I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
April 19, 2010
When I was a teenager, I used to spend a week each summer working on John’s Island off of the South Carolina coast. The trip felt like journeying into another world, where time had stood still. Many of the families on the island had been there for generations, working on tomato farms and maintaining the Gullah traditions. Some of the older ones still spoke Gullah, and nearly every islander we encountered had a lilting Gullah accent.
We spent the week making repairs on the houses of elderly residents and migrant workers. And in return, on the last night of our stay the community would turn out at our camp and treat us to a traditional crab boil, with enormous bucketfuls of blue crabs caught that day from the bay outside our dorm-style bedrooms. The entertainment was provided by the Praying Band, a singing group whose members were required to be at least eighty years old. They would sit in folding chairs and sing spirituals while everyone else clapped sang and even danced when the spirit led them. That was an experience I’ll never forget.
Just as memorable was our annual visit to the local church on Sunday. It was nothing like the church services I attended each week back at home. For one thing, it lasted between two and three hours- but honestly, I loved every minute of it. I loved the traditions, which included women dressed all in white and carrying long rods, who gently prodded anyone that dozed off during the sermon. I loved the offerings, which required us to walk to the front of the church and put our money in a basket right in front of the preacher- and file through for another offering if it was determined that not enough had been collected the first time around. I loved all the shouting and “Amens!” during the preacher’s sermon.
But most of all, I loved the music. I loved the music. When the choir started singing, the congregation inside that tiny, sweltering church was ready. First, they began clapping, but they weren’t the kind of boring clap. clap. claps I was used to. No, if you were really getting into the music at this church, you created a real beat with your hands- clapclap, CLAP. clapclap, CLAP. Those who were especially moved would stand and sway with their palms lifted out toward heaven. Many members of the congregation would even dance out into the aisles, and once or twice, we watched people faint dead away in a paroxysm of spiritual fervor.
We were visitors, but we were also fellow Christians, so we were implicitly encouraged to participate as much as we wanted. I felt a freedom during those services to let the spirit move me with no fear of embarrassment. I could dance. I could sing. I could clap. I could shout “Amen!” And I did. I did all of those things, and so did my friends. We’d come out of those services flushed and elated and then, at the end of our trip we’d travel back to Atlanta, where we’d put on our Laura Ashley dresses once a week and sit meekly in the pews of our enormous, air conditioned sanctuary while our pastor gave a Sunday sermon that never, ever extended beyond a half-hour. I can’t tell you how many times I sat there wishing I was back in that church on Johns Island. I felt closer to God there than I ever did in my own church.
Occasionally, someone would show up at our church and insist on standing during a particularly moving vocal performance, waving their arms in the air and smiling, eyes closed, up at the ceiling. I’d see the smirks around me and hear the whispers. “Look at that guy!” “I love God, too, but I don’t have to make a big show of it!”
I would sit quietly and think again of that church on Johns Island.
Now that I’m an adult, I go to a church that’s a little more expressive than the one I grew up in. The music is passionate and loud and performed by some of the best singers and musicians in the country. (This is Music City, after all- It’s not unusual for the churches here to have Grammy Award winners leading the singing and professional session musicians providing the accompaniment.) And the members are less afraid to stand and hold up their hands and sway when the song is especially good.
Yet when I feel the urge to raise my own hands, I still hear those whispers from my childhood in the back of my head. “What is she doing?” “Do you see her?” “Who does she think she is?” And so I keep my eyes trained on the stage and my arms tightly crossed in front of me. It didn’t even occur to me that I was repeating what my own parents had done, and their parents and grandparents before them- at least until we let our six-year-old daughter attend “big church” with us for the first time last week.
At first, she stood in solemn silence, watching the stage and feeling the pulsing beat of the music. Then she wanted me to hold her so that she could see better. I sang along with the music and she began singing, too, tentatively at first, and then with gusto. I smiled, proud and happy that she was enjoying the experience.
After a few minutes, she looked around and noticed that a few people in the audience had lifted up their hands. She looked back at the stage and lifted her hands, too. And despite myself, I felt a little embarrassed. Embarrassed because she didn’t know that we don’t do that, and then embarrassed at myself, because there was absolutely nothing wrong with what she was doing, and beyond that, I certainly didn’t want her to grow up with the same spiritual repression I had always felt.
Finally, the music ended and we settled in for the sermon. Punky behaved admirably. And at the end of the sermon, a man came out on stage and sang a completely gorgeous, awe-inspiring song. (Don’t even ask me what it was, because I have no idea, unfortunately, but it was awesome and would have brought tears to your eyes.) As the congregation sat listening, one man stood up and raised his hands. Fifteen aisles back, another couple stood and did the same. Dotted throughout the audience, five or six more people stood. Punky looked around her, and then she turned to me.
“Mommy, come on!” she whispered. “Stand up!” My stomach flip flopped. The song was amazing, but…. stand up? In front of all these people? I stared into my daughter’s determined eyes, my daughter who says the most beautifully eloquent six-year-old prayers to God each night, who requests “God music” whenever we’re in the car together, and who debates theological issues with her kindergarten friend on the way to ballet class each week.
My daughter, who in that moment, was either going to learn that she was one of the “frozen chosen,” as my dad laughingly calls conservative congregations, or that she could dance and sing and praise God whenever and however she wanted.
What was it going to be?
I took a deep breath. And I stood up. And I hoisted Punky up onto one hip and she pressed her face against mine and lifted up one tiny hand high in the air. And as we stood in front of all those people I tried very, very hard not to cry because once again, my tiny daughter had changed my life in one completely unexpected instant. I’d like to think that I gave Punky a gift that day of not being intimidated to worship and praise her God in the way that she feels moved to do so, without worrying what anyone around her has to say about it.
But to be honest, I think she gave that gift to me.
Image via Natalie Maynor/Flickr
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