Down in the River to Pray

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Author: admin Tags: chapter one
Free Will Baptist Church

On Sunday mornings, we drive down the windy road to the little white Southern Free Will Baptist Church.

“…take one down, pass it around, thirty-nine bottles of beer on the wall…,” Sadie and I sing the whole way.

The church is tiny but not stuffy like my aunt Martha’s church with its high ceilings and stained glass windows where they all stand and sing from the hymnals in opera-like manner to the sound of an organ. No, these people are boisterous and happy and crank out music on guitars and banjos.

Beatrice is my favorite – a short, round woman who hugs each of us when we walk in the door like she hasn’t seen us in years. Her father is the pastor and her mother and siblings and their families are sprinkled around the pews in a welcoming manner. When the band plays a slow worship tune, the sound of praise rattles the windows, and Beatrice randomly lets out a long, low-pitched holler like she has just seen Jesus himself. I know the words to every song and sometimes I get goose bumps, but I never have the urge to scream like that. I try not to turn my head, but I have to see for myself what it looks like when someone is being possessed by the Lord.

The small room in the back is reserved for a nursery, so anyone over the age of five has to sit through the long, dreadful sermon. Pastor Mark insists that, “God ought not be timed,” and carries on sometimes for hours. He pounds his fist on the pulpit, and spit flies from his mouth when he gets excited. “BROTHER LISTEN” is slurred at the beginning of each new breath, and every word seems to come from a very painful place. Sadie either tries to make me laugh out loud or rustles through the dry-rotted pages of the Bibles and then slinks down in her seat slowly until she ends up on the floor, testing my mother’s ability not to kill her in a sanctuary. When it’s over and the piano starts back up, Beatrice and her sister join their father at the front to call up anyone who wants to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. Sadie flashes me a sly smile and marches to the front, kneeling down on the bottom step while they each place a hand on the back of her head or shoulders and lift the other to heaven, praying loudly over the music for her soul.

Sadie gets saved a lot.

Mother and Sadie are baptized together. They want me to do it too, but it sounds sketchy. Like, does it pardon all of your sins or just the ones people know about? Either way, I don’t feel like I’m ready to be good all the time. And I don’t want to start screaming like Beatrice.

The entire congregation piles into their cars at the end of service and drives down to the river. Nearly seventy-five people stand around to watch. My mother is so pretty in her navy blue dress with the tiny flowers and lace around the neck. She doesn’t need makeup and only touches on a hint of rose blush for special occasions like this. First, Pastor Mark wades out into the murky brown water up to his waist, continuing in another sort of mini-sermon before reaching out for her to join him. He prays once again before laying her backwards under the water. The church family is waiting with dry towels when she emerges, and then Sadie is called out to do the same. I’m sure she’s just doing it for grins and not the intended goodness that my mother hopes for, but Sadie’s fearlessness is admirable. I am afraid of everything. Apparently even God.

When we get back into the minivan, Sadie shouts out a big, “Yes!” and not for the washing away of her sins but the fact that the digital radio clock in the car reads 12:34 p.m. She has appointed herself to announce when it’s 1-2-3-4 every Sunday on the way home from church, and we haven’t missed it.