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"Hush! Hush! Somebody's calling my name."

Beyond a shadow of doubt, that must have been their absolute favourite song. Why they had to have been the most hand patting, foot tapping, junk jointing, rump rumbling, butt bumping, holy rolling, tambourine thumping, tongue talking, rip roaring testifying, congregation [this side of the entire Mississippi] that I had ever heard in my life. That's precisely why I decided to place my membership there. I needed to find out what was going on. They had the nerve to call themselves African First Baptist Church. Why they weren't even a missionary baptist! I didn't care that much though, because door to dooring had never been my thing. Besides, I really didn't have the time or patience for it. Before the little storefront corner became African First, it had been known as the Greater Mount Olive of Galilee. Too lazy to consult my Bible in those days, I wondered if Mount Olive was really, really in Galilee and if this church was truly any "greater" than the ones before it. But I couldn't pronounce all those names of places I'd never been and would never go in this life anyway, so I wasn't about to challenge anybody else's biblical knowledge.

Greater Mount Olive had been a tiny church that never made too much noise at all except beneath whispered breaths and behind half closed eyes, along a telephone line, in a barber or beauty shop, or after an uneventful prayer meeting where gossip grew the best. To have a peaceful, sacred name like Dove, the pastor raised more hell than the foulest mind could ever imagine. Rev. Dove, a butt hungry, wrinkled, old coot, seemed to have a tremendous talent for seeking out the ailments of his distressed members. From way atop that pulpit, it seemed as though he could see deep into their souls and know precisely when a marriage was failing, a spouse had been unfaithful, or even when somebody was just plain bored with their lives. He knew instinctively that timing was important, so he'd wait until they were just about to fall apart at the seams or crack from the pressure or maybe melt into butter and sure enough he'd be right there to pick up the pieces, mend the cracks and lick that butter. Believe it or not the man resembled some kind of animal in the face and not a cute cuddly one either. He looked like a cross between a bear, bulldog and I believe that animal in another country called "kwalla" or something. And he had the nerve to be old! That's what I couldn't understand. Who would want some old man, even if he was a preacher? What could he possibly do for somebody? I just knew that his "healing wand" was reduced to the consistency of wilted cabbage. So what was it?

I finally figured that it was that timing of his, reaching for folks at their lowest, truly lowest point, that and the fact that he was a man of power being the head of a congregation and all. Not many black folk could boast of a position where they were actually running or controlling something outside their own lives or the lives of their families [if they were indeed doing that]. Times were hard for everybody then as they have always been. Seeing a man that ran things, that took charge with some semblance of confidence and dignity [even if only half way right] gave folks hope. made them feel good and sometimes made them surrender. Besides all that, Rev. Dove could preach. From his holy helm he could make them forget their troubles if only for a minute.

After a long, long history of having his own way, old, pug-nosed Dove, Rev. Dove, finally began to slip a bit in his old age. His timing was off. He no longer caught folks at their most vulnerable moments and grabbed after them any moment he could He even began soliciting the "favors" of the wrong people. I remember him hobbling up to me once; with that limp of his, he still could manage to slide his slimy self up to somebody. He asked me about service that morning, if I enjoyed it. By the time he got to talking about "feeling the fire", he had managed to ease his slimy self up to me and push his hands from my shoulder to the side of my breast while he tried to press that raggedy sack of chittlins between his legs into me hip bone [like I was honestly supposed to feel something].

"Rev. Dove." I said, just a huffing, trying to remember the respect my folks had taught me to always, always have for my elders, "if you ever get that close to me and lay your hands on me again, I will momentarily risk losing my soul to the devil just long enough to haul off and smack the shit out of you. Do you understand?" Excuse my language, but those were my "hey days", you understand. Regaining the poise and patience of my little bit of religion, I then smiled right politely and added, "Now you have yourself a real nice afternoon."

After stooping to pick his face and that sad sack of spoiled chittlins off the floor, he wobbled away without a word and ever so much as looked me in the eyes again thought he always managed to a glimpse of my behind. I could always tell when he did it and it felt right nasty. I couldn't blame him though because I did have one of the biggest behinds in the Church and I figured for that he couldn't help himself as long as he didn't touch me again. He was not the only one who looked. For me to be smacking forty, my behind was still awfully big. How could he help it?

Shortly after that, Rev. Dove began drowning in a cesspool of murky from the filth of his own carelessness. He began soliciting the tender affections of teenaged girls and boys whom he called in for special "counseling." Some of the young girls became pregnant and dragged themselves to the altar and begged for forgiveness. Pardoned by the mothers and deacons who each dried their tears and laid hands on them and prayed, they were "restored" to good standing in the church. I pitied those young girls wet with shame which no doubt affected in some negative way the babies they carried. I pitied the young girls but sat in disgust watching the restoration ritual.

Those doing all the forgiving were often the keepers of some of the biggest mess going on in church. Why, just two months prior, during their monthly fishing trip. Deacon Crawford and his sanctified drinking buddies had run his '67 convertible off the road and into the creek. Now you tell me what business does an old church Deacon have with a convertible? In a panic, the men commenced to hollering and fighting one another to get the doors open which of course were sealed by water pressure. No one seemed to notice that they were in the convertible with the top down. Suddenly Big Bertha Mae Tolliver with her loud self yelled from the other side of the creek, "Jump over the side!" Somebody who saw the incident called the police. The officers who sought to charge Deacon Crawford for reckless and drunk driving had to tie him down and pump a pot of coffee down his throat before he could begin to comprehend his rights.

And don't get me started about the Mothers. Sweet Mother Briscoe made her rounds all about town in her juke joint era. Even while on the Mother's board, she was known to satisfy several of the Deacons as well as Pastor Dove himself until he got tired of her. That's the reason why none of the other Mothers cared for her, especially our first lady, Sister Dove. I remember one time after service, when the two of them fell out fighting and rolled down the center aisle with fist and hair and skirts just a flapping. Of course that was talked about for the entire year by grown folks and children alike.

Besides all of that, I never saw a single young man accompany of those scared, young girls who had thrust themselves into womanhood much too soon. Members finally admitted the possibility that at least one or two of these babies could have belonged to Rev. Dove. The young girls, however, refused to confess his involvement. Strangely, even after being restored, they cried often in church; many soon left the church altogether.

Rev. Dove finally exhausted the patience of his members when he began approaching men in the church for "favors and pleasuring". Without the slightest hesitation, these men masterminded Rev. Dove's exile from his beloved Greater Mount Olive of Galilee. And old Dove, as they now called him, many feared that he had gone senile or just plain crazy. They felt sorry for him. Me, myself, I felt no sympathy for the old man but wished him comfort in the remaining years of his life. Nonetheless, anger grated on my nerves for no one ever took the charges and complaints against him seriously when only woman and children were the victims. Only when the men complained did the congregation warrant any necessary action.

With the removal of their leader, the members of Greater Mount Olive bickered and wounded one another hopelessly. Many moved their membership until the church dwindled down to nothing and finally disbanded. The lifeless storefront stood vacant and lonely for many a year until African First.

"Hush! Hush! Somebody's calling my name."

Shango ushered himself and his merry band into town with little or no fanfare at all. They settled themselves quickly into the little store front and carried on services seven days a week. With such a tiny membership, folks were hardly interested at first, but a few of us decided to check out the happening. With all the buzz about, visitors filtered in Sunday after Sunday to see if the new preacher was really a "man of God" [as if they honestly had some academic or scientific notion of how to figure such out]. Many would leave abruptly in disgust after they noticed that the monumental portrait of Jesus that had always watched over Greater Mount Olive of Galilee had been replaced. I always assumed that that Jesus would reach down one day and just stomp on old Dove with his ornery self standing up in the pulpit, adorned as a man of the cloth when he was really a man of a smelly, molded rag.

Well Shango had taken that picture of the golden, silky-haired, kind-eyed, pale-faced Jesus (who didn't look like anybody that ever set foot in that church) down and replaced it with the picture of a colored man or black man as Shango would say. This man, dressed in colorful robes, with deep maple skin and pitch-black peering eyes above high, sharp cheek bones and a nose as wide as my behind had a halo of the nappiest hair I had ever seen. Now why the Almighty in his infinite wisdom would create a nappy headed Savior like that, I don't know. Can you imagine Mary whipping that head every morning for ten years? No wonder Joseph didn't want to claim Him before that angel laid down the law. I'm sure none of the other children in Bethlehem looked like this. More than anybody this jungle Jesus looked more like Elroy McGinnis the notorious town drunk and begger who was an excellent handyman on the few occasions that he was sober.

Well many of the visiting members, curious like I said, would waltz in and run up on that colored Jesus and turn right back around and hit the door. How dare that heathen, Shango, mock God and everything they had been taught to believe all of their lives! Elroy McGinnis, however, really didn't seem to be bothered at all by the hoopla. As a matter of fact, after backsliding for years off the ripple of that wine, he had the nerve to start coming to church every Sunday. I don't know if he ever heard a word Shango said or what the choir sang. He sat there puffed up in a trance admiring that picture like he was wondering what he would do if he were Jesus.

African First Baptist Church solidified its distance from the rest of the religious community in a number of ways. First of all, like I said when I started telling this story, they was a juke jointing church. The choir [often robed in African prints with many bright colors that some of them had absolutely no business wearing] couldn't settle on the sanctity of a piano and organ with the occasional tambourine. Why they commenced to hootin' and hollerin' with the accompaniment of drums, African Drums, bass guitars, saxophones, shaking gourds, cymbals and anything else that would make noise. "If these hold their peace," Shango would bellow, "the rocks shall cry out." Well frankly I'm surprised the rocks didn't. You would think that rocks from all over the countryside and beyond would just tumble into town at any minute and hold themselves a holy roller convention right on the corner of African First Baptist. The members rambled and rocked and shouted so in that church until if you passed by at the right time and looked hard enough, you could see the whole building sway slightly from side to side with the music. I kid you not! Once in a while, members would burst through the doors shouting and carrying on something fierce. A few members or so even broke through the store front window and the stained glass on the sides. Ushers would come racing behind them with fans and handkerchiefs. Did they really think that they could water the burning of the spirit?

I joined African First at first out of the curiosity so that I would have something to report back to the ladies meeting in town each week. Soon I began to enjoy myself and figured that the good Lord himself, or "Creator" as Shango called him, probably looked in on African First to have Himself a good time. So why shouldn't I? What with all the troubles of the world, God needed to shout and laugh, dance a little [holy dance, that is] and enjoy Himself too.

Attending African First was always a sight to see. Not only were choir members colorfully adorned, but every member on the Mothers Board wore her head wrapped or covered, sometimes in colored cloths. Sometimes with big, beautiful hats sitting acey ducey. Shango mandated that these Mothers crown their heads to command a respect and sacredness for their age and wisdom and work in the community. Members of the deacon board no longer wore dark stiff suits; they hustled about the church in colors of their choice and wore printed bands [sometimes with tassels] about their necks and shoulders that often matched the colored cloth of the woman's head pieces. Members of both organizations were held in the highest esteem in the church. Their opinions were solicited and trusted to wholeheartedly though each member was cautioned to "serve the Creator for himself" and know the boundaries and requirements of his own "Creation Contract" [an exclusive personal kind of agreement and communication between a man or woman and his or her God].

Unlike most churches that I had attended, the choir was not divided into groups according to age. Everybody who felt that he or she was called, sang with the choir. From the tiniest, who could barely walk; to the oldest, who could barely walk. No one seemed to mind how low or soft, fast or slow, jazzy or spiritual the music. They all sang and praised and waited patiently and supported one another. Sometimes the music and songs would last for hours and hours in a rapid frenzy, or softly in simple, sweet peace. Children and babies, moved by this music, roamed freely often falling asleep in the aisles or against the walls. Someone was always handy to look after them.

African First Baptist had the usual Wednesday night worship and prayer service on Sunday evenings, but they always did things in their own way, in a colored folks way. They never attended the conventions or programs of other churches and never were really invited in the first place. Rarely was a member ever sick, and I don't recall anybody dying. Babies came several a year and Shango spoke often of being grateful for the "new seeds" that had "sprouted". Children and elders were the first in line at Africa First. All kinds of programs were set up in church to meet their needs. Youth activities for all ages were plentiful with after school goings on, day care and special courses that lasted all year long. Parents came and often participated with their children. The programs for the elderly were service oriented. Meal programs, outings, field trips, exercise classes and games, took place all the time. At any event the elders took "special seats" near the front and were personally escorted. No church affair concluded without parting words of wisdom or story telling and testifying from at least one of the elders. With so much to do, I guess none of them had the time to be very sick or die.

Young adults, single and married, with children and childless, took classes at various times during the week. As "the bridge between the young and old, birth and death," they were the hardest workers and organizers and hardly seemed to have time to grumble or gossip. I missed the gossip at first but quickly got used to not having any, and finally didn't seem to even care. We all knew one another s names, one another's history, family, likes and dislikes. Disagreements, arguments even a fight or two would break out as normal, but laughter and love eased all wounds and erased memories before their grudging time. After all, members of African First simply had too much to do.

I soon had no time for ladies meetings in town and grew very tired of "Girl, what's going on at that militant church of yours?" I no longer wanted to hear the bickering and debate, "How dare they call themselves 'African' first? Aren't they just plain niggers like anybody else?" I didn't care about being African, American, nigger or anybody at all first anymore. I had found a community, a family that fit the needs of my own family amidst a world that could be cruel and uncaring. Colored children, thrust into the anger and hate of a black and white world, needed special arms to hold them, rock them to sleep, make them rise in the morning with dreams on their breath while giving them vision to give birth those dreams. At African First, I was finally satisfied and anybody who questioned my satisfaction would have to lump it.

Shango often spoke of the great day when African First souls would have to "leave this place." "Brothers and sisters," he'd always begin in that same way, "our ancestors have bled and died awfully painful deaths so that we might have the opportunities that we have this day. Contrary to what much of history prepares us to believe, the black man resisted the chains of bondage long before Malcolm and Martin, long before Frederick Douglas, long before Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and many, many others. Black men, women and children began resisting the chains of bondage even before their journey across the Middle Passage. Some threw their chains to the waves in resistance and drowned in the blessed peace of the waters. Others fed their very own flesh to the treacherous jaws of sharks circling before the ship. Still others crossed that passage and upon reaching these shores, they revolted. Remembering the many tortured with sickness, starvation and cruelty, recalling the ceaseless cries of their loved ones and foreseeing the suffering yet to come for their children and future generations, they gathered their loved ones and all those chains, and with souls searing in anger again they stepped off the boat. And refusing death in the waters this time, from the boat they began to just walk on the ocean and the cries from the many graves murmuring beneath the waters rose up under their feet and formed a pathway leading to the air. And they kept on walking until the pain and anguish in their bodies began to take root and sprout wings. Can't you see them, children? Breaking loose from their shackles and casting away their chains, their wings cut the wind, and they suddenly began to fly. Without pain and regrets, they flew away; without fear in their hearts, they flew away. Without worry of where they might land or how they would feed their children or concern of what anybody else thought, they just kept on flying away. They flew, children, hah' Leaving whispers in the air for us to hear and revere this very day, they flew away!" With these words cried out from tears, shouts of joy and faraway eyes, Shango settled back into himself. "Let us not forget to honor those who chose to stay in this place and plant the seeds that we might be here at this moment. Though we still suffer from time to time, we are a resilient people rebounding from one terror to another. And so we remain but only for a short while longer, children. African First has now sown its own seeds and done the deeds of the Creator's calling. With our knees rooted in the earth from centuries of service, the harvest awaits us. We won't stay 'round here much longer.

In the great way of colored folk, black people, the rhythm had taken over by this time and words were needed no longer. Rhythms ripped across the organ, clipped the treble of the ivories, boomed in the belly of the bass and then screamed through the agony of the saxophone. Even though the tongues of tambourines shouted as the drums [both visible and invisible] had their way all about the church. Young and old alike sep danced in the aisles, about the pulpit and all through the choir stand. No one but me seemed to notice when one of the pews fell back and slammed against the floor with not a soul injured. Fans flew up in the air and handkerchiefs darted about. By this time I could no longer hold my own peace and remember nothing thereafter but the closing hymn.

"Hush! Hush! Somebody's calling my name."

My family and I just happened to miss that last Sunday. We had been out of town to see my husband's people. His father, a very ill man, had requested that we bring the children up to see him while he lay yet in his right mind. Tired from the long journey home, I awoke the next morning with that song turning over and over in my mind. I roamed the house and checked on the children and decided to let them sleep a little longer. I considered going to worship by myself that morning but settled instead on a cup of hot coffee in the rare silence of the house for a couple of hours.

Early the next morning, I headed off to church because I was on the special committee for the annual ceremony honouring our eldest members, Astonished I approached the little corner to see no hustling and bustling about and not even a light inside. The door unlocked, I figured someone had to leave and would come right back. I entered the sanctuary to find a hazy film of I don't know what hanging in the air. Colorful robes with their shells, lace dresses with matching hats, suits and ties, shoes and socks, canes and walkers, strollers and umbrellas lay lifeless all about the altar, aisles and pews. Even the one suit that Elroy McGinnis owned sat silently in its same place.

Heart heavy I turned and left that old storefront church on its corner. Though asked a hundred questions and interviews several times, I never told a soul. Who would believe me any way? The newspapers said that it was a distasteful joke, a dirty trick that the congregation had played "knowing they were not wanted in this town." I knew better and only wished that my family and I had attended service that day.

Years have passed since African First's homegoing. From time to time I just take my time and linger at that corner. Sometimes when I am there by myself and the streets are right quiet, the building seems to rock just slightly from side to side, and I am comforted as I hear echoes of the souls singing, "Hush! Hush! Somebody's calling my name." And I work and laugh and work and wait for my own name to be called.
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Author:Madison-Shaw, Tamara
Article Type:Short story
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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