I had a dream. It was a vivid dream. It was sunny. I was in my childhood Sunday school classroom, alone. It was like nothing had changed.
The paned windows were slung open. It was a magnificent day outside. The daylight was so bright it hurt your heart. The sound of starlings came from the trees.
It was your typical church classroom. There was a flannel board, with paper Bible-story characters stuck to the felt. I stood to examine the storytelling board for old time’s sake.
Apparently some kids had taken Sharpies to the cutout characters because Paul and Silas were defaced. Paul was smoking a cigarette, and Silas had a tattoo of a woman on his forearm. The kid responsible for this would be sentenced to hard time mowing the church lawn until he was forty.
My attention moved from the classroom when I heard a sound. A melodic noise coming from the other room. People singing. I knew this song. I can still remember the words.
“O there’s sunshine,
“Sunshine in my soul,
“Blessed sunshine in my soul…”
It’s been a while since I’ve heard this standard. Heck. It’s been a while since I’ve seen that many people in one room, singing, smiling, exchanging germs.
But in my dream, it was olden times. I wandered into the tiny sanctuary. The sight made my insides turn to Jello. Just seeing those recognizable faces, the battered pews, the towhead children holding hymnals.
I saw the whole gang. There was elderly Mister Dan, balding, with a crown of white fuzz around his head. He was red faced, because he was bad to drink.
And old Miss Eleanor, wearing her weird hat. I think they buried her in that hat.
And look! There’s my cousin! He’s so young! Look at him, standing next to my aunt. And who is that standing beside… Wait! That’s me! There I am! I’m 5 years old, wearing khakis and a button down. Was I really that little?
On the platform was our music minister, waving arms back and forth, keeping time. His elderly wife, Miss Lydia behind the Mason & Hamlin piano, swaying like Ronnie Milsap.
In the back of the chapel, near the door, stood Mister Fred, who always watched the door. He never moved. He was our usher. He carried a modest stack of leaflet bulletins just in case a visitor happened by.
Funny. We actually believed that some hapless passerby would visit a tiny, 26-person congregation out of a clear sky, just because. Which seems a little far-fetched when you think about it. After all, when was the last time you stopped by a strange church in the middle of the woods uninvited?
But do you know something? That is exactly what happened one day.
I remember one Sunday morning a woman and her three kids walked through the doors during preaching. She was new to our area, and nobody knew her.
You could see she was embarrassed when she realized she had interrupted the sermon. Her face went flush, she slid into the back pew, head down. She had long stringy hair, her clothes were old. And her kids looked like they hadn’t had a bath since the Kennedy Administration.
What happened next lives in my memory forever. The preacher could have kept the service going and let her blend into the back row without drawing attention to her. But elderly pulpiteers would rather die than deny a heartfelt welcome to even the least of these.
He flew off the pulpit, unbuttoned his coat, arms outstretched, and gave every member of that family a handshake. He declared service was over.
At first, it was so awkward you just wanted to die. But then, everyone got into the spirit of it. They all took turns shaking the woman’s hand, welcoming her, introducing themselves. Then someone told us kids to take the woman’s children outside and play.
Play? On a Sunday morning? We were confused. Church wasn’t even over yet.
“Yes! Go! Play!” said Miss Wilma. “Make the new kids feel welcome. Now shoo! Get outta here before I beat your butt.”
You didn’t have to tell us more than once. We unhitched our clip-on neckties and our feet only touched the ground twice. There would be no butt beatings that day.
The woods behind the church were among the most legendary in the world. They were home to the remains of an old millhouse, abandoned Buicks, and a creek loaded with mudbugs. We all played until we ruined our clothes with grass stains and creekwater.
Inside the building, you could hear everyone chatting and laughing. Fellowship had begun. Which meant that the sacrament of fried chicken was about to be observed.
Finally, everyone left for Sister Alpharetta’s house to gorge themselves on fried poultry and Sunday dinner. A good time was had by all.
By the time it was dark, the newcomer woman was as much a part of that tiny church as the guy who hung the steeple. Which meant she would never have to pay a plumber or electrician again. Neither would she lack a babysitter. Or a car. Or groceries. All she had to do was make a phone call. They made her the maintenance lady. They gave her a part-time salary.
That woman went to church until she died. Last I heard, one of her kids is a doctor in Houston.
When my dream was over, I awoke. I found myself lying in bed. There was a pandemic going on. The world had seemingly gone downhill in a hand basket. Except it hadn’t. Not in my heart. Because there was sunshine.
Blessed sunshine in my soul.