Our story takes place on a bright Sunday morning. It was a story told to me, by the 48-year-old granddaughter of an anonymous Alabama woman.
It happened long, long ago, during an era which, to you and me, seems ancient. It was an age when homes were lit with gas lanterns. The Civil War had been over for several decades. The automobile was becoming a thing.
And on this particular Sunday morning, a poor blond girl in a rural Alabama town found something lying near a church sidewalk.
The orphan girl was outside playing. She wore a rag dress. Her shoes had dollar-sized holes in them.
She came from unfortunate circumstances. Her parents died, she was being raised in a loveless, poverty-stricken home by a drunk uncle. It was a house full of violent people. Her uncle made her sleep in a chicken shed whenever he wasn’t smacking her around.
Beside that church sidewalk she saw something glittery, lying in the grass. A golden pendant. She lifted it into her baby hands. It was the prettiest thing she had ever seen. It must have belonged to someone in the church house.
It was an African-American church, and the place was busy that morning. Crowded to capacity. Because, like I said, it was Sunday morning.
The girl, with her torn dress and unwashed hair was not dressed for church, but she figured someone inside was missing a necklace. So she marched up the steps and into the clapboard meeting house.
The first thing she realized was that the chapel was HOT. People were fanning themselves. Women wore hats, men wore sweat-stained suits. And everyone seemed so happy.
She searched for an adult to return the necklace to, an usher maybe? Perhaps a minister?
But service was already underway. People were snug in their pews. The music began. Everyone stood. People sang loudly and clapped in rhythm.
The girl was immediately captivated by the explosion of singing. Soon, she was too entranced to remember why she was here. The joyous energy within the wood-planked room washed over her like a groundswell.
The sermon was a humdinger, too. When the preacher shouted, everyone hollered responses: “Amen!” “Tell it!” It was so much fun that sometimes the girl found herself happily shouting from her rear pew.
The preacher removed his jacket, the sermon got louder, people fanned faster.
Some guy in the congregation stood during the sermon, hands raised. Others hummed softly beneath the bellows of the pulpiteer.
Preaching gave way to singing. Singing gave way to more music, the songs lasted so long the girl forgot all about the necklace, and her hands stung from all the clapping.
The middle of service. Something happened.
The music stopped. The preacher looked right at the child. She was the only blond girl within a congregation of non-blond people. He asked her to come forward.
She looked around. Her heart was pounding. “Me?” she muttered.
“Please, come here, child,” he said.
Everyone turned to grin at her. The air seemed hotter now.
The girl was terrified. This was definitely not how she saw today’s events going. She was here to return jewelry.
One of the ushers gave her a reassuring wink. “Go on, honey.”
She stood. She walked the center aisle and the floorboards creaked beneath her tattered shoes. Her skinny body was shaking. There were hundreds of eyes upon this poverty-laden orphan, a girl with the bruises of abuse upon her frail body.
She approached the pulpit. The preacher squatted to her eye level. There were tears in his eyes when he wrapped his cannon-sized arms around her and held her tightly. It was a long, long hug.
After he released her he instructed the congregation to make this child understand how welcomed she would always be in this community.
That was all it took.
The congregation came unhinged. There must have been a million people swarming her with greetings and hugs. Old women pinched her cheeks. Young men shook her hand. Elderly men fuzzed her hair and declared how lovely she looked. She was embraced so many times her skin chaffed red.
After service, the preacher and his wife walked her home.
When he set her feet on the porch, the girl dug into her pocket and presented the necklace. She told him where she’d found it.
The preacher only smiled at the gold chain. “You keep it,” he said, closing her fingers tightly over the pendant. “Consider it a gift from…” He pointed skyward.
That night, the orphan crawled into her cot and fell asleep, probably with a smile on her baby face, maybe with a necklace around her tiny neck.
After that, the preacher visited the house a lot during the girl’s lifetime. To make sure she was okay. To ensure she was safe. To make sure she had friends. To bring her candy.
The girl grew into a woman. The woman met a husband. She became a mother. Then a grandmother. She kept visiting that old backwoods church. She still liked to sing loudly.
She has been dead for many years, but from time to time a simple golden pendant is worn by her surviving family members. And this Easter, maybe even while you read these words, the 48-year-old granddaughter of that orphan will wear that modest gold chain to church.
Because, as I say, it’s Sunday morning.