In the fall of 1976, we sixth graders were thrilled our Georgia Governor Carter had been elected President of the United States and that we’d celebrated the bicentennial of our country. Our community had come together for a parade with the high school marching band, the mayor in a convertible waiving, and our church youth singing the good news on a float pulled by our song director’s Ford F-150. The next day, Sunday morning, our twelve-year-old group of boys marched into the sanctuary of the Baptist church, sitting near the back, so we could pass notes, send spitball through straws to girls a few rows down, fart and laugh at ourselves.
None of that behavior violated God’s word, as we understood it, but I was startled when I noticed an elderly African American woman on the front row dressed in a green dress and matching hat. I elbowed James who, in turn, elbowed Mark. We were quiet and watched. It was the first time any of us had ever seen an African American in our church in the small Georgia town. The African American Baptist church was just across the railroad tracks near the butcher shop, and I wondered if the old woman had gotten confused.
Confused or not, she seemed peaceful, and I watched the elderly banker’s wife elbow her husband, and he stood and walked to the preacher’s chair near the pulpit. I don’t know what he whispered, but the minister, who was dressed in a white suit and looked like he should be peddling fried chicken instead of salvation, stood and eased up to the woman and whispered to her. The pianist craned her neck to see while hammering the keys from page 368 in the hymnal, “Brethren We Have Met to Worship”.
The elderly woman planted her cane, stood, and walked up the side aisle, through the swinging doors in the vestibule, and out the front door. I noted she handed back her bulletin to the deacon. I didn’t fully understand, but I understood enough to know while we had an integrated school, we didn’t have integrated churches.
As the preacher made his way back to his seat by the pulpit, he nodded at the banker, and something made me get up, go out, and see where the old lady went. I looked to the left, the road leading across the tracks to the African American Baptist church, but she was nowhere to be seen, and I looked to the right, the sidewalk that headed into town, and she wasn’t there. I didn’t see any cars either.
“Luke, you better get in here. They startin,” said the deacon handing out bulletins.
“Where’d that old woman go?”
“Probably got in a car. Now, get on in there ‘fore your mama gets after you.”
That incident haunted me. Not long after, there was a fight in the church over budget items, and the church split. About half of the church membership left and for a year held services at a Masonic lodge until others questioned budget items and left, too. Joining forces, the group went back to the church, voted the preacher out, and around twenty-five percent of the families left with him. The ordeal put a strain on friendships, working relationships, and community relationships. Some became Methodists, and some never went back to church. Part of me believed the elderly woman was really an angel or maybe Jesus in disguise come to test the good Baptists and they’d failed the test without ever knowing it.
Niles Reddick’s newest novel Drifting too far from the Shore has been nominated for a Pulitzer. Previously, his collection Road Kill Art and Other Oddities was a finalist for an Eppie award and his first novella Lead Me Home was a national finalist for a ForeWord award. His work has appeared in anthologies Southern Voices in Every Direction, Unusual Circumstances, Getting Old, and Happy Holidays and has been featured in many journals including The Arkansas Review: a Journal of Delta Studies, Southern Reader, Like the Dew, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Pomanok Review, Corner Club Press, Slice of Life, Faircloth Review, and many others. Niles works for the University of Memphis. His website is www.nilesreddick.com