When I was child, it was, on occasion, that we traveled up into the mountains to visit what Mama called her “home church” meaning it was the church in which she had grown up.
It was mainly summer revivals that took us there because Sundays were devoted to the church Daddy pastored. I had heard tell, usually as I sat in the back seat of the car as we drove somewhere and Mama and Daddy talked, that congregants at my grandmother’s church would get “happy with the Spirit” and shout.
I had no idea what that meant but I knew it was different than anything I had seen at our little church and that it was a good thing. From the sound of their voices, I could tell it was even something they admired.
It was probably the summer of my ninth year that I found out first-hand what all that meant when we visited Maw-maw’s church on a hot August night during revival. This was a time when benches were hard, usually slats that were nailed about an inch apart so that they pinched constantly, and the only air conditioning was supplied by hand fans with advertising from a local funeral home. Windows were thrown wide open so that mosquitoes and lightning bugs darted in and out and there was absolute stillness and quiet in the darkness outside. Not even the sound of a passing car because anybody who lived close by was at church, not driving by to go somewhere else.
Daddy was seated in what, in those days, was called the “amen corner” where only men sat, usually preachers and deacons and were certain to shout “amen” as the chosen man of God preached with stirring enthusiasm. Women sat directly across from the amen corner and kept their mouths shut during the sermon. An altar call was being made, “Just as I Am” was being sung and I was standing reverently in the third row as the preacher begged for the lost souls. When none could be found that night, he asked if anyone had a word or a testimony to give. Someone spoke up. Then another. And another. Each testimony was a word of thanks for God’s blessings as emotional tears fell. Suddenly, someone let a screeching hoop and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I thought someone had been shot.
It was my grandmother Lizzie Miller. She was tall and lithe, so thin that she was what people in the mountains called “poor” not referring to economics but weight. She was so skinny that when she sat on the end of the sofa, always to knit or crochet, she crossed her legs then was able to tuck a foot behind her ankle. Her baby-fine hair, like many Appalachian women, fell to her waist but was put up neatly every morning with bobby pins and tucked into a bun at the nape of her neck. She wore cotton dresses around the house, always with an apron and her one luxury in life — a small can of snuff tucked into the apron’s pocket. She wore small glasses and I can’t remember ever seeing her with a smear of lipstick. She was quiet and soft-spoken. Until the night I saw her break loose and start shouting with happiness to the Lord, I had never heard her raise her voice.
With white handkerchief, she raised her arms to heaven, threw back her head and jumped and shouted. I shall never forget the pure light that radiated from her face as it seemed that her entire head was bathed in radiant sun. She had virtually no earthly possessions and living had been calloused and hard. More worries than laughter. But she had a peace that surpasses our understanding and a happiness that money can’t buy.
Shouting for joy. I’ve seen it and it’s a beautiful sight to behold.
Ronda Rich, author of “What Southern Women Know About Faith,” writes the Dixie Diva column that appears in several newspapers.