January 5, 2016

New year brings back old church memories

     Despite what our children claim, I cannot remember the day I was born.  However, I do recall the ride home from Ritch-Leaphart Hospital.  My undertaker dad was behind the wheel of the 1947 black Cadillac hearse that doubled as an ambulance for Harrison Funeral Home. In the back, I was nestled on a feather pillow—stuffed into a starched white cotton pillowcase—inside a chocolate-brown wire basket.  Mother was sitting beside me, cooing to her second-born.
     You may doubt that recollection, but you can bank on these:
If the lights were turned on at First Baptist Church, Big Dink and Margie had my sisters and me scrubbed up and ready. My first memory was holding their hands, walking up the wooden steps of the sanctuary, which once sat on Macon Street, across from SunTrust Bank.  In those days, the bus station anchored the corner of Macon and Plum streets.
     The early 1950s buzz was that the church was moving across the railroad tracks.  Weathered clapboard was being traded for a massive brick structure that snugged up to Plum Street on Brunswick Street.  And one by one, over the years, the Albritton, Tyson, Kicklighter, Bennett and Littlefield houses, along with several more, were taken down for expansion.
     Hanging in our house is a picture of the Jordan River that stirs flashbacks to 1957.  The sanctuary is now a fellowship hall, but I can mark—with chalk—the spot where I was sitting that May Sunday when Don Surrency played “Just as I Am” on the organ.  The Rev. Floyd Jenkins stood down front, beckoning new believers—young and old—“to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior” and join the church.  Startling my pay-rents, as Brother Jenkins called them, I slid out of the pew and made that walk down the maroon-carpeted aisle.  I was 9 years old, but I am getting ahead of myself.
      Right after Miller Mikell, circa 1953, had painted the River Jordan scene in the new church’s baptistery, I was mesmerized by the baptisms that took place up behind the choir loft.  In his flowing white robe, Brother Jenkins would walk into the bathtub-clear water. As he extended his hands, a person would descend the steps on the left and wade toward the preacher.  

     Following a few words that I didn’t understand at the time, Brother Jenkins would gently tilt the person backwards for immersion.  When the last person was baptized, he’d face the audience, bow his head and lift a prayer.  Probably with one 5-year-old eye peeping, I studied the lush riverbank.  And when the reverend started his noisy, water-dripping ascent of the steps, I leaned over to Mother and whispered, “When I get baptized, I think I’ll just swim up the river.”  
     But when that day did come, I had already sneaked upstairs to discover the river was just a painting on the wall.  I wasn’t disappointed, because standing on the steps ahead of me—waiting to be baptized—was my football idol, Len Hauss, future All-Pro center of the Washington Redskins.
In our piano bench is a blue, dog-eared 1936 Baptist Hymnal. Just turning the pages floods my soul with memories.  And just like that how-does-a-river-flow-into-a-church mystery, as a naïve lad, I wondered, “How do they get Mrs. W.Y. Smith—in her wheelchair—up in that steeple on Sunday nights?”  
     A Sunday-evening service tradition was walking outside and hearing her angelic voice waft into the night.  In time, I’d learn about microphones, wires and speakers.  But in the meantime, I just imagined another biblical Moses-parted-the-Red Sea miracle.
      The more God has His way with the color of my hair, I catch myself humming words from that old-timey hymn: “Precious memories, how they linger.”