O Why Not Tonight? A Microcosm of Religion in the South

February 25, 2010 – I have decided to post some of the “better” articles from my old Blogger blog.  This one was originally posted in May, 2006.  Here it is, unedited, with the intro I wrote then.

Just for fun, I decided to post this little story I wrote a few months ago. I hope you enjoy it. It’s pretty much all fiction, but it does have a basis in fact. My dad, mother, and I did attend gospel meetings a lot when I was a teenager in the sixties. The pattern for the church building (“meeting house”) is a rural church I preached part-time at from 1971 to 1977. It’s near Vernon, Alabama.

By the way, there really is a Debbie Knight, but I met her at school, not church. She’s a “Brown” now. We’ve been married for 33 years come June 14, 2006. Every minute has been great.

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O Why Not Tonight?
A Microcosm of Religion in the South

It is July, 1963; 8:00 in the evening. I am fourteen years old. It is just now getting good dark. My parents and I have gone to the Meeting House and are seeking revival.

The song of a hundred crickets drifts unimpeded through the open windows of the aging building and forms a primal harmony with the baritone strains of the preacher’s sixty-five year old voice as he exhorts the faithful to forsake the tug of the world and reach upward for the unseen glories of Beulah Land. The church building is situated in a grove of mixed pines and hardwoods on a small rise just off a county road. The wet forest smell created from the late afternoon July rain permeates the one roomed white frame building as it sits obligingly on its stone pillars. The sensory cocktail produced from the cricket’s song, the preacher’s voice, the aroma of the damp woods, and the occasional shuffle of a church member’s feet on the hardwood floor under one of the twelve even harder pine board pews creates a memory that has remained riveted in my mind for over forty years.

It was a pleasanter time. And a simpler one. And perhaps there’s a connection. You figure it out. Anyway, back to the lecture at hand, it was a crucial part of my coming of age in rural north Alabama. Want to go back there with me?

We arrive at the building in our Ford Galaxie 500 ten minutes before the service begins. We find a place in the unmarked graveled area in front and to one side of the Meeting House and Dad parks the car. I am the first to exit the vehicle. The thirty-foot walk to the front door is slightly upgrade and some of the older ladies are moving cautiously in the loose gravel, while escorted by their husbands. I speak politely to them. “Good afternoon, mam.” The older men and I engage in the obligatory handshakes. “I’m fine, sir, how are you?” The local minister, a young man about ten years my senior, greets us on the porch at the open door of the building. I enter. The visiting preacher is waiting near the first pew just inside. He gives the men a firm handshake and smiles pleasantly at the ladies as he bows slightly.

I have a dual mission as I begin to walk slowly down the center aisle. I’ve come to worship. But I’ve also come to look for the young daughter of one of the families in the community. I spot her at once, and she scares the daylights out of me. She’s sitting quietly in the second pew from the back, just in front of where I am now standing. She has the prettiest long brown hair that I have ever seen. I catch a hint of her perfume, and imagine I can hear her soft breathing. All at once, I begin to feel light-headed and short of breath. To avoid the unthinkable – having to actually speak to her – I move rapidly down the aisle toward the front of the building while pretending to look for someone or something, I neither knew nor cared which, on the other side of the plank-walled room. In a few seconds I was safe, having avoided eye contact with the lovely creature, and took my seat. “Debbie Knight,” even her name was magnificent. Why was I so afraid of girls, and especially that girl? I was convinced I was doomed to bachelorhood.

Presently, the young minister mounted the small pulpit and addressed the assembled group. Visitors were welcomed, members were expected, the sick were announced, and the guest preacher was praised. When the local minister finished and sat down, the song leader arose and took his position in front of the pulpit. He announced, “Number 224, Amazing Grace,” and began leading the congregation in acappella singing of the old hymn. Most did not need a song book, as the words had become a part of their memory since childhood. After a couple of songs, an old and venerable gentleman stood up and led a lengthy prayer. The sick were called by name and petitions for their recovery were submitted. Any sinners in the assembled crowd were fervently prayed for, that they might repent before it was everlastingly too late. When the aged brother was finished, he took his seat, and the guest speaker moved to his position behind the pulpit. His sermon lasted an hour. He spoke of God’s love and grace, of faith that could move a mountain of sin, of baptism to wash the sins away, and of the fires of an eternal hell that awaited all who would spurn the invitation. When the sermon was concluded, the congregation rose to their feet and sang the invitation song, O Why Not Tonight. One young man of fifteen years responded and was immersed in the baptistery slightly above and behind the pulpit.

With the service concluded, everyone filed out the front door through which they had entered the building an hour and a half before. The young man was congratulated on his conversion and the guest preacher commended for his magnificent lesson. Neighbors visited in the cool night air and discussed the weather and that year’s cotton crop. By and by, all returned to their cars and pickup trucks and made their way to their homes, resolved to come back tomorrow night and do it all again. I rode home with my parents and contemplated becoming a preacher when I grew up.

By the way, I finally found my nerve. Debbie and I have been married for over thirty years. God’s grace is truly amazing.

John Brown
December 9, 2005

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2 Responses to “O Why Not Tonight? A Microcosm of Religion in the South”

  1. Steve Allison Says:

    I loved this. Mirrors my experience as a CofC preacher’s kid who grew up mostly in NE Arkansas. Can hear the crickets too.

  2. John Says:

    Thanks, Steve. I can hear them too. Come back and see us. Join me on FB.

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