My life changed the summer I made friends with Johnny Carl. He’d invited me to church. I was surprised I agreed to go because I’d never actually been to church before. The stories I’d heard left me wanting to stay away. I’d done a pretty good job of avoiding church until that night. The First Church of Holiness was nothing like I expected. There was a holy fire burning in the midst of the congregation and these people were hot, bothered and ready to do something about it.
It was on this July evening when I first met Mama Ruby. I was the only white boy in a sea of ebony. The womenfolk were fanning themselves and saying things like, “Glory”, “Amen” and “Mmm Mmm Mmm” while the pastor spoke his mind and the Word of God. They would occasionally wave their hand in the air and sometimes the words came out as if they were singing a solo. When Mama Ruby warmed up everyone else was relegated to the role of amateur. She had a bit of guttural roll to her “Glory” that made us all take note.
Mama Ruby would wipe her eyes and wave her hand in the air as if to say she’d received more than she could possibly bear, yet the blessings continued to rain down in that humid little church.
Johnny Carl was Mama Ruby’s grandson. When the service was over she laid on eyes on her grandbaby, grabbed him and shook him like a rag doll. “Now, tell me honey-chil’ who’s this pint-sized buzz cut?”
“He’s my frien’, Mama Ruby. This be his first time in chu’ch,” Johnny Carl announced, straightening his shirt.
“Is that the truth?” Mama Ruby demanded as she propelled her ample frame toward me - my body was squeezed like afternoon lemonade. “We gonna hafta change all that.” She hugged, grunted, laughed and flopped me around like I was Johnny Carl. I was happy to breathe once the hugging was over, but Mama Ruby taught me more about love in that near-death experience than anything I had ever known.
One night as I sat with Johnny Carl at Mama Ruby’s kitchen table she looked hard at me and asked. “So whatchoo think?”
“About what?” I asked.
“Bout the love’a Jesus,” she responded with a throaty chuckle.
“I ain’t thought much of it a’tall,” I said.
“Gettin’ to be that’s ‘bout all I can think of these days,” she replied.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, Chil’, it’s just this way,” she replied, “God done sent His Boy, Jesus, to come and save us - now THAT is love. I ain’t done nothin’ to make God notice me. Truth is, if it’s jus’ me tryin’, why He won’t look at me no matter how hard I want Him to. He jus’ don’t care if all I is trying to do is impress. When you get a taste of someone willin’ to love on ya for no reason you can think of, then you get some kinda idea about the way it is with God. An’ if there is something’ Mama Ruby knows – God loves Mama Ruby.”
“I understand the part about Jesus loving me, but why would you love someone you don’t even know?” I asked
“Oh, Chil’,” she began. “When I understand what kinda love it is that God gave me, I jus’ can’t help myself, I gotta spread love around like marmalade on a fresh piece of homemade sourdough.” Mama Ruby looked around the room and chuckled, “Now I’m hungry! Who’s gonna want marmalade? Speak up ‘cause I ain‘t waitin’ for no orders.”
I spent a lot of time with Johnny Carl that summer and I came to learn that Mama Ruby didn’t show love because she had a strong feeling, she showed love because she decided it was the best choice. “God wants me to love,” she would say. “I shore ‘nuff ain‘t gonna argue with the Almighty. You see, Chil’ when I show love it’s jus’ Jesus showing one itty bitty look-see at the love He’s ready to pour over you. All I did was tell Him it was alright with me if He wanted to use me to show you what that’s like.”
“Some people are easy to love,” I told Mama Ruby.
“Shore, but that’s mostly ‘cause they are your kin or they gives ya things ya want. Them folks is easy to love,” Mama Ruby replied.
"What about people I don’t like very much? Do I have to love them?” I asked.
“Your memory‘s failin’ ya, boy.” Mama Ruby slapped her leg and giggled. “Goodness, Chil’ it’s like telling Jesus that you’re shore nuf’ glad He loves you and all, but you just can’t see clear to show your appreciation by lovin’ on others. I declare, I bet God cries when He takes a peek at how small-minded we get. Now who wants some apple pie?”
Four decades have passed since I last saw Mama Ruby. It was the day the First Church of Holiness baptized a pine box with the tears of the grateful. I can still recall her loving hugs and throaty laugh and her commanding use of the word, “Glory”.
She was right, you know - when you show love it’s probably because someone passed along some unearned love to you. It often holds enough meaning that you just can’t help yourself, you have to pass the love along. Truth is, Jesus set the example, He just wants us to carry on in His name. As Mama Ruby always said, “It’s how others know who ya belong to.”