ITALIZA BEFORE THE SAINTS
JASMINE SPRINGS, 1978
“The wages of all sin is death!” Convicting and inclusive, the preacher’s voice boomed from the speakers, bounced off of the white walls as vibrations slid down aquamarine stained glassed windows and slammed into all five of Italiza’s senses. She smelled the taunting pungency of it, tasted its acrid beckoning, felt its cement-rough caress and unequivocally heard the sweet grating of its call. Most of all, she could see the outcome of its seduction: death. As the tall brown man spoke, Italiza felt the walls of his church watching her, seeing into her mind. She tried to focus on his delicately shouted words but her attention was diverted. It was as if everyone was looking at her. She could hear them whispering; their laughter disguised in shouts.
“Go on!” someone yelled,
“Tell the truth, now!” Italiza stiffened in her seat and pulled her wide brimmed hat down a bit over her left eye, training her eyes on the windows. She felt herself begin to shudder beneath the men’s voices and at the same cringe at the women’s cotton-candy colored Sunday dresses. What did they know? The images from the stained glass windows stared back at Italiza in disappointment. Her head began to ache and she could no longer maintain her composure. Somewhere in the back of her mind she heard the words of a hymn her grandmother Lucia used to sing: Must Jesus bear the cross alone and all the world go free? There’s a cross for everyone and there’s a cross for me.
Yes, there is a cross for me. Italiza reached for her purse, stood to her feet and walked toward the front of the church.
“Yes, come, my child.” The tall brown man said leaving his position at the pulpit, taking dramatic steps in time with music played by an organist and drummer. His long legs drew him toward the woman approaching the center of the church. He wiped his thick black brows with a monogrammed hand towel and unconsciously scratched at his left side burn. He always did this when he was expecting someone to kneel, bent, broken and submissive ready to give life and will over to place their existence in the hands of God, as a result of one of his sermons. Afterward he would speak well-practiced, yet sincerely choked–up: just look at what God can do. While praying he never slipped and said what was really on his mind. Just two weeks ago, a young man had come to the altar, tears streaming his face, one hand holding his pants by their waistband, the other clutching the elbow of a well-dressed young woman with one baby on her hip and a toddler hanging on her right hand. As the preacher lamented: ‘Just look what God can do’, he was thinking: “I bet this boy got all kinds of kids ‘round here. And this hussy probably full of all kinds of AIDS. Shame, too. Those hips look like they can give a man the what for and keep him locked in glory for a lifetime.”
He never tried to judge people, it was just thoughts he could not seem to shake. He truly had tried to live up to his role as a pastor, a preacher, a husband, a father and a man of God. Having grown up with a beautiful and impeccably kept yet criticizing mother who disgraced every church she had ever attended with her drinking, fornicating and belligerence, Ernest had developed a knack for wondering what was beneath the surface of the skin people willingly showed. On Monday’s his mother was a well-respected and highly trusted nurse. Something about church made her crazy but she kept going and made Ernest, his sister Julia and twin brother and sister, Stephen and Stephanie go along with her.
As Italiza slowly walked forward, Ernest vaguely wondered at her story. He was too captivated by something familiar in the drawn out movement of her bare feet to allow his eye to roam her generous curves. He extended his hand and reassured the girl, “The altar is open and Jesus is here. All you must do is repent!”
In an instant, reaching a daintily gloved hand into her plain brown purse which hung from her shoulders by a thin cord strap, Italiza pulled out several photographs and tossed them at the feet of the man’s robe. As he instinctively bent to retrieve the photos, a murmur rose from the congregation members seated closest to the front of the church. Pale blue, lavender and soft pink hats turned toward muted tan, foamy green and innocent yellow ones; shiny bald spots spun left to right and gray-haired old men in pin-striped suits stamped their feet in confusion.
“What about you?” The young woman screamed. “When will you repent?”
“My child,” the preacher spoke quietly.
“Never call me that!” Italiza shrieked. Reaching into her plain brown purse once more, she swiftly pulled out the shiny .45 caliber weapon nestled there and aimed it squarely at the man’s chest. She did not flinch as people began to yell and shuffle around her.
“Sweet Jesus Deacon Earl, do something!’”
“She got a gun!”
“Everybody sit down, or he dies right now!” The otherwise calm young woman shouted.
“Please,” the preacher spoke into the microphone. “Sit down, family. God have mercy, maybe we can hear the chil—this sister out and save a soul. All saints oughta be praying right now.”
“That’s right,” Italiza scoffed, holding the gun steady. “Start praying—and while you’re at it, keep the music playing.”
Ruby walked patiently behind twenty-four women. The fishtail of her white, softly fitted high waist ankle-length skirt, swayed silently across the strap of her white, peep-toe platform heels. She had designed the entire ensemble, complete with the fitted waist length jacket that fluttered into soft pleats just above her hips with delicate stems of silver playing at the cuffs above her wrists. She’d made sure the attire wasn’t tight and opted for a sweetheart neckline instead of decollete which would’ve been her choice for a model and would certainly have made a statement but showing that kind of cleavage would have also made a scandal.
Junior Deaconesses sat on the third row with Ruby in the first seat on the pew–the space designated for the Chair of the Jr. Deaconess Board. Her white skirt generously contrasted with the red cushioned pew benches. The ladies always looked exceptionally aglow on fifth Sundays in white. Today, however, they were positively radiant. It was Annual Observance Sunday—the day when the Deacon’s Council would be recognized for their work in the church and in the community.
In the last five years, the Deacons Dare program had gone from visiting incarcerated males once a month to establishing a transition program that sought and immersed the prisoner, his children and families in educational tutoring and training, individual family and community counseling, financial literacy, legal assistance and most of all it immersed them in the love of Christ and all that salvation promised.
Ruby thanked God she was a member of a church where the men worked in harmony, had a shared sense of purpose—and weren’t afraid of hard work. Across from the 36 women, 36 men dressed in white tailored suits and orange neckties simultaneously took their seats in the deacon’s pews. Only one of them had silver subtly etched into the cuffs of his white jacket. He also wore an understated silver pendant in his lapel. Ruby touched the pendant perched delicately above her own heart as she watched Deacon Solomon McKnight take his seat on the second row of pews 20 feet away the from where the women were seated. She forced her attention away from Deacon McKnight and focused on the lovely song the choir was singing. She clapped along to “Oh Happy Day”, agreeing with the joyful atmosphere surrounding them. Yes, she thought, it definitely was a happy day.
Jasmine Springs, 1978
No one knew the name of the woman who had held Jasmine Springs Baptist Church hostage for thirty-two minutes and six seconds on the first Sunday in June of 1980. No one questioned how church membership began to wane and no one publicly voiced the questions and accusations lingering in their minds about the peculiar fiasco.
On that sticky hot morning, no one saw the blue ford the young woman calmly walked to after backing slowly down the center aisle of the church, gun waving, ordering the congregation to their knees.
“Faces down in the seats! Eyes closed! Quiet! As long as nobody moves, y’all can have a blessed day.”
Days later, people would repeat the story and marvel over the last four words, ‘have a blessed day,’ she’d said. Not the parting words of a hardened criminal, they’d agree. However, as the Mississippi Summer heat cooled into a golden auburn autumn which tumbled into a silvery skied winter and time made its perfect history-forming circles and making years; when the tale was remembered, the particulars had evolved into a story of a two-gun toting wild-haired woman who had dared curse God at the altar.
On the day in question—before reality was lore-sprinkled with hazy memories and exaggerated re-tellings, however, no one lifted a head for hours and not a word was spoken until the vibrant daylight streaming into the church began to dim, signaling the afternoon’s slow fade into dusk.
To Be Continued. . .