My new memoir, Where the Light Fell, includes a few scenes from the childhood church I attended, near Atlanta. How does this compare to scenes from your childhood experience?
My most memorable Sunday evening service takes place when Dr. M. R. DeHaan, a radio star from Michigan, speaks at a weekend conference. It’s like the World Series of church. Our family arrives early for a parking place, and still we have to walk a long way. So many newcomers show up on Sunday night that my brother and I get permission to join the teenagers in the usually-closed balcony. I feel like I’m in a sports stadium, looking down on all the balding heads and women’s hats, with the choir and preacher way off in the distance.
On the main floor below, hundreds of hand-held fans are rippling, like ragged ocean waves. They’re flat pieces of cardboard stapled to what looks like a Popsicle stick, and you wave the fan in front of your face to create a breeze. The front side of the fan has a picture: Christ at Gethsemane, or the Good Shepherd, or maybe a photo of our church. The opposite side has an ad for a funeral company.
Teenagers sitting nearby decide to edit the funeral ads. To air-conditioned chapel, they add, “Keeps the body from smelling.” Next to ambulance service they print, “Oops, too late,” and by 24-hour oxygen they write in, “Just when you don’t need it.” We spend most of Dr. DeHaan’s sermon vying to come up with the best slogans. My brother, Marshall, suggests an overall motto for the funeral home: “We always let you down.”
After the sermon, our pastor announces that we’ll be collecting a “love offering” for Dr. DeHaan. As the ushers spread throughout the sanctuary, one of the rowdier teenagers drops a couple of M&Ms onto the main floor below us. A few minutes later, he proposes dropping a straight pin on a bald man’s head. Just then, another teenager “accidentally” knocks an overflowing offering basket off the ledge. Paper bills float through the air, swept up and down by ceiling fans, and scores of coins roll around noisily on the slanted wooden floor below. Some coins find the heating grates and dive through with a loud plink! The pastor scowls mightily and deacons rush up the balcony stairs to restore order.
That’s the last time we sit in the balcony.
Church services usually end with an invitation. With every head bowed and every eye closed, we listen to the pastor or evangelist make a plea for the unsaved to accept Christ. “You don’t get to heaven by being good. Or even by going to church. There’s only one way, my friends, and you can do it right now. Maybe someone here today is not sure you’re going to heaven. Dear friend, now is the day of salvation. Raise your hand if you want it. Yes, yes, I see that hand. Bless you. Yes, all over this auditorium…God bless you, yes, yes.”
Like a circling mosquito, the speaker’s words seem to come closer and closer, and my guilt surges up. “Are you sure your sins have been washed away? Maybe you’re thinking, ‘Preacher, I will someday, but not yet. Let me have my fun for a while, let me sow my wild oats.’ Or you young people, ‘Maybe after school’s out this summer…’” Fear closes in around me, squeezing my heart and lungs.
The organ strikes up, and together we sing the invitation hymns, such as “Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, Calling, O sinner, come home!” Just like the Billy Graham crusades on the radio, these invitations end with “Just As I Am.” We sing all seven verses.
Nothing plagues me more than the question of whether I am really saved. I’ve said the sinner’s prayer so many times that I can spell it backwards. I go forward, and get prayed over by church elders while I keep my hands clasped together and my eyes squinched shut. I do it again, several times, afraid salvation is like a vaccination that might not take. Still, I can never silence the nagging questions. Do I really mean it? Is it genuine?
Finally, when I turn ten, Mother decides I am ready for baptism. I gloat around Marshall, who had to wait until his eleventh birthday. First, I have to sit through a nervous meeting with our pastor, Brother Paul Van Gorder, in his book-lined office. He leans back in his leather chair across the desk from me and asks, “What does baptism mean to you, Philip?”
I recite the correct answer that I’ve practiced. “I want to make public the change that happened inside me when I accepted Jesus into my heart.”
“I believe God has great things in store for you, Philip,” he says. “Baptism is sacred. It’s permanent, no turning back. Don’t do it unless you’re ready to commit yourself for life.” I swallow, and it feels like something is stuck in my throat. I pretend strength, nodding that I’m ready.
Our church schedules baptisms during the Sunday evening service. Behind the platform, curtains hide a baptistry inset in the center wall, and on baptism nights the curtains open to reveal a step-in tub with a painting of the Jordan River in the background.
Four of us get baptized the same night. After the sermon, the choir starts singing a hymn, and we four make our way to the dressing room. We are all barefoot, and the pastor gives us each a white robe. Though the room is not cold, I shiver as I pull the robe over my t-shirt and white pants.
The solemn ceremony begins. I watch from the side as two women disappear under water and come up with dripping hair and the thin robes plastered against their white clothes underneath. It’s strange to see grown women go limp in the pastor’s arms. One woman is crying, with black marks streaking down from her eyes.
I smell mold from the baptistry, and hear a buzzing in my ears. My heart is sliding around in my chest. What if people can see through my clothes? What if I lose my grip, and slip and drown? I keep thinking I have to go to the bathroom, even though I just went. I concentrate on holy thoughts instead.
Brother Paul nods to me, and I step into water that’s cold enough to make me suck in sharply. I try to hold my breath and control my chattering teeth. “In obedience to the command of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and upon the profession of your faith in him, Philip, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Suddenly I am under water, my eyes shut tight, feeling a strong hand against my back and another pinching my nose, my own arms crossed in front of me. Then I break through the water and gulp in air. It’s over, just like that. I move toward the steps on legs that feel jointless.
“Now walk in newness of life,” the pastor says, and half-pushes me up the steps…
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