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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 with 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, serving as assistants and security in the charismatic services, and helping those who wish 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 join his traveling ministry to serve God, and wind up servicing “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 find 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 with a minister who is all too willing to use his position as God’s messenger to exploit those around him. Love and abuse are ever-present. Terrell forces his wife and mistress to travel in the same car and live in the same house–and yet treats both his own children and his mistress’ children with great love. For Terrell, telling “nigger” jokes is acceptable, even while he risks Klan violence by preaching to mixed audiences.  He fasts to learn God’s will, and then takes poor folks’ last dollars to power his fleet of Mercedes and finance multiple homes. In Terrell’s world, healings are sometimes faked, and sometimes real, and showmanship and tricks are sanctioned in the name of soul-winning. In that world, 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, a God who requires pain and money as His due.

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). Donna objects to the move, and increasingly finds her path diverging from the charismatic tent evangelism that has formed the backdrop for the only home she knows.

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, Donna and her brother Gary become true “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. It is 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.

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A few weeks ago, for the first time in something like ten years, I found myself in a church. I’ve known about this church for quite some time; we drive past it when we go through the orchards and out past the old Hudson’s Bay property west of town. It’s one of those little old churches that just screams, “I’m a church!” when you see it: white paint, delicate, nicely proportioned steeple, fellowship hall tacked on out back, gravel parking lot, doors that open pretty much right onto the highway.

We were there because Patrick had been asked to play the tuba at their “Family Fun Night,” and as a loving and supportive mother I was playing chauffer.

Church-going does not come naturally to me. I arrived at the location with my stomach in knots. We found an open door and followed the sound of voices to the fellowship hall, where an assortment of men and ladies were cooking supper.

Patrick and I found seats off to the side and sat quietly. A lady hurried over and informed us that Patrick’s accompanist would be arriving shortly, and that it was fine if we went down the hall so Patrick could get his tuba warmed up.

We slunk gratefully into the cool, welcoming quiet of unused children’s classrooms. Patrick assembled the tuba, played a few scales, and ran through his song. Then there was nothing to do but go back to the all-purpose room. It had filled considerably in our absence.

The tuba marked us as Special Music, just as our faces marked us as Strangers Within Their Gates, and the church members responded accordingly. They greeted us, sought to identify a family or social connection we might have with someone they knew (such is life in a small town), urged us to eat, and then hurried back to cooking supper and setting the tables.

I seized the opportunity to ask a question of my own in one of these fleeting conversations. “What denomination is this church?”

The lady I asked looked blank. There was a pause just a little too long to be comfortable. “I think we’re sort of Congregationalist,” she said at last, “but not like the Congregational church in _____,” she finished hurriedly, naming the next town over. She thought for a moment. “I think our minister used to be Baptist or something.” She smiled sweetly and whirled away, back to the chicken in the kitchen.

Patrick’s teacher–the issuer of the invitation–arrived. And then the minister arrived, and turned out to be the father of some of the “step-aheadians,” as Patrick has taken to calling the regulars at Megan’s school and day camp.

“Eat! Eat!” everyone urged us. We declined–Patrick because he had to play, and me because my stomach was so knotted up I didn’t think food would be possible.

“Can we leave right after I play?” Patrick had asked me on the way over.

“Sounds like a plan,” I had said. “You play, and then I’ll take you out for supper.”

“You might as well eat,” Patrick’s teacher told him now. “We’re going to be having a sing-along after supper, and before you play.”

“Okay,” I said, smiling while my heart sank down to rest on the knots in my belly.

Patrick and I each got a plate and then scurried over to sit with the “step-aheadians.” It felt safe, like a life raft in a storm-tossed sea of church members. I looked around at the familiar faces I knew from Step-Ahead and was grateful.

After dinner we all trooped into the sanctuary for the sing-along. I had been expecting gospel favorites, sung dolefully and probably off-key. Instead we sang “Sidewalks of New York,” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and “Bicycle Built for Two,” and on and on, old favorites that reminded me of summer evenings, listening to my Grandpa singing in his soft, cracked voice. Patrick’s accompanist, a tiny, white-haired lady who seemed to carry a bubble of coziness with her, sat with me. Outside, the setting sun shone through stained glass.

The sing-along ended and Patrick played his solo. I had never heard him play better. He and the cozy white-haired lady sounded like they’d been playing together for months. And then another boy played a solo, and we couldn’t leave then, and then it was on to karaoke.

The ministers wife and daughters sang. Some of the other girls sang. And then Patrick got up and sang. I watched him, stunned at his courage at getting up and singing in front of a churchful of strangers, and a few friends. Suddenly I realized that I wouldn’t have missed this evening for the world, watching my son sitting with his friends, experiencing something he never had before, stretching himself in new directions.  Someone got up and sang “Takin’ Care of Business.” When they got to the line about being self-employed the cozy lady elbowed me. “That’s you,” she hissed, grinning at me.

So what’s the point of all this? First, I am very proud of myself for having attended–and enjoyed–a church function. I can’t remember the last time I was in a church that I didn’t go home feeling a toxic cocktail of rage, guilt, and depression. There is a large church along one of the major highways here. Every time I pass it, I think, “I’m so glad I don’t go to church.” Feelings like that don’t happen overnight. It takes a lifetime to pack that much emotional baggage. When we went to this small church Patrick carried his tuba. Though my hands were empty, I carried the heavier load: I was hauling every bit of the emotional baggage I had accumulated through the years. I only went because Patrick had been asked to play, and even then we tried to limit our exposure to the whole church thing.

But it didn’t work out that way, and I’m so glad it didn’t. Because my plan for us to duck in, show Patrick off, and duck out was foiled I got to share an evening with a group of people who might be foggy on what denomination they are, but are crystal clear on what it means to create a welcoming, warm, accepting place for each other, and for those who only come because they don’t see how they can get out of it.

I don’t know that I’ll ever become a regular church-goer–I tend to find Spirit in other places–but I hope we find our way to their Family Fun Night again. Who knows? I might even sing karaoke.

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