Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

House of God

Phillip Mitchell


Lesia stares wide-eyed at “Grace,”—a depiction of an old, bearded man with his fingers locked, head bowed, poised to bless his food in prayer—as her father, James, with his eyes closed, offers up thanks for her homecoming dinner. This is the image that haunts her when, in the midst of her newfound northwestern intellectualism, she remembers home—her Southern Baptist home in north Georgia.

“Amen,” he announces.

Her mother, Cynthia, opens her eyes.

“Let’s eat,” she says.

Nothing has changed in the dining room; the same table, the same white walls. Her father still sits at the end. Her mother still makes frequent trips to fetch tea, or butter, or anything else demanded by the patriarch.

Lesia bites into the tender, moist breast of fried chicken and shoots glances at her father and the Enstrom painting that hangs above her father’s head. Both have beards and white hair; both are a little rough around the edges, but both are content enough with their lots in life to say a prayer before dinner. They’ve both worked hard for content, righteous, old-man status, she thinks.

Had it been any other weekend trip, the family would have continued their meal without altercation. But this is a semester break for Lesia. She’s entering her junior year, and she knows her father will have important questions to ask. She watches him look at her mother, then at her while she picks her chicken bone clean with her fork.

“The chicken’s not the same in Chicago,” she says.

Her mother laughs and eyes her father, which Lesia understands as a glance that appreciates, despite moving north for an education, her unadulterated love for Southern culture—or Southern Baptist culture.

Lesia hopes the compliment will temporarily fend off any questions. But she also believes what she has said. The recipe has been passed, supposedly, from pastors, all of whom were her grandparents, since the early part of the twentieth century. James often jokes to Lesia that if she doesn’t like his fried chicken, then she isn’t a Baptist.

But saying “Southern Baptist”—at least in the women’s studies program—at the University is like telling an old, but faithful, joke, effecting guffaws and intellectual sneers. It is hard for Lesia to believe, in so many ways, that it is 2006, and her father is persistent in keeping the women silent in church. He lets them sing in the choir, teach Sunday school, and watch the nursery, but anything beyond that is heresy—qualifying for church dismissal and a promise that one will be sent into the everlasting flames. He’s even ventured to charge the church to consider making the women wear veils over their heads—as the Apostle Paul had commanded.

To her peers, her childhood home only exists in dusty southern fiction from the mid-twentieth century. While she would never admit it to her friends and professors in Illinois, this world still has flesh and bones—a reality that shakes her now more than ever as James wipes his mouth with his napkin and looks at her from beneath his deep gray eyebrows. The inquisition begins, she thinks.

“I’m glad you could come home for the break,” he says.

The man in the painting above her father seems to crack his eyes, breaking his deep meditation and casting an eerie glance at her.

“It’s been a grueling semester, but only two years to go,” she says and forces a chuckle while her father begins to scoop up the mashed potatoes on his plate.

Lesia looks at her mother, who has not seemed to age much, despite the proficiency with which she fulfills the role of faithful housewife. Even now as she pokes at her greens, she is ready to please and even somewhat beautiful—in her own domestic, ole-time-religion sort of way. Her blond hair has yet to whiten, and all of her wrinkles are discreet and graceful.
Lesia remembers conversations detailing how Cynthia was once a rebel in her own right, dancing on the weekends, skipping church, and saying curse words at school until James had moved into their little town to attend an upstart Bible university. One of the first classes entailed extensive street preaching. For his final exam, James had to stand on the corner for eight hours, preaching his heart out to the lost folks of Rehoboth, Alabama. He converted a barber, a mechanic, three deacons, and the pastor of the First Church of Rehoboth, where Cynthia attended. Cynthia said that because of James’ preaching, the chain of Holy Spirit fire swept through the city and landed right on the hardest, and wildest, heart: her own. The pastor—grateful that James had been instrumental in even his salvation—had to invite this amazing man of God to the church. He did, and that Sunday morning Cynthia was saved—really saved—the kind of “saved” that forces one to stop dancing, cursing, and skipping church services, replacing such behavior with faithful attendance to the Baptist Women’s Auxiliary Club bake-offs and Sunday brunches with the deacons’ wives. She had become a new woman. To Lesia, however, she had become a woman who had been around a long time—the stale, smiling woman wearing a grease-stained apron, smothered in the smoke of the stove—then suddenly polished, glowing for her husband at the dinner table. It is the kind of antiquity that she despises but that is all too familiar. And the most conflicting part is that once she is home, it isn’t as foreign. It is her family, after all. She hates it because she loses her objectivity.

James put down his glass of tea. “How’s the theology degree going?”

James had sent Lesia to the Moody Bible Institute, a very conservative school in Chicago, in order for her to major in Christian education and find a husband. However, she secretly switched to UC after her first year, mostly due to her scouring of Moody’s used book sale in the library. She’d found a few books that changed her outlook on her role as an individual and as a student working toward a degree. But because she finances her own education, her parents have no idea. She chews on her roll, not answering his question right away. She chews it until her jaw is sore.

Her mother widens her eyes as if she’s made a fatal mistake.

“Did I cook them too long?” she asks.

Lesia shakes her head, but she can tell by her father’s furrowed brow that he is not satisfied. “What religion classes are you taking this semester?”

She holds up a finger and picks up her glass to wash down the bread, now a mass of foam in her cheeks. She knows she can’t tell her father that she’s dropped out of Moody, so she’ll pretend as long as she can.

When she finally swallows, she feels the silence is suffocating. She decides she will approach it slowly, logically. After all, this is a good meal. She doesn’t want to upset the balance.

“None. I want to go ahead and get my electives done first. I’ll focus on theology after that,” she lies.

James looks down at his empty glass. “Honey, will you get me some more of that fine tea you brewed?”

Cynthia puts her silverware down, takes his glass, and walks to the freezer.

“How many guys are in the theology program?” he continues.

She sighs. “I don’t know, a few.”

“Have you been on any dates?”

Cynthia returns to the table and sets down the glass of tea.

“You know,” her mother begins, “Preachers are always looking for that girl who will fulfill her role as the Proverbs—”

“The Proverbs 31 woman. Yeah, I know, I know—the woman whose family rises and blesses her at the start of each day for her faithful service in the household.”

“Exactly,” her mother asserts in her most matter-of-factly tone as she sits back down.

“I don’t think I’m getting married anytime soon. I’m going to do graduate work.”

Her father digs through his mashed potatoes, not looking up. She has often heard him compare their family with Abraham, the old quintessential patriarch. Abraham had a faithful family. When God commanded him to move, his whole family moved with him—nobody left kicking and screaming, at least not that was written about, she thought. She knows he is going to invoke his “Abrahamic” authority.

“You know you have to get married, Lesia. The woman is not meant to work.”

“Again, Father, I’m going to graduate school.”

“You were born to be a mate, to help a man through life, and to find pleasure there. Not to fill up your mind with the knowledge of man.”

“I don’t want that.” She huffs and realizes that he’ll just keep pushing her until she folds, until she confesses everything. She looks at him, hoping for understanding. “I didn’t want to tell you, but I’m not even going to Moody anymore, Dad.”

Silence.

“I wanted to major in philosophy, in gender studies, so I’ve switched to UC. I want to further my education. And right now, I want to be single.”

It’s not about what Ecclesia wants. It’s what God wants!” He slings his fork down at the table. It bounces off the table and lands on the floor, splattering the remnants of the potatoes over his shoes. He looks at her straight in the eye. Her mother places her hand on his arm to settle him.

It is not unusual for her father to act this way. Ever since she was a little girl, she has seen him fight the air as if it were trying to tie him up. He would swing his fists, stomp on the ground, and spit as he screamed.

But it is unusual for him to do it at home. In the past, it occurred behind a cross carved into the giant pulpit at the front of their church. She is well acquainted with his godly authority. She knows that this is what he is using now. And, for some reason, at this moment she remembers that old Abraham, whom her father wants so much to be, had also convinced a tribe that his wife was his sister so as not to endanger their lives. It sickens Lesia. She looks at her father, unflinching, angry.

“Our gods think differently,” she says.

No one looks at the other; their eyes all rest on the mashed potatoes. She knows her father is sorting through his images of college professors, all of whom are liberal tools of Satan, according to him. Before she had gone to college, he had shown her a cartoon from the Baptist Press that depicted a long-bearded professor crossing out the word “God” on a chalkboard. The next frame had shown God, who oddly had the same beard, crossing the professor out. They both laughed when he showed her, and she knows now that his mind is recalling the comic strip, falling back on all his views of modern academia. He has complained about the same results in a dozen local kids that went to college.

James folds his napkin and sets it on the table. He gets up without a word. Her mother looks at Lesia sadly, and then rises to follow her father into the great room.

The eyes of “Grace” above her are shut. He’s doing more than saying thanks for his food, she thinks. He’s praying for my soul. She rises with her plate, places it in the dishwasher, and goes to her room.

*****

She pushes her hair off of her forehead and turns over in the bed. The clock stares at her in the darkness of her bedroom: 2:30 a.m. She has tossed and turned, kept awake by her own ruminations. She had not wanted to stir up any trouble. She knew before she’d said anything that it would wreck their relationship. But she also knew she couldn’t continue to convince her parents that she subscribes to their old-time beliefs. She knows he will lose hope, perhaps even respect, for her—like he had for those church members who left, tired of living the “sold-out” life for Christ—like he had lost it for those people who refused time and again to accept Christ as savior. “What was I thinking?” she wonders.

Then it hits her. She realizes it is Saturday evening. She can’t believe that she carried out her confession on the eve of her father’s holy day. She looks up at the ceiling, calculating her plan for the next morning. She knows there is no way she is going to church. Every weekend for the past two years that she has visited home, she has gone to church with her family. The church members would hug her and tell her how proud that they were that she was attending Moody, that she was “gonna git a fine man of God” and learn the Bible.

She decides to sneak out of the house before anyone will be up, head back to her new home in Chicago, where she can be her new self. She is convinced that she can deal without seeing her parents for years, especially if all they talk about is their misogynistic version of Jesus. She looks at the red numbers beside her head. It is 3:30 a.m. when they disappear and she falls asleep.

*****

When she awakens, she notices it is daylight outside. She stares at the ceiling for a few minutes and hears a consistent beeping noise, hardly noticeable. She looks over at her clock and realizes that the alarm has been turned down. It is 10:00 a.m. Her mom and dad would be deeply immersed in Sunday school, hearing practical, Biblical advice for daily living. She decides to take a shower and leave before they come home.

She steps out of the house with her books and suitcase at 10:50. Not saying goodbye to her parents is unusual, but she loads her bookbag and suitcase into the small Volkswagen Bug trying not to think about it.

“Hey, Lesia!” someone shouts from across the road at the church.

Lesia turns around, making out a tall, lean figure, waving. It walks closer to her. It is Billy Flanagan. She has not expected to see any of the church members—and especially not Billfold Flanagan.

“Hey, Billfold,” Lisa laughs.

Billfold had gotten the nickname because of the thickness of his wallet. During high school he was the coolest kid, riding around in his jacked-up F-150. After too long riding propped up on one butt cheek for too long, he’d thrown out his back. He said it was because of all the girls’ phone numbers and money that were stuffed in it, but Lesia knew that he’d loaded it with unpaid traffic violations and cheat sheets for Mrs. Marvin’s history class. The name stuck.
He pulls out his wallet from the front side pocket.

“I’m a new man, Lesia,” he says and opens it, revealing an empty pouch.

She laughs again.

“So how are you?” he asks.

“I’m doing well. Just two years left of school. And you?”

Billfold crosses the road and reaches her car. He looks down at the ground as he places the wallet back in his pocket. Although a front tooth has been chipped since she last saw him, she is still taken aback by his rustic handsomeness. His dark hair is peppered with grey and white.

“Doing good. Me and Linda had them babies. Two of ‘em,” he says and points backward at his wife, unloading them from their pickup.

“Congratulations. You’ll make a wonderful father.”

Having babies at twenty, especially two of them, means that the full-time academic life that she has come to love would be out of the question. She’s glad that she left town to go to college. Before she can say anything else, he chimes in.

“Hey, why aren’t you at church? You always come when you visit.”

Lesia hesitates. “Oh, well, I just need to get back up to Chicago, and I needed a head start.”

“C’mon, you have an hour, don’t you? It’ll be like old times.”

It was the kind of statement Lesia had not wanted to hear. Those are the times she is trying to forget.

“You can’t come all the way down here and not spend any time with your old best friend, can you?”

Lesia looks down at the set of keys in her hands.

“I’m not the same, Billy.”

She looks at him. He returns the glance, silent, uncertain. She remembers the time that they had gotten stuck in the mud just outside town in Billy’s truck. She remembers the time they stole the tombstone from the Witch Lady’s grave. And, most of all, she remembers lying in the bed of the truck, under his caress, scared, but excited. Billy was her first love. And to stand before him, telling him that she was different pulled at nerves she didn’t know she had. Who is she to tell him his ways are stupid and useless? Yet he stands there innocent, untouched by higher learning. He is free. But, no, she thinks. He would’ve made me his wife, subjected me to a life of having babies and church-going. He would have made me his female slave.

She thinks about how likely his reality could have been hers. She imagines herself holding their baby in her arms as he leads prayer during the morning service. She cringes. That isn’t love, she thinks. It’s captivity. She looks at Billy, speechless. He’s ignorant, though, and, for some reason, she loves that about him.

He extends his hand. “C’mon Lesia, let’s go to church.”

Billy’s wife calls from across the road. “C’mon, Billy, someone’s gon get our pew.”

He winks at Lesia and takes off across the road to the church.

*****

Oak Creek Baptist is the oldest church in the community. Four dirty columns line the front platform. A marble dedication to the charter members of the church and a giant stained-glass window stand between the two entrances. The church is made of brick, now grimy from the sixty-five years of Southern moisture that has seeped in. She makes her way up the steps, already hearing music spilling from the cracks of the doorways.

When Lesia opens the back door to the old church, she smells the ancient church carpet and the mildewed baptismal pool. The service has already begun. Margaret Spence, with her purple hair and crooked smile, looks back at her and waves. Others turn back to see who is entering. As the heads turn, many smile and wave. The choir is singing “I Am Bound for the Promised Land.” Lesia sits down in an empty space on the back pew. On the other end of the pew Billfold sits with his wife. He wiggles back and forth and pats his butt to show Lesia he doesn’t sit crooked any more. His wife nudges him with her elbow. Lesia smiles and gives him a thumbs up.

I am bound for the Promised Land.
I am bound for the Promised Land.
Oh who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the Promised Land.


The only way Lesia can describe the choir is by calling it one big collective hillbilly. They sing a long “I” and often omit the consonants of words. And only during the chorus, obviously because she isn’t familiar enough with the verses of the song, does Wilma Norton sing louder than everyone else.

Felix, the baldheaded choir leader, swings his arms in large circles, bouncing to the rhythm of the music, while Winslow, the organist, pounds out the notes, vibrating the walls of the church. The bass nuances of the organ seem to drive into Lesia’s chest, swelling and rising in conjunction with Winslow’s leg movements. As a child, the feeling drove her to sing louder, louder than Wilma, but as she feels it now, she wishes she could figure out some way to suffocate it. It seems to beat up into her head, making her dizzy. It is so loud it drowns out Myers, the pianist, who hunches over the piano, smiling, in his own world.

Lesia looks at the church and thinks about how so much of her life has occurred between the walls. She remembers the time she sat beside her father one Sunday afternoon following the morning service. She looks so small and helpless in her memory. She had looked up at him and asked if she were going to heaven. She was six then. He had told her that she was a sinner, and she understood. He told her she needed God’s grace, and she accepted it. She had said the magical prayer that brought her into communion with God—and drew her closer than ever to her father. He’d smiled and laughed, then drawn her to his side. In that moment, she had felt more loved that ever before.

She remembers how he had told her that three weeks from that day she would be baptized at the church. It seemed like she asked him every day, “Will I be baptized today, Dad?” Every morning before she left for school, they would cross out another day on the calendar. She had had so much faith back then—so much innocence.

She remembers Billy standing on the baptismal steps behind her as she waded to her father in the water, her small hands reaching around his. She recalls how happy she felt during her immersion into the cold water at church, her father baptizing her in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. She remembers his supporting her as she led Bible studies at Oak Grove when she was only in middle school. And she knows that he expected her to do great things for God in the support of a fine Christian man.

As Lesia has reminisced, the song has ended and James has opened his Bible and begun speaking. His eyes beat down on the congregation in holy fury. “There is only one true God!”

“Amen,” Billfold says.

His wife turns to him and smiles. Beside her, Margaret folds up her bulletin and begins fanning her face. It is hot. Lesia’s mind begins to bounce in and out of her father’s rhetoric.

Right now she isn’t his little girl anymore. She knows that, to her father, what she said has posited herself against the family.

He begins to sweat. “Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is that one true Lord.”

From the back pew she sees her mom’s head, perched on the second pew, faithfully aimed at her father—the same way it had been every Sunday in her memory. Lesia knows that it takes some type of brainwashing to listen to such lectures week in and week out.

Her father preaches on, with the righteous cadence, the quick breaths between the phrases driving some to tears. He talks about politics, mostly the liberals, but he also talks about hell and its unrelenting fires. She hears the crescendo. He screams at the top of his lungs. She knows then that he is battling against what he would call the evil forces in the room. She is the cause. Her doubt has driven the slime of hell into this sanctified house of God. Then she notices the decrescendo. It is then that he seems inviting, concerned, and most sincere. His voice, like always, reaches a whisper and the people listen closely. No one coughs. The only sound one can hear at this moment is the occasional person shifting in the pew. The change in the volume also marks the end of the sermon. He walks down the steps of the platform and in front of the pulpit. He asks that everyone close his or her eyes. He then begins the questioning.

“Where do you stand with God? Do you believe in the one true God?”

Sobs rise up intermittently.

“I wanna ask Felix, Winslow, and Myers to come up and play for the invitation. Folks, this here’s your chance to get right with God Almighty.”

He bows his head, beginning to weep softly. The organ sweeps across the congregation announcing the solemnity that must ensue. Felix limps up behind the pulpit and begins singing in a soft, broken voice:

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling.
Calling for you and for me.


Lesia looks over at Billy, who is in tears, firmly holding his wife’s hand. She knows that this is what they call the Spirit of God. It usually starts in the invitation. Of course, Lesia suspects it is all in the hymn selection. The pretty song, with so many people gathered together for the same purpose, builds a sense of community. Winslow plays quietly and Ms. Margaret has begun sweating profusely—crying, too. Lesia looks up at the church and sees her mother with her head bowed.

See on the portals he’s waiting and watching.
Watching for you and for me.


Her mother slips out of the pew and kneels down at the old altar. Her father is standing in front of the pulpit with his arms in the air, beckoning people to come, to repent. She can hear her mother crying. As Winslow plays the organ and Felix sings, her father turns his back to the congregation and begins to pray with her mother.

Come home.
Come home.
Ye who are weary come ho-o-ome.


The raw emotion, the swelling of the organ, Felix’s voice, and, perhaps, what she considers her own intellect lead her to believe this might be her chance to reconcile with her family. Would it be so bad to live the redneck, Christian life here? She can be the feminist in Chicago and no one will know, she thinks. It won’t matter. She knows that she disagrees with them, but here, with them kneeling at the altar, there must be some way to make amends. The two represent her family, and despite all of the great ideas she had learned in college, nothing can change the fact that this stupid woman and stupid man had given birth to her. That they, together, had reared her as best they knew how. If she isn’t a Christian, she isn’t a part of the family anymore—as silly as it seems. She knows they will still say that they love her, but it will be different. At Christmas, they will no longer ask her to read the nativity scene or pray. At dinner there will always be tension as they mimic the model of the praying man that hangs above in the dining room. The division will always lurk just beneath the smiles and courteous habits of her family. This will unalterably change her life, and as heroic as it seems, she isn’t sure it is best. She looks over at Billfold. Tears are streaming down his cheek as he smiles. He seems to be happy. His wife seems to be happy.

Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling
Calling, O sinner, Come home.


Lesia steps out into the aisle. The walk down seems to be the longest journey she has ever taken, but it reawakens something deep, something she hasn’t felt in years. She feels everyone looking at her as if they, too, realize the transfiguration—the touch from that great intangible that intellect and academic inquiry will never, despite years of progress, explain away. She has stepped out on faith, a word that has been, for so long now, foreign to her, absent. She will be called a Christian, a saint of God again by her family. And that, to her, is what matters most. She kneels down by her parents. When her father realizes she is there, he collapses onto her in a thankful embrace.

“I’m sorry, Dad, Mom.” She is unaware of her sobbing until she says it.

“Praise, Jesus,” he whispers.

“Praise the Lord,” her mom follows.

*****

As the three rise from the altar, Winslow lets up on the volume pedal.

“My daughter, who we thought was lost, is found,” James whispers. He swallows and hugs her again, and the church bursts out into a joyful round of applause.

“The angels in heaven rejoice at this moment,” he says.

Lesia stands silently, wiping the tears from her face and looking out over the congregation—the smiles, the tears, the worn, wooden pews, the dim, yellowed lights hanging overhead, and Billfold, whose eyes are glowing from the back of the church—and feels that, at least in some way, she is home.

***

Phillip Mitchell teaches English at the University of West Georgia. He won the Ben W. Griffith Award for Fiction for his thesis, titled As Far as the Eye Can See, and he has been published in The Eclectic.

© Phillip Mitchell

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012