My Calling – Part 2

Garner was, however, a greater threat to our fragile equilibrium.

Dwight Washington, a high school scholar and track star, had a conversion experience at one of our revival services. This was an aberration, to say the least.

There existed, however, in our church, a well defined, strongly held white Christian racial orthodoxy that supported racism.

As a result, theological motifs that were so comforting to us had lost meaning to the African-American church. For instance, Brother Garner predicted that America was the probable site of the coming millennium, Christ’s thousand-year reign of peace and justice. For many African-American believers, America was not the Promised Land–it was Egypt. No doubt Dwight felt some hesitation when he attended our church.

I never told anyone, but I had invited him. It was my fault.

Above the choir loft in our church, directly behind Brother Garner, was a stain glass image of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. When I kneeled at the communion rail I remember looking up at Jesus and wondering what it was like. I wondered what he was doing in that window. I imagined he had just finished brushing his teeth?why not? My mother had told me thhat good people brushed their teeth twice, sometimes three times/day. Jesus was, without a doubt, the best person who ever lived. So, if my sources were correct. he must be brushing his teeth right up there. Oh, that stain glass window implied that he was praying all the time but I knew better. I knew that he had to have been brushing his teeth a lot.

Now I did not know much a bout Dwight’s soul, but everyone could tell that he needed to brush his teeth more so when Brother Garner mentioned that we were going to have a revival service next Wednesday night I was very careful to invite Dwight.

I knew people like Uncle George?the Grand Wizard of the Klan?would not approve but I felt that Dwight’s tools of prehension and mastication required a radical intervention.

Dwight came on Wednesday night and accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. I saw him on Thursday personally could see no evidence that he had brushed his teeth but his conversion seemed to be sincere.

The problem was Dwight was converted on Wednesday night and thought he would visit us again on Sunday morning. He foolishly thought that since Jesus loved him all the time, and we appeared to love him on Wednesday night, that we would love him on Sunday morning too.

So, he attended our Sunday morning worship service.

Only one African-American had ever attended our church on Sunday morning. A new paper mill executive Marcus Danforth sought to transfer his membership from another Methodist Church in Chicago, Illinois. Mrs. Ollie Smith fainted outright when Marcus sat in her deceased husband’s pew.

Marcus never visited our church again. After Uncle George and his friends visited Marcus one evening, and burned a cross in his finely landscaped lawn, and after his children were not allowed to play in the local little league, Marcus quickly transferred to Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Dwight arrived promptly at 10:45 and shook Tommy Somerville’s hand. Without looking up, Tommy Somerville, who ushered the faithful to their pews, handed Dwight a bulletin. Dwight smiled. Mr. Somerville was speechless but Dwight did not wait for Mr. Somerville to escort him to his seat.

Dwight sat in T-Bone Arnold’s seat.

Ten minutes later, arriving late from a fishing trip to Kate Adams Lake, T-Bone appeared noticeably irritated. Dwight was no doubt going to use the pew hymnal that was dedicated to his Uncle Harry Arnold. This was T-Bone’s favorite hymnal and no one used it but T-Bone. Everyone in my church knew that.

T-Bone growled (literally) but eventually sat next to the Widow Adams whose false teeth inevitably leaped from her mouth during the second hymn. T-Bone grimaced and carefully placed his Hymns of Praise in a position to catch the Widow’s teeth.

The first hymn was everyone’s favorite, “Holy! Holy! Holy!”

Before the end of the first verse Mr. Somerville he was politely asked to leave because “nigras” should go to their own churches. Dwight lowered his heart and walked away from our church and Jesus.

Garner saw everything and was obviously displeased. Not that he castigated us. We could handle that. We enjoyed pastors who scolded us for our sins. We tolerated, even enjoyed his paternalistic diatribes. No, Garner did the intolerable: he wept. Right in the middle of morning worship, right where great preachers like Muzon Mann had labored, where our children were baptized, Garner wept! Right in the middle of morning worship, as if it was part of the liturgy, he started crying! Not loud, uncontrollable sobs, but quiet, deep crying. Old Man Henley, senile and almost deaf, remembering the last time he cried–when his wife died–started crying too. And then the children started.

My cousin Ronny, our organist, sensing Brother Garners impropriety, judiciously played the last hymn.

How we hated Palmer Garner! If we ever doubted, Garner was obviously an outsider to our community . . .

Brother Garner did not last the year. The Bishop moved him to an obscure church in North Arkansas, as close as possible to Massachusetts.

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