light in the window
I've had a bit of a heavy heart since this afternoon when a memory surfaced in conversation with a friend of many years, of some people we knew who have been dead 20 years. I'd been a member of the Regular Baptist Church in Glade Valley, Laurel Glenn, 14 years, went regularly because I loved it. I loved the people in the church, all of them. They were the people I felt the very closest to. People I could count on and they could count on me. In the beginning, Millard Pruitt, the preacher, told me it was my duty to go to church regularly. I told him I don't do duty. Duty is mechanical. I go to church when I want to go. It just happened I wanted to every meeting time. To his way of thinking, I was fulfilling my duty. To my way of thinking, I was going because I wanted to. If there were any preachers Millard Pruitt's equal in the county, I wouldn't know who they'd be. Millard had the spirit something awful, in the old way of putting it when awful meant full of awe. I'm grateful every year of my life I have experienced Elder Millard Pruitt's preaching. A lot of people didn't like him, but nobody could deny his preaching.
A time came when the light went out in my heart for the church and one morning heading out the door, I put my hand on the screen door to push it open and couldn't do it. I stood there, hand on door, unable to move. I didn't want to go. I said, 'Ok. You don't have to.' Next meeting time I couldn't go either. There came a time I realized something had died inside. At the time I thought it was that Millard was unable to preach any more and this man who got some kind of crazy notion he was called to preach came in to take his place. I couldn't leave the house to go listen to him run his mouth, "trying to talk." Meaning nowhere near preaching. He was a good old boy, good natured as anybody could be, had extended himself to help people around him in whatever kind of need all his life. If he was called to preach, the preaching never happened. It got to the place I couldn't listen to him any more.
But something before that made it easy, when otherwise I might not have been able to leave the church. One day maybe less than a year ago it came to me what put the light out that was in my heart. The day Sabe Choate, the old black farmer whose land surrounded the church's lot on 3 sides, whose house was the next house up the road, dropped in on a meeting in his Alzheimer time. Sabe grew up in that church house as it was originally a black church bought by the Regular Baptists. The cemetery Sabe would be buried in was across the road. During the meeting I saw an old man hat go by the window opposite where I sat. I wondered who would be coming to the meeting this late. I don't recall anyone coming in that late to a meeting. At the door in a suit, holding his hat in his hands in front, standing at the threshold looking at the floor appeared Sabe Choate, far away in Alzheimer absence of mind. My heart wept seeing him. Millard said, 'Come on in, Sabe.'
Old man Sabe stepped in the door and sat in the same seat I sat in my first time. I sat there with Sabe on my mind the whole time, the years I'd known Sabe, 14 years, him stopping by on his tractor when I was there mowing the lawn and every 4 years painting the house, to talk a little bit and tell me the Lord's gonna bless me for what I'm doing. I came to know him well enough to know there was no better man on this earth than Sabe Choate in God's eye. Anyone who ever knew him would readily affirm it. I was holding back tears from seeing Sabe in the shape he was in, as well as immense respect for Millard, because I wasn't sure he'd ask Sabe to come in. After the preaching and the singing, we all set about shaking hands with each other singing the last song. I went straight to Sabe and shook his hand about to lose it seeing him like that. I went around shaking hands with the others and began to notice nobody went to shake Sabe's hand. Everyone walked by him like he was invisible. If I'd thought about it, I'd have been ready, but I hadn't thought about it and was not ready.
I told myself, 'You're in the South. This is their culture, their church, their beliefs, I'm not here to change any of that. I'm here to accept.' I let it go, forced myself to pay it no mind, while my soul was in tears. When we were going out the door, people standing around in small groups talking, I heard Sabe's car cranking but not starting. I went around to see if I could help him. He kept on grinding the starter until the battery started weakening. I stopped him so the battery wouldn't go dead; we might need it. We raised the hood and looked at the motor as if either one of us would know what to look for or do. We put the hood down and he went back to cranking it. Not 15 feet away the alternate preacher and a deacon were talking. Neither of them looked our way, never offered a hand, acting like we were invisible and inaudible. The car finally caught hold and sputtered into motion. Sabe backed out and putt-putted up the road to home. Inside, I was a wreck insisting to myself I not judge these two men who had nothing for their church's neighbor, people who have gone to church all their lives, the deacon the son of a preacher. I told myself over and over, this is the South, let it rest.
The day I stood at the screen door unable to push it open, I didn't consciously know the Sabe Choate incident had made it easy for me to stay at home. A light had gone out inside and I felt the church and everyone in it were far away, somehow not so much my people any more. Today, in town talking about it, I felt a great deal of sorrow. Then, arriving home, going through emails and computer stuff, Sabe came back to mind. I put my head in my hand and the tears flew. I was thinking how glad I am I shook Sabe's hand instead of following the lead of the others. God was there. God saw it. God did not judge them, but I know God wept, because my soul wept. I sat with head in hand and tears going, thinking I'd have carried intense guilt the rest of my life if I hadn't gone to Sabe to shake his hand, among the most honorable men I've ever known, and none more humble. I wondered if I'd be able to tell you the story without turning passionate and going into a rant. But I have no rant about it. It's just among the saddest moments of my life that ran way deeper than I knew. It turns out that's where I lost confidence in church. I'm unable to join another, though I like to visit from time to time for the beauty and the love of it.