“Saints don’t stop praying. The Lord is nigh,” Sister Katrina sang softly as they all followed in unison. Marie had no clue why the Lord was nigh or what that even meant but she sang along anyway, “Saints don’t stop praying. He’ll hear your cry. For the Lord has promised, and his word is true. Saints don’t stop praying. He’ll answer you.”
There were at least twenty saints in the circle that night, all holding hands and singing along. Twenty was a pretty good turn-out at a Monday night prayer. But in comparison to the fifteen hundred that showed up on Sundays at Sanctified Apostolic-Pentecostal Church, it really wasn’t all that impressive. Robert had told Marie many times that only the faithful few came to services like this, and that he was of those few faithful. As head of the household, he made sure that “his” children followed suit. In fact, Marie and Jason didn’t miss a single service unless Robert was sick. He even went so far as to nickname himself Brother Faithful until Pastor Hartford bestowed on him the more prestigious title of Minister.
Robert took the appointment very seriously. Everything from the clothes he wore to the music he listened to had to be holy. However, he did watch movies and shows that Marie and Jason were never allowed to watch—mainly because of all the hardcore profanity and gorgeous naked women. When Yvonne got on him about it, Robert dismissed her saying that it was necessary for him to watch so he could “learn the enemy”. He made Marie and Jason, on the other hand, watch movies about biblical stories instead of regular cartoons, and when they were disobedient, he forced them to read the Bible for however many hours he saw fit. Soon both Marie and Jason grew to view the Bible as a punishment, and wouldn’t read it unless they had to. Robert even turned the phrase “Good Morning” into something to be avoided. One day he had gotten the revelation that “Praise the Lord” shouldn’t be exclusive to greeting saints at church—it should be said at home as well. Every morning, Marie and Jason were to say “Praise the Lord” to each other and to Yvonne and Robert. If they failed to do so, the punishment was a beating. Marie didn’t mean to be defiant, but the change didn’t come natural to her and she slipped up often. Even Yvonne couldn’t remember to say it all the time. Mercifully, Robert gave up trying to enforce that new policy and left “Praise the Lord” where it belonged—at church.
As Marie sang along with Sister Katrina and the others, she let her eyes wander around the sanctuary. She didn’t need to pay attention to the words in order to keep up, they sang that same song every Monday night so she knew it better than any other. She looked at all of the saints gathered in the circle. All the women, including Yvonne, were in baggy t-shirts and jean skirts that nearly touched the ground. The sisters never wore pants in church or any skirt that went above the knee or any article of clothing that was formfitting because it was a sin. The men wore jean pants and t-shirts with the exception of Robert who insisted on wearing a button-up—being that he was a minister now, he felt compelled to hold himself to a higher standard than a common brother. The only children in the circle were Marie and Jason.
Marie’s attention drifted up to the pulpit behind which were several rows of chairs for the choir and suspended on the back wall was a huge wooden cross shrouded with a purple sash. She hadn’t set foot on the pulpit since her mother’s wedding, only knelt down at the altar in front of it. She subconsciously loathed the altar as her eyes lingered on the stools at the foot of it. Robert made her and Jason kneel on those stools and pray every Sunday morning before service. Marie didn’t have a lot to pray about but she would stay there as long as she could stand the boredom. She knew that if she got up too early Robert would send her back to pray some more. She and Jason used to be allowed to pray next to each other, but Robert started separating them when he caught them laughing one morning. He had thought they were playing around, but Jason had been ripping some wicked farts before God and there was no way they were keeping a straight face during that.
“Do we have any prayer requests?” Sister Katrina asked as the singing died down bringing Marie’s attention back away from the altar and Jason’s farts. As usual, each person in the circle spoke at least one prayer request. Marie was always nervous when her turn came; she didn’t like speaking out in groups. But to avoid saying the wrong thing, she would listen to the other prayer requests and mimic some of the ones she thought were good. Just about everyone prayed for the body of Christ so she made sure to include that in her requests. She didn’t know they were talking about the church when they said that. She always pictured the dead body of Jesus laying in a tomb somewhere. She wasn’t sure why they needed to pray for a corpse but she never asked.
Once every request was made, it was time for the group prayer. Everyone bowed their heads, closed their eyes, and Minister Franklin led them into the prayer. Minister Franklin was the loudest while everyone else whispered “Hallelujah” and “Yes Lord” and “Thank you, Jesus”. Then the whispers got louder and louder until they turned into shouts. Marie just sighed. This is going to be a long one. After about fifteen or twenty minutes, she opened her eyes to amuse herself by watching the saints around her. They all had funny looks on their faces. Some looked angry, others like they were in pain, and a couple looked like they were smelling stinky feet. But all of them were yelling and shaking. Four of them were swinging their arms like they were getting ready to skip down the yellow brick road, one brother was marching in place bringing his knees up so high and so fast that Marie was curious to see if he would end up knocking himself out, and Minister Franklin was spinning around in circles. She had seen this happening so often that it wasn’t scary to her at all, in fact, she and Jason had more to worry about trying not to laugh at the show. She had been told that what the saints were doing was called being in the spirit, and it was to be taken very seriously. Everything related to God was supposed to be taken very seriously or they would have Robert to deal with. In fact, they had gotten in trouble on the way to church that night for that very reason. Robert was playing one of his gospel CD’s and the man introduced the singers as the Red Bud Combined Choir. The only problem was: Marie, Jason, and Yvonne had heard them announced as the Red Butt Combined Choir. With the image of a choir full of red butted baboons flashing through their minds, Robert finally had to pull the car over and yell at all three of them to stop them from laughing.
The shouting and dancing went on for what felt like forever, until the group slowly began to disperse into various corners of the sanctuary for private prayers. Robert went and dimmed the light of the chandeliers that hung in rows along the high vaulted ceiling, and Sister Katrina took Marie and Jason into the study that doubled as a tarrying room. It was either that or pray at the altar where Robert would come and yell in their ears, “Cry out to Him!” He seemed to get angry at them if his command didn’t appear to make them pray harder. “Don’t play around with it, cry out to Him!” He would shout. In a desperate attempt to appease him, Marie would think of the saddest thing she could imagine to make herself cry, though she would pretend to still be praying. Robert bought it every time and would leave her be.
But Marie and Jason were not just there to pray that night; they were on a mission: to tarry for the Holy Ghost. They had been trying to get it for years. Sister Katrina had explained it all to them. In order to go to Heaven they had to repent, get the Holy Ghost and be baptized in Jesus’ name. Because they were so young, the pastor would not allow them to be baptize until they first got the Holy Ghost to make sure that they were truly repentant. And the only way to prove that they had the Holy Ghost was if they were able to speak in tongues. Not stammering or stuttering, but a fluid language that came from God. And Marie knew better than to make one up, because Robert had told her that his Holy Ghost could tell whether or not her language was real. Marie and Jason had the option to either say “Hallelujah” or “Thank you, Jesus” over and over again until it turned into that holy language that they couldn’t understand. Whichever phrase they chose, they were instructed to say it fast, because the Holy Ghost wouldn’t come if they repeated the phrase slowly and annunciated every syllable. Marie didn’t question this at the time, but years later she would experiment and find that God also accepted speedy repetitions of “hot potato” in exchange for his holy language.
So almost every Monday night and many times at home she and Jason had tried to speak in tongues. To Marie, it was easier at church because Sister Katrina was always right there to keep them motivated and focused. At home, they were pretty much on their own and their minds tended to wander. Many times Yvonne had to come over and correct them because “Thank you, Jesus” had drawled into “Thank you, Juice” and “Stank you, Jesus”.
“You have to be sincere,” Yvonne would remind them, “Don’t just repeat empty words or else God won’t give you his spirit.” But not long after their mother’s admonition, juice was getting thanks again and Jesus was stank.
Once inside the study, Marie and Jason took their seats at the long wooden table—the same one that Marie first sat at the night her mother married Robert. After a brief review from Sister Katrina about what they were doing and why, they bowed their heads and started repeating the words. They had done this so many times before but they always came with the expectation that this would be the night where God’s magic would happen. This time it was—for Marie at least. All she could remember was saying “Thank you, Jesus” over and over. She didn’t know how much time had passed before the words changed.
She heard her name but she couldn’t answer.
It was Sister Katrina’s voice. Marie felt her hand on her arm so she opened her eyes. They were the only two people in the room.
“Do you know what you just did?” Sister Katrina asked her.
“I spoke in tongues,” Marie said having become conscious for the first time that night of the foreign language she had been speaking.
“Do you know what you have?” Sister Katrina asked.
“The Holy Ghost,” Marie said smiling then. “Can I go tell my Mommy and Daddy?”
“They already know,” Sister Katrina told her, “They came in and heard you a while ago.”
When Marie came out of the study, Yvonne and Robert were waiting for her in the foyer. They both looked so proud of her, which was a rare thing—she couldn’t even remember a time before that that Robert seemed that pleased with her. Both Yvonne and Robert hugged her.
“Can I be baptized tonight?” Marie asked eager to complete her transformation.
“Of course you can,” Robert smiled.
Marie walked with her mother, Robert, Sister Katrina, and Deacon Scott to the Hartford Hall. The hall was used as an overflow room on Sundays, a classroom on Wednesdays, a banquet hall on special occasions, and a baptismal room seven days a week. Jason was already there when Marie went inside. He was seated at the front of several rows of chairs that had been left there from Sunday in the arms of one of the sisters. His cheeks were red and when Marie smiled at him, he just stared back at her, his eyes puffy.
“What’s wrong with Jason?” Marie asked her mother.
“He cried so hard because you got the Holy Ghost and he didn’t that he threw up,” Yvonne told her. Marie felt sorry for him, but it wasn’t enough to dampen her excitement over finally getting what she had prayed for all those years. Yvonne took her up the stairs onto the front platform, and into one of the changing rooms so she could get ready. She took off her little black dress with the apples and rulers and pencils on it and Yvonne got her into the light blue gown, swimming cap, and white socks. When Marie came back out onto the platform, most of the base panels had been removed to reveal the huge in-ground pool. Deacon Scott was dressed in the customary t-shirt and rubber overalls that all the deacons wore when they baptized people, and he was already waiting for her in the pool. As she stepped down the stairs into the water, she felt her legs and arms instantly get goose bumped. It was freezing in there. But her nervousness at that moment outweighed any other discomfort. When she met him in the middle of the pool, Deacon Scott showed her how to position her arms across her chest, told her that she could pinch her nose if she wanted to when the time came, and explained that he was just going to dunk her under really fast and bring her right back up. She didn’t like the idea of being pushed underwater, but she wasn’t backing out now.
“I now take great pleasure in baptizing you in the precious name of Jesus Christ,” he said gripping the back of her gown and placing a hand over her arms, “Upon the confession of your faith and for the remission of all of your sins.”
Then he looked her in the face and nodded. Marie pinched her nose and shut her eyes. In one swoop she was dipped backwards into the water and brought back up just as quickly. She could hear the claps of everyone that was watching, and caught a glimpse of Robert taking her picture. As she started back up the stairs and out of the water, she felt the chill fade quickly to warmth. She thought it was God’s magic. When she told Robert about it, he said that it meant that she was now on fire for Jesus.
It was the happiest moment Marie could remember up until then. She was tired of being in sin. Tired of being the bad little girl that was always so disobedient. She was saved now. And she just knew that her Holy Ghost would make her do all the right things so she wouldn’t get in trouble. Daddy won’t have to spank me anymore. To Marie, that thought alone was almost better than the idea that, as of that night, she was no longer on her way to hell.