Going Gonzo In A Backwoods Kentucky Church

19 11 2008

steeple

From the moment I walked into the door of the Easter Valley Baptist Church I was viewed as an outsider who was intruding on their church services. The Easter Valley Baptist Church is a sect, splintered from the original fundamentalist congregation of The Old Time Baptist Church some five miles up the road. Easter Valley was viewed as too progressive because women were allowed to teach Sunday school, and this created a schism between some of the deacons, and the congregation split. The Old Time elders believed the Easter Valley parishioners were interpreting the gospel the wrong way. I spent one Sunday at the new Easter Valley Baptist Church, and afterwards had dinner with some of the members, who told me of the church’s origins.

The small white painted cinder block building hidden between two mountains on a chip and seal road in rural Estill County. There is a short steeple with a gold painted cross on top with a tarnished church bell. The fall leaves accent the canvas of the small church property, if there were not a small number of cars in the parking lot, it could pass as a scene from 100 years ago. As I passed through the wooden double doors, a young man was pulling on the thick bell rope to announce the service was starting. The sanctuary smells of pine and old ladies perfume. It is a very simple interior; the walls are accented with small stained glass windows depicting the crucifixion which flank two rows of pews with a wide, plush carpeted center aisle. The pews are stained a dark oak color and are not padded, a small brass nameplate on the aisle armrest documents the donor. I am accompanied by my date that is related to some of the members, we find an empty pew a few rows behind the small congregation of 25 people. The pulpit is built of local hardwood and varnished a deep red. The wood is engraved with Old English letters: “Only God can lead”. There is an attendance board to the left of the pulpit that claims there were 38 in attendance last week with a gross offering of $1200. There is no choir, although 2 short pews are fixed adjacent to the pulpit suggesting there was a choir at one time.

The makeup of the congregation lacks diversity the plurality being middle aged females. There are only two young adults, and a single mother with her infant. A pair of thirty somethings are sitting in front of us with their two young children who run, flip, and turn in the pew excitedly. They are cute children and their absence of front teeth leads me to believe they are around nine years old. The majority of parishioners are elderly people, and everyone is white. The children show curiosity in me staring over their parent’s backs while I smile and make faces at them. My pen and pad is starred at by everyone who walks by, so I stow it beside the old blue hymn books in the seatback in front of me. We are surrounded by curious faces when my date introduces me to the people she knows. They question me about where I attend church normally and if I know the Lord. The congregation all know each other well, they stand around and talk about the conditions of their family members and “if their hay is going to be any count.” A couple of silver haired women are gossiping about someone’s son who went to jail Friday night for a hit and run incident. A young boy is running up the isle when his grandmother lifts him up and simultaneously swats his bottom demanding he “sit down before the devil gets him.” The boy immediately starts crying, but no one seems to notice. The congregation is dressed simply, only one elderly man in the front row is wearing a suit, the rest of the men are in jeans and button down shirts. No women are present in the front rows, only older men.

Brother Steve is part of the musical accompaniment and starts the service taking up his Takamine guitar, which is plugged into the small PA system. He strums a call to worship, played with a capo. The crowd immediately settles into their seats and falls quiet. A lady to his right joins in on the electric console organ and they play in unison. As the song carries on three middle aged ladies all in simple homemade dresses rise from their seats and walk up to the pulpit. They start singing the words to the song, while one of the women (Brother Steve’s wife) is much louder than the other two and out of key. Her intended domination of the song is confusing to me, but I assume normal to the other parishioners. To an outsider accustomed to formal service this off the cuff approach to a worship service is new. I look around to see if I can spot the preacher, as he has yet to take the podium, when Brother Steve announces that we welcome Brother David Wells. He rises from a center pew where he had been talking to the women sitting around him.

Brother David is dressed in blue jeans and a blue plaid shirt with no tie. He almost immediately starts screaming about the evils of material goods, and religion being taken out of schools. He shares his personal story about being ridiculed at school for being a Christian. His face turns red and most of his sentences are ending with: “Let me tell you Honey, it aint no way to be.” [Sic] His sermon was delivered to a silent, unmoving congregation; even the children were quite, nobody fell asleep. The occasional “Amen” affirmed the preacher’s screaming testimony of the end of days is upon us, and the current war in the Middle East is the last crusade. The war against Christians must be fought by Christians, a message presumably advocating violence against people of other faiths. I expect rattlesnakes to drop from the ceiling at any moment.

He is brought to tears towards the end of the sermon, which ends in an almost pleading voice for anyone who would like to give their life to Jesus to come down and stand beside him. Two men in the front row take his cue and pass two wicker baskets up and down their respective rows, people are ready with cash or check in hand to drop into the baskets when they pass by. The offering is conducted with the organ in the background softly playing the opening bars to Amazing Grace. Once the basket made it to our row I am compelled to drop in a five, and they are taken away. The congregation stands in unison and starts singing Amazing Grace while some people make their way to the altar, heads bowed and still singing the words. This mixed group of six people including Brother Steve’s wife knell down and place their foreheads onto the base of the altar. I had never witnessed this behavior and was taken aback when they started chanting in tongues and waving their arms about while keeping their heads down. Some in the crowd are crying, some are silent, I sat in total shock. The people remain kneeling around Brother David as he leads into a very long prayer, their chanting has stopped. The prayer covers the sick that can’t be with us today, the President, as he leads the country, and for the naysayers to come to the light.

A wind of relief blows through the small church as the sermon is adjourned and the congregation starts singing “How Great Thou Are.” The church doors open as the crowd spills into the parking lot and appear to have regained their composure upon their return to the outside world. They are engaging one another about where they are eating dinner, while the children run around on the grass. We are questioned and introduced by almost every member of the church; they tell us they would love to see us next Sunday. I lie and claim our home church is in Lexington, and that our unannounced visit was a special occasion.

Upon leaving I noticed an autographed picture of George W. Bush in the entranceway to the sanctuary. At dinner I asked why the photo of the President was arranged beside notable pastors of the church’s history the response was overwhelmingly “he’s a good Christian man”. Naturally the next question was about the origin of the photo, which I learned that the preacher and a few deacons had attended Bush fundraisers and party rallies. My secular education would question their tax exempt status.

Once we arrived at great aunt Edna’s house for dinner, I noticed the women in the church are treated as seconds to men. When I voiced concern to these women about their not being seen as equal, they acted offended I even tried to discuss the matter. These women are so subservient that they can’t eat dinner until the men are done and have had seconds. They are not even allowed to sit at the dinner table with the men, and are expected to be mothers to the children and not question the man’s business.

I tried to remember this was the more progressive of the two congregations, even though the women might teach Sunday school, they are still second class citizens. The literal interpretation of the bible is be-all, end-all, final word that rules these people’s lives. I would expect any deviation from these guidelines to be repented inside the church or within one’s close knit family. This church functions today much like it has for the past 150 years, the traditions are handed down from the generations through the same families that built the church. This particular style of worship could be seen by many as a dangerous mindset, but to the people that attend services it’s just another Sunday.

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