Tuesday, March 7, 2017

God, Service Calls

At the little Baptist church I was taken to as a kid, we had a preacher named Brother Runnels, and he lit up that no-frills economy-class white-cinderblock house of worship on his first day there.

But our previous preacher, Brother Ronan, a pale young man with black hair slicked straight back, deep eye sockets, and a face frozen in seeming homage to Christopher Lee's Dracula when he sees a cross, he didn't warm up anything or anybody.

In fact, he seemed to fear that he had actually been called by God, and here he was in front of a backwoods flock, and it was all on him to speak for the Lord, and what if he got it wrong?

The Lord would not be happy! Preacher Ronan quaked at his own authority, fearful as a novice physician making her first diagnosis when, deep down, she isn't certain if the patient needs chemo or Beano.

Not so with the new reverend, by God. Preacher Runnels was the Rock incarnate, St. Peter with Brylcreem. He did not know the meaning of the word "fear," nor did he know the meaning of "Paraclete," "Pentecost," "kairos," "glossolalia," "Eucharist," "atonement," "acedia," "prelapsarian," "covet" -- or even "suffer" as it is used in King James English.
This is true: I saw "Elmer Gantry" after my experience with Brother Runnels. 

He did not know who King James was. He assumed the language given to Jesus, Moses and the gang by the King's translators was a transcript, not a translation, a rather poetic one at that. He didn't know what a transcript or a translator was.

He didn't know jack.

He didn't need to.

Because his voice knew God or God knew his voice and loved it and used it, his operatic baritone radiating light and heat! 

And God did so love Brother Runnels' passion. It has been said, "God cannot resist a man of great passion." Brother Runnels had it. God put it to work, probably.

He wasn't one of those pathos-laden, blubbering crybaby ministers, moving poor old liquor-sipping, snuff-dipping ladies and coaxing scared shitless little kids to come forth, profess Jesus as their personal savior and clean up their respective filthy acts so as to avoid Satan's tireless tongues of fire.

Runnels told us The Story without throwing tantrums. And we nodded, not with drowsiness, but with yesness, yes, that's true, thus sayeth the Lord, amen Brother Runnels . . . you handsome bastard!

You mix of Steve McQueen and James Arness with traces of Billy Graham, you powerful paragon of manliness, your testosterone level set permanently at Bugling Bull Elk -- so rich it's visible in your blue eyes, my God, those eyes, they see through the shield guarding our secret selves without hating what they see! They understand!

Oh, Brother Runnels, your chiseled Mount Rushmorian features, your muscled arms glowing with manly sun-bleached hair, how you loved to show them off by rolling up even your short-sleeved shirts, how mid-sermon your somewhat ratty coat would come off and there were God's own arms, His sweat glistening under the fluorescent tubes.

Oh, Brother Runnels . . . to pay the bills incurred by you and your family -- a wife, a healthy buxom teenaged daughter, another daughter, just a toddler wearing braces with a squeaky chrome device that bridged her feet in an effort to one day make it possible for her to walk -- to pay those bills, you worked at Western Auto during the week and you ran the projector at Madison's drive-in on most nights, and always on the weekend.

Part of his job at Western Auto was to make service runs out into the country, and sometimes he found he could double up and do a visitation while he was straightening up a woman's spin cycle.

Once he'd put his tools back in the truck, he would come back in and sit with the lady a spell and, if she  (her husband either out in the field or at work in town) was sad or aching, just listen to her, and some women would later say no one heard them or looked at them like Brother Runnels, his blue eyes brimming with compassion as if he himself were hurting all up and down his right side what with the sciatica coming back like it always seems to do this time of year.

As she cast her burdens at Brother Runnels' feet, he would fight back tears, or seem to, and nod slightly, his eyes never leaving hers, and he might take her hand in his, and say a brief but heartfelt prayer, his golden voice rumbling off the old wooden walls like distant thunder after a storm has passed.

Had the Pope himself -- that man-Whore of Babylon -- been petitioning the Lord at that moment, his request would be put on hold, preempted, perhaps farmed out to one of the many Catholic interceding saints, so He could savor His servant Runnels' voice.

He rarely used that voice when communicating with his wife Regina. And we did not believe he looked at her with those same eyes. And if he did? Probably she would say, "Don't play that pretty boy stuff with me, preacher. I know you better than that." She didn't find Brother Runnels charming. She didn't find him funny. No reason for him to be so puffed up.

Man of God, called by God? Ha! She saw him for what he was.

But we thought he was funny. Once my sister and I were visiting, and Regina made what she called taffy balls, yellow, drippy, sticky golf-ball sized things, and Brother Runnels would pretend to pluck out one of his eyes and then a taffy ball would pop out of his mouth and land in his open palm: "There it is!" 

Come on! That was funny! Even his sullen teenaged daughter laughed before collecting herself and rolling her eyes. But not funny to Regina.

Regina was not a good wife for a preacher. She had a sharp tongue, and did not suffer fools gladly, and she felt her husband's congregation was made up almost entirely of fools. She had the coolness, knowingness and detachment of an educated person. Rumors circulated that she had actually gone to college, and for a congregation made of backwoods, pre-Civil Rights, racist fundamentalsts, education was something of a scandal. 

What entitled her to snobbery? What made her think she was better than us? Certainly not her beauty. Hard to be attractive with aggrievement written all over her face.

Those bags under her eyes, a touch of jaundice in her face. Too much drinking? An alcoholic wife for a Baptist minister? You know that ain't right.

Something happened to the Runnels family after a couple of years. With no explanation, at least not to us, they left the pastorium or parsonage or revernarium or whatever it's called, and moved into a duplex in town. 

My family, probably not by chance, but don't ask me, I was only 9, lived in the other half of it. Just a thin wall separated us from a man of God and his blessed brood.

We could often hear Brother Runnels and Sister Regina shouting at each other, and sometimes the noise suggested some form of violence and the next day we might see a bruise here and there on Regina but nothing significant, nothing life-threatening.

Other times she would get in shouting matches with her sullen daughter, and those would be even louder than the nuptial clashes. 

Eventually, Regina took the two girls and retreated to her family's home in the hills of northeast Georgia, but not before my demented cousin from Jacksonville accepted the sullen and sultry teenaged daughter's invitation to make out on the Runnels' porch swing, ultimately finding his way into her crowded bra, already snug with its precious cargo before his small but coarse hand arrived. All of this while the grownups yucked it up inside while watching The Honeymooners.

Soon after Brother Runnels' family left for Georgia, the congregation sacrificed his golden voice on the altar of decency, meaning they kicked his ass out of the pulpit, so he just sort of bummed around Madison for another year or so, still working at the drive-in, sometimes taking me and my sister with him, still working at Western Auto, still visiting us once in a while.

That was when I learned what he enjoyed. My dad sent me over to wake him on the mornings when he either slept through his alarm or forgot to set it, which means I had to wake him almost every morning before I left for school. 

And on his bed and all around it were well-worn paperback books -- most of them open and faced down -- that were not about theology, caring for the flock, preaching for dummies or making sense of Revelation.

Rather they were about men loving women very much, very often. 

His bedroom was a rat's nest, a real clutterfest, darkened by thick curtains, no space to spy on a Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop (But who needs Bathsheba when every woman in his books would come at his command?), piles of clothes covering the floor, his cramped cave thick with the smell of linen that desperately needed a functioning washing machine.

And who can say, really, if the rumors were true, the ones about his visit to a small recently married young woman, a member of his congregation, Brother Runnels just stopping by, not really a visitation, and they talked and he heard her pain and longing and disappointment, how her husband belittled her, never understood her nor saw any reason to try, never could she expect him to embrace her with love, "I cherish you, you are my heart's darling, I could not go on living without you," how nice it would be, do husbands even say those things, oh God, just to be wanted, to be seen . . .

Brother Runnels was a strong man and he moved her effortlessly over to an old sofa handed down from a relative, and it was easy to lower her slowly as if he were baptizing her, gently down upon the sofa's scratchy surface smelling of dust and dog, his arms protecting her -- as only His arms could -- from a cruel, cold, threatening, painful world, one that just didn't give a rat's ass about her.

It's okay, it's okay, you're gonna be fine now. This is how a man should love you like you deserve to be loved, like we all deserve to be loved, we were born for this, your wait is over and now you know and you'll know forever.

And after the lonely young woman's transfiguration, he ambled back out to his Western Auto pickup, baking under the merciless Florida sun, Brother Runnels feeling the interior's furious heat before he even opened the door.

Anyway, for a while after dumping Brother Runnels, the church survived on a handful of visiting stand-in preachers, some of them retired from the pulpit, their voices quaking, their messages spiced with occasional still-lingering resentments; other days a deacon would have his moment in the spotlight, and would try to cram in all the half-baked amateur theology he had stifled for years, but nary an inspiring message issued from any of these passing-through pastors. Tepid, the Word of God falling to the floor before it reached the first pew.

Finally, they called Brother Cedric Gladstone, a refined, soft-spoken, delicate, lithe gentleman, partial to pastels, fair skinned but subject to frequent blushes, even during his sermons. The old women -- the very old, the ones on whom Death had given up on -- loved him at first sight.

But in the pew behind me one Sunday, a family friend with a name so ridiculous that I dare not use it, leaned forward to whisper in my father's ear, "I think he wears lace on his pants." 

I sure didn't know what that meant, so I just let it go and didn't ask.

I soon began to miss Brother Runnels. During Brother Gladstone's earnest sermons, bored within a frog's hair of death, I would gaze out an open window and imagine Runnels in a Western Auto truck, driving over dusty washboard roads on his way to another service call. 

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