I’ve been in church much longer than I can remember, but Mama and Daddy told me stories of my early church attendance. It seems that they took me to a revival at Southside Baptist in Hazlehurst when I was about three years old. After the singing was finished, I changed from the angel child who loved music to the Devil’s spawn. The stories of the man standing in the pulpit didn’t impress me much. Had I been old enough to read, they could have just given me a book; however, had I been old enough to read, I would have been old enough to behave in church, too. I wiggled and squirmed, telling Daddy loudly that I wanted to go home. I wanted my teddy bear. He needed me. People around us were paying more attention to me than to the man up front; Mama and Daddy were completely embarrassed. Daddy volunteered to take me out and let Mama enjoy the service in peace. I’ve long suspected that he knew if Mama took me out, a spanking would be the consequence of my bad behavior. I was Daddy’s baby girl; he thought I never did anything worthy of Mama’s switch. I had him around my little finger most of my life. He took me out and played with me until church was over. Back in those days people expected children to behave in church, no matter their age.
As I grew, I learned to entertain myself with my imagination. I’d go frolicking through the springtime or whatever season it was, in the words of Zora Neale Hurston. People looked at me and saw a model, obedient child paying close attention to the word of God coming from the pulpit, no matter what preacher stood there giving it. My eyes never left that preacher. Little did they know what was going on in my head. I should have written those stories down for posterity.
Somewhere around age twelve, I matured enough to actually listen, discovering that those stories were rather interesting and important. It wasn’t long thereafter that I was saved and joined that little church family. I’d been a part of it all my life anyway, but finally I was there because I wanted to be. It made a big difference.
It never occurred to me back then that a day might come when the churches were closed, and I might not be able to attend. In all my imagined stories, I never saw the year 2020 or the coronavirus. I didn’t appreciate what I had. I do now. Since March when COVID-19 slammed the church doors, I’ve listened to our services on the radio or watched them on Facebook except when the virus held me in its throes. I’ve cooked Sunday dinner with David Williams singing in my ear or Joe Ferguson telling me gospel stories from the pulpit. They were far better than the ones I ignored as a child. But I missed something. It just wasn’t the same as sitting there in First Baptist Church in the fourth pew on the left next to the windows in the center of Baxley, Georgia. I longed for my church, my pew, my church family and my Sunday School Class.
One time the church opened, but I feared returning in person, even though I have had the virus and may be immune for a while. Fear kept me cooking in my kitchen in Pine Grove. And then, once again, it closed. The services came faithfully over the airways and the internet, but now, even more, I longed to be in church. When the text came announcing the reopening for Sunday, September 13, I made up my mind instantly. I would be there, wearing my mask, my hands shiny clean. I’d gladly sit six feet away from everyone else, but I’d be there on some pew in that church.
And I was there. I walked down the long hallway from the back door toward the elevator, past the sanitation station, and into the elevator. Next, I was in the sanctuary, smiling and waving at folks I’d been missing so long. I settled into a pew and felt peace wash over me. Soon we were singing, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place,” and I knew it to be true. I could feel it in every pore of my being. I have never been happier to be in the Lord’s house in my entire life and will never take it for granted again.