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 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.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.