Freedom and Religion part 2

by Terry Hargrove

All day long, I waited for doom to fall upon my brother’s head. He had skipped church that morning, hooked up with his friend Eastep, and spent his collection plate money at Talley’s Market, so if ever anybody deserved a Divine Smite, it was Glenn. But that Smite, never Smote. At 5:45pm, we left our house and began the long walk to choir practice and Sunday evening services. At 5:51, Eastep appeared beside us, and he and Glenn turned left on Water Street, leaving me to go to choir practice and evening services alone.

After two eternal hours in church, I began planning my sojourn to Talley’s market when church next beckoned on Wednesday night. In my mind, I was explaining all this to God, how I was going to be His emissary to the Tallyites, and by my example, bring the lost sheep back to the fold. And if that holy work took 8-10 years, I was willing to make the sacrifice.

In school that week, Glenn and Eastep told everybody about how they’d skipped church and enjoyed a wonderful Sunday fellowship over fountain Cokes and French fries. On the next Sunday morning, there must have been 30 guys at Talley’s. Poor Hi Boys, the perpetually grinning 6-year-old who greeted us with “Hi, boys!” every Sunday morning was lost, indeed. There were no boys to say hi to, but he was too young to join us.

At Talley’s there were Baptists, Protestants, Catholics, even a group from the ARMC Methodist church. Though Glenn had begged me to attend church for both of us, I refused. What could he do? While waiting for my turn at the pinball machine, I struck up a conversation with Daniel Steinberg, a guy in my math class.

“Isn’t this great?” I yelled. I had to shout to be heard over dozens of conversations. “I may never go back to church again.”

“We never get a chance just to talk to guys our own age,” he said. “When my brother Joseph heard about this, we had to come.”

“We’re supposed to be at the Church Street Church of Christ,” I said. “What church are you supposed to be at?”

“We meet on Saturdays,” he said. “In Nashville.”

“Saturdays?” I asked. “Man, Steinberg, what kind of Christian are you?”

“Ummmm,” he said. At his elbow, Eastep laughed and laughed.

That night the crowd was about half what the morning group had been, but we’d heard a thousand sermons on how hard it is to get people to attend all the church’s services. Tally’s was no different. Some folks just lacked commitment.

But as the evening crowds dwindled, the Sunday morning gathering was converting the masses. After a month, we had at least 80 regular members and their dads. The mayor had learned about Talley’s and realized that was just the place to meet with small groups of inordinately influential citizens, away from prying reporters and those pesky constituents. The Chief of Police was a regular before we discovered the place. The only time we came close to disbanding was when the deacons of the ARMC Methodist Church showed up and demanded Talley’s close down on Sunday mornings. Mr. Talley responded by offering to make his cafeteria the only fully integrated lunch counter in town. It was 1966, and this was an offer the deacons couldn’t refuse. Ours was a one-sided relationship, however. They told us all the best fishing places along Rock Creek, but I didn’t see that we gave them anything of equal value.

At the center of this fellowship was Eastep. He held court each Sunday morning, moving with ease between all, talking to the mayor and police chief about a far away place called Vietnam, and to the elders of the ARMC church about Dr. King’s latest speech like he was a grown-up, even though he was only 13. Eastep sent official invitations to as many churches as he could, and almost all of them responded by sending guys and their dads to Talley’s. It was a magical time, the most fun I’d ever had on Sunday mornings, and I wasn’t alone. Eastep had created the first inter-denominational, multi-racial gathering of goodwill our town had ever seen.

It has been said, and rightly so, that God is for man, and religion is for woman, and no woman wants to go shopping for an afterlife without dragging her husband along beside her. On a beautiful Sunday morning in May, the Right Reverend William Eppers looked over his Methodist congregation and saw two surprising things: everyone was awake, and everyone was an adult female or under the age of 8. He left his podium and walked next door to where Brother James Necessary of the Church of Christ had a similar audience. Now, here’s the strange part, even stranger than a Methodist entering a Church of Christ. At that very moment, I was standing in line to play the pinball machine between Billy Eppers and Jimmy Necessary. Coincidence, or something more? The two church leaders led all the ladies and children of both congregations to other houses of worship and always found the same demographic. Five minutes after entering the ARMC Methodist Church, the doors of that place blew open, and a flood of hostile maternity dressed in yellow prints and giant hats led the way down the length of Second Avenue and through the front door of Talley’s Market and Soda Shop. That mob was led by Mrs. Mary Hetti Anderson Greer, the wife of Deacon Omar Greer who at the moment of her arrival was seconds away from telling Glenn the location of a private lake that was filled with huge catfish. We never found that lake.

“What is going on in here?” she bellowed. She looked like a magnificent Nubian Goddess of Wrath, resplendent in her red and white dress with matching high-heeled shoes. “I am going to slap somebody before this day is done!” From behind her, two tiny hands pushed aside several yards of material so a little face could look at us all.

“Here are the boys. Hi boys!” said Hi Boys.

That was the end of Talley’s Tabernacle, as we came to call it. Eastep was no longer allowed to hang out with us, as we were deemed bad influences. Glenn took the loss hard. Our parents were livid, as you might imagine, not only at us, but also at our sisters who should have reported our transgressions. But as it turned out, they were spending each church service walking around the town square looking through glass windows at clothes they couldn’t afford. They had drawn their own crowd of girls, wandering lost in their own wilderness. For the next several weeks, we suffered through long sermons that stressed the awesome importance of church attendance.

But when the final prayers began, Glenn and I would look at each other and smile for the greatness of what we had been a part of. We were just kids, but we suspected even then that in the pinball bells and laughter of Talley’s Tabernacle, we’d come as close to the Kingdom of God as we would ever get. But our joy was tempered by the sad realization that Eastep who had led us there, still didn’t attend any church, and so was doomed to an eternity in hell.

That’s what our preacher said, so it had to be true.

3 replies »

  1. Wow! Great piece. A poignant reminder of “the Lord working in mysterious ways” and not always though the pulpit.

  2. I enjoyed reading the reminiscence. I was a Christian and in my youth bought the whole package. Even entered a Catholic cemetery/seminary and stayed for years, a true believer.
    Thank god I had “unconversion” experiences which opened me to the world outside religion.
    Belief is “belief,” by definition subjective and relative. Thanks. pbm

  3. By the way, I never commented on this piece when you wrote it, perhaps out of jealousy that you found a way to escape, at least for a brief period of time, the interminable boredom of church services. I do not fear Hell. I spent my youth in New Friendship Baptist Church trying to stay awake until the benediction.

    Marvelous piece. Seriously, there better be a book of these on the way.