I always wondered where I came from, and why my pa—the man I didn’t want to know or understand—was only in my life halfway. He never even tried to lie or pretend our relationship was based on love, in some pitiful way. And then, one day right there on the third pew, three seats in, I finally broke the silence. I remember that day like it was just last Sunday, but it was an Easter Sunday so many years ago.
“Is the Spirit in the house today? Is the Spirit in the house today? My children of God, is the Spirit in this house today?” Pastor Smiley started yelling as soon as he entered the church through the front door. His long white robe almost hit the ground, his hair was already matted with sweat, and his big white teeth shined as though he’d seen the Lord’s glorious shadow even before the hot Sunday sun rose that day.
It seemed odd to me that there were always, roughly speaking, seventy worshipers every Sunday. It didn’t matter whether it was Christmas, Holy Week, rainy season, or just a hot summer Sunday. It was never too crowded, never too full, and we always got there about fifteen minutes early so we could take our favorite seats—left side of the center aisle, three pews from the front, and the first three seats next to the aisle—in case my mallie needed to move around during the long Sunday ordeal.
After Mary Margaret became an avid follower, she took the second seat and I moved over one. It wasn’t always easy to hold that middle seat. Somebody always felt the need to crowd and squeeze us into two spots. Having an empty seat in a packed church could cause some disruption, however minor it was. But over time, we won out and those three seats were ours.
Once inside and seated, it always felt like we were burning up. It didn’t matter what the temperature was outside. There was no air conditioning to enjoy, and the three large fans that hung down from the pointed ceiling did only one thing well: they stirred up hot air and dust. The rain never seemed to fit, either; it always started just as we finished and set out to walk back home.
That Easter Sunday, it was hot enough to cook us all, and church was just getting started. “Is the Spirit in the house today? Is the Spirit in the house today? I’ll say it again, one more time. Is the Spirit in this house today? Now talk to me, children. The Lord has risen.”
Like most other Sundays, my mallie rolled her eyes and said, “Pastor’s been in the medicine again. Lord have mercy…it will take him forever to get the preaching out today, and I don’t have time for all this waiting.”
Seemed like the women could never understand what was wrong with him or what medicine he took before preaching, but Pastor Smiley would not move from the front door until he heard a roar coming from the crowd, no matter how already overheated the crowd was on that day. It was as if he were deciding whether to walk all the way in or turn and walk away if needed, if he felt the Spirit of the Lord was not mighty enough. But he never walked away from a preaching. He just wasn’t the type. He was too pushy.
“Now I want you to tell me, ‘Yes, the Spirit is in the house today,’ or we all might as well go home. Now let me hear it. Is the Spirit in the house today? Is the Spirit in the house today? I said, ‘Is the Spirit in this house today’? After the third time, the roar came from the congregation. “Yes! The Spirit is in the house today,” we shouted. But I could have told him the first time. The only Spirit I knew about was sitting between Gracie and me.
I loved singing in church; we sang old Gospel songs in what the church called Evangelical English. We didn’t use songbooks. The choir, most of the time with more men than in the pews, would line the verses and the congregation would just repeat. Before Pastor Smiley took the floor, we always sang two songs. First was a traditional Bantu song. I didn’t care for those at all, but Mary Margaret loved them. The other was in old Evangelical English, my favorite.
I would have been happy to stick to the music and skip the preaching. But that’s not how it works in African churches. Sermons can go on for hours, depending on the message, and some Sundays, I almost didn’t make it through to hearing the invitational hymn. But that day, as Pastor Smiley reminded us it was Easter, he added that he was going to preach about trust and honesty. My head rose up and I listened to every word.
“Now I know it is Easter Sunday, and we all want to hear the Good News. But the Resurrection has to wait today. We got more important business to take care of.”
Blasphemy! mostly everyone in church that day must have wanted to yell out. But none did because they knew Pastor Smiley did everything for a reason. They knew if Pastor Smiley saw fit to alter the very essence of Christianity’s greatest holy day to save a soul, then he would do it. You could have heard a pin drop as he spoke.
“The precious words in Psalms tell us: ‘No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house; no one who speaks falsely will stand in my presence.’ Now listen to these words carefully, my children, for the Good Book tells us to live simple and honest. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Don’t try to deceive or spread false words. Be honest, kind, and good to yourself and those you love. For honesty and truth will certainly set you free.
Yes. Yes. Yes. Brothers and Sisters, can I get an ‘Amen’? Can I get a ‘Praise the Lord’?” Pastor Smiley’s voice boomed over the congregation as if his life depended on it. “Amen, amen, amen. It is so good to hear those words. Praise the Lord. It is right to read the Scripture and praise His word.”
The more tribal-looking worshipers always sat in the back, nearest to the door. But by the end of the first reading that Easter Sunday, they were already standing up and ready to shout at the first calling. I only know the church I grew up in, so I often wondered whether other churches were like mine—in America, Europe, in the rest of Christian Africa. Did the missionaries teach them well? Did they have this shouting, drums, songs, and prayers? Partially, I suspected. A little bit of research made me think I would be comfortable in any of America’s Evangelical churches. We heard from committed missionaries who were dedicated to their testimony and sought to make everyone’s lives like their own—boring and barely alive outside the church, and alive and kicking inside.
But that Easter Sunday, church was anything but boring as I dissected every aspect of the first, second, and third readings. It took almost an hour, but I finally felt it swelling up inside me. Yes, it was time for someone to be honest with me. Pastor Smiley was only too happy to crack that door. I was ready to tear it down.
“Now, I know it is hot in here today. I know you’re getting hungry, restless, and ready to get outside, and get some food in your bellies. But, my brothers and sisters, we got to lay these lies out. Let them out of our hearts. We got to let go of them and not let ’em come back, for certainly it’s the devil at work if we don’t clean up our messes. Now, I want you to hold hands and look at each other. If you’ve lied to a partner, family member, or friend…I want you to come clean. I want you to let it out and let it go. We don’t want the devil’s work around here no more.”
I was naïve, but even I knew what Pastor Smiley was about to open up. I saw him look around and wait—two seconds, maybe ten. Soon the silence would break and the firestorm would begin. It was a black church, so if you called for a firestorm, it would certainly come. I looked around too, and as best I could tell, most eyes were on the Pantry Six and a few of the tribal women in the back.
You could have heard a pin drop when I closed my Bible and finally spoke up. I looked up at my mallie and said just five words: “Is Mary Margaret my mallie?”
I felt their stares on me. Caddie One and Caddie Two on my right, with Louise, Elsie, Candace, and Sallie Mae in the pew in front of us. Even Sallie Mae sat there with an “I sure didn’t see this coming” look. I was certain she was delighted because the attention was off her. Instead, it was on the woman sitting to the right of me. I’d been taught not to air secrets in public, especially in front of a lot of self-righteous church folks. Hypocrite or not, you just don’t do it. That’s why nobody knew about my pa and his comings and goings. My mallie could walk into church with a black eye and swollen chin, but she’d hold her head high and keep a stiff upper lip. This time was no different. “Now hush your mouth, Anna,” she said to me. “We’ll talk about this when we get home.” Airing grievances was not going to work for her today. Airing grievances never worked for her.
But it seemed like the need for truth and honesty was in the air that day. Pastor Smiley felt the need to speak out again. “Everybody stand up and hold your neighbors’ hands and tell them you love them. Hold them like you love them and say it like you mean it.”
As echoes of, “I love you,” and “I love you, too” sounded across the room, Pastor Smiley let out a loud sigh of relief. “Ah…How does it feel to be held? How does it feel to be loved? Now tell me. Doesn’t it feel great?” Pastor Smiley asked as he slowly worked the room. I could tell he had his own need for affirmation, for people to say, “Yes, Pastor Smiley. Amen, alleluia,” between every word of comfort he spoke. But those words couldn’t come from me.
“Look at me. Both of you, look at me. Why didn’t you tell me the truth?” I shouted. I remember Pastor Smiley looked directly at me for a second, then at my mallie two seats down, and next, at the empty center seat. Confusion showed on his face. “Miss Anna, is it too hot for you? Do you need some water? Sister Candace, go get this child some water. Sister Louise, go light up the smoke stick. Sister Elsie, you go light that unity candle. We got a real situation. We need to get this place smoking or we may lose this child. We got a real serious situation here. She’s seeing spirits.”
“I don’t need water. I need the truth,” I yelled, stopping Candace in her tracks, and that is when Caddie One and Caddie Two tried to take my hands. “And I don’t need the smoke stick and unity candle. Tell me. Is Mary Margaret my real mallie?”
The unity candle and a heavy hand on the organ were common in our church. I’d seen the smoke stick, in perfect sync with the candle and the organ—only two or three times. They say the tradition of using the smoke stick comes from the bush. Some say it came from Pastor Smiley’s ancestors; some say it’s as old as the San people, and others say it was the people who killed out the San people—and brought the stick with them. I could see a little of each in Pastor Smiley. He was short like the San people and dark-skinned like the first of the Bantu. His pa and grandpa were like that too. They all did crazed preaching deep inside the bush, on the side. And sometimes they’d bring the bush inside the church.
Usually, they brought the smoke stick into the church when someone’s partner was caught cheating or when someone’s children got some demon up inside of them. Those few experiences showed me that—unlike the white folks who quietly walk in and out of church—during trials and tribulations, privacy meant nothing in the Lost Coin Evangelical Missionary Church. In that church, and many others, I suspect, everyone appears to be a part of the solution.
“Tell that child the truth,” Elsie chimed in. “Colored or not, she don’t deserve to be lied to.” She nodded her head towards the other five elders, gesturing for them to echo her philosophy.
“Amen, sister. Amen, sister. Tell it like it is. Let the truth be told.” The verbal prods sang out behind and in front of me.
Finally, Pastor Smiley reined things in by repeating his main reading. “For he who works to deceive shall not dwell in His house; he who tells lies shall not tarry in His sight.”
And then finally, I heard the words from Gracie, my very own mallie, which I should have already heard. “I am not your mallie. Mary Margaret is your mum.” The change from Afrikaner to English was heard, along with gasps throughout the small church.
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