KENTUCKY—Right now, I am in the fellowship hall of First Baptist Church in Richmond. I’m about to tell stories to a room of Baptists.
The entree tonight is barbecued pork. The beverages are sweet tea and extra-sweet tea. These are beautiful people.
I don’t often give speeches at Baptist churches. I speak at lots of other churches, but not usually Baptist ones.
This is probably because I tell a lot of Baptist jokes. I do this because I come from fundamentalist Baptists who will forever be in my blood. They were people who wore lots of Brylcreem and ate too many congealed salads.
But I can’t help it. My people are too easy to make jokes about. The punchlines practically write themselves.
Here’s one a preacher told me:
One day a Catholic priest, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, and a Baptist minister were fishing. They were arguing over which denomination Jesus would be.
The Catholic priest said, “He’d be part of the Roman Catholic Church, no doubt.”
The Methodist said, “No way. I think after all John Wesley did for the Christian faith, he would certainly be a Methodist.”
“I think he’d be Presbyterian,” said the Presbyterian. “I have no doubt he’d join the Reformed Tradition.”
The Baptist minister shook his head and said, “I’m sorry fellas, that boy’s going to Hell unless he cuts his hair.”
It is hard to make a Baptist laugh. Chances are, if you’re Baptist, you didn’t laugh at that. In fact, you might have even read it and remarked aloud, “Bah humbug,” then went into the other room and horsewhipped your firstborn child.
Again. I’m kidding.
See? That’s exactly what I’m talking about. The people I came from didn’t laugh. In fact, we laughed less than all other denominations combined.
For instance, I once attended an Episcopal church in Mobile that had cocktail hour in the parking lot with a rock band and everything. The band played “Runaround Sue.” Everybody laughed a lot.
I’ve attended a Methodist Fourth-of-July party in Little Rock where the preacher wore shorts and did stand-up comedy.
I was at a Catholic service in Huntsville, where the priest brought his terrier to church and placed the dog in the front pew.
But my people were not like this. We believed Catholics were loose. And the Methodists had the gall to wave at each other in the liquor store. In other words, my people were no fun.
We were the kind who prayed against marching bands because rhythmic movements awakened carnal desires.
We did not believe in buying life insurance because it was gambling.
We were quiet, reserved, distrusting, and skeptical. We tucked in our shirts, kept our hair short, and on weekends we ironed our slacks. We did not believe in loud music, or hand clapping.
Once, during church, Mister Danny Johnson started clapping to the choir’s rendition of “Power in the Blood.” Whereupon Mister Danny was dragged behind the church and shot.
But all that aside, the older I get, the more I love the people I came from. Sure, they were a little strict. And yes, because of them I cannot watch PG-13-rated movies without feeling like a hedonist. And certainly, these people are responsible for my childhood struggles with constipation.
But there were also some wonderful things I remember about my people. Things I miss.
Like all-night singings. You want to talk fun? You would show up at church and basically sing until you were pooped. And it was great.
Summer revivals. I cannot see a big tent in an open field without remembering out-of-town preachers who would burn up the night hours with fiery sermons.
All visiting preachers had a squiggly vein in their forehead that made a cameo appearance whenever the word “Hell” was mentioned.
Covered dish suppers. I miss these most of all. I don’t know why mega-churches did away with potluck socials. I miss the Corningware casserole dishes with glass lids.
Hospital visits. Our preachers visited the hospital twice per week, sometimes more often than that, if death was coming in threes.
Tonight, that’s what these Eastern Kentucky Baptists bring back to me. They aren’t like the stiff people I grew up with who hated jokes. These people are easy, cheerful, and they laugh.
The music minister, Brother Tim, is so happy and jolly he makes Santa Claus look like a jerk.
And this gives me a smile. It makes me proud. These are my people. And I belong to them.
When I finish telling stories and jokes, I meet a woman. She sounds like the hills of the Bluegrass State. She is elderly, carrying a walker, wearing hearing aids.
The old woman hugs me and kisses my cheek. “I just love you,” she says. “I am a lifelong Baptist, and I want you to know that I love you, baby.”
And I am so touched by this that I get teary eyed. Her hug feels so honest. And real. Like going back in time one hundred years, to all-night singings, and the covered-dish suppers of my youth.
Then the woman holds me close and whispers into my ear, “Do you know the difference between a Methodist and a Baptist?”
“Baptists get out of the shower to pee.”
They’re doing just fine up here in Kentucky.