Names have been changed.
I carry my father’s King James Bible in a thick brown leather case while he shakes hands with his fellow deacons: bright-suited, silver-toothed, slow-tongued men who marvel at my height, my walk, my face. “So grown!” they say, looking at me, talking to my father. They’ve never learned my name, and I don’t remember theirs. Inside the neighborly love their Lord demands, an honest gift: complete indifference, a cold pit hard as gold.
On Sundays, I concede. Sure, a dress. Sure, hair sizzled and beaten, slicked and pinned down as down goes. Sure, the Lord has a day and a house. I am of a people, and on Sundays, we church.
The men—shoulder-pad broad, Jheri-curled tall—take their place in the front pew. I hand off my father’s Bible and teeter on Sunday heels to the very last row where my mother sits quietly, shaking no hands, speaking to no one. Her lipstick, a drugstore berry, spills from her lips as if stretching to cover the rest of her unmade face, to finish the job my mother refused. As the churchgoers greet, she busies herself, smoothing her skirt crease with her palm, her whole body rocking with each slow stroke.
I remember one Sunday, instead of ironing our clothes, my mother stayed in bed all morning. “I love God,” she said to me, covers pulled to her chin, “but I can’t stand church folks. They’ll say all kinds of things about you, then smile right in your face. Talk about being blessed but don’t do nothin’ worth blessin’.” The next Sunday, instead of hurrying to the car after service, she stayed to greet the church mothers, elder women in fluorescent suits with hats to match. As they hugged, I watched my mother roll balled-up bills into their pockets—twenty dollars, fifty dollars, whatever she knew they needed.
I sit next to her, pick up the church bulletin, and wait for the show—a rousing tribute to the Lord, our God. My obligation. My birthright.
Blessed Way Baptist Church first belonged to Charlie Tubb, my mother’s father, who died four months before I was born. He left the church to his namesake and first child. My mother tells three stories of this brother.
The time when, in front of all the neighborhood kids, he reported a cackle-filled prophesy from the Lord that her daughter would be just as cross-eyed and ugly as her.
The time, after months thought lost and gone, he came home and dropped his pants at the doorway, crying for help as his junk skittered with crabs.
The time he finally wore through her good Christian nerves, and she picked up a fat, orange extension cord, beating him until he pissed himself. (At this point, she’d smile: “And he never called me ugly again.”)
When he appears—my uncle, Pastor Charlie Tubb Jr.—the whole congregation leaps to their feet. He waves, and his thick, gold rings gleam beneath the bright altar lights. His face shines across two giant screens hanging from the ceiling. Directly between these screens, the humble, mighty cross. Beneath this cross, in the flesh, our God’s favored messenger.
“Praise the Lord, saints!” he bellows, as if hurrying us to make a wish, birthday cake ablaze in his outstretched hands.
The congregation of thousands blows out every candle. “Praise the Lord!”
Years ago, no more than one hundred of us squeezed into a wood-panelled church filled with metal folding chairs and leaky pipes. For two decades, on the corner of 63rd and Middle, amongst the stringy innards of a starved city, my uncle served up a hearty gospel to the poorest and blackest, promising justice in the next life if we practiced patience and forgiveness today. If we tithed—if we spared 10 percent of our nothing—then the Lord would provide for us in return.
I grew up here, watching grown adults throw frightful tantrums, feral with praise. Speaking in tongues, stomping on the devil, these once-docile pew mates untethered themselves from this world and sprinted down the aisle in communion with the Lord.
I knew one day I would join them. I waited to be chosen. I said my amens. I reread Bible verses alone, aloud, a patient vessel for this celestial ecstasy. But the Lord either saw me unfit to visit—or it was that other thing, that lightless tunnel, that labyrinth turned endless maze.
Built on the other side of Middle Street, the new church dwarfs the old, taking up a whole city block long and wide. My parents raised me twenty miles away, among Orthodox Jews and Christmas Catholics, nestled in a big house surrounded by hundred-year-old trees. From his pulpit, where my uncle blamed citywide unemployment on fornicators, gamblers, and addicts, I looked around at my new neighbors, repenting for their bad liquor and good sex, and felt ashamed. I had passed on every drink, but I heard no voice. I had refused to touch the girl, naked and slick with want, but I felt no spirit.
From the back row, I watch my father, with great care, peel crisp bills from a thick wad and triple the collection plate’s haul. For this, Pastor Tubb declared in front of the whole congregation, our family would be truly blessed.
At the ninety-minute mark, my uncle, on a roll and breathless, strips down to his soaked-through undershirt, his suit jacket collected by a deacon assigned this weekly task. The choir, still recovering from their second encore, gets picked off by the spirit and falls to the floor, one by one, until down to their last good soprano, now duty-bound to resist a surely liberating fit. Everyone is fanning themselves or speaking in tongues or shouting, “Amen,” except me and the quiet, floral-clad churchgoer next to me, nodding her head, approving the scene. She stands sturdy in her heels, like she wears them every day. I don’t know her name. I’ve known her my whole life.
A young brother on lap eight of a sweaty sprint snatches this neighbor, pulling her away from me and into the aisle. In an instant, she begins seizing, her face awash with tears. From her mouth, a sharpened sword aimed at me: Hallelujah!
The sprinter leaves us, his task complete, the worshipper freed.
Do they think I’m the devil? A fear, manmade and familiar, stills me. Do they smell my good weed, my bad sex, and see Eve’s apple overripe and stinking? Do they wish to kick their pastor’s niece out of this garden, far from this tree? Wordless, they’ve agreed on the lowest of sinners. Not the addict. Not the fornicator. The nonbeliever.
I turn to my mother, who flinches at my gaze. She knows I hear no voice. She knows I feel no spirit. Does she think I’m the devil? The organ marches up a staggering scale and swells. The choir pushes a chord to its cliff and the congregation falls to its knees, pleads jump . Here, my mother offers her loudest Amen, her clapping hands summoning all her clout with her Lord to please visit her daughter, to do what he needed—make me cross-eyed and ugly, poor and parasitic, soaked in my own piss, if that’s what saves my soul.