It’s a nice day for driving. I am on my way to attend a Baptist church in country. There are fourteen members in this church. Eleven of them have white hair.
I arrive. They weren’t kidding when they called this place “small.”
It’s a thirty-five-foot long room with mildewed ceilings, a piano, and rugs over the linoleum floor. I am the second one here this afternoon. The preacher, Brother Will, got here an hour before me to turn on the window-unit air conditioner for service.
This church is part of the rural quiltwork that is America. Simple, plain. This is a place our people gather to sing songs they’ve been singing since the invention of mud.
Hymns about enduring. Melodies about hard times. About believing.
Brother Will is sitting on the front pew, alone. Legs crossed, arm slung over the back. He is staring at the ceiling. The sun is setting through the windows.
He doesn’t hear me come in because he is hard of hearing at this stage in his life.
We shake hands. He is tranquil. His face is lined with smile marks. His hair is salt and pepper. I sit beside him.
“I knew a woman, once,” he says. “A good woman.”
He is not speaking to me in the preacher-voice of a clergyman. Preachers of my childhood used tones of voice that Harvard professors might use. But this man is not like that. He is talking with me, not above me.
“She was a good woman,” he goes on. “She had two kids, one of them was really sick. Her husband didn’t make much money, worked at the mill.”
The woman took in wash to pay family bills, keep cupboards filled, and pay doctor bills.
“But her husband cheated on her,” says Brother Will. “It was awful. The man left her. She was alone with her two kids, and nobody never saw that man again.”
He removes his glasses, and pinches the bridge of his nose.
“A local family,” he says, “took this woman and her children in. They lived in one room.”
Her sickly son finally died from illness. And it was a black day. The casket was four-foot long. The woman’s ex-husband never showed for his own son’s funeral.
“A few weeks later,” he goes on. “As if her life couldn’t get any worse, that poor young woman found out she had cancer in her breasts.”
It weakened her. It almost killed her. But it didn’t.
He tells the story like like it happened yesterday. “She was so strong,” he says. “It was like she never had cruddy days. Every morning she’d have this large smile on her face, and tell people how grateful she was to be alive, and how wonderful this world was. And I would think: ‘How can this woman believe that? How?’”
Doctors operated, but sickness whittled her down to eighty-nine pounds. One night, her youngest child cried beside his mother’s bed, waiting for the worst, waiting to lose his last family member.
The preacher smiles. His blue eyes are sharp, and clear. He snaps his fingers. “And just like that, something happened to that woman.”
Just like that.
She started gaining weight. Her strength returned. Nobody could explain her recovery. Soon, she was back to herself. She got a job in town, and she earned enough to buy a home, a car, and put one son through college.
He stares at the altar again. He is a direct man, and he doesn’t mince words.
“If it weren’t for her,” the preacher says. “And all she went through, I’m gonna tell you the truth, I might have lost my belief in…”
This is all he says. Because he’s already said enough.
Service begins. People start entering the doors. Nine members are in attendance this evening.
There is an elderly woman on the front row. She is very, very old, in a wheelchair, wearing a pink skirt suit. Her smile is enough to light up Montgomery.
The preacher delivers a short sermon in the old style. The style I grew up on. This is the kind of sermonizing that reminds me of church socials, covered-dish suppers, and itty-bitty congregations.
After service, the preacher introduces to the old woman. Someone rolls her wheelchair toward me.
“This is the woman I was telling you about,” says Brother Will.
We shake hands.
“Pleased to meet you, ma’am,” I say.
The woman mumbles something I can’t understand.
Brother Will smiles. He kisses the ancient woman on the cheek.
“Say hello to my mama,” he says.