Photo: An old church outside of Potlatch, Idaho.
[The following is an excerpt from my memoir in progress…]
The preacher stood at the pulpit with his sweat stained armpits cocked towards the heavens. His hands snatched at the air in a pleading gesture. He shouted of fire and brimstone, Hell and damnation, Sodom and Gomorrah. His striped tie was slung over his left shoulder like a noose and the veins in his neck surged fat with blood. With his deep red face on the verge of explosion, he spewed his verbal tirade without taking a breath. Hours had passed since the Revival began. I felt spellbound and at the same time afraid. My eyes were fixated on this strange, plump, gray-haired man with the southern accent as he hopped around the stage and made claim to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ himself. All around me echoed “Hallelujah’s!” and “Amen’s!”
One by one they formed a line to the stage; the young, the old, the rich, the derelict. All seemed to carry some secret internal pain that required cleansing. The preacher’s wife began to sing “Amazing Grace” in a sweet falsetto voice that could only be matched by that of an angel. My twelve-year-old mind struggled to make sense of the scene before me. As each one of the lonely, the sad and the weary reached the preacher he would place his hand on their forehead and ask them to repent. The congregation shouted “Thank you Jesus!” and he pushed them back into the arms of two burly men in dark jackets who laid them to rest on the cold tile floor.
The church smelled of cheap aftershave, poor oral hygiene and sweat. Before long, there were bodies everywhere. Some lay motionless as if sleeping. Some prayed out loud. Some muttered a strange language that sounded of Pig Latin and Greek. Then there were the few who cursed and spat and writhed in anger. They were the ones surrounded by hands bearing Bibles and crosses outstretched. Unbearably annoyed at this holy intrusion, they tried desperately to raise to their feet but the two burly men would hold their shoulders as crosses pressed dents in their foreheads. The preacher had them straddled, nose to nose, his forehead dripping sweat. With increased fervor he yelled into their faces and declared they harbored Demons. Chaos erupted inside the Four Square Gospel Indian Mission Church and I was frozen in my seat.
I had come to this revival at the invitation of my eighth grade science teacher who was also leading a youth Bible study. My friend and her mom picked me up and drove me to the church. The service began like any other with singing and prayer and a few verses read from the Bible. Before long I could hear the low, steady drone of gibberish all around me. My friend explained these people were speaking in “tongues”. As I looked around the sanctuary people of all ages had their eyes closed and their hands raised up towards the ceiling in a tearful conversation with something or someone I could not see.
The shouts and music became louder and I was soon swept up in the emotion. I joined the line and moved along towards the preacher feeling strangely sinful and unclean. My knees shook and my stomach rumbled as we shuffled our way towards the stage. When I finally reached the front, the preacher’s eyes pierced my own as he laid his sweaty palm on my forehead. He pushed me back hard and I stumbled into the strong hands of the men in black suits who carried me to the floor. I couldn’t move. Every fear filled moment in my life seemed to swell up inside of me and break to the surface of my brain. My heart raced and my mouth went dry as a group of strange faces peered down at me. I had no idea why I was laying here on the floor and wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do next. Everything inside of me wanted to run but I felt paralyzed from fear. The same fear I experienced on a nightly basis in my own home as my father would leer down at me from above my bed. This church was supposed to be a safe place for me to escape, yet in that moment while God bore silent witness, I felt as if I was once again being violated against my will. I had walked to the front on my own two feet, but I felt drawn there somehow not by choice, but by obedience to this frenetic, angry man.
I remember the circle of angry red faces above me and the sweat that gleamed on their foreheads as they screamed for the devil to vacate my paralyzed body. They shouted names like “Beelzebub” and “Baal” and ordered them to leave in the name of Jesus. The hot, putrid breath of a heavyset woman spilled in and out onto my face as she locked her eyes within inches of my own. Several men pinned my arms down and someone was sitting on my legs as I writhed and tried to get this woman away from me. She shouted, “I see the devil in her eyes! You venomous viper! Release her now! In the name of God Almighty we rebuke you Satan!” It was at that moment that I felt my stomach begin to lurch. If she did not move away from me soon, I knew I would vomit in her face. All it took was one more exhale of her wretched breath into my nostrils and my evening supper spewed across her torso and onto the man in the black suit who pinned my left arm.
“Hallelujah! Praise Jesus!” my circle of captors exclaimed. Wiping her floral dress with a hankie, the woman once again came close to my face and demanded that I repeat her words. “I rebuke you Satan and all of your demons!” she shouted, “Now say it!” I stared up at her with large terrified eyes as my stomach began to lurch again. “Say it!” she commanded. All I could get out was “I…” and the remainder of my dinner mixed with stomach bile spewed forth and hit her again. By that point there were five more faces above me and the room was getting louder and hotter by the second. I felt my mind spin and was on the verge of fainting. I tried to shout for the group to let me go but my voice was hoarse and all that came out was a desperate, exhausted croak. My deep-voiced attempt to speak somehow fueled their fanatical fire and they began to claim it was the voice of Satan himself.
The next hour or so was a blur of faces, crosses, bibles, shouts and guttural noises from my own terrified soul. Then there was a knock at the church doors. The knock became louder, more persistent, then pounding and a rattling of the handles which were locked tight. Exhausted, I could make out the shout of my drunken father as he questioned a man who went outside to calm him. “Where is my daughter?!” he yelled, “I’m here to take her home!” There was a series of shouts, shuffles and mumbled dialogue until I heard my father’s old blue Chevy truck wheels screech onto the road as he sped away. At that moment I felt a small bit of relief that I was being held captive in this confusing arena of frenzied belief instead of being released to my own father who I feared with the very depths of my being.
It was at that moment that I stopped fighting and relaxed. I watched the crowd of faces as if in a trance, far away from the physical body that bore my pain. I floated away in the same fashion that I had done a thousand times before when my father chose to shatter my innocence through the evil in his soul. As I resigned myself and my body became limp to their grip, my captors began to soften their tone and several raised their hands to the ceiling and began that mumbled chorus of Pig Latin and Greek mixed with “Praise you Jesus” and “God is Great”. They helped me to my feet and as my legs shook and tears streamed down my pale cheeks, I looked desperately around the room for my friend and her mother. They sat in the third row and prayed with the sweat covered preacher. I received a cavalcade of hugs and my own personal red leather-bound King James Bible and we were escorted quickly out the door.
Heavy silence filled the car as we drove away from the Four Square Gospel Indian Mission Church late that sultry summer night. Not a single word was spoken about my most unfortunate event. My friend told me I was to sleep at her house that night since it was so late and they would drive me home the next morning. I felt defeated, exhausted, confused. I felt numb to my core. Yet I also felt an odd sense of comfort with the respite from my own bed and the thought of my father and I slept peacefully that night for the first time in many years.