery_ORIGINAL_460x261To be fair to the church I attend, I was already in danger when I arrived.  You see, there is a doctor in town who has told me that I could qualify through my insurance to let him cut off my right arm and reattach it with a titanium shoulder joint.  I have been apparently sleepwalking. Moved with unconscious piety,  like Rebekah in Genesis 24, I have been (sleep) walking to the well and filling a large jar of water, balancing it on my shoulder, which has become for NO OTHER discernible reason arthritic.  The doctor is almost gleeful when he tells me he can perform this monstrosity on me, that I will only need half a year to recover from this Frankenshoulder operation, and that after this, the mild chronic pain I have will be gone, gone after half a year of medieval torture pain and immobility.

A couple of weeks ago at church, a young man of Christian character shook my hand vigorously, glad to see me.  He’s strong, stronger than he knows, and when I smiled and took a seat, I realized that for the next hours I would need to pray for healing.  I raised my hands to heaven as we praised the Lord, and I realized I would need that healing now. In Bible study, I could fully recognize the truth of Isaihah 22:22, “And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.”  Because I, for one, couldn’t imagine twisting my hand on a door knob that would either open or shut whatever it was that Jesus locked or unlocked with that shoulder key.  I knew I didn’t want to push, or pull, or twist, or mangle anything. If that wasn’t evidence of my faith, I don’t know what is.

crucifixion

Crucifixion can’t be good for one’s shoulders.

The truth is, it’s not just shaking hands at the church door that’s a danger.  It’s not just lifting one’s hands to praise the Lord.  There are all kinds of secret dangers hidden in church, including:

  • Tambourine accidents — Musical enthusiasm could rip a rotator cuff if the believer is not careful.
  • Starbucks-Venti-sized portions at coffee hour — One bucket-sized drink hoisted too high could tear a tendon.
  • Emphatic gestures in theological debate — Zeal is fine in moderation, but no one should slap a pulpit in rebuke if the fire and brimstone get too hot or stinky.
  • Choir robe malfunctions — Tripping on the way to the back row of the choir loft could make an alto bump into the organ.
  • Hugging like a muthah — Someone might love the brethren just a little too much, squeeze like a boa constrictor.
  • Hat accidents, or “haccidents.” — Ladies still wear big hats in some churches, laden with fruit and plumage, netting and holy mysteries.  It just takes one low-flying bird out on the church steps to snag that tower of rattan and turn it into a neck and shoulder disaster.
  • The clap (to the music) — Proclaiming a little too much victory might sprain into defeat.
  • Volunteering — That heavy punch bowl one might carry into the reception hall, that Wreath that needs one to glitter spray  it and add more plastic begonias to it (I did say I was talking about pentacostal churches, didn’t I?) are shoulder tragedies waiting for a women’s fellowship workday to happen.

There are surely other shoulder hazards at church, but because Jesus endured the ultimate shoulder hazard — crucifixion, which is very painful to the shoulders with the rest of the upper body — I attend despite the risk.  The physical therapist is sticking electrified needles in me, not nails, and she is having me shrug Talmudically, releasing certain tense muscles and conveying a resignation that the paradox of faith is that God answers Job’s questions about hardships (like shoulder injury) with other questions.  Why ask why? I give the burden of the ineffable to Christ to shoulder.

 

July 30, 2015

Day 3: White Privilege and the Eye of the Needle Through Which White Christians Must Pass to Enter Heaven

Tender Readers,

 

I thought I would share with y’all my recent guest blog post on another Word Press Blog, this one a Christian blog based in Africa, where I was asked to talk about racism as a spiritual problem.  I wrote it like a homily on white privilege and the American church.

 

I hope you enjoy it. Follow the link below.

My white face.

 

Day 3: White Privilege and the Eye of the Needle Through Which White Christians Must Pass to Enter Heaven.

June 29, 2015

The Open Chiffarobe: The Uncloseted Closet of the South

Down the street from my house in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when I would take walks at 5 am in July before the day got really hot, I would often see a couple of elderly gentleman on a stroll together.  These men lived down the street from me, and they looked like any other pair of men one might see at a VFW barbecue — golf caps, t-shirts with brand names on them that might endorse a NASCAR car, jorts, sneakers with gym socks.  But these men strolled close to one another, not holding hands, but close enough to murmur secrets to one another in hushed voices.  They had lived together for decades in a house down the street from mine, only theirs had an impeccably manicured garden that they lovingly tended together.  They would often sit on the front porch together, talking.  They waved at neighbors who had known them for years.  Everyone was polite, though the men generally kept their own close counsel.

No one ever referred to these men as a gay couple in my presence, though I have trouble imagining that their relationship could have ever been construed as anything else.  Without benefit of the right to marry legally, they had nevertheless constructed a permanent relationship together that had a quiet warmth, the way I hope my husband and I share a warmth in our golden years, only nobody ever officially acknowledged this couple’s relationship out loud.

In Vicksburg, it was entirely possible to imagine someone shouting the word “faggot” at someone else, with all the bitterness and hatred the word contains.  There wasn’t a pulpit in town from which one might not hear a sermon that decried same-sex relationships as unnatural.  And yet, in a town of about sixty thousand people, there were a number of such couples.  At Shonee’s, I would often see a younger pair of men, stylishly dressed quietly enjoying a meal together.  I would on occasion see a pair of women with matching short haircuts and tattoos at Kroger’s buying organic vegetables.  But nobody quite acknowledged the presence of these relationships before their eyes.  One lesbian couple I know would go home for Christmas every year, and under the tree would be two presents waiting for them, one labeled “Teresa,” the daughter of the family, and another one labeled “Teresa’s friend,” although Teresa had brought home for Christmas the same “friend” for over fifteen years.  The gifts were carefully chosen for both specific recipients in mind, but the family, who knew these women slept in the same bed, needed to live with a pretense that this relationship was the same as if one’s college roommate invited one to visit home over holiday break because one had no other fixed plans.

This is the strange system by which the South can exist in a schizophrenic denial and in a deep division regarding their own LGBTQ communities.  In Southern red states, a great many people honestly believe they have no personal acquaintances who are non-heterosexual because they have accepted a form of omerta regarding these entirely visible relationships around them.  As a result, they are able to believe the idea that Christian marriage is specifically under attack from radical Yankee queers in a manner that would limit their own civil rights.  The civil right that many heterosexual conservatives seem to cling to in this instance is the ability to deny what is in fact really none of their business.  I think only a few people in the South still think that gay is contagious, that proximity to someone who loves people from his or her own sex will make others do the same.  Most people have understood that it would be a wider-spread phenomenon were that true.  But they feel that openness and officially acknowledging these relationships would destabilize their basic ideas about how relationships work.  This in fact may be true, but they have willfully missed the obvious for so long now they have been living a longstanding  lie.

Let's get real.  There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

Let’s get real. There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

The irony is that the South not only has a longstanding public LGBTQ populaiton, although its communities tend, as they do in the North, to concentrate in urban areas, the South has produced the most notable gay and lesbian writers in American literature.  What are the seminal works of queer literature in America?  The first ones that come to my mind are Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, Every single Tennessee Williams play, so rich in queer subtext, the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker — and all of these works are by Southern writers. Being queer is not only a thing that happens in the South; it may be that the South actually has more people born here who want to have sex with same-sex partners than people born in the North, given the literary production of the South on the topic is so rich and diverse. It’s hard to know, though, as this firm commitment by the South to silence on this topic masks the real statistics.

Gay Southern writer Allan Gurganus once remarked that one reason why many Southerners used to be so blind to the sons and daughters of Dixie who were gay and lesbian was that a lot of those people left town the second they could.  The story people told at the church picnic about these absent relatives was that George had moved to Chicago because he got a fantastic career and loved his life as a playboy bachelor surrounded by pretty ladies. Harriet went North to teach at a girl’s school in New Hampshire, and bless her heart, she just couldn’t seem to meet the right man.  The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s made many Southern families confront the reality of certain male relatives’ lives because cousins and brothers came home to die from the disease, and this meant beyond any doubt that confirmed bachelors were not out looking to meet ladies in bars, though they might have met gentlemen in bars quite regularly.  The suffering and death of these men brought many instances of acknowledgement in private and forgiveness of past offenses, but few families declared the reasons for these deaths in public forums.  Things went along in communities the same as if these successful, beautiful sons had died of cancer, not a disease spread by sex.

I think that one of the reasons the South has resisted a closer examination in all frankness of its LGBTQ community is that the straight community would also be up for scrutiny if this ever happened.  Southern straight men cheat with comparative impunity (think of Bill Clinton’s rather prolific track record, and I am not just talking about Monica Lewinsky and Jennifer Flowers), and Southern women, while not all as committed to promiscuity as Rosemary Daniell is in her still-astonishingly-honest memoir Sleeping with Soldiers, nevertheless have a lot more extramarital sex than the Junior League is ready to announce in its monthly newsletter.  There’s a reason why STD rates are so high in Mississippi, and it’s not just because people don’t use condoms as often as they ought; people in Mississippi screw around at least as much, possibly more, than people in the North do.  But after the debauchery of Saturday night, people around here go to church on Sunday morning, where the pastor tells them that Christians don’t act like they actually did the night before.

This lack of openness about people’s actual choices in the South has led to a mismeasurement of Southern life as it is actually lived.  This mismeasurement has led sinners to feel isolated rather than forgiven. It has led to many Billy Joe McAllisters jumping off of many Tallahatchie Bridges. It leads certain others, almost as an overcompensation for their own transgressions, to vote for people who condemn their own behavior during election cycles. The rhetoric of the South does not match the life of the South, and as a result, a kind of Blanche-DuBois-like unwillingness to stand under direct light for examination can explain some of the Southern politics that Northerners find so confounding. It’s the whole South’s sex life that is really in the closet, not just the non-heterosexual sex, but any sex that isn’t fully sanctioned by marriage within the limits set by old anti-sodomy statutes.  The South wants to pretend there are more virgins on wedding nights than there really are.  The South wants to pretend that marriages are more faithful than they really are.  They want to pretend there are fewer sluts, male and female, than there really are.  And they want to pretend they don’t know any queers, unless you mean Georgia queer — a guy who likes women better than football.

I acknowledge that my Stanley-Kowalski-like desire to rip the paper lantern off the light bulb here in the South and expose the raw truths of its existence is a Yankee impulse if ever there were one.  I admit this very blog would like to wrap its arms around the South, smother its neck with kisses, and say to it, “I pulled you down off them columns, and how you loved it having them colored lights going.”  Given my many Southern readers, I have to believe that like Stanley does for Stella and Blanche, my frankness at once horrifies and fascinates.  All I can say to the South, as I lift it up in my brutal, sensual arms, is that we’ve had this date from the beginning.

May 6, 2015

Let Them Eat Cake: Why, with God and Scarlett O’Hara as My Witness, I’ll Never Go Hungry Again

My pastor in Oxford, Brother Williams, told me that at our church here in Mississippi, we spell fellowship F-O-O-D.  I write this as a witness.  I have tasted, and I have seen that the LORD is good, and his mercies, as well as his appetizers, endureth forever.

I love the people at Christ the Rock.  They are kind and unpretentious.  If you look earlier in this blog, you can see my previous post about them.  Whenever we get together, with the slightest of excuses, there is a buffet laden with home-made macaroni and cheese, biscuits out of the oven, cole slaw, sandwiches, muffins, cookies, and desserts — oh, the desserts!  Isaiah 61:8 says that the Lord loves justice, and I have received my just desserts at Christ the Rock, thanks be to God.  My cup runneth over with unsweet tea they make especially for me, out of pity for my Yankee proclivities, for no natural-born Southerner would willingly drink iced tea that hasn’t been sweetened.  They have handed me a napkin.  As it says in Psalm 81:10 — I have opened my mouth wide, and fellowship at Christ the Rock has filled it.

Courtney Love taught me to be the girl with the most cake.  Marie Antoinette taught me to share it like a good Southern hostess ought.

Courtney Love taught me to be the girl with the most cake. Marie Antoinette taught me to share it like a good Southern hostess ought.

But this past Tuesday really took the cake, or rather it gave it.  I have been volunteering to teach high school English for the teenagers at Christ the Rock’s Church School, a part of Oxford Christian Academy.  We are writing poetry, fiction and essays together.  We have been reading the play Measure for Measure and contemplating whether Shakespeare felt that the State could legislate morality — an interesting question for young Christians to ponder.

Meanwhile, I had been getting ready for my prospectus defense.  I had been very stressed out about it, too.  I asked the church for prayer on Sunday, and pray they did.  Then, on Thursday last week, the morning before my defense, my students, seven lovely and well-behaved teenagers (yes, they still make some of those), asked Brother Williams to lead them all in prayer for my successful defense.  I was very moved by how personally they took my fortunes at this defense.  They seemed to feel if I succeeded, then they, too, had some share in that success.  If I failed — perish the thought — God, our merciful and mighty God, would surely not let that happen.  They prayed individually for me to persuade the room of committee members.  They prayed in earnest.

These fine, young Southerners got me a cake with Ole Miss colors in the frosting.

These fine, young Southerners got me a cake with Ole Miss colors in the frosting.

My defense turned out (by the skin of its academic teeth) to be a success.  I told the church this on Sunday, and on Tuesday, the next time my class met, they shouted “surprise!” when I opened the door.  They had gotten me, in the spirit of fellowship, a cake.  Above is a picture of it.  Brother Williams told me, “What we cannot pay you in money,” (The school keeps its costs very affordable for people without two nickels to rub together) “we can show you in appreciation and hospitality.”

I would rather teach the children of the church than the children of Babylon, even if Babylon is gilded.  At the Lycee Francais in New York City, were I to teach high school there, I would barely make a living wage, anyway, while only the richest of the rich could afford to attend.  Here, I help young people in my spare time, as I pursue writing and my doctorate, find their own unique voices without apology.  I help them discern Shakespeare’s skepticism about government-mandated morality, with hopes that future voting will reflect this discussion’s debate later on.  I help them understand that our God creates with words, potent words.  Their words contain potency as well.

And it is a blessing to belong to a fellowship that spells itself F-O-O-D, that celebrates with those who advance, and considers itself set apart from the mean spirit of much of the world, even as it draws those who have been downtrodden by the vicissitudes of its cruelty to its table.

So pull up a chair.  Don’t be shy.  Let me slice you off a piece with extra piped-on gooey goodness.

February 23, 2015

On Holiness, or Why I am the Creepiest Person at My Small-P-Pentecostal Church

I am going to talk to you about my down-home Mississippi country church, but first, I think I should share with you a story about Hasidic Jews, who act an awful lot like pentecostal folks when they pray.  This is a story the Hasidim like to tell about how they worship God:

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov was once asked: “Why is it that Hasidim burst into song and dance when they go to the synagogue? Is this the behavior of a sane group of people?”

The Rabbi explained it like this.

“A deaf man walking by a wedding feast wondered: Has the world gone mad? Why are the people  clapping and turning in circles? The Hasidim are moving to a melody that is part of God’s creation.  Just because you can’t hear the music doesn’t mean we’re crazy for dancing.”

These two smart, lovely, modest teenagers have rejected the pressures of this culture to look like loose women.

These two smart, lovely, modest teenagers have rejected the pressures of this culture to look like loose women.

To get to Christ the Rock, my Mississippi church, you have to drive down a long two-lane highway past a tractor shop, some open fields, and a place that sells feed for livestock.  When you see the long white fence followed by a hill leading up to a gravel parking lot containing some pick-ups and a beat-up old Christian Academy school bus, a white-steepled building with astroturf outside the front door, you’ve arrived.

As your hand reaches the door knob, if it’s Sunday afternoon after 1:30 pm, you’ll hear Sister Courtney and Sister Jennifer singing soulfully in harmony as sister Kathy plays the piano, brother Delbert’s on bass, and the drummer — I am forgetting the drummer’s name, with apologies, but he’s the guy in the back left of the group photo wearing the tan shirt down below, they are all singing a hymn as if their hearts were about to burst out of their chests from the heady passion of it.

The pews are covered in an industrial floral tapestry, and even the piano wears a long skirt of it.  The ceiling is not high, but it is not leaking.  A man will shake your hand at the door.  He looks hopeful and tired at once, but he is honestly glad to see you.  He leads you into the sanctuary from which this music has already reached you, and you find a seat in one of these tapestried pews next to a squirmy toddler wearing a long skirt and the most elaborate headband you — Yankee heathen that you are — have ever seen.  That headband distracts you for a minute, covered as it is with curled ribbons, lace, and perhaps a feather.  The child’s hair is curled carefully like the ribbon, ornately as a bride on her wedding day.  The toddler is drooling onto a Bible somebody left there in case you came to visit and didn’t own one yourself.

Eventually a woman wearing a long skirt bends to scoop up the drooler with one arm, only half-looking, as she has done this before, and without missing a beat, she says welcome and hugs you with the other arm.

This is my church, now that I’m down here.  And I am the most messed-up person they see regularly in the pews.

In New York, I went to churches where people speak in tongues and pray for the healing of the brethren, sing and cry and shout, but I was never the biggest sinner that entered the front door.  For that distinction, I had to compete with ex-prostitutes, junkies just finished with withdrawal, white collar criminals half-penitent of ill-gotten gains, and a few certifiable lunatics out of whom not quite enough devils had yet been cast.  In comparison to that crowd, I was always prim, tidy, reasonably holding it together on almost any day.

There are other churches in Oxford, Mississippi, where I could go where there might not be too many junkies in the pews, but the creepiness would come in the form of rank hypocrisy.  There is an ethos that some Southern churches have where butter just wouldn’t melt in anybody’s mouth no matter how hot it gets in August.  People in those churches disown gay children, hide pornography addictions, drinking problems, and gambling debts while they sing “The Old Rugged Cross.”  Mark Twain, Allan Gurganus, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams, and John Kennedy O’Toole have all given you a picture of the South which includes such churches, the churches of the regular penitents on Sunday morning routinely hung over from their excesses of Saturday night.  I am not saying those churches shouldn’t exist if people want to go there.  But, see, I am not just looking for a place to wear a cute dress and lord it over people that my handbag is designer.

Let me tell you, though, at Christ the Rock, my Southern church, there are no such people.  Butter melts like it ought to — on a biscuit fresh out of the oven.  The people who attend have no holier-than-thou pretensions.  They are just actually holier than I am.

See these good, loving people?  I am so much more creepy than they are.

See these good, loving people? I am so much more creepy than they are.

The women in this church, once you have gotten over the bedazzled headbands on babies, are not dressed in overpriced designer schlock.  They are dressed femininely and modestly, few ankles, no knees, and no bosoms exposed, unless of course I walk in, in which case butter is melting in my mouth, and I am sweating like a whore in church. I am perhaps in something I could have worn to church in New York, a little short-skirted sometimes, never really whorish, to tell the truth, but not deeply modest like these other women are.  The women at Christ the Rock often don’t dye their hair when it grays or wear make-up because those are not the parts of their lives on which they want to focus — instead they honestly want to focus on the experience of God’s presence.  I, on the other hand, have stubborn grays and stubborn worldliness, both of which I cover up. I wear make-up.  I double-process my blonde. I am not secure enough to show up anywhere looking only like God made me.  That’s the truth.  These women, even the teenagers here, are more secure than I am in that way.

What’s more, the men at this church, they are good guys.  They talk about fatherhood and honestly consider it the greatest joy of their lives to nurture their kids and grandkids.  They act loving, even when they don’t agree with somebody about something.  They are faithful to their wives, wives they met in high school and married the month after graduation, in more cases than not.  They are sober men.  They don’t drink.  They want to be helpful.  They want to be gentlemen, and “gentleman” isn’t a code for white male privilege.  A white man of a certain age who attends this church and whose name I shall not disclose, in this still relatively rural Southern community, has been courting a woman of color with all the respect of the code of chivalry heretofore reserved by white men for white women.  But I shouldn’t gossip.  People don’t gossip at this church.  They actually avoid the sins not explicitly mentioned in the Ten Commandments on top of all the not-murdering-not-coveting stuff I usually manage to accomplish on a good day.

The pastor and his wife, Glenn and Kathy Williams, are incredibly warm and loving.  They run a school and have programs through the State of Mississippi for parenting classes, anger management, and addiction-related issues mandated by the court system for those who have messed up in these areas.  They have plenty of opportunities to judge others.  I don’t believe they have ever judged anybody since I have met them.

The whole church is a place that doesn’t judge.  They tell everyone in the room to avoid sin. That’s a given, and when you’re with women who won’t dye their hair and men who won’t take a drop of alcohol after a funeral, you know you are a sinner.  They don’t have to judge you.  You will judge yourself, you Yankee rapscallion scoundrel, just like the Good Book tells you to.  Even as you judge yourself, you will find yourself unflinchingly loved by them.

The sermons are smart without exception.  However, there was one sermon I remember that I never would have heard up North.  It’s not that it was on an unusual topic, exactly.  Any part of the Bible might be preached about in the North.  But this sermon was punctuated by blues harmonica solos and what small-p-pentacostals call “hooping.”

For those of you who are uninitiated, allow me to paint you a picture:

Preacher: “Now one day Goliath, he met his match, — huh!” (the “Huh” is the “hoop” of hooping.)

[insert a short blues harmonica solo here]

“‘Cause David, huh, he got himself his sling shot — huh!”

[really bluesy blues harmonica here]

“and that Goliath, huh, he was gonna fall — huh!”

You get the idea.  Anyway, it was as Southern as a Southern sermon could get.  If the man who gave that sermon had been flanked by an Elvis imitator and the widows of the Confederacy, it wouldn’t have been more Southern.  A bowl of grits would have gone well with it.

But the very best part of attending Christ the Rock is the palpable presence of God like the Rabbi Baal Shem Tov talked about, the thing that makes the deaf think the dancers are crazy.  The presence of the Holy Ghost hangs thickly upon us, and while He is there manifesting, we dance, we clap, we shout, we rejoice.  It’s quieter, that presence at Christ the Rock than at some of the places where people get delivered out of years of addiction in one fell swoop or where demons need to be cast out, but it is strong, loving, and real.  As my nose presses to the industrial gray carpet stubbornly, when I feel called to pray kneeling, when the reverberations of the skirt-wearing piano shake, when the sound of glossolalia mixes with the Southern gospel, I feel the delicious sensation of both the Holy Spirit and my own cultural disorientation.  I’m not home, not until the rapture, but I am some place, I’ll tell you what, some place out of the pages of high Southern prose yet unwritten, perhaps written now. I am not raptured just yet, any minute now, surely, but I am in a place far more authentic than some butter-melt-free-mouthing-off place.  I am some place real where there is real welcome.

But meanwhile, in the church, there, I realize that I am a real piece of work.  I drink the occasional glass of spirits, not just the Holy Spirit.  I am not neurotic by the standards of midtown Manhattan, but I am one twisted-up freakazoid for this pastoral landscape.  I wear make-up and urban clothes because I am hiding my unacceptable self. I don’t judge much, but I don’t love as effortlessly as these people love.  Nothing’s in their way, perhaps, from the stupid pomp of this shallow culture — no lip gloss, no eyelash curler, no list of trends, no fashion police, no need to impress the neighbors.

And yet they tolerate my Yankee accent, which, while mild compared to most up North, sounds like Rhoda Morgenstern’s here when I testify to the works of the Lord during service. They tolerate my over-fluffed pretensions.  These people could have treated me like a space alien, but instead I sometimes wonder if I am their team mascot.  If so, I think we must be called “The Carpetbaggers,” and our fight song is about victory in Jesus.

So if you need a good church that will help you hear the music to which you are currently deaf, I exhort you to come to Christ the Rock, 352 Highway 30 East, out in Oxford, either in Lafayette County or Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, take your pick, as people this good surely belong in fiction, though perhaps not in William Faulkner’s novels. Just come as you are. Leave transformed.

May 11, 2010

Foreigners

I'm so foreign around here I might as well dress like a Bollywood bride

Like Barak Obama, I was born in the United States.

That said — I wonder when my neighbors are going to start clamoring for my birth certificate, because I am as oddball for the locals, it seems, as if I were born in Outer Flapjackistan.

Perhaps they have a point.  After all, geographically speaking, I am from an island off the coast of North America, not somewhere squarely in the middle of it.  I did live overseas for a  total of five years of my life.  I speak one foreign language absolutely fluently, one quite conversantly, and a few others in sort of an esperanto conversancy.  I cook foreign foods.  I drink foreign drinks.  I believe in a number of things that Fox News would categorize as socialism but which the foreigners in Europe would find rather conservative and capitalist, and — here’s where they might be right — I believe the foreign press over Fox News.  I therefore must be the worst kind of foreigner, that would  be the kind that thinks she is an American just because she was born here and believes in, say, Miranda Rights.

I mean, who is this Miranda chick,  anyway, and since when does she get special rights?

Do I sound paranoid?  Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Last night, at church, I joined a women’s ministry and was asked to fill out a form about my likes and dislikes.  I said my favorite snack food was babaganoush, and the group leader asked if I was from the United States, and she wasn’t kidding.

There’s a woman down South who calls me, “Miss International,” and bizarrely, she means that as an insult.  She should just add the word “fabulous” to the insult and complete the character assassination!

Someone I met told me she is frightened to go to our local Walmart at night by herself because one time she was walking in the housewares section and she heard three Spanish-speaking men behind her, and she was quite certain that they were talking in secret behind her back about how to rob her.

“Maybe they were just looking at pot holders,” I offered.

You see?  Only a foreigner would say something like that!

When I attend group meetings here, occasionally people tell me that they have, “enjoyed” me, even though I am just part of a larger group discussion.  It’s nice.  It’s also a little odd.  I’m not at all offended, but it means I’m different in ways that they notice and I don’t.

I lived as an actual foreigner in an actual foreign country.  I often was asked to explain my people and my government to others.  I find myself sometimes having similar conversations around here.

I saw a  doctor yesterday.  He told me he was against Obamacare because men between 18 and 40 don’t need health insurance, he claimed.  What about AIDS,  I asked, recalling a number of young men I knew who died from it.

“We don’t have that here,”  he told me.

Oh.

I have landed on your planet, Mississippi.  Put down your pot holders and keep your hands where I can see them.  Take me to your leader.  I would tell you I come in peace but I guess you wouldn’t believe me.

After all, I like babaganoush.  That must make me a member of Al Queda.

February 6, 2010

The questionable etymology of “Who Dat”

I write this as someone who could not care less who wins the Superbowl. The Superbowl is an instance of American culture at its most commercial, shallow, and it only partially sublimates its violence.  Superbowl Sunday is the number one day of the year where American women call domestic violence hotlines.  Men get drunk, beat up their women after the game,  so excuse me if I don’t feel particularly like celebrating.

That said, living as I do on the very border of Mississippi and Louisiana, you may well imagine that I have heard a few exclamations of “Who Dat Dere Gonna Beat Dem Saints?”

The phrase comes from a song recorded by an African-American New Orleans Jazz band and singer.  The phraseology, one of African-American diction particular to the black working class of New Orleans, caught on.  No one but Chicago Cubs fans can understand the devotion of certain New Orleans Saints fans throughout multiple seasons of defeat.  They have never won a Superbowl before, but the song, “Who dat” was sung over and over again, season after season, by certain die-hard fans — black and white.

For a person from the Northeast, the first listen to “Who Dat” might potentially appear to be part of the Aunt-Jemima-and-Sambo-style charictures demeaning to people of color that the deep south has tolerated for generations, often seeming oblivious to their symbolism and negative messages.  This is, after all, a region that keeps debating the proper place of the Confederate flag as a symbol within state flags.  To a Northeasterner, it seems like debating where the swastika belongs on the current German flag as a sign of its heritage.  I remember an article I read in the early 1990s in The Village Voice where a reporter attending an event hosted by the Christian Coalition involved the singing of the “Who Dat” song — in reference to Christian sainthood — and one of the coalition’s PR people rushed over to her to tell her that “Who Dat”‘s diction was racially neutral.  She wrote something in her article like, “Yeah, right!”  According to Wikipedia, “Who Dat” songs — songs with lyrics that start with “Who Dat?” and have a response like, “Who dat who say who dat?” originated in minstrel shows, notorious spectacles of American racism played by white men in black face.  How could “Who Dat” in the Saints fight song have no racial implications?

However, “Who Dat” seems to have what recording executives call crossover appeal.  It is true that I occasionally here white people sounding something, not exactly, like that when they speak.  I see signs around me, a four-hour drive to New Orleans, with the words, “Who Dat” painted on them by hand.  People around here are excited about the game tomorrow.  They have needed a reason to be excited for some time.  While Vicksburg was not devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the whole region has felt the aftermath of the storm’s terrible havoc.   In numerous towns in Mississippi, historical landmarks were decimated, to say nothing of the horrible devastation of people’s homes.  Lots of refugees from the storm moved inland and slightly north — meaning not far from here.  After having driven through New Orleans less than a year ago, and having seen whole neighborhoods still standing but condemned — a red “X” painted on each of the houses to indicate that it was still not safe even to climb the front steps — I dare say that people have a right to get excited about a pointless and commercialized ritual where they might have something to brag about.

For the last three Sundays, our pastor has brought a football with him to the pulpit.  He uses football metaphors to describe things like, “how to receive from God,” where the football is the blessing and God is the quarterback.  No one around here has ever thought, it seems, that football metaphors smacked even subtly of impiety, as football is important stuff to the people of Mississippi  — native son Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre is probably the most celebrated celebrity in the whole state, equivalent to J-Lo and Derek Jeter combined for the Bronx.  Yet  I look from pew to pew and see how happy people are, and I recognize that some people smiling haven’t had much to smile about for a while.  Unlike New Yorkers, I note that people suffer around here in silence.  New Yorkers like to mouth off.  Here, they just wait for an excuse — like a football game — to scream.

The propagation of “Who Dat” as a fight song in no way challenged preconceived notions about intellectual capacity of African-Amerricans.   “Who Dat” is not a Barak Obama speech.  That said, football is not an exercise in intellectual capacity.  Americans distrust egg-heads, even though eggs are shaped a bit  like footballs.  In the Northeast, these days, we have examples of white people adopting the songs of the urban working class and underclass African-Americans.  Any teenage white boy in high school chanting back the rap of Fifty Cent is doing that, largely oblivious to the racial implications of what he’s doing.  I have heard white boys in Brooklyn call each other the N-word.  To them, it means “friend” in a street-friendly manner.

So with a black Harvard-educated president and a bunch of white street thugs calling themselves the “N” word, perhaps the nation is ready for a chorus of  “Who Dat.”  Perhaps the people of the gulf states have had enough trouble without  a carpet bagger like me questioning their intentions here.  People are happy around me, even though the ritual that excites them baffles me.  We all need all the reasons to celebrate that we can find.  There is even a new hybrid “Who Dat” Saints fight song that seems to be a hybrid of African-American and Cajun dialect.  It’s called, “In Da Supabeauxl” by Misty and the Moonpie Kings.  A complex and hybridized view would be all inclusive, making fun of no group, except, possibly, the Colts, who are, I am told, going down.   So long live the strange gumbo of this song and its questionable etymology.   Who dat?  Apparently all of us, all of us are we dat say who dat.

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