Written by M.J.C
“Where Then is My Hope – Who Can See any Hope for Me?” -Job 17:15
Sunday church is a weekly homecoming. A celebration and commemoration of all things. An acknowledgement that God kept his word and protected churchgoers from “the world,” and proved his love by allowing everyone to wake up, have shelter, have food, and not be in the hospital, jail, or dead.
It was the culmination of a process that started hundreds of years ago and to be respectful meant coming to church dressed up. Not just dressed up like going to a job interview, no, dressed up as if you were going to meet the Lord Jesus Christ himself. The men and boys were in colorful suits and shiny shoes. In any other setting, anywhere in or out of the church world, the men and boys would stand out.
But not here and not on a Sunday.
Today was the day the lord had made, they’d all quote, but it was the day that the women took all the spotlight. The clothes were beyond colorful. And, like the men in their shiny suits, in any other setting in or out of church, the women’s clothes would steal all the attention.
But not here and not on a Sunday.
Today was the day of colorful, saved and sanctified, holy-ghost inspired, and impressive to men, Jesus and, especially the other women in the church – hats. Or, Hats.
The Hats were extra large, or small, some had flowers, others multi-colored scarves and silks, while others had brooches, buttons, or feathers from unknown birds. Some covered the women’s face, while others just covered the top of their foreheads. Some were tilted to the side in an extreme tilt, while others needed such a wide birth the woman wearing it had to walk through the doorway alone – as she preferred. And the hats seemed to be more extreme the older the woman wearing it. It was a parade of the faithful and of the mothers and daughters of God.
And they were on their way into the church to again hear how they, in all their splendor of colorful beauty, the cause of all the sin in the world.
It was, it seemed to Jamaal, a celebration of the baseline that God could do for black folk and Jamaal wondered why God didn’t do more if he was so great and loving like he’d been taught to believe.
With the revival breakdown the night before, word had gotten out and the church was crowded like Easter Sunday. Everyone wanted to see what would happen on Sunday (nothing) and to talk (gossip) about what had happened Saturday night.
In his grandfather’s office, Jamaal sat quietly and listened as his grandfather told the Regional Bishop what had happened the night before.
The Regional Bishop – Ross W. L. Patton or, “WL,” as he was called, listened intently. He was invited by Jamaal’s grandfather to help finish the revival and get the member’s minds off the loud mouth evangelist so they could all put it behind them. Jamaal’s grandfather wanted WL to address the issue and to help them all move forward.
WL was a slight man with salt and pepper black hair. He was widowed and always traveled with an entourage of well-dressed men who were younger than him. They were preachers, musicians, singers, and other hangers on, and they were WL’s “helpers.”
“Well.” WL, started, “you had too much excitement. I will help calm the church down. I am glad you called me. Although you called too late — much too late. You interrupted my sleep.” And he laughed a slightly high-pitched laugh, and his entourage laughed with him.
Jamaal just watched.
“I can’t stay long, so I will speak before the choir sings. How much money was the evangelist hoping to raise today?” WL asked Jamaal’s grandfather.
“Two-thousand,” Jamaal’s grandfather answered quickly.
“Two-thousand,” WL repeated softly, while staring at Jamaal’s grandfather.
“I’ll take twenty-eight hundred then. You can keep anything above that,” WL said matter of factly.
“Yes sir,” Jamaal’s grandfather agreed. He agreed too quickly, Jamaal thought.
They all motioned toward the door to leave, and Jamaal hung back.
WL moved to the door and before he did, he walked to Jamaal and held out his hand to shake.
Jamaal extended his hand.
WL had smaller hands that were soft. Jamaal’s hands easily enveloped WL’s hands.
Jamaal felt WL’s middle finger scratching the palm of Jamaal’s hand. He looked WL in the eye but didn’t say anything.
Then WL said quietly: “I have room in my church for young men with large hands like yours, son.”
Jamaal pulled his hand away and WL walked through the door and into the church.
Jamaal’s grandfather was now standing aside Jamaal.
“Jamaal, don’t let him bother you.”
“Okay,” Jamaal replied.
“When Sis Julie counts the money tonight, tell her to set aside five-hundred for me, make sure WL gets all the checks – he can deal with the bad checks – and place any “IOU’s in his payout. And his payout will be two-thousand dollars, no matter how much comes in. You understand?”
“Yes, sir.” Jamaal said and they exited the office and went into the sanctuary.
The choir sang fantastically, as they tended to do in front of large crowds and when Bishop was on time and neither drunk nor hungover. And when Felicia was there, Jamaal thought as he stared at her while she sang. She was leading the song and she was as pretty as ever, with her thick and curly hair all over the place, bright red lipstick that the older church mothers would certainly be mad about, and her skirt too short, but now covered by her purple and gold choir robe. Jamaal hoped she would talk to him after church. Maybe they could go to the car again later, he he thought, hoped, wished, and maybe even prayed for.
WL spoke for only a few minutes about the prior night’s activities and, because of his position, the church was fired up at his few boring and non-impactful words, Jamaal thought. He had none of the traditional verbal skills nor charisma of most black preachers in his position. How did he even get to that level, Jamaal wondered.
Then his grandfather took over to raise the offering, but not before talking about how “the devil himself was in the church last night and how the devil, tried to drive God out and take away everyone’s testimony and salvation.”
“We can’t let the devil think he can take over God’s church, can we?” Jamaal’s grandfather started the call and response that wasn’t normally part of the offering part of church service, but this was different, Jamaal knew, because they needed to raise a lot of money today. So Jamaal’s grandfather pushed and pushed and appealed and appealed for more.
He raised money with skill, patience, guilt, shame, begging, crying, and passionate words about how “God’s work had to go on and we can’t let the Devil win now or ever!”
WL just watched with a silly grin on his face and Jamaal knew why: WL thought Jamaal’s grandfather was raising money for him; but Jamaal knew that was not true at all. His grandfather was raising money for himself (and Sis Julie, Jamaal laughed to himself).
Jamaal marveled at his grandfather’s stamina as he stood there talking folk out of their hard-earned money, social security checks, drug proceeds, loans, and whatever else sources provided the money that ended up funding the church, evangelists, pastors, Regional Bishops, some Deacons, musicians, and a few others. Almost all the money that was paid out went to men.
Most members were women, almost all leaders were men, and almost all the money went to men.
And yet women were the cause of all the sin in the world, Jamaal thought sarcastically. It was a well refined hustle covered in religious piety, salvation, and guilt trips. Most things that could be considered “fun” were also considered “Of the world” and therefore not “Of God.” It was another sinister way of keeping money in the church and thus, in the hands of those few men.
All sex was sin. Women needed to obey their husbands. Domestic violence was ignored with the only responses alternating between “Pray for them both” to “She needs to stay with him and remain prayerful.” There was little care for abused children – as long as the police didn’t get involved – or other social issues. The answer was always: prayer, stop sinning – especially girls and women, and give more money to the church.
I’ll be stuck in this church for a few more years, Jamaal thought wistfully.
His grandfather finally finished raising money. Jamaal went with Sis Julie to count the money, and he told her how much she could take. She was glad, but she also said: “I’ll agree to his amount but that doesn’t mean I will always do what he says. He won’t bother me much. I know him, Jamaal. You’re too young to know but trust me. Your grandfather hasn’t always been holy. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Sis Julie took her money, gave Jamaal fifty dollars in $5.00 denominations, and wrote exactly what his grandfather asked her to write on the envelope.
Then she stood up, pulled Jamaal’s face to hers and kissed him. Longer and deeper than the last time, while also pressing her body on him. Jamaal stood frozen. And thought of Felicia so that once Sis Julie was finished kissing him, he took out a handkerchief that he brought with him today and wiped her lipstick off of his mouth. He was proud that he had planned ahead this time.
Jamaal’s grandfather announced that the amount of money raised exceeded expectations and asked the members triumphantly: AIN’T GOD GOOD? CAN’T HE DO IT? AIN’T GOD GOOOODDDD!!
And the church broke out in song, dancing, and shouting and praising God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost.
Jamaal’s grandfather handed the envelope to Regional Bishop Ross W.L. Patton while thanking him for visiting and helping the church get through the evangelist’s meltdown.
“You are welcome, friend. I am glad I could help. Also, great job raising all that money.”
Then WL walked to the door.
“Oh, I forgot, he said, turning around. Your annual tribute at our next yearly holy convocation just doubled. I know you raised all that money and kept a nice profit for yourself – you forget how long I’ve been in the game, friend. So, I’ll see you soon and I expect all your tribute money to be paid on day one. Day one.”
Then WL walked to the door, where Jamaal opened the door for him to exit.
“Young man, I expect you to be there at the holy convocation, too. I like how you’re growing up.”
“Okay,” was all Jamaal could say. He knew he would be at the convocation because he had to drive his grandfather. He also knew he would try to stay far away from WL.
“You’ve been kissing on Sis Julie again, haven’t you, Jamaal?” Felicia asked and stated when she and Jamaal were outside the church saying their goodbyes.
“She kissed me,” was all Jamaal could say. How does she even know, Jamaal wondered.
Jamaal couldn’t figure it out.
“Did you try to stop her or even tell her that you don’t want her kissing you with her old self?”
“No. I didn’t know what to say (and I really enjoyed it)” Jamaal said meekly.
“Do you like kissing her more than me then?”
“No. I like kissing you more.”
“I just do.” Jamaal didn’t know what to say; he was just trying to make sure Felicia didn’t stay mad at him. And didn’t stop kissing him.
“You sure have a funny way of showing me how much you like kissing me, when you’re kissing on old Sis Julie and all you do with me is say “Okay” and “I don’t know” and “Maybe.” Don’t you?
“Okay. Yes. No. I don’t know what to say.”
Felicia just laughed. Jamaal didn’t know why. And he didn’t know why he was so hot right now.
“Okay, well, I’m sure you’ll figure it out soon enough. You’re young. And cute. And one day you’ll be a good kisser. I may help you get there. Bye.”
And with that, Felicia smiled, touched Jamaal’s shoulder, and walked away.
Jamaal thought Felicia would kiss him. That’s what always happened on TV and the movies. He decided that maybe TV and movies aren’t always accurate about love.
“The evangelist won’t come back. I made sure of it.” Jamaal’s grandfather said on the ride home.
“Good,” Jamaal said. The most forceful comment he could muster without using bad words.
“I heard you’re getting good at kissing the ladies.”
“Mmmhmm.” Was all Jamaal could muster. He did not want to have this conversation with his grandfather.
His grandfather continued talking.
“Nothing wrong with being a lady’s man, son. Despite what we preach, women aren’t all that bad. Most of them anyway. Ain’t nothing like sex, though. Get all you can before you get married. Use rubbers because you don’t need babies and you can’t support any. Plus, you never know who has a disease. Women will trap you. They are easy so you don’t have to pay for sex. Although, we all pay in the long run. Don’t fall in love fast because if she spreads her legs for you, she’ll spread them for somebody else. Taste the milk before you buy it to make sure it ain’t spoiled. Don’t be gay. Nobody likes that. The church is too hard on it and I preach that same message; I don’t believe it’s all bad though. A hole is a hole. It’s not for me but I know a lot of gay folk in and out of the church. But don’t YOU be gay. Stay away from all those gay singers and musicians. And preachers.”
“Okay.” Was all Jamaal could answer to all he’d just heard. Years later he’d remember this conversation as his sex education.
They were home now and Jamaal turned the car off and opened his door.
His grandfather touched his shoulder, stopping Jamaal from getting out of the car.
Jamaal knew his grandfather was about to say something important, so he stopped and looked at him in the eye, something he rarely did.
“Jamaal. Sis Julie kissed you because I told her to. I wanted you to experience some variety and something different than what Felicia would do.”
Jamaal was listening intently now.
“I have a special friendship with Sis Julie. It’s none of your business or anyone else’s. So, leave her alone. Felicia is your speed, not Sis Julie. And I think you will like what Felicia can do for and with you. She’s very talented, too.”
He let go of Jamaal’s shoulder and exited the car.
Jamaal sat in the car for a few more minutes, confused, angry, and mad.
His grandfather’s voice jolted Jamaal back to the present: “Come on Jamaal. We need our rest. The church anniversary starts tomorrow and we will be in church every night next week. It should be glorious and I am praying that God blesses us all. Let’s get our rest.”
“Okay.” Jamaal said, and got out of the car. He needed to get caught up on all his homework for last week because there was a new batch of assignments coming tomorrow, he thought.
Jamaal’s last thought before falling asleep was a thought about hope and wondered if there was any hope for him at all.
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