Every now and then you experience these moments that are slices of heaven on earth. They can be different things for different people because we all have something that gets us going. For me, the most joy comes from when I find myself stuck in situations that feel like are straight out of a short story I’ve read. Physical manifestations of literary imaginations, I guess you could say. I had one of them Monday night—probably the greatest one yet.
I help out this guy in Searcy from time to time. He’s twenty-nine, and we typically get together about twice a week. Most Monday nights we have a Bible study, but this past Monday afternoon he calls me and says, “Hey, there’s this thing at College Church at 6:00 where they feed people, a guy preaches, and then they sing some hymns. I was wondering if you’d want to do that tonight instead of Bible study.” This guy has told me about this weekly buffet sermon before. I’ve never been able to go, but I know he’s been four or five times. So I told him, “Sure, we can do that,” and picked him up a little before six.
Now, I’ve been to community-type events before where the word “free” is somewhere in the description, and everybody comes out of the woodworks for them. So, I kind of knew what to expect, but I don’t think I was prepared for just how exceptional it was going to be.
We got to College Church a little early, but by the time this thing had started the beauty of it hit me: all of the people around me looked like they’d just walked out of a Flannery O’Connor short story. It . . . was . . . amazing. I don’t say that to be condescending; these people weren’t “white trash” or anything. But they were definitely what you could call “backwoods,” and the entire event was like manna from Heaven for a student of literature who has a major crush on Ms. O’Connor. There was one person there—a slightly larger black woman—who was THE black lady from “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” She didn’t have a purple and green hat on, but that didn’t matter. This was Carver’s mother incarnate. It’s as if she got off the bus in the story right outside the church and then came in to eat dinner with us. I wanted to be her friend, but she left before I got a chance to talk to her.
Some old guy with the church got up and led three songs out of the hymnal. The first two nobody had ever heard, so he was basically going solo with a few random murmurings out in the crowd from those who were politely trying to show him that he wasn’t alone. But the third one was “I’ll Fly Away,” and everybody knew that song. They were singing their hearts out. Old Cleburne in the back (everybody had nametags on), who looked like he’d been asleep the whole time, had the biggest childlike smile on his face—still looking like he was asleep—while we sang that song. Everyone was clapping, hootin’, and hollerin’, and by the end of it everybody gave a big ol’ round of applause for Jesus.
A Bible professor from Harding then gave the fifteen-minute sermon. Half the people were paying attention while the other half were long since gone, what with their focus turned to what kind of food awaited them on the tables in the back. After the sermon, responses went through the crowd like such:
“That was some mighty-fine preaching right there. I’lltellyawhat.”
“That it was. That it was.”
People started to get in line for food, but I waited a while. I started talking to a guy who’s an optometrist in town. I don’t remember his name, but it was something really old that nobody would name their son anymore. I asked him how long they’d been doing this dinner, and he said once a week for the past year and a half. Now, I won’t lie. I’m very uncomfortable talking to people like this guy—the old generation of people in our churches. I know that’s bad, but hey . . . it’s true. I just have this nasty propensity to write them off as out-of-touch and as people who would look at me with disdain if they knew my religious views on some things. But the entire group of people who plan, set up, cook the food, and serve at this weekly event all have to be over sixty years old. It was so great to see that. Regardless of what their views are and regardless that many of those people are probably praying nonstop that Sarah Palin gets elected, these people don’t let it get in the way of helping others. It still doesn’t change the fact that these people know how to effect good in the community. They challenged me greatly. And it is around this event—a meal—that we are able to come together and be in community with one another. That . . . that is beautiful. My propensity for being judgmental got a dose of humble pie in the buffet line.
And that buffet line made me feel awkward at first. I turned to my friend, the guy who lives in Searcy.
“Hey, you know . . . I’ve got food at home. I feel like I should just let other people eat, you know? I don’t want to take someone’s food.” He looked at me funny.
“What? Naw, man! There’s plenty for everybody. You’re one of us!” Here I am thinking that this evening is about serving others and ministering to them—and it is—but these people unknowingly give so much back to the people who are serving them.
We sat down with our food. I talked to a woman named Holly. She’s brilliant. I don’t ever want to hear about how backwoods people are stupid. We started philosophizing. Getting deep. She wanted to know what I would do differently if I knew I was going to die tomorrow. I don’t think Holly knew the timeliness of that question, since I’ve been drowning myself in work for the last month and a half. But those papers and projects don’t matter. They never have. These people matter. Holly matters.
I answered and then turned the question back onto Holly, and she got real quiet. She looked kind of sheepish—embarrassed almost—and said that she’d really like to start some sort of nonprofit organization to help the poor before she dies. And almost inaudibly she followed that up with,
“But I don’t know how a poor person can really do that.” Then she said, “I just don’t want to be remembered as the really cranky, grouchy lady on the street when I die, you know?” Her statement had a tinge of exclusivity to it, so I said,
“Holly, anybody could become that,” and I paused. “But I don’t think people would say that about you.” And with a far-off look in her eyes she said,
“Well, I’d like to think that people would remember me and say, ‘Man, that Holly . . . she did some pretty cool stuff. She did a lot of great stuff . . . helped a lot of people.”
“Well maybe they will,” I said, smiling. Holly’s pretty cool.
What happened next was hilarious. At first, they had dessert out at the end of the line for people to take—banana pudding. But then they brought out the other desserts and passed them out, and on the trays they had strawberry shortcake and chocolate cake. One lady, who had been given the preliminary pudding, saw the chocolate cake and goes,
“Aw, hell no! Nu-uh!” She looked down at her banana pudding and says, “I don’t want this shit! Hey! I wanna swap out! No, it’s okay. I didn’t touch this yet!” pointing to the gelatinous treat already in front of her. Now, some will say that such an outburst was inappropriate, trashy, or whatever, but I disagree. That little snippet of the evening was a nice microcosm of the personalities of the people in the room. All of those people at College Church getting free food were perfectly comfortable in their own skin. They didn’t clean up, dress up, or anything like that before they came. They came as they are, and they acted as they normally do because they knew they can. And I can’t help but think that those people know how to conduct themselves better in church than most Sunday/Wednesday-ers do—pious perfectionists who don the façade of having it all together. These people, echoes of Flannery’s characters, were not afraid to come and wear their hearts on their sleeves while letting their true colors show. Why? Because if you don’t welcome them like that, then you obviously don’t care about them. But those people at College Church care, more than I probably ever would’ve given them credit for.
I had to leave soon after that. I shot a few hoops with my friend with basketballs flat from a lack of air and then walked out to a setting sun that was sending up flares of pink and tangerine into the sky—a sunset also reminiscent of Flannery’s stories. It’s as if she was in that room and in the air.