The Scene: The Church, 1963
The Preacher of this tiny church remains very dominant in my mind; Cecil G., a handsome individual, even to me at the adolescent age of thirteen. Even today I would guess that he was in his mid thirties and, upon his dark black hair, not a single gray strand was showing. He was of average height; about 5’9”, medium build but the dark suit and white shirt announced him as one with strength, the leader. He was someone who stood over us, who had been selected by God to step forward to guide us, the people, to believe that there waits, for us all, a ‘Promised Land“.
The “Church of God of Prophecy”, an independent denominational church, was a very strict holiness church. The aging wooden structure had been built many decades before, and was situated on the two-lane narrow dirt roadway that marked the downtown area of Manville. Its 4x4 timber frame was supported from the ground with two concrete blocks on each if it’s four corners. What dwelled beneath was hidden from view, but around its body was plenty of mud and rocks.
The entrance was marked with the Christian icon Jesus, hanging from a cross and mounted over the single wooden door; people appeared frightened as they approached to make their way inside. Each member would wait in line outside the door with the longing to have the Minister put out his hand to greet them. He felt he was needed, to help them as they carefully mounted the two steps that lead them inside; each of those steps appeared pitifully worn, sagged, the aged wood laced with multi cracks and splinters. The interior walls of the structure were barren of decor, no insulation, no windows, with a tiny floor furnace laboring in a desperate act of emitting warmth. It was as if the people were slipping into a remote hide-a-way, a sanctuary, away from the outside world, to find refuse, to be alone with God. The hollow wooden floor squeaked and echoed as people gently made their way inside and became seated.
As soon as I entered the building, I knew to make my way to the Piano, aged perhaps, but with my assistance it would deliver music to everyone attending. It was positioned one-step up from the main floor on a tiny stage, as in honor, next to the ‘preachers’ podium. Gently I played a variety of hymns as I watched Brother Cecil, the church’s minister, begin to make his way to the front, to take his position, to begin the evening service. He walked with a certain dignity between those tightly positioned pews and what stood out most was his glimmering black hair. I knew that later, as he delivered his sermon for the evening, his hair would glisten under the tiny 40-watt bulb that hung over the church podium.
I continued to watch him as he delivered his reassuring words and greetings to those people who reached out to him. With the repeat of ‘praise the Lord’, he would pause at each pew, extend his hands, delivering the words they needed to hear, ‘well, bless you sister, the Lord is with you‘. In my young teen years I was not interested in his reassurances, what I focused on was his tan completion and glossy white teeth. Yes, his smile, his torso, he radiated a warmth as he embraced the hands of each member who reached out to him. Was this the reason that the majority of the attendees at this church were women? I had begun receiving piano lessons in 1959 at the ripe young age of ten but not from a licensed music teacher, it was from Mary, Brother Cecil’s wife. She was a very meek, timid woman who could teach the keys, to read the notes, but could not play.
With the introduction of scales and note recognition, within six months I was the most sought after player in a twenty-mile radius, (but that status I do not remember.) My two sisters, surrounding me with age, began lessons at the same time. Someone had donated an old upright piano in hopes that one of us would fill the void that was common in most churches in the area, a piano player. Later I would learn that my sisters had quit the lessons within three months, due, primarily, to the jealousy of my progress.
The church was now full, the front door had closed, and the people appeared somber as with a sense of security. His footsteps were gentle as he quietly may his way to the tiny stage, the stage that would put him one step above all others. With the placing of the bible on the podium, he cleared his throat, followed with the words ‘Thank you Lord’. With this, everyone became silent; a moment passed when finally the service began.
The preacher extended his hands, with his palms up, guiding everyone to stand, to bow their heads for the opening prayer. There was silence as he raised his voice to God, asking Him for favors needed, and then thanking Him for favors delivered. “Open your hymnals to page 22, let us stand and sing”, with those words everyone reached forward to grasp a hymnal, find the page, and then stand in unity, side by side. Having the selected hymn already marked in my song book, I ran the cords and played the introduction as a ‘warm-up’. Within fifteen minutes the three opening hymns were almost completed, but the final one continued with the repetition of the final chorus. Brother Cecil continued to enliven the congregation with his bellowing of “one more time everyone, let us sing with praise” several times over. Once the repeats had ended I closed the hymnal as I whispered to myself, ‘thank goodness’, then gently I tiptoed down from the ‘stage’.
I knew when I had entered the building, when I began to roll the cords on the piano that I had to awaken the members; revitalize them with the enthusiasm of music. Once the singing and halleluiahs were finished, I had routinely seated myself in the first row on the far right side, against the wall, in a corner; it was there I felt I could hide or protect myself from the wrath of God. His punishment for any sin was a danger that I, and many others, was warned about, over and over again.
“Let us greet our brothers and sisters around us“, was his next instruction to the people. That brought about handshakes and shoulder hugs between the members who were closely seated, then everyone, once again, became seated. What then followed was a very important question, “Does anyone here amongst us want to testify or request a prayer for themselves or a love one please raise your hand”. Several people extended their arms immediately, and I could name each one. It appeared it was the same people asking for the same prayer week after week. A round of testimony from various members followed along with requests for prayer for loved ones or a sick friend; the Pastor placed his kerchief on the podium, then gently opened the bible, now it was time for the sermon to began. I knew it would be within ten to fifteen minutes that his agility would build with enthusiasm, and passion, a passion he must have truly felt, I did not.
Yes, it was about twenty minutes into the ‘message’ when the tiny beads of sweat on his forehead began building. His message went on and with each scripture the perspiration continued with intensity. The beads were now trickling down the sides of his face, moistening his cheeks, dripping off the tip of his chin. The glistening of the saliva was very apparent as it gathered on the corners of his mouth, his adrenalin pumping higher & higher as he delivered each word with more passion. The kerchief now appeared limp, sagging, as he continued to wipe his forehead, his entire face, as in desperation. The quoting of the selected bible verses continued to be delivered with demand, a demand for you to listen. Onward he proceeded as, with the licking of his index finger, he continued to flip through thin pages of the bible, hunting for quotes, searching each chapter. His determination was to back his message with proof, selecting words to prove what he each word he quoted was taken from the teachings of God.
His neatly combed black hair began to loosen with the mild jerking of his upper torso, he was beginning to feel the ‘spirit’ within him. With each word uttered his voice would climb another octave, his adrenaline continued to escalate as he bellowed out, “Have you sinned, do you know that God is watching you? God knows your evil action’s, He knows your wrong doing. You need to repent, you must repent, or you will face an eternity burning in Hell!’
With each sermon he delivered throughout the years, he continued to embe d even more fear into the minds of those people sitting there. Everyone in the tiny room was gazing upon him, listening intently, and clinging to every word he delivered; that is everyone but me. The congregation that had arrived for the evening service had entered the Church with meek smiles and solemn faces. They were now beginning to ‘let go‘, as they became more audible with the words, ‘praise the Lord, halleluiah,’ as stated earlier, I continued to sit there, waiting, watching.
Nowhere do I see my sisters or my Dad in this scene, only Mother. There she was, in her usual spot, the second person in on first row left of the center aisle. Due to her small bones and tiny frame, about 5’ 2”, just under 100 lbs, she appeared as a weakened individual, alone, actually feeble. I still see her shoulder length medium brown hair, her bangs feathered loosely across her forehead. She stood out from the others, with her fair completion and dark brown eyes, but I cannot say that I knew her. She was alone, and appeared to be blind to everyone seated around her. She had a look of despair, of genuine fright, like a lost child hoping to find someone to help her. Why had she chosen this church as her place of worship and why was she crying. What was she pleading to God for, an answer perhaps, but what was the question? The answer to this, at the time, I did not know, nor would it be something I could understand later in life.
As the sermon drew closer to reach its ‘boiling’ point, the people had truly began to loosen, speaking out with the repeat of ‘Hallelujah”,” Amen” and “Praise the Lord“. It was if they could finally say something, to speak out, to yell aloud to release the tightness they felt inside. Then, as with the end of every hour-long sermon, the preacher had paused, slowly closed the cover, and then grasped the Bible tightly, with both hands. The frown deepened across his forehead, the redness in his cheeks spoke of how surrounded he felt of Gods spirit at that moment. His knuckles were white when his next move shocked the congregation with vitality, he grasped the Bible with a strength that you would have thought was no longer there, then, with it held firmly in his right hand he thrust it high into the air as he delivered the closing words with passion. “Are you ready for the coming of the Lord! “, now it was the congregations time to decide. With the supporting words of “Amen” and “Hallelujah! “ increasing with repeats and momentum from the congregation, Brother Cecil paused then remained in a forward stance, as with total exhaustion, his elbows resting on the podium, his hands were limp off the outside edges.
His final move: His upper body strength was revitalized within a split second. With agility he now leaned forward as both hands grasped the front corners. His bold stare began thrusting the fear that a verdict, a sentence was ready to be delivered to each and every one of them. Did they have a reprimand from God pending, or punishment for any wrong doing waiting in God’s hands? Was it to be delivered from God with vengeance? Suddenly, with a new burst of energy, Brother Cecil directed his fist, one last time, to pound on the tiny podium in front of him, belching out, once again, that to be saved you must repent! His voice was as its highest octave now, his suit damp with perspiration, his breath sounding labored. His final words “kneel, come forward, you must be saved. Put your hands out to God, you have to allow Jesus in your life”. It was then my duty to position myself at the piano once again. I begin tapping the notes of a quiet hymn “Amazing Grace”. With the ‘calling’ hymn ‘beckoning’ the people to step forward, a few members, their cheeks wet with tears, fell to their knees and began praying. With this, Brother Cecil must have felt he had succeeded in convincing as many as he could, to repent.
Suddenly I noticed that Mom had extended her arms high above her shoulders; her face was wet with tears as she began pleading to God, or Jesus for something, but for what I do not know. The twenty to thirty people that had entered with meekness had now begun shouting and jumping as though electrical jolts were zapping their bodies. The members, who continued to plead to God be heard, were also speaking in ‘tongues’, or the ‘Holy Ghost‘, as it was identified. In this church it had been explained and expected, that this was a private language between you and God and that only he was suppose to understand, I hope he could, I certainly could not.
When the wailing, praying, shouting, and saving began to subside quietly I slipped away from the piano, out the front door to gaze at where I longed to be. Across the muddy two lane road, I stared at the bright lights and listened as the cheers were well heard at a distance; it was my High School football game. I walked over and gazed through the fence with jealousy. There was my sister Jean, her knees high in the air twirling her baton as she guided the band across the playing field during half time. She carried herself with pride, her blond hair reflected the stadium lights, and her developed body attracted the boys in abundance. Many of the girls envied my older sister. It was for the attention she received from all around, jealously was obvious, as in all high schools. I was jealous but was it due to her freedom over mine, or her attractiveness, I do not know. Then I gazed at Sue, she was the youngest of us three. She had the tiny bone structure of her Mother, our Mom. The ‘baby’ of the house was now a cheerleader. On the sidelines, in front of the bleachers, her face projected cuteness, and the giggles proved her happiness. Her legs were very exposed with her pleated cheerleader skirt, yet from the sermon I had just heard, was not that amount of bodily exposure considered a sin in the eyes of God. She had her ‘Pomp Pomp’s’ thrust high in the air, guiding the crowd to ‘root’ for the home team. The smiles, the chatting between her and her ‘cute’ cheerleader friends I was very envious.
They appeared to be unaware of the barrier between me and those two of them. They were on one side I was on the other with no connecting passage.
It would be a year later that we would enter into a house where we would be met with a tiny note that destroyed our family entirely. A Note, just a few words, but it would be those few words that tore our family apart, Mother had run away, she had escaped, our world rapidly crumbled.