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Bill Stamps

I'm not as religious as am I spiritual. Religion confuses me. All the different denominations. Each with its own interpretation of the Scriptures. I guess as long as we are worshiping a God, then we're all in it together. I have to assume the Almighty will get us on the same page once we get up there.

When I was a kid, had I been asked what religion I liked the best, I'd have answered, hands down, Baptist. Not just Baptist but black Baptist. Elizabeth, my grandmother's housekeeper, was a strong believer in the Bible. She knew it like the back of her hand. She was black, and she was a dyed-in-the-wool, devout and without compromise Baptist.

I was barely 5 and living with my grandparents, Adrian and Miz Lena, on their farm in Middle Tennessee. Elizabeth and her husband, Booker, along with about a dozen other black families, lived on the farm just down the hill from the "big house." They all went to the same little whitewashed church just over the bordering back fence of the farm.

Often, I was allowed to go to church with Elizabeth. Booker stayed home. Aside from the monkey suit and a very uncomfortable clip-on bow tie I had to wear, I loved Sundays with Elizabeth.

First, step over the fence and get to the church before anyone else. Elizabeth was a stickler on time. She wanted to be at the front door to welcome her fellow parishioners to another morning of worship. I stood next to her. Not knowing black Baptist protocol but wanting to make my very best impression, I bowed to them as they entered the house of the Lord.

Everyone wore their Sunday best — the men in jacket and tie and high-glossed, spit-shined shoes; the ladies in conservative dresses, tiny round hats with thin, polka-dot patterned veils that hung just past their eyes. Everyone with radiant, ear-to-ear smiles. They were all glad to see you and to be there. I felt like part of their family. Occasionally, I'd get a pat on my back or on the top of my head. Older women, including Miss Mama, would say sweet things to me like, "You sho' is a fine-lookin' little boy."

From the time we got there, till way after lunch, the preacher took us up and down the path of righteousness. Until close to the end of his very long sermon, I wasn't sure if any of us in the room were going to make it to the Promise Land. He really laid it on thick.

We sang and clapped our hands to the music. The rhythm and percussion of the morning service was provided by those who brought a musical instrument from home. Guitars, Ms. Louise at the organ, tambourines and even a snare drum set. Cymbals and all.

Depending on the weather and how awake the June bugs were, you could hear them celebrating their faith in perfect pitch and harmony from a stretched mile away. Sound carries in the country. When you mix laughter, music, singing and an impenetrable faith in God together, you get a perfect Sunday.

After church was out, there was a potluck lunch going on somewhere, either out in front under the trees or over the fence back at Elizabeth's house. The best meals of my life. I used to think that black people's food was probably the Lord's preference. Especially if he liked fried chicken.

Back at the "big house" and out of my Sunday duds, Miz Lena would insist that I have a slice of her banana cake when I'd just got done with a plateful of chicken legs, green beans, cornbread and potato salad. Miraculously, I always found room. No matter how hard they might want to try, black people, even Elizabeth, couldn't bake a blue-ribbon cake like Grand Mom.

Depending on the season, I'd run around outside for a while. Sometimes Miz Lena would make me take a nap. I'd lie there on my bed eyes wide open.

Less than an hour before sundown, I'd be on my way back down the hill to Elizabeth's. That was about the time she had Booker's supper ready. She always seemed to have just enough for me, too. We ate pretty quick while Elizabeth tidied up. She didn't want to miss the beginning of Reverend Leslie's broadcast sermon from a radio station out of Nashville.

Booker and I moved into the living room. He sat in his chair in front of the open window that faced the front porch. Me, on the couch close to the fireplace. Booker didn't talk much. He'd light up his pipe, puff on it and ask me the same questions every time. How old I was and whether or not I was still "a children." After my every answer, he would say, "I see." Elizabeth finished up.

She picked up a hand fan with a color portrait of Jesus kneeling in prayer out in a pasture of sheep. With the fan in one hand and a pitcher of iced tea in the other, she headed for the front porch. I carried the glasses right behind her.

She and I sat out there in high-back rockers. Booker stayed inside. You could hear him fooling with the radio dial. Pretty soon out the window, here came organ music, a glorious choir and the very crusty Reverend Leslie. His voice was similar to the sound you get when you try to cut a tin can with a knife.

Elizabeth sat forward toward the window. She didn't want to miss a word of the preacher's sermon. I leaned in, too. But, not because I couldn't hear him. As hard as I'd concentrate, I just couldn't understand a word he said. The only thing I got was when he'd holler out, "Amen." Elizabeth would raise her hands up and whisper, "Amen." From inside, you'd hear Booker's baritone "Amen." He pretty much amened anytime Elizabeth did.

Reverend Leslie was all revved up. He preached hard for a while. Then he called one of the sisters of his congregation up to the stage. She testified and proclaimed her love for Jesus and reminded the audience to reach deep in their pockets to ensure future radio broadcasts. The choir started back up.

Elizabeth, rocking in rhythm to the song, flapping that Jesus fan, sang right along with them. At first, almost under her breath. As the choir picked up steam, so did Elizabeth. Pretty soon, she cut loose! She knew all the songs and sang them so well. Her voice was husky and like velvet. I tried to sing along.

Southern Folks

Elizabeth told me, "Sweet Child, don't be worryin' about how good you sings da' songs. The Lord don't care. He jus' happy fo' you singin' to him."

I was known as an energetic kid. I could go all day. But keeping up with Baptists requires stamina and a big appetite. I was preached out. If I ate one more bite, I was gonna pop! Big doses of God and a full belly had put me down for the count. I was asleep in the rocking chair.

I barely heard Elizabeth tell Booker to carry me back up the hill and hand me over to Miz Lena. I remember thinking that being a Baptist was a fun religion that required a very strong constitution. I'd need all of the following week to recuperate. But come next Sunday, I'd be ready to go again.

Hats off to all you Baptists out there. I'm more than sure that the Almighty recognizes your devout commitment to him. I have to assume you sleep well.

Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tennessee. Contact him at bill_stamps@aol.com or through Facebook.

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