THE BLACKS AND THE FEW COLOREDS WHOM WE KNEW SAID MY MALLIE WAS THE FIRST WHITE PERSON TO JOIN THE BLACK CHURCH JUST DOWN OUR DIRT ROAD. I called it the “muddy road” church. During the rainy season, it always seemed worse than it probably was, but I don’t recall a Sunday when it wasn’t rainy. Mud puddles covered the tiny back road where the church stood. It stood about a quarter-mile down another muddy road, and by the time we got there every Sunday, it seemed like our low sides were covered in mud. But that didn’t bother my mallie. She just said, “Hush up, baby girl. We need the rain every time God sends it to us.”
We called it a church, but from the outside, it looked like just another falling-down shack. On the inside, though, it was beautiful—white and meticulously kept. You couldn’t find a speck of dirt on the floor, pews, or windowsills. The older women of the church cleaned it as though it was their own, and everyone who entered knew the rules. On Sundays, the church was full, at least as full as the building would allow—thirty or so worshipers on one side of the aisle and thirty or so worshipers on the other, twelve women in the choir, and two male elders anchoring the preacher man. Yes, the Lost Coin Evangelical Missionary Church on North Lower Side Road in Kimberley, South Africa, was a remarkable sight.
“Get up. Get up. Time to go to church,” I remember my mallie saying every Sunday morning. “Christians, and there are many of us, love to go to church,” she’d always remind me. “It is part of who we are. It bonds us to our past, helps us know where we come from and where we are going. And it separates us from all the others,” she would say. My mallie would not hear of any other way, especially from my pa.
He struck my mallie every Sunday when she and I returned from church. I was just a young girl, but I still remember those hateful words. “Why do you go to that kaffir church?” he would yell at her with his fist high in the air. “They don’t even like coloreds in that church. Why do you insist on going when you know they don’t want you there? Jesus is embarrassed. He does not want our kind to praise him in that church.” He’d say all this as soon as we took our first step onto the front porch.
It didn’t matter, though, because my mallie always had a reply ready. “You can bad-mouth me and you can beat me, but don’t you dare bad-mouth the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” she’d yell back. “Those are fighting words. You can be a demon roaming these roads at night, but not around my little Anna, and not around me. I’m going to be in heaven one day and so is Anna. If you want, you can just stay right here in Kimberley with the rest of those dirty drunks.”
Through it all, my mallie remained strong. She took a beating on Sunday afternoons, then got up the next Sunday, and we’d go back to church just as proud as we’d been the Sunday before. She dressed me up in my finest clothes, which meant the same dress and shoes every week. We went in empty every Sunday and came out full as could be, praising the Son all the way home.
But that changed when Mary Margaret arrived, at least for a while. From the start, my mallie didn’t miss an opportunity to share the Gospel’s Good News with Mary Margaret. She couldn’t help it that her parents had shared the Gospel with her when she was a child, using the very same tactics. “Heathens, those dark non-believers, will take time, but even the most stubborn of them will eventually see the light,” my mallie would say, looking squarely at Mary Margaret.
I’m not sure whether Mary Margaret knew what it meant to be called a heathen, but the talk sent plenty of words back and forth between her and my mallie. It was as if Mary Margaret was plain scared to walk into that church. It was as though she thought hell would freeze or heaven would burn. And, just like those earlier battles in the kitchen and garden, my pa must have thought he had a better understanding of the church, as he saw Mary Margaret put up such a fight. He probably imagined the two of them finally teaming up on something, but he was a fool and his foolish ways got him nothing.
Then, like a miracle right out of the Bible, Mary Margaret finally caved in one day. It all started with a simple lesson on forgiveness. “God will forgive you for whatever you did back in Johannesburg.” My mallie finally came out and said it. “All you have to do is accept Him as your Savior. He will wash you of all your sins and you will be clean and spotless as a lamb.”
“You mean wash me in the blood of the lamb,” Mary Margaret responded. “You buy into all that talk?” she asked.
“I sure do,” my mallie replied.
Now, my mallie could go on for days—at least with those she cared about. I suspect she tried to win over my pa’s soul, but finally gave up or simply stopped caring about him. But she didn’t give up with Mary Margaret. “It’s too late for me. It is all finished for me,” Mary Margaret tried to justify.
But my mallie would not hear of such talk. “You are still with us. Your spirit is still with us. So it is not too late. God can still forgive you.”
“But what will all those people say? What will the preacher man say?”
My mallie replied as if she already knew Mary Margaret’s next rebuttal and was just waiting to answer. “God will forgive you. You’ll sit between Anna and me. No one will bother you, I promise. Not even Pastor Smiley and those loud-mouthed, nosy women up front will have anything to say while I am there.”
Our bodies call for spiritual healing even more than sleep and food. It was clear that Mary Margaret needed all the spiritual healing she could get; it just took Gracie to force it upon her at first.
“Enough is enough,” Mary Margaret finally said. “Hell…I’d rather die believing than die fighting off your mallie,” she said to me one Saturday. The next morning, she walked right into the kitchen, ready to go to church.
“It’s a miracle!” my mallie cried out in pure joy.
Yes, we were an interesting trio at church on Sundays: Mary Margaret in the middle, me on one side, and my mallie on the other. Looking back, when Mary Margaret showed up on our front porch, everything changed. But my pa must have thought he had one last chance to keep her out, however small it was. Her moving in with us threatened his safe haven. In his lonely, isolated world, it was his household. He was the boss and he intended to keep it that way. I still laugh about it sometimes. God bless his hateful soul. He tried so hard to keep us separated by the only wall he had left…the church. He must have known the end was near when Mary Margaret finally said, “Come on, and let’s go to church. I want to see what all this fuss is about.”
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