This week I read a book that has me thinking. It’s Holy Ghost Girl, by Donna M. Johnson. I read it on Kindle, mostly late at night, curled up the larger of our two family cats, Lilo. The story can be loosely summarized as “God Joins the Circus.” Or rather, “God’s Kids Join the Circus.” (And no, I am not committing sacrilege; I’ll explain this.)
The general story goes like this: When Donna Johnson is just three years old her mother, burned by an unfortunate experience with Sin in Hollywood, returns home to her Pentecostal roots and finds religion in a big way. And there the story might have ended, had tent evangelist David Terrell not come to town. Donna’s mother decides that God and David Terrell need her to play the organ for them on the “sawdust trail.” She packs her children, three-year-old Donna and one-year-old Gary, into their aging car and joins the caravan of old cars and trucks who traveled with Terrell and his family, setting up a “big-top” style tent, lining up thousands of chairs, and then serving as assistants and security in the charismatic services, and helping those who wished to be healed to the front.
Terrell bases his message in the Pentecostal tradition, though that affiliation becomes increasingly strained as the years pass, and so earmarks of charismatic worship–things like speaking in tongues, heavy reliance on emotional appeal, and healings are ever-present.
What is also present is Terrell’s obsession with the women who joined his traveling ministry to serve God, wind up serving “Brother Terrell” instead. Early on, Johnson’s mother becomes Terrell’s mistress, and for many years is convinced that he is trying to “do right by her” and the young daughters they have together, even as he is living and having children with other women as well. Ultimately, Donna and Gary find themselves left with a succession of virtual strangers, while their mother continues to travel with the tent evangelist.
The book is a good read, but perhaps the greatest strength of it is Johnson’s refusal to allow for easy answers. While a story like this lends itself to caricatures–it would have been easy and understandable for Johnson to present Terrell as a monster–she doesn’t do it. Instead, she presents a nuanced, complex story of a childhood lived in a world populated by people who all too often found themselves unable to live up to their lofty ideals, a world where a mother might love her children, but lose sight of them in her obsession for a minister who is all too willing to use his position as God’s messenger to exploit those around him. A world where love and abuse are ever-present. A world where a man might force his wife and mistress to travel in the same car and live in the same house–and treat his own children and his mistress’ children with great love. A world where it is acceptable to tell “nigger” jokes, even while one risks Klan violence by preaching to mixed audiences. A world where he might fast to learn God’s will, and then take poor folks’ last dollars to power his fleet of Mercedes and finance multiple homes. A world where healings are sometimes faked, and sometimes real. A world where the one constant is the immense power generated by a combination of personal charisma, fear, guilt, religion, and deliberately stoked emotions, all wielded by a minister who has become conflated with the God he professes to serve, a God who is sometimes love, and sometimes terror, who requires pain and money as His due. A world where showmanship and tricks are sanctioned in the name of soul-winning.
Ultimately, the teenage Donna is married off when her mother decides to move to a secret location (Terrell has run afoul of the Internal Revenue Service) and Donna objects, and increasingly finds her path diverging from the charismatic tent evangelism that has formed the backdrop for the only home she knew.
This is not a story of redemption, but it is a story of great love–while it is difficult to like Terrell in light of the trail of destruction he leaves through the lives of those closest to him, Terrell’s two children and Donna and her brother Gary become “family” to each other, with all that entails. Indeed, when Terrell’s “secret children” from a number of mistresses are revealed it is Terrell’s son Randall who welcomes them to the family, Randall who offers love and acceptance.
In the end, Holy Ghost Girl is a study of the power of love, the love of power, and what happens when the two become intermingled. It’s a thought-provoking read, particularly in a world where extremism, showmanship, and spin are increasingly being regarded as virtues. It is a book that demands that readers respond in nuanced ways to complex people–and a powerful reminder that absolute adherence to absolutes is a dangerous path to follow. Mostly it’s a book that perfectly captures the paradox of fundamentalism. I recommend it highly.