DEWITT COLUMN: The church walls are thin
The basic plot of this story was told to me by older relatives, who surprisingly did not turn out to be felons or psychopaths as adults. However, names have been changed to protect the sinful.
It is a hopeful Sunday morning at old Hopewell Baptist Church. There is hope among the righteous that someone will come to see the Light and be saved. There is hope among the deacons that the preacher’s new hip will hold up long enough to finish the sermon. But some are just hoping to get through one Sunday service without having to take young Zach and Isaac outside and beat the sin out of them again.
Freshly and painfully scrubbed, snatched out of overalls and shoved into dress clothes, the boys were squirming uncomfortably even before the opening hymn. It’s the first time all week that either has worn shoes. Isaac sits right next to his parents, where he can be closely supervised, and Zach has slid in beside him to stay near the aisle, should he need to make a quick getaway. But Aunt Dottie and Aunt Irene are sitting in the pew directly in front of him, where they can spin around and slap Zach if and when the need arises. As usual, Mrs. Godburn, who isn’t even family, sits at Zach’s rear so she can get a lick in if needed.
The opening hymns are over. The opening prayers have been said. Now the bad-hipped preacher wobbles to his feet and begins droning on about Hell and Heaven and damnation.
Isaac’s eyes roll back into his head. “Psst. Zach. Look at this.” Isaac furtively pulls a wadded handkerchief from his pocket, glances to make sure his mother isn’t watching, and unwraps it to reveal a large horsefly he had captured in his hat that morning. He produced a piece of broom straw, broke off a bit, and shoved it unceremoniously up the horsefly’s rear end.
“I dare you, Zach.” For those of you blessed with refined character and human decency, or those who had access to more sophisticated forms of entertainment during your childhood, the intent here is simple: by inserting the broom straw into the horsefly’s rectal region, the poor insect will fly practically to the moon in an unsuccessful attempt to get away from the intrusive foreign object. Isaac figured that sucker would buzz around the church ceiling a little while and provide some entertainment until one of the ushers caught it and escorted it out of the church, and no one would be the wiser.
With a grin usually reserved for the most cardinal of sins, Zach turned the horsefly loose.
It quickly became apparent that there had been a miscalculation of basic mass and gravity. The horsefly had been violated with such a large piece of broom straw that, instead of circling among the rafters of the church, it could barely get off the floor. The anguished fly rose just a few inches from the floor and quickly fell, bobbing up and down, drawing gasps and noises of protest from row by row of congregation members as it made its way straight down the aisle toward the wobbly preacher.
“Oh, God,” said Zach.
“Hell yeah!” said Isaac.
The horsefly made it all the way up around the preacher’s feet and then began circling, buzzing, bobbing up and down. The Reverend did a sort of evasive jig, almost like an Australian River Dance, put too much pressure on the hip and down he went, on his back, bad leg pointing east, good leg going due west.
Isaac and Zach would have gotten away with this violent crime if Isaac’s mother, Aunt Emily, had not taken that moment to look over at her son in suspicion and saw the remainder of that piece of broom straw jutting from his lips as he chewed on it, grinning like a cat eating a canary. Aunt Emily was well known as a devoted child protective services worker in the county, where she spent decades working to protect children from the abuses of their parents. But Isaac made it well known in the community that his Momma didn’t practice what she preached at home.
“John DeWayne,” Aunt Emily said to her husband, with gritted teeth behind her church fan. “Take him outside and wear his fanny out!”
Isaac was snatched up by the collar, his father dragging him by the collar down the aisle. Zach tried not to make eye contact with anyone and braced himself for possible blows to the head from the side, front and rear.
It took a few moments to corral the poor horsefly and get the preacher back on his feet, but the good Reverend was not to be discouraged and immediately launched right back into his sermon. But the walls of the old Hopewell Church were thin back in those days before the new brick church was built. The walls were clapboard, no insulation, and the entire congregation could hear every word that was exchanged between father and son outside - and every blow that landed.
“You son of a biscuit eater!” John DeWayne yelled. “Whap!” went the sound of a good church belt on the seat of good church britches.
“It wasn’t me, Paw!” squalled Isaac.
“Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” boomed the preacher. The congregation murmured and snickered.
“You lying little buzzard!” shouted John DeWayne. “Whap!” Aunt Emily turned a deep shade of red and the speed of her church fan increased by several miles per hour.
“I shall fear no evil, because the Lord is my Shepherd,” quoted the Reverend, hand raised toward the heavens.
“It wasn’t me, it was Zach!” screamed Isaac. “I’ll swear on the Bible!” Aunt Dottie reached for Zach, Aunt Irene was going to hit him with a hymnal, and Mrs. Godburn, who isn’t even family, was in mid-swing, when the Holy Spirit apparently started moving among the sinners of Hopewell Baptist Church. Zach jumped to his feet and raised both hands in the air.
“Lawd, save me!” he lurched down the aisle. “Reverend, I want to be saved!”
That was delightful news to the good Reverend, a blessing from God indeed! It had been a slow month for the old guy, both in terms of souls saved and dollars in the offering plate. And for every wayward sinner who came to the Light and got baptized, the Reverend got an extra $25 bonus on his monthly stipend.
“Come right on up, young man!” He bellowed to Zach. “Acknowledge Jesus as your Lord and Savior, ask for his forgiveness and make clear your path to Heaven!”
It was only a couple of miles from Hopewell to Rock Springs Road where Zach’s family lived, but it sure seemed like a long drive that afternoon. Aunt Dottie was glaring at Zach. Aunt Irene wanted to kill him. But untouched, Zach sat in the back seat of the family Oldsmobile and practically radiated with the Holy Spirit. It filled his soul until it was overflowing from his face in a grin you couldn’t wash off with 20 Mule Team Borax soap.
His sins had been forgiven. He had been washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb. You can’t whip a fellow after all that.