Early on in my life, as a child, as far as religion goes, HELL plagued me like a recurring nightmarish dream. The first time I heard of that infernal place my heart sank in fear. “You burn forever?” I asked, followed by “forever forever?” And since the answer was always in the affirmative, HELL weighed heavily in the farthest corners and deepest canyons of my imagination, fueling my apprehensions pretty much on a daily basis and one Sunday morning, a few days before my 9th birthday, I became “saved” – somewhat in the manner of a soldier with bombs dropping all around him waving a white flag.
I can still see myself sitting in the pews, waiting like I did every Sunday for Reverend Kendricks to entertain with the cadence and rituals of Black Baptist Ministers, the play with words, the rhythmic prancing, the blotting of handkerchiefs against a sweaty brow.
That morning Reverend Kendricks began slowly with
“Let me tell y’all somethin’ this mornin’, brothers and sisters. And it is par ti cu lar ly important that you sinners sittin’ out there listen to what I, in the name of the Lawd God Hisself, have to say. Now, I didn’t say in the name of Joe Louis, did I? Naw, sho nuff didn’t. Uh uh. I ain’t talkin’ about the Brown Bomber because the Lawd would knock him out in a second and keep on steppin’. The Lawd ain’t due to be messed with. I wonder if y’all know what I’m talkin’ about this mornin’? And I didn’t say in the name of Mr. Montgomery Ward or Mr. Sears or Mr. Roebuck or Mr. Woolsworth or Mr. Rockefeller neither. Uh uh. No, indeedy. I’m not talkin’ about mortal beings here this mornin’, brothers and sisters, because to the Lawd, what gold or silver a man has means absolutely nothin’ and how powerful and influential a man is in the world’s sight means absolutely nothin’ because in almighty God’s all seein’ sight, and in comparison to His unlimited wealth, these men’s riches ain’t worth a pimple on a armadillo’s behind. Now, y’all laughin’, but it ain’t no laughin’ matter and if these powerful earth rooted men don’t watch out, if they ain’t treatin’ their fellow man right, if they ain’t bringin’ up their children in the way that they should go, sparin’ that rod, if they ain’t tithin’ and feedin’ the po’, then they could not only lose their fortune but also their souls. You see, Mr. Penney’s initials might be J.C. but there is only one J.C. Jesus Christ. And He is is the Lawd God ALL MIGH TEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! Part of the Holy Trinity. And he is not due to be messed with. And, it is He who sayeth unto us, ‘No greater fortune has a man than to have his soul for without his soul a man has nothin’.’ Do y’all hear me this mornin’? Huh? Can I get a amen? Y’all awfully silent for Christians. And, as for you sinners, I don’t know why y’all so quiet, why y’all so complacent in the eyes of God because I am here to tell you that if a man wakes up and finds hisself without a soul, then that man is but a bus stop away from HELL! And in HELL he shall stay beyond the end of all time and throughout eternity – and then some. And then some mo’! Eternity is a mighty long time.”
I could feel HELL’S flames and smell my burning flesh and I was compelled to wonder: “Am I without a soul?” And then Reverend Kendricks picked up the tempo in his next breath and I watched and listened stupefied as he whirled and twirled and sweat flew from his face like he was an attraction at a water amusement park. He did a dance that has since been called the Moonwalk. Then all of a sudden it seemed as though he was looking directly into my eyes and talking only to me, penetrating my soul (so I guess I had one) like x-rays surging from a boom box. I felt trapped like a monkey in a submarine, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide as he preached:
“Now, y’all think, for a moment, about what it must be like to live in HELL. And I’m here to tell you that whatever you’re imaginin’ HELL to be like you are off by many a mile. See y’all think you in HELL when you clean them white folkses’ houses sometimes and they get to pointin’ in corners and under rugs at what you done missed. Y’all think you in HELL when things ain’t goin’ right and you cain’t pay your bills. Y’all think you in HELL when you drop your last dime on one of them lazy over the hill no good for nuthin’ greyhounds out there at the track and you have to conjure up some lie to explain yo’ sef when you get home. Do I have a witness, this mornin’? But let me tell y’all sumpin’ right now. You will know when you in HELL because satan will be right there in the doorway, lookin’ devilish as all get out, wearin’ a big old ‘L’ on his tiepin for ‘Lucifer, just a welcomin’ you, stokin’ a fire that is a million times hotter than that, that, that, that, that fire comin’ from the matches you use to light up them sinful reefer cigarits and the fire that you use to bobbycue that bird and that cow and that hog yesterday and then didn’t invite me and the missus over to your house and that fire that Sister Lewis be usin’ to straighten out them naps on y’all’s head every Satiddy and that fire that you make with the gas you be buyin’ from Tucson Gas & Electric – a million times hotter than all the fires that have ever burnt all put together. And, and, and, and, all the firefighters in the world can’t even make HELL’s fire hiss and, Lawd have mercy, please don’t make me remind y’all that the fires of HELL never go out! Never ever go out! And satan down there draggin’ his sorry tail across embers right now, just a waitin’ for Judgment Day to come so he can take with him all who ain’t in that number when the Saints Go Marchin’ in. Now, I know some of y’all be thinkin’ how can somebody burn forever and that’s what’s wrong with the way sinners think. Non-believers always be tryin’ to figure out the mysterious instead of havin’ faith and believin’ in Him and doin’ right by Him like they spose to. Well, if you really want to know how somebody can keep on burnin’ throughout eternity then just keep on sinnin’ and find out. The answer is simple enough. But when you get the answer it will be too late. Lawd, let me tell ya, HELL ain’t no place nobody want to be. But the devil wants you to join him in HELL because, as you know, misery loves company and ain’t nobody more miserable and desirous of company than the devil and he cain’t wait to laugh at you because he sho nuff cain’t laugh with you because you ain’t go’ be laughin.’ Jack Benny could be down there but he ain’t go’ be funny, plus he’ll be darker than Rochester in HELL. Oh, yes he will. Everybody will be lookin’ like Al Jolson’s dear old ‘mammy’ in HELL and where is the humor in that? Brothers and sisters, come and go to heaven with me and all the other saints. Don’t fool around out here in this life sinnin’ and carryin’ on and takin’ chances with the salvation of yo’ soul. Just think for a minute what could happen if you’re out there sinnin’ and befo’ you have a chance to ask the Lawd’s forgiveness you dropped dead. Right there on the spot (that’s where he got me). You know where yo’ next stop would be, don’t you? That’s right, church: HELL! Burnin’ forever and ever and ever, never ending! Fire! And Brimstone! Will you come? Will you come to Jesus?”
And before the choir could finish singing “Come to Jesus, come to Jesus, come to Jesus, just now, just now. Come to Je….” I flew up to the altar, like a, excuse the pun, bat out of HELL!
Everybody was so happy for me because I “had found the Lord and had seen the light.” I was happy because I had, frightened out of my wits, avoided going to HELL before that day turned into night. Such is the mind of a nine year old.
But with HELL out of the way other notions of religion kept popping up throughout my life and it became too cut and dried for me. Too faith based for a “look both ways before you cross the street” kind of guy.
Just so much I don’t understand, like how religions can condone war or condemn a woman who doesn’t want to bring a baby into the world or vilify a man who wants to lay with a man or a woman who is attracted to other women…
Too many HELLISH aspects to it all, to me. But my walking away from religion is not meant to denigrate those who comprised the church of my youth. I can still feel the love the members of Mt. Calvary had for us children. They played a big part in making me a human being who cares enough about the world to want to change it for the better – like Christ. They painted an indelible picture of this man that has stayed with me all these years. If Christianity truly reflected Him I would sign on in a heartbeat.
Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/vibrantspirit/3035981951/