Disclaimer: This piece contains language not usually used in my posts, as I find them personally offensive. But in the re-telling of this true story, I told it as it happened, verbatim. If the words offend or shock you, they should. Please understand the intent behind them in the re-telling.
I never thought I'd need an exorcist in the southern church of the deep dark south. The year was 1994 and I was used to all things sanctimoniously proper - or so I thought - until a request to sing a revival service changed my need to find a new fluffy dress to the need for one with pockets to hide the vampire cross and anointing oil. All things considered, snake oil might have come in handy as well.
“My husband hasn’t been to church in years. But he said he’d come to revival next week with me if you’d sing. He heard you at the wedding last week. It would mean a lot to me. Will you do it?“
How could I refuse? It clearly held importance for my friend and co-worker. I had to say yes. So she made arrangements with her pastor and all was set. How many songs? I asked. Enough for twenty minutes. You are the “special music” (I wondered why all the rest of the music wasn’t “special” but whatever).
After a long winding search through country roads in the middle of nowhere, we finally found the place. A huge brick building with a tall white steeple, reeking of old money and defiantly out of place with a cornfield blazing across a 2-lane highway.
Before the service, as is tradition in most Southern Baptist churches, we found a room for prayer to bless the evening. Twelve deacons, a pastor, and me... in the bowels of the big old Baptist church of the south.
I sat waiting for further instructions.
Good little girl that I was.
Pay attention. That phrase will swiftly re-emerge.
So there I am. Thirteen holy men of God and little ole’ me. Ready to sing. Ready to render. Ready to pray. Excited about my selections and happy to be there for my friend.
We held hands. We (they) prayed. I listened. I said an ever so faint amen at the end as was my custom. One of them gave me a funny look. Mental note: Do not say amen out loud. It was an uncomfortable moment. Okay. Shake it off.
But I soon learned that amen boldness apparently comes only in gender fashion. Behold.
The preacher sported a polyester red and black plaid suit. Complete with gold buttons.
It was loud.
It was obnoxious. It was loud. Just loud. Tacky loud.
But I was not the fashion police, I was there to sing.
Here’s where Mimi gets the shock of her life in the old money church of the southern persuasion. As the thirteen loud and boisterous back-slapping men opened the door for me to enter the hallway outside, after head-nodding prayers and amens to the amens to the amens, one of the deacons asked the preacher where he got his coat.
He said and I quote, “I got it off a nigger.”
I’d just held hand-holding heavenly court with all of them.
I suddenly wanted to wash my hands.
“Oh God,” they’d prayed loudly and ceremoniously, "bless this service and bless this singer and bless us with your presence in this revival so that souls may be saved.”
Fat chance, I thought. I don‘t think Jesus is going to darken this door tonight. Pun, oh yes, intended.
So I climbed the lily white stairs with thirteen bigots and found myself facing a 500-seat sanctuary congregation of waiting trusting faces. Every pew was full.
So was every pocket.
My friends and co-workers were waiting. My then-husband in his starched white Sunday shirt and windpipe-squeezing black tie sat ready to push PLAY in the sound booth which looked at least five miles away from me in the back of the church. Through a glass booth I could see him at the end of an aisle of well-dressed strangers.
I thought of mouthing H-E-L-P in the sea of faces before me.
Strange how my mind travels at times.
Had a promise to my friend not been hanging in the balance I would have turned coattail and ran out the back door. But they were waiting and I was going to deliver.
The red-coated one took his pretty pious seat with the red-cushioned covering in the high and mighty pulpit of the saints. Large green Bible in hand.
I just tried to look pretty and digest the disgusting guffaws I'd heard in the stairwell, wondering how in the world I was going to open my mouth and let Jesus out. He didn't belong here.
I was sick to my stomach.
So with hate on his lips and Jesus in his heart, he introduced me. For at least twenty minutes I would have a captive audience - a waiting crew of congregation sitting in bondaged pews of unsuspecting bigotry, putting their trust in thirteen leaders who discriminated loudly in the hidden places of prayer and staunchly scorned in silent rebuke any ounce of free thought or progress so much so that a woman couldn't utter a proper amen.
This is where Mimi goes awry.
Now everyone knows that you can’t sing a set for 20 minutes and say nothing in between songs. That's positively absurd. I had notes. Well researched notes. Thoughts that segued into the next number, very short snippets of life experience, a plan, a purpose. I intended to execute that plan to the best of my ability.
After the first song I began to explain what that song meant to me and introduce the next one. This is what one does in such venues. I'd done it many times. It was not preachy. Simply stated. From the heart.
I noticed the red coat ever-so-itchingly behind me. Did I hear a sigh from him? There was a whole lot of squirming going on. Shuffling of the holy shod feet. Pointed shined shoes turned this way and that in the deacon’s chair off my left shoulder. Something was not right.
I could tell and I sensed it in the congregation.
Scripture to back up song 1
I took the microphone, inhaled. And then I saw the audaciously coated man get up behind me.
He took the microphone from my hand.
And I quote,
“That will be all tonight, Little Lady. We don’t have time for you to sing all your songs this evening. The guest speaker came all the way from South Carolina and he’s not going to have time to finish his sermon. You can have a seat now.“
No one moved. No one breathed. Except me.
I took my prissy self and descended the steps in the deep dark church of the south and sat down. Front row. Gazing at the man of God in charge. I found his eyes. He found mine. What will you say, I thought.
Could it be any worse than what I’ve already heard?
This is where Mr. Holy Man with the white sheet personality goes awry in front of the following flock of the faithful and doomed.
The guest preacher did not speak as promised - not right away anyway. First we all had to endure a mini-sermon from the racist in charge about how women are not meant to “speak in the church” and their only function is to teach Sunday school to the children and it is never ever allowed for a woman to “quote Scripture” in the church.
“It is not her place,“ he said.
And then he threw the Mary Magdalene lie.
A woman, according to him, of ill-repute and most grievous affliction and one to be held up as a warning to all women in the 20th century as a model of what happens to women who don’t fall down willingly at the feet of their men groveling and worshiping at their shiny feet and blood-stained hands.
Of course, he wasn’t talking to me.
You could almost smell the sin.
Everyone in that sanctuary could see that my pencil skirt had been publicly scathed.
I secretly smiled.
Mary Magdalene was, and still is, my favorite Biblical character - a decidedly bold and beloved disciple of Jesus, so the historians say, and a source of inspiration and endless fascination to me. She knew what it meant to walk in the middle of the church of the deep dark. She knew passion and penance and scathing rebuke.
She knew love out loud and she lived it all.
She was the first person reportedly to see the resurrected Christ; not the deacons, not the men disciples, not his mother. Mary.
Who was I to argue with the comparison?
After all, I'm just a woman.
Mary was my hero.
But I knew she had no place in his gospel.
A gospel sanctioned by the big Bible he carried under the "nigger coat."
I breathed in the ignorance.
I let out the anger.
It just made me damn sad.
There were 500 unsuspecting souls in that church who knew not that their beloved-man-of-many-useless-words had made the vile statement on the way up the stairs - with much delight - carrying generations of white coated bigotry under his too tight belt and a smirk of satisfying ignorance that could only live and breathe in deep-seated fundamental hatred. And what, pray tell, had threatened him? A quiet amen and forbidden scriptures on the lips of a female singer he'd only hired to sing. What a head shaking state of affairs. The Gospel of Jesus Christ flowed off the tip of his evil tongue in scripted word only. It never translated anything close to the peaceful Gospel of Jesus Christ. Of that I am sure.
And I, as the red-lipped Mary Magdalene incarnate right before him, had ruffled his nauseatingly hypocritical truth right down to his coat of many colors.
What did he expect me to do? Run screaming in repentance to the altar? Hardly. Neither did I take it to heart. I made sure my front row seat was close enough for him to spit on.
After the service, my friend was in tears. She was horribly embarrassed. For her church, her family, her husband, the visitors, for me. She was angry and she later let him know it. As a result, several of her family members who‘d witnessed the spectacle left that congregation. I knew that perhaps the contention with me was not the first verbal atrocity they‘d seen.
Why didn’t you just walk out?”
It wasn‘t my first experience with close-mindedness. I grew up in the south in the sixties.
“Because I wanted to hear everything he had to say and I wanted him to say it right in front of me.
I’d like to think Jesus showed up that night. My friend said her husband had been moved to tears by the lyrics in the second song. For that reason alone, it was worth the sad climb with the party of twelve good ole' boys disguised as deacons.
Hell fire. It was time to go.
Just one more thing to do before my snippy heels wiped my feet on the washed-in-the-blood-red carpet out the door.
I washed my hands.
Little Lady that I am.