'There's this church I'd like us to go to,' Bess told me. 'Our security guard preaches there, and I've told him we would go.'
It seemed an unusual suggestion given that I've spent most of my life avoiding churches, or at least avoiding the services taking place within; but on the other hand, I tend to trust my wife's judgement on most things.
I intersected with the Church of England only infrequently whilst growing up, mostly weddings, funerals and baptisms and probably not quite reaching double figures. The Reverend Dilwyn Morgan Davies made regular visits to Ilmington Junior and Infants School, pootling the hundred yards down the road from St. Mary's to deliver unto us a weekly sermon during school assembly. He resembled Spike Milligan's impersonation of a Church of England vicar and all I can recall were his overly dramatic performances stretching out each syllable of his own name, then Mattheeeeeeeeeew, Maaaaaaaaaark, Luke and [pause for breath] Johhhhhnnnnn, none of which left me with any enduring impression of who these people were or why it might concern me. With hindsight, he was good with children in that he made us laugh, and he was a lot more entertaining than the anonymously stuttering pink-faced goons presiding at most services I've witnessed since.
My view of religion is probably too messy and sprawling to be of much use in the context of this particular sermon, but could probably be distilled to if it works for you, then fine. Whilst history is a testament to the many unspeakable crimes perpetrated in the name of one religion or another, I would suggest that the overwhelming majority of these crimes derive from human ambition expressed as power structures within which religion tends to have been co-opted as one of a number of supports. If you're one of those people who genuinely seem to believe that religion must be wiped from the face of the earth in order for a better society to come into being, then I'd suggest you're as bad as any witch hunter, any inquisitional wielder of a burning brand, or any snake oil selling televangelist bleeding money from his flock; and I'd also suggest that you haven't really made an effort to appreciate what religion is, what it does, or why it would mean anything to so many people. If that's too hard to understand, then it's the wiping things from the face of the earth detail which is the problem, not the identity of whoever may be calling for the wiping.
Anyway, Bess had told me that some guy from her work place was a preacher at a church, and she had asked me to come along to a service. I said yes because it would be a new thing for me.
She'd already been to a service a few months earlier when I'd been tied up with something or other. The security guard was actually one Reverend Gregory Harris and it was his church, inherited from his father, the previous incumbent. It was called the White Robe Missionary Baptist Church and was situated over on the eastside - the black neighbourhood, so to speak. I'm still a little phased by large American cities being so clearly racially divided, but then I've only been here five or six years and segregation was a recent thing in this country. The service, so my wife reported back, had been small but powerful. The congregation was just a handful of people gathered in a church resembling what I would think of as a village hall, and which could have stood a few repairs here and there. It was at the opposite end of the scale to the huge evangelical money-hoovering schemes I see at the side of the highway heading to Austin, buildings gleaming as though from the covers of seventies science-fiction paperbacks, places I avoid because I don't want to be either mugged or brainwashed by anyone less intelligent than myself.
My experience of Baptist churches is limited to Helen Martin battling a rival grandmother in Don't Be a Menace to South Central When You Drink Your Juice in the Hood, and skits on southern rap albums, skits mostly using organ swells to emphasise a testimonial condemnation of persons who be playa-hatin' on Master P and that sort of thing. So realistically, I really didn't know what to expect, although I felt anything in the vein of Helen Martin's spontaneous breakdancing was probably unlikely.
The place was small and, as promised, not in a great state of repair, but you could see that they had done what they could with it. There were four rows of pews, and with padded seating which made for a nice change. There were nineteen of us once everyone had arrived, a couple of kids, some Latinas, and just four white people - which I found oddly comforting. You get less bullshit flying around in the absence of white people, and I say that in the awareness of being one myself. A woman introduced as Miss Wells played the piano. The instrument probably could have stood a little tuning, but I have a vague memory of piano-tuning being expensive, so she made do with what she had. She played well, with bluesy passion and a real feeling for the music, and so well that it ceased sounding like an early Residents album after just a few minutes. Miss Wells also led us in song, mostly compositions of just one line repeated over and over, mostly relating to having faith in Jesus as you would expect; and because it was just one line repeated over and over, it was easy enough to join in, so we all did; and of course we clapped our hands. Seen from outside it would have struck me as odd, but I was taken by the moment and it felt pretty good; and - just like on the telly - our song was augmented with random interjections of tell it like it is or amen to that and the like, and all quite natural and heartfelt - none of the showboating or ostentatious piety I've seen elsewhere. The singing brought us all together in such a way as to make it seem ridiculous that anyone should feel self-conscious or awkward in the company of these strangers. I've resentfully muttered along to the hymns in the few church services I've previously attended because I've always felt like an intruder, like I'm required to do time before being given the secret code, but this felt entirely different.
Song alternated with sermon, readings from the New Testament delivered with warmth and in terms of our daily lives, and even with jokes. I still feel that the major problem with many faiths - or at least certain brands of Christianity - has been a tendency to focus on the speaker more than what is said, so it becomes a money-spinning fan club with no real currency in the message of doing unto others as you would have done unto you, because that would interfere with the direction in which the dollars are supposed to flow. Here I realised that the emphasis seemed different, and that the message was heard very well, and that the message was helping some of these people get through the day.
This was underscored by the individual testimonies which followed. Members of the congregation stepped forward and told their stories - personal trials and tribulations, poverty, death, cancer, domestic violence, and more; and in each case thanks were given to the man upstairs for his help in getting them through their troubles, for keeping them straight. My inner Richard Dawkins - thankfully a fairly muted voice these days - rationalised that these people had simply found God in their own strength of character, which may be true but misses all of the important points. If that which serves as your point of focus helps you in times of trouble and isn't hurting anyone else, then maybe what we call it is secondary.
The full service lasted about two hours, never once seeming to drag, and what most impressed me about it was how honest it felt. It was a communal experience. We had two preachers and Miss Wells at the piano, but we were all of us involved in one way or another, and there was nothing which felt forced or like it was going through the motions. It felt like we had been brought together by a message, albeit through the agency of a messenger, and the experience had done all of us good. This was no emptily ritualised worship thrown dutifully in the general direction of the heavens. It was something fundamentally human and real.
Afterwards we had food, barbecued chicken, brisket and beans with cornbread. I found myself sat next to the Reverend Larry Smith who had also spoken that morning. He told me he was born in Louisiana but had spent some time in England, which he mentioned because I'd brought it up, telling him, 'I'm not from around here - I guess you can tell by the accent.' Despite his earlier half hour under the spotlight, he seemed a shy, retiring type, so I figured I might as well do the honours with regard to the jolly old elephant in the drawing room.
'I was at Greenham Common,' he told me. 'That was back in the nineties.'
'You were at Greenham Common!'
'I was in the air force, you know?'
I've known several people who were at Greenham Common, but they'd all been on the other side of the fence; and now here was a guy who'd been paid to load bombs onto the aircraft which had drawn protesters to the base in the first place.
'So how did you find England?' I wasn't even sure I should have asked, given the potential for a seriously uncomfortable answer.
'I liked it, but you know when you're on a military base you don't really get to see too much of the outside world.' He asked me about England and why I wasn't there any more, so I told him about getting married and how much I hated the cold. 'It must have been rough for you if you grew up in Louisiana with the heat.'
'Well yeah, I didn't like the cold too much, and it rained a lot.'
I told him I had been a postman for twenty years. 'Outside in the wind and rain, and you know how sometimes the cold just gets into your bones and there's nothing can shift it...'
'I'm a mailman myself.'
'You deliver the mail too!' I couldn't help laughing. We both laughed.
'I got me a route over on the westside. I been doing that seventeen years.'
At that point we had finished our food, so we said our farewells and left. I still don't feel particularly converted, but we left with that glow you develop in the company of good people, or in this case, great people with whom I feel honoured to have spent time. The world can be a shitty place, but I try to maintain a belief that no-one is deliberately evil and that the majority are generally good, and every so often it's nice to be reminded that this is surely something more than just a belief.