11 August 2004

"Everything happens in the church."

The church inside was as plain and neat as it was outside. It had newish blond hardwood pews and a fawn-colored carpet. At the end of the hall, on a dais, was the choir, with a pianist on either side. The men of the choir, in the back row, were in suits; the women and girls, in the three front rows, were in gold gowns. So that it was like a local and smaller version of what we had been seeing on the television in Hetty's sitting room.

At the back of the choir, at the back of the girls in gold and the men in dark suits, was a large, oddly transparent-looking painting of the baptism of Christ: the water blue, the riverbanks green. The whiteness of Christ and the Baptist was a surprise. (As much a surprise as, the previous night, in the house of the old retired black teacher, the picture of Jesus Christ had been: a bearded figure, looking like General Custer in Little Big Man.) But perhaps the surprise or incongruity lay only in my eyes, the whiteness of Jesus being as much an iconographical element as the blueness of the gods in the Hindu pantheon, or the Indianness of the first Buddhist missionary, Daruma, in Japanese art.

The singing ended. It was time for "Reports, Announcements, and Recognition of Visitors." The short black man in a dark suit who announced this--not the pastor--spoke the last word in an extraordinary way, breaking the word up into syllables and then, as though to extract the last bit of flavor from the word, giving a mighty stress to the final syllable, saying something like "vee-zee-TORRS."

He spoke, and waited for declarations. One man got up and said he had come from Philadelphia; he had come back to see some of his family. Then Hetty stood up, in her flat blue hat and pink dress. She looked at us and then addressed the man in the dark suit. We were friends of her son, she said. He was outside somewhere. She explained Jimmy's tieless and jacketless appearance, and asked forgiveness for it.

We got up then, I first, Jimmy after me, and announced ourselves as the man from Philadelphia had done. A pale woman in one of the front rows turned around and said to us that she too was from New York; she welcomed us as people from New York. It was like a binding together, I thought. And when, afterwards, the man in the dark suit spoke of brothers and sisters, the words seemed to have a more than formal meaning.

The brass basin for the collection was passed up and down the pews. (The figure for the previous week's collection, a little over $350, was given in the order of service.) The pastor, a young man with a clear, educated voice, asked us to meditate on the miracle of Easter. To help us, he called on the choir.

The leader of the choir, a big woman, adjusted the microphone. And after this small, delicate gesture, there was passion. The hymn was "What About Me?" There was hand-clapping from the choir, and swaying. One man stood up in the congregation--he was in a brown suit--and he clapped and sang. A woman in white, with a white hat, got up and sang. So I began to feel the pleasures of the religious meeting: the pleasures of brotherhood, union, formality, ritual, clothes, music, all combining to create a possibility of ecstasy.

It was the formality--derived by these black people from so many sources--that was the surprise; and the idea of community.

Someone else in a suit got up and spoke to the congregation after the black man in the dark suit had spoken. "This is a great day," the new speaker said. "This is the day the Lord rose. He rose for everybody." There were constant subdued cries of "Amen!" from the congregation. The speaker said, "A lot of people better off than we are didn't have this privilege."

Finally the educated young pastor in his elegant gown with two red crosses spoke. "Jesus had to pray. We have to pray. Jesus had to cry. We have to cry.... God has been so good to us. He has given us a second chance."

Torture and tears, luck and grief: these were the motifs of this religion, this binding, this consoling union--union the unexpected, moving idea to me. And, as in Muslim countries, I understood the power a preacher might have.

As Howard said afterwards, as he and Jimmy and I were walking back to the house, "Everything happens in the church."

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 14-15

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