stares wide-eyed at Grace,a depiction of an
old, bearded man with his fingers locked, head bowed, poised to
bless his food in prayeras 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 homeher Southern Baptist
home in north Georgia.
Amen, he announces.
Her mother, Cynthia, opens her eyes.
Lets 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 fathers 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.
Theyve 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. Shes 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 chickens 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 cultureor Southern Baptist
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 doesnt like his fried chicken, then she
isnt a Baptist.
But saying Southern Baptistat least in the womens
studies programat 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 heresyqualifying
for church dismissal and a promise that one will be sent into
the everlasting flames. Hes even ventured to charge the
church to consider making the women wear veils over their headsas
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 bonesa 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,
Im glad you could come home for the break, he
The man in the painting above her father seems to crack his eyes,
breaking his deep meditation and casting an eerie glance at her.
Its 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 beautifulin 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 pastorgrateful that James had been instrumental
in even his salvationhad to invite this amazing man of God
to the church. He did, and that Sunday morning Cynthia was savedreally
savedthe kind of saved that forces one to stop
dancing, cursing, and skipping church services, replacing such
behavior with faithful attendance to the Baptist Womens
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 timethe stale,
smiling woman wearing a grease-stained apron, smothered in the
smoke of the stovethen 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 isnt as foreign. It is
her family, after all. She hates it because she loses her objectivity.
James put down his glass of tea. Hows the theology
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 Moodys used
book sale in the library. Shed 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 shes made a fatal mistake.
Did I cook them too long? she asks.
Lesia shakes her head, but she can tell by her fathers 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 cant
tell her father that shes dropped out of Moody, so shell
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 doesnt want to upset the balance.
None. I want to go ahead and get my electives done first.
Ill 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
How many guys are in the theology program? he continues.
She sighs. I dont 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 knowthe 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 dont think Im getting married anytime soon.
Im 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 himnobody
left kicking and screaming, at least not that was written about,
she thought. She knows he is going to invoke his Abrahamic
You know you have to get married, Lesia. The woman is not
meant to work.
Again, Father, Im 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 dont want that. She huffs and realizes that
hell just keep pushing her until she folds, until she confesses
everything. She looks at him, hoping for understanding. I
didnt want to tell you, but Im not even going to Moody
I wanted to major in philosophy, in gender studies, so Ive
switched to UC. I want to further my education. And right now,
I want to be single.
Its not about what Ecclesia wants. Its 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. Hes doing
more than saying thanks for his food, she thinks. Hes 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 shed
said anything that it would wreck their relationship. But she
also knew she couldnt continue to convince her parents that
she subscribes to their old-time beliefs. She knows he will lose
hope, perhaps even respect, for herlike he had for those
church members who left, tired of living the sold-out
life for Christlike 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 cant
believe that she carried out her confession on the eve of her
fathers 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
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 membersand especially not Billfold
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, hed 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 hed loaded
it with unpaid traffic violations and cheat sheets for Mrs. Marvins
history class. The name stuck.
He pulls out his wallet from the front side pocket.
Im a new man, Lesia, he says and opens it, revealing
an empty pouch.
She laughs again.
So how are you? he asks.
Im doing well. Just two years left of school. And
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
Congratulations. Youll 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. Shes glad that she left town to go to college.
Before she can say anything else, he chimes in.
Hey, why arent you at church? You always come when
Lesia hesitates. Oh, well, I just need to get back up to
Chicago, and I needed a head start.
Cmon, you have an hour, dont you? Itll
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 cant 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.
Im 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 Billys truck. She remembers the time they
stole the tombstone from the Witch Ladys 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 didnt 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 wouldve
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 isnt
love, she thinks. Its captivity. She looks at Billy, speechless.
Hes ignorant, though, and, for some reason, she loves that
He extends his hand. Cmon Lesia, lets go to
Billys wife calls from across the road. Cmon,
Billy, someones 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 doesnt 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 isnt 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 Lesias chest, swelling
and rising in conjunction with Winslows 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 Gods grace, and she accepted it.
She had said the magical prayer that brought her into communion
with Godand drew her closer than ever to her father. Hed
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 thenso
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
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. Lesias
mind begins to bounce in and out of her fathers rhetoric.
Right now she isnt 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 moms head, perched on the
second pew, faithfully aimed at her fatherthe 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
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
Sobs rise up intermittently.
I wanna ask Felix, Winslow, and Myers to come up and play
for the invitation. Folks, this heres 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
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling.
Calling for you and for me.
Lesia looks over at Billy, who is in tears, firmly holding his
wifes 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 profuselycrying, too. Lesia looks up at the
church and sees her mother with her head bowed.
See on the portals hes 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
Ye who are weary come ho-o-ome.
The raw emotion, the swelling of the organ, Felixs 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 wont 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 isnt a Christian, she isnt a part
of the family anymoreas 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 isnt 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 hasnt felt in years. She feels everyone
looking at her as if they, too, realize the transfigurationthe
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.
Im 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
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 congregationthe smiles, the tears, the worn,
wooden pews, the dim, yellowed lights hanging overhead, and Billfold,
whose eyes are glowing from the back of the churchand feels
that, at least in some way, she is home.
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