I pulled into the church apprehensively, reaching down at the same time to turn off the radio that had excitedly begun admonishing me to “Toss It Up.” I stepped out of my car, taking in the essence of the church. The last and only time I’d been here I’d withstood my first heartbreak, so I was understandably hesitant.
I began the walk to the steps, internally questioning myself. The last time had been to impress a girl. Why was I here this time? All the introspection I could afford couldn’t answer this simple question.
Two days before, Natasha had handed me a folded invitation to the Prayer Life Chapel Church Youth Revival. I had taken it from her reverently, reading it with a mixture of gratitude and unease. It must have been about a year ago, I thought to myself, that Letitia gave me an invitation to the same thing.
I looked up into Natasha’s characteristically serene face and agreed to attend at least one of the three nights of the revival.
That Wednesday I found myself following the walkway that led to the church with a sense of foreboding, a sort of subconscious caution sign that warned me if I didn’t turn around and retreat immediately, I would be changed forever. I paused with dubious uncertainty. That was the moment Natasha appeared in the side door.
She came down the steps gracefully, then turned down a walkway perpendicular to my own. When I called out her name, she turned to me and smiled, obviously pleased that I could attend. She rushed over and gave me a hug, then continued on her way, having important business to attend to.
When I opened the door, she was the first person I saw. She sat with her side to the door, and her head had turned to observe the newest arrival. Her face was impassive and serious, almost frowning, but even in indifference her face captured perfect beauty.
I nervously beheld Letitia, worried that she wouldn’t greet me. It had taken less to send a younger, less mature version of me into the depths of depression. Finally, after a short eternity, she smiled and mouthed a greeting and was instantly transformed. She hardly seemed the same person when she smiled, her pretty features instantly becoming beautiful. In spite of my reserve, I began to feel flustered, and I returned the greeting and the smile before disappearing around a corner.
I wasn’t here to impress her. After seeing her, I was sure of that at least. I was still strongly attracted to her, that much was obvious, but I was also stronger. I had changed from the love struck boy who had chased her for two years. But if I hadn’t come for her, why was I here?
I made my way to a pew toward the back, trying to be inconspicuous. I took a seat and looked around, trying to locate a friend who was also supposed to attend. I was surprised to see two familiar faces from my college, who both introduced themselves and welcomed me.
The service started, and before the sermon, Letitia and Natasha were called to the forefront independently to make introduction and welcoming statements. I felt awe and envy of their practiced ease with the crowd, an ability I feared I could never acquire because of my fear of public speaking. Years later, after my own spiritual growth, I would look back at this unquestioned dismissal of my potential with wonder. My personal walk would lead my to grow in areas that I had previously deemed nigh impossible, especially in the areas of confidence and public speaking.
Then the sermon began. As a youth revival, the younger church members led the services. Because of this, the preacher appeared only a few years older than I if he was older at all. And yet he moved the crowd with a natural charisma belied by his years. I felt transfixed by his powerful oratorical skills.
At certain points in his sermon, he would have his audience turn to a neighbor and repeat what he’d just said. Most of the time my neighbor was a square-faced man with a lazy grin. At one point, however, he disappeared and I looked around for another, realizing I was the only person on my row and perhaps the only newcomer that had attended alone. A feeling of alienation threatened to overwhelm me until a hand grabbed my arm from behind. I turned to face an elderly woman, who smiled and repeated the preacher’s words to me, an obvious extension of kindliness. I couldn’t stop the dopey grin of gratitude that decorated my face, immediately dispelling my feelings of isolation.
I know every churchgoer has probably had the sensation that the preacher was speaking directly about and of you. That sensation flooded me as the preacher spoke of fence-straddlers, people who claim spirituality outwardly but are heathenistic in their day-to-day life. He compounded this point time and time again until I was almost hypnotized with shameful introspection. I even briefly entertained the fanciful idea that perhaps Letitia or Natasha had informed the preacher of my lifestyle prior to my arrival.
At one point, he called for the youth to give themselves to Christ, to come to the altar and repent. For a long time, it seemed as if no one would come. I began to weaken, thinking I needed to go and beg forgiveness. The seconds stretched on, and the impetus to react grew larger and stronger. If another boy had not made his tentative way to the altar amid applause, I may have been the first. My heart began to speed up in a blend of fear and defiance. More and more people made their way to the altar, apparently inspired or maybe just hesitant to be the first. And still he called for more. My calm, my wall of reserve began to break down. My eyes, usually half-slitted to affect aloofness, were wide with anticipation. The preacher pointed at me time and again, then moved on to another, not realizing that a direct command would have started me moving. He called for three more, saying that one of them was a young man. My legs began to tremble. I was certain he was talking about me. He must be talking about me! Could he feel me somehow? Had the Lord given him some sort of sight beyond seeing? Then my faith faltered when he pointed to the boy four pews in front of me. I pondered the chance that he had misread the Lord’s message and somehow mistaken my need for that of the other boy, who seemed less than enthused at having been called.
I glanced around, gauging the select few others who had managed to resist his magnetic summoning. Many were impassive, seemingly only there to please, appease, or impress someone else, as I had done one-year prior. I saw none who appeared half as shaken as I felt.
The young preacher then sent all of his converts to their seats, then called for all of the youth to “feel the Holy Spirit”. This time everyone was to come to the altar, and some chosen seemingly at random were to experience the laying on of hands.
I was at the outskirts of the crowd, behind one of the boys from my college. I watched as the preacher moved through the group, then asked that hands be laid on a rather large girl in front of me. As they began, I realized nervously that I was effectively trapped. I quickly and perhaps comically looked left, then right, realizing that should this girl collapse, she would fall squarely on me. Fortunately, she only spoke in tongues briefly before she was seated in the front pew.
After being touched, my new acquaintance from college fell in a heap on the floor, weeping openly. I fell back adeptly, my nervous speed and instincts being the only thing that prevented him from colliding with me. However, avoiding him had pushed me to the extreme outskirts of the crowd, where my height made me easily conspicuous. After looking bemusedly down at the boy’s body, I looked up and saw a man watching me with open concern. He motioned me forward, and when I complied, he put an arm around me. He whispered, “The reason I called you is because I saw the preacher was reaching you. You came here expecting something, and you’re about to get it,”
My eyes watered in anticipation. The man gestured to attract the young preacher’s attention, and he made his way to me. He seemed to be yelling something at me that I couldn’t understand. I felt as if I were in sensory overload. With concentration, his alien babble became comprehendible again, and I realized that he’d been saying, “You will not return to that life of sin,” I heard the preacher mumble some words to the man, and the man moved his hand from my shoulder to my neck. His other hand went to my forehead. I thought, I’d better close my eyes, but can’t remember voluntarily doing so. Then I saw/felt a powerful, soundless flash behind my eyelids, comparable to an electric shock. I heard either the preacher or the man softly order someone to hold me as my tiptoed foot crossed the other leg in an obvious prerequisite to falling. All my youthful strength departed, leaving me as unstable as a string-less marionette. Then hands grabbed me, holding me steady until I could find balance again on my own.
Until we returned to our seats some ten minutes later, I was in a daze. When I was finally able to be seated, I characteristically began to think. I really got dizzy became a mantra, repeated over and over between rationalizations that hunger or anxiety had caused my momentary disorientation. I fought tears, wondering if I’d really felt the Holy Spirit or if that neck touch had been some therapeutic trick to dizzy me.
I was the picture of inner turmoil, holding my emotions in check, trying to find a semblance of my usual reserve. Emotions swirled within my mind. I felt anger at my shattered passivity, fear at the impending change, sadness at me loss of contentment, and frustration at my impotence.
I saw Letitia, rejoicing openly in celebration of her religion.
I saw Natasha, usually quietly content, dancing around with an internally dictated rhythm.
I saw myself, hunched into a little ball in the middle pew, withdrawing into myself as much as I physically could.
I rest of the service was a blur. My mind kept returning to and trying to analyze the moment I lost my balance. “How did it happen? Why did it happen? What caused it?” My mind continually asked of itself, receiving no believable reply. Then finally the service was over.
I walked to the front lobby, eager to depart and reflect. Yet some sense of closure was missing, and I felt I couldn’t leave yet. Earlier an announcement was made that refreshments would be served downstairs, and I made my way there, hoping that satiation of hunger would inevitably bring clearer thought. Then I saw Letitia at the serving table, busily making plates for the children. Silent as a ninja, I stepped back out of her vision and left the room before she even knew I was there.
I walked back upstairs and observed a crowd around Natasha, who appeared to be signing people up for something. Her face was alight with beauty and joy at doing the Lord’s work. Before she could see me, I slipped out the side door I’d entered three hours earlier, the same door I’d entered and left a year ago, all four times unseen and unheard, a cipher in the church.
Years later, I would look back on the experience with a fond mixture of nostalgia and enlightened hindsight. Though I believed at the time that finding and following my spirituality would be limiting, I eventually found the commitment to change liberating. I felt marked that night, almost divinely tagged, as we do wild animals for later study. However, in my case, the tagging was much more benevolent, an unerring, spiritual marking that told me that I would come, that I would change, if not at that time, then soon, and voluntarily so. This remains one of my most eventful and spiritual moments of my current life, though I am assured that there will be many more to follow.
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