I don’t know when I first became aware that little blobs of pink on the bottom of the church chairs was actually chewing gum. But I am sure I saw some the night Pastor Steve came to preach. The minister had erected a large white banner across the front of the chancel (which we didn’t call “chancel” then, it was just “the front”). I don’t remember what it said, but it was something like “Jesus is Coming Soon!” or some other like message.
The singing had been from the Broadman Hymnals. The Baptists brought them when they came, because they knew they couldn’t sing out of our Methodist hymnals, and they thought they had the same songs as the Cokesbury, but they didn’t. So we sang out of Broadmans, and used the Baptist piano player, who added a lot of extra notes, and raised his hands high as he led us through the songs.
It was the 1970s and there was a LOT of polyester. The colors were vibrant, which was an advantage in polyester, but it didn’t have much body to it, and the clothes just laid flimsily on you like a limp rag. Hair spray was present in the room as well. Not only on the ladies, but the men, whose hairstyles had become longer, although the Baptists were well-trimmed, and some still slicked their locks back with something oily. Big, floppy King James Bibles were standard equipment. It was a revival, after all.
I don’t remember the music. It should have been something Gaither, but was probably four-part harmony shaped-note songs. “Glad Reunion Day” and “Jesus Is Coming Soon” would have been favorites of the time in our little valley. The choir loft in our church was off to one side, which aggravated the symmetrical desires of most of the people in the place. It was a constant source of complaints after the new church opened. So sometimes the choir would stand on the front steps (at the chancel!) and sing the anthem, then parade to their seats in the pews with their families while the pianist played an extra verse or two.
I experienced Concert Prayer for the first time when the Baptists came to our church. They all prayed out loud at the same time. It was loud and noisy and to a child, pretty scary. Whenever adults spoke in those days, you felt the authority in the voice, and when lots of them were doing something as emotional as praying . . ., well, it had its effect. Not being used to it, I was glad when it was over. But it set a certain tone for what was next.
The pastor was a young man with a fresh calling. He waved his floppy Bible like it was an extension of his hand, making his point visibly as well as orally. He was not a “wind-sucker.” We had on occasion come across those, and any Sunday you could hear them on the AM radio as they shared their messages “out there in radio land-uh!” A lot of the new preachers would preach that way, but this guy was more thoughtful in what he had to say, and probably had a note or two, although for the purist in the East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia region, any note was a sign that you were not dependent upon the Holy Ghost, so if he had notes, he hid it well. But he did holler. The more he spoke, the louder he got. A chorus of “Amen!” accompanied his message. He paced from one side of the pulpit to the other. He was speaking about the end of time. He painted a vivid picture of what it would be like to be left behind after Christ came to rapture the church.
At one point he asked us all to bow our heads and he launched into a long period of what we call an “altar call.” He beckoned people to come to the front. Nearly the entire church came, and he was still wanting more. I was in the back corner of the church, huddled down where I couldn’t be seen. But I know he knew I was there. I slowly slid on the floor and got under the pew, as if that would keep the fiery message from landing on me. I couldn’t help but notice the chewing gum on the underside of the seat. The pattern looked just like the state of Tennessee. Somehow in that moment, while the preacher was begging for even more to come, this piece of chewing gum brought me comfort. I didn’t touch it, just adored it. It brought back memories of Mrs. Lawhorn in the toddler Sunday School class, in the kitchen of the church. “God is love,” she would intone, then when we said the words back, we got a piece of Juicy Fruit of our very own.
I don’t remember how long I stayed there, but when the service was ended I went home and prayed something like this: “God, whatever that preacher was worked up about, I believe it, and want to go to heaven. Thank you for being a loving God. Amen.” I was probably seven or eight. And my mind has never changed.