The Big Tent

Shirley and Patty were invited to attend a local revival to give a presentation on the intersection of African-Americans, gays, and the black church.  They asked me to come, too, and I said yes, though I had my reservations.

Unlike Shirley or Patty, or their friend Grace who they also asked to come, I was not raised in the church.  So I had never been to a revival.  Neither of my parents was particularly religious in the traditional sense, though they held strong spiritual beliefs.  Occasionally, however, my mother would send me to summer bible school or bemoan my never dressing nicely on Sundays, even if we didn’t go to church.  I remember once a volunteer at my school, one of the parents that monitored the yard during recess and lunch, talked to me about her church, enticing me to check it out.  I told my mother about it, and about my disinterest.  She sighed that I needed some sort of religion in my life.  How odd, I thought.  If that were the case, why didn’t we go to church?

I think in matters of religion, my mother was rather conflicted.  She didn’t want to be tied to a particular church.  “Holy roller” friends – the types that say “Jesus” in every other sentence – bored her.  But then I think that maybe part of her wished that she had brought more religion into our lives.  Tradition, peer pressure, perhaps her own personal history and upbringing contributed to such feelings.

I considered my lack of religious upbringing a blessing in disguise.  It allowed me to look at all faiths objectively and not be guilt-tripped by any of them.  This proved very handy during my coming out process.  I had one less piece of baggage to deal with.  Ultimately, my mother agreed.

Shirley and Patty certainly had to deal with church stuff during their coming out.  And I’m pretty sure Grace did, too.  They had credentials for going to this event.  Me?  I had none.  I’m just a loud-mouthed homo/queer black activist that writes too much and talks too much.  Folks think I’m outrageous, and sometimes I am.  Really, though, I’m just direct.  It’s amazing how many people can’t deal with direct.  So I guess that’s why Shirley begged me to go with them to the revival.  They needed my mouth.

The revival lasted for three days.  We were to arrive on day two, workshop day, though ours would be the only workshop during the time slot, 2 pm – 3:30 pm.  That meant we would occupy the big tent.  How did I take this news?  Well, let’s just say that I started having dreams of well-dressed black folks, sitting, fanning themselves, staring at my little narrow rear on the stage.  Regardless of their age, in the dream they were throwing shade like old black people.  And no one throws shade like old black people.  So I wasn’t looking forward to this.

Grace was going to drive us there in her car.  But then at the last minute, she had to back out.  Without Grace, transportation became an issue.  Shirley and Patty didn’t have a car – it got totaled a month earlier, though fortunately neither of them was hurt.  I only had a motorcycle.  At the last minute, we got Scott to take us.  He couldn’t stay for it, but he said he could pick us up around 4ish, after all had been said and done.  That solved the transportation problem, though without Grace that meant fewer numbers, fewer of us on stage facing a tent full of well-dressed church Negroes throwing old black people shade at us.  I mentioned this to Shirley.  She said that I was worrying too much.

Scott dropped us off.  We went into the big tent.  It was big.  Huge.  I had never seen so large a tent.  I have never seen so many folding chairs.  I had never seen so many well-dressed black folks gathered in one place.  I had never experienced the black church to this degree.  I had just been thrown into the deep end of the pool.

Folks milled about after just having finished lunch.  I asked Shirley, couldn’t we have gotten here earlier to get some food?  That barbecue sure smelled good.  But she shook her head.  We were not paid participants, so we couldn’t have any food, she explained.  I snorted and said, they’re about to feed us to the lions, so couldn’t they at least give us a last supper?  Shirley didn’t really have an answer except to promise that we would go decompress at out favorite ribs joint afterwards.  It’ll be alright, she said.

We sat near the stage of the big tent, waiting.  Several folks noticed that we lacked official badges.  They started out friendly, asking if we needed to register.  And to each we told that we were invited to speak at the 2 o’clock workshop and that Reverend Thaddeus Gentleman said we should meet him at the stage.  And each person we told this to had the same reaction.  First, they looked at us with a blank stare.  Then they quickly checked themselves and put on a quick and dirty grin.  And finally they left us alone in a hurry.  After the third such occurrence of this ritual, I made a point of commenting on it.  Both Shirley and Patty told me that I was making too much of it.  I was letting my nerves get the better of me.  Though I think that by the fifth time this happened, they started getting nervous, too.  They just didn’t want to admit it.

The tent began filling up quickly.  As folks entered, they exchanged hugs and kisses, handshakes and backslaps.  They took seats all around us.  By this point, no one bothered us anymore about our lack of attendance badges.  None of us realized it at the time, but we had become invisible.

At last Reverend Gentleman came over to greet us.  He smiled hard and shook each of our hands.  Hello, thank you for coming.  Hello, thank you for coming.  Hello, thank you for coming.  Then he guided us to the stage and our seats.  He went off to talk to some folks, leaving us on the stage in our chairs, facing the soon-to-be-shade-throwing well-dressed black folks.  Except that I didn’t feel any shade.  If folks looked at us at all, they did so without judgment on their faces.  Maybe Shirley and Patty were right.  Maybe I was letting my prejudices about the church fill me with needless dread.

Reverend Gentleman walked towards us and bent over to talk softly.  He explained how the workshop would be conducted.  He would make a few introductory remarks and then turn the floor over to us.  Were we prepared, he asked?  We all said yes, we were.  We had prepared remarks, based on other talks we had given on being black and gay.  We knew the drill.  We just hadn’t presented in front of so large an audience before.  This enormous tent was packed.

Reverend Gentleman took the podium.  He called the revival back to order and asked all to stand for prayer.  We all did.  He recited the prayer in a sing-song voice.  I remember mostly how it ended.

Father, give us the wisdom that we seek.

Amen!

Then Reverend Gentleman stepped aside and someone else took the stage.  A large brother, tall and wide.  He wore glasses.  His head was balding.  He wore a fine suit.  He charged the stage and the podium and folks rose to their feet, clapping hard.  Clearly they all knew him.  I didn’t have a clue.  I leaned over to ask Patty and Shirley if they knew him.  They said they didn’t.

Then he began preaching.  If I had to transcribe his sermon, I would use all caps.

WE CELEBRATE THE GLORY OF THE LORD!

WE CELEBRATE THE GLORY OF THE LORD!

Most of the sermon I really can’t recall.  But I remember clearly the effect he had on everyone present.  Joy and jubilation filled that tent.  Shouts.  Call backs.  Amens.  Affirmations.  I was not raised in the church, but I have studied much Civil Rights history.  And I began to understand how these powerful institutions formed the bedrock of that movement.  I could see how the energy from such events gave spiritual fuel to the movement’s many foot soldiers.

WE ARE ON THE SIDE OF RIGHT!

WE ARE THE RIGHT!

They went in their Sunday finest and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King over the bridge, in front of water cannons and junkyard dogs, in front of stick-wielding bigots waiting to draw blood.  They did so willingly because they knew that they marched for righteousness, and that the truth was on their side.

WE PREACH THE TRUTH, LORD!

WE PREACH THE UNBLEMISHED TRUTH!

By the end of his sermon, everyone was standing.  And then the music began.  Folks danced.  Folks sang.  Folks shouted.  Their spirits regenerated.  We stood and clapped hands, too.  We got so caught up in the joyousness of the moment, that I had almost forgotten our purpose for being there.  When I remembered our purpose, I leaned over to Shirley and asked, what about our workshop?

Oh they’ll get to us, she said to me.

She said that this was common, to have a rousing moment after a lunch break to get everyone into the spirit again.  I nodded my head.  I may have lacked church creds, but I could certainly understand the spirit that flowed in that tent.  It flowed within me as well.

Then the music stopped playing and Reverend Gentleman took to the stage again.  He encouraged applause for the guest preacher, Reverend Dickens.

And then he announced our workshop, blacks, gays, and the church.  He introduced each of us by name.  Please give them a hand, he said.

It wasn’t a very detailed introduction, but it was polite.  We walked to the podium.  The music still went through my head, so I had a jaunt in my step.  Shirley went to the microphone first.  She introduced herself.  She introduced Patty as her partner.  And then she introduced me.  Before she could say anything else, though, folks began filing out of the room.  We’re not talking one or two people here and there.  We’re talking everyone, the whole tent.  We lost our audience before we could even begin.  They all walked out on us.

I felt like I was having a dream.  That somehow this whole thing could not be happening.  My stomach fell to the floor.  I think I was preparing myself for the shade, the attitude, the folded-arms demanding from me to show them something.  I was ready to show them what I had.  But I wasn’t ready for them to just walk out without letting me say a single word.  Even Reverend Gentleman was no where to be found.

Is that it? I asked.

Yeah, that’s it, Shirley said with a grunt in her voice.

After a while, we slowly left the stage.

As soon as we got outside, I saw folks milling about again.  It felt like they couldn’t see me at all.  We really had become invisible.  Maybe they couldn’t see us on the stage.  Maybe they thought that everything ended after Reverend Dickens finished.  But then I remembered that Reverend Gentleman had introduced us.  And also, I noticed the program on a big board next to the tent entrance.  “The Black Church and the Homosexual.”  That’s what they called it.  That wasn’t what they told us it was called, but that’s what they called it.  If I had had a felt pen with me, I would have written under the title, “are miles and miles apart.”

I heard Shirley on her cell phone.  She called Scott to see if he could pick us up an hour early.  I heard her describe what happened.  No, she said, they didn’t boo us.  They just left.  Yeah, uh-huh, she said, it was a waste of our time.  I’m so angry, she said.

No, she wasn’t just angry.  She was hurt.  All the doubts I aired she reiterated in triplicate during her short phone call with Scott.  The doubts had been there all along, but she had pushed them aside, hoping for the best.

She wanted the validation.  Shirley had long reconciled her blackness, her gayness, and her spirituality.  She and Patty went to a very diverse, queer friendly church which has hosted gay commitment ceremonies – and marriages before they became illegal again – for a very long time.  But that church isn’t this church.  For her, this church is home.  In reality, for all three of us, even me, the heretic, this church is home.  I cannot deny that a part of Reverend Dickens’ sermon resonated with me.  It spoke to a very ancient part of myself, a part I cherish.

Shirley wanted to come home.  She wanted to bring us, her partner and friends, to her home and introduce us.  But we never got past our names.

{This story was inspired by a dream.}

© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.


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