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April 14, 1998

Me No Hablo Tongues

[The recently late Tammy Wynette's second greatest hit lamented D-I-V-O-R-C-E as it became a fad. But one indissoluble union remains: the sacred and the profane.

Except for Titanic, Robert Duvall would have needed a U-Haul to take home his Oscars for dissecting this union in The Apostle. He wrote, directed, and acted a role easy and tempting to lampoon, as others have often done. Instead, Duvall portrays an evangelical preacher earnestly pitting his biblical beliefs against his earthly compulsions. In flight from the law, he seeks souls to save as recompense for his transgressions. The movie is a gritty psalm to the redemptive power of sin.

Locally, a year-long, full-throttle, almost round-the-clock revival at church near Pensacola has roused the usual suspicions of a scam. Articles in area papers have linked donations from the holy-spirit-fueled mob with dandy new houses and vehicles acquired by the revival preachers, who've retorted that a gift is a gift. The blessed recipient can use it however God directs.

This spectacle caught the eye of an adventurous teenaged friend a couple years ago. She rode over to the revival from Mobile with true-believing neighbors on one of their pilgrimages. Like an anthropologist on a field trip among exotic natives, she went equipped with a camera to capture the scene.

She reported this trip to me in a long, loosely stitched letter. I considered it worth publishing -- if trimmed and tightened. She has finally done that.

But her letter's second draft isn't just briefer and smoother. The original was amazed and dismissive -- with bolts of anger and contempt. The re-thought version, printed below, shows that Duvall isn't alone trying to salvage something hopeful from the frequently tawdry trappings of salvation in the perpetual scuffle between the sacred and the profane.

-- David Underhill]

by Faith Sills

Here's the church, here's the steeple. Open it up and there are 4,000 people.

Four thousand people, one collective hitch-hiker's thumb, and a chunk of ethereal cardboard reading "Apocalypse or Bust!"

The Brownsville, Florida revival meeting didn't feel like this at first. For an hour I inhaled your generic church ambiance. Other than ten or fifteen souls having apparent petit-mal seizures, the scene was innocuous and predictable. A throng of people swayed back and forth, humming along to Baroqueish organ massages. Just as I began to doubt the transported Pentecostal reputation, there it was: Trance Slippage. Eye Glazing. Naziesque Fervor. Auburn-Alabama Football Passion. Tongues Speaking.

The "theme song" for the Brownsville group, Yes Lord, We Will Ride With You, is about hopping happily upon Death's big white horse. It's about the Apocalypse. (When rendered into the popular bumper sticker, the title serves to warn the public that the vehicle's driver no longer possesses a healthy fear of death.) This song CHANGED things.

Remember the 19th century Shakers? Had they returned to Brownsville to be healed of afflictions? But neither the Shakers nor these revivalists twitched in agony. This St. Vitus' Jig was a desirable affect, a current of religious zeal that coursed through welcoming bodies. And it was contagious....

Eventually most everyone present was either doing the trance dance, laughing hysterically, crying softly, or rocking inside a thorazine-style substitute womb while speaking in tongues.

Speaking of disconcerting --

During one tune the organist leaned into his mike and instructed, "Get rid of your sexual urges." This is not a joke (unless you get a kick out of sublimation). So I began studying faces for a hint of a perceptive anybody. But evidently, and to my petty agitation, the church had become the midnight land of Dracula's castle -- Trance-sylvania. I maintained reticence, but only because I couldn't decide whether to laugh or think too much.

Speaking of strange --

I noticed a wheelchaired woman hooked up to oxygen and spinning in gleeful, sanctified circles. Her attendant, a daughter perhaps, took the liberty of disconnecting the oxygen. God would breathe for her, this being a special occasion and all. After a while, the woman stopped spinning. She wore a big, fat, nasty question mark on her gaping crimson face. I slipped into adrenalized seething gear. Too many rows back to help, I hoped (a form of prayer) that just one ascetic somnambulist would snap out of the common coma and do something. Then the daughter caught herself, flagrante delicto, on the verge of a very cardinal sin. She reattached Ma to the bottled atmosphere.

I still have a picture of that Kodak moment.

I snapped many more of live (terms used loosely) bodies littering the floor. After the Laying On Of Hands one had to step carefully around the short stacks of the smitten.

I also had pictures of the two large men sent over to confiscate my film. When I refused to empty my camera, they boxed me in and called on walkie talkies for back up. For more enforcers arrived. Six hefty men huddled around the 110 pounds of fearful gal that I am, and did their best intimidation imitations, and told me to give up the other rolls I'd stashed in my bag.

I tried lines like, "I've been taking pictures for hours! Why do you care now?" And the old standard, "This is un-American!"

But they just stole the film from my bag. And one of them grabbed my camera and tore at it until his communion wafer brain figured out how to open it and rip me off in the name of Jesus.

I wasn't ready to ride Death's big white horse yet. It was time to check out of this set. But my real world ride back to Mobile wasn't ready to leave, not nearly, and I wasn't about to hoof it. I'd have to ride this one out.

So the grabbing by the photo police wasn't my only laying on of hands. I became a target for the other Laying On Of Hands -- and not exactly of my own free will. After the camera episode, I think I became an experiment of some sort.

The last pair of hands belonged to an extremely attractive young man. Picture it --

You close your eyes. You can hear several screamers having demons expelled, the wailing, shrieking laughter of those high on God, and the sobs of 500 or so just crying softly. (The rest were all on the floor staring like zombies.) Now, sprinkle in a dash of low, trancy organ music. The room is cold, and the man is speaking into one ear in a deep, authoritative voice, and one of his hot hands presses your forehead.

My guy says he took four hits of white blotter acid a few years back, thinking it tame, but it turned out really good...um...bad. To counteract that jolt, he took three more hits, this time green. WHAT the hell?! On his dual engine acid trip he saw a little woman type-type-typing away at a floating keyboard. She kept looking up and saying, "Something's wrong...something's very wrong." (He mocked her in a squeaky voice.) My hand-layer-oner had been "saved" as a child. So he asked the squeaky hallucination, "Is it Jesus?" Then Satan, of course, popped up behind him and yelled, "Yes! Get RID of him!! I love you..." over and over again.

I interrupted with something to the effect of, "I'm supposed to be gaining some sort of wisdom from your bad trip. Right?" But my adorable layer-oner remained convinced his acid voyage had been more than a hallucination.

As he spoke I was regretting what a waste of flesh he'd become. Could I coax him to descend from his cross for earthier pursuits? "GET HOLD OF HIM!! I love you..." I teased in my own silent hallucination.

Wasted Flesh whispered, "I know the reason you don't want to accept Christ is that you don't want to stop having sex. But I'm telling you, you've never had a man like Jesus," etc., etc.

I told him to stop. He didn't. So I stopped listening and looked around at everybody and let Things sink in. Then I started to cry. Not something I make a habit of, but there I was, and Wasted Flesh thought I'd been touched by the Spirit. Which I had, having spent way too many hours with the spirits of 4000 human beings. An emotional herd of spirits who had all reached that point just past desolation where one allows the mind to hop right over that short fence between substance and dreamland. Four thousand Apocalypse-craving souls.

I was Camus' "Stranger," and for a non-believer I really hated God for His sloth. As a non- believer, I really hated me for my pride. By then though, I was circled by believers who'd gathered to experience my experience. And I realized I'd never felt so alone in all my life. And I realized it was all my fault. And I realized it would all be permanently carved on the trunk of my memory tree.

And an emissary of God, in the form of some little man, approached me bearing one of my stolen film rolls. He laid it in my hands with no expectation but a few consoling words.

I intended to end this story with a joke.

I was also going to make stones out of words and sing songs later to Science about hopping happily on his big white horse.

Maybe that was God who just asked me, "Why, if you're so damn humane, must you share your faithless sarcasm with the masses?

Maybe that was God who just informed me -- after all these pages of prideful cynicism -- that rarely in life will I have the opportunity to experience raw humanity like Brownsville's again. Particularly in a cybersexual world where murder is casual and communication is reduced to visual grunts.

Never again will I witness a building full of people, their anonymity surrendered, not only admitting to their weaknesses but finding strength somehow within that very knowledge.

Did God just point out that an informed agnostic is still just a shrug?

I dunno.

Me still no hablo Tongues.

But there was a church, and a steeple, and a lot of people, and me --

"...And there was light."


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