Monday, April 27, 2009

In My Youth Guest Speakers at Church

In My Youth Guest Speakers at Church
Were the Most Entertaining

We had frequent “special speakers” at church when I was a child. Most were evangelists who came to preach revivals. Revivals lasted two or more weeks and services were conducted seven days a week. Evangelists came in a variety of types and styles. First, there were fiery preachers who moved around the auditorium telling stories designed to convince us Jonathan Edwards was correct in his portrayal of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” They were intense and loud in presentation. Except for occasional pauses to catch their breath, the preacher gathered us into his sermon like passengers on a runaway freight train, everything building speed until we all crashed into the altar.

A second type of evangelist was the “prophecy preacher.” These tended to be mature men who came with huge charts portraying the Daniel’s visions and the great images of the Book of Revelation: the whore of Babylon, the four horsemen, the seven-headed beast, and the Great White Throne Judgment, etc.. They tied together the Old Testament prophesies with those in the New Testament like a seamless garment. To quote Brother James Slay (describing his younger self) these orators could “delve into the indelible, explain the inexplicable, and scrute the inscrutable.” They didn’t have to shout and run around, their images and oratory skill gathered us and transported us into the end of time. I wonder what they could have done with animation and modern projectors; surely it would be more than we could handle.

There were other types. “Lady evangelists” were especially gifted wooing us into the presence of God, like a mother hen gathering her chickens into the comfort of God’s glory. “Prophetic preachers” who came to report on great visions and dreams God had given them. I remember one came in the mid sixties to warn us that God was judging America for our sins and Ted Kennedy would be our next President. He came back after Richard Nixon was elected with another word from God; it seems the Almighty had heard our prayers and repented of His plans. He had given us a God-fearing, Protestant who would lead our nation in a righteous direction. I lost track of him after that.

There were also frequent guest speakers who were there just for the Sunday morning service or possibly morning and evening. Because we were one of the larger churches in the movement, denominational officials sometimes filled the pulpit. Also, when the pastor was away for Camp Meeting, the General Assembly or vacation, he would have local preachers fill in for him. It was these special speakers that I most looked forward to hearing.

James Cross, our State Overseer and later our General Overseer, captivated me with his deep voice and at a critical time in my development enticed me into theological reflection; he made Christianity more than a collection of stories and emotions. Our faith also included sound doctrines about God.

Sister Deana Lee was another favorite. She was frequently called upon to fill the pulpit when the pastor was out of town. Her personal presence was impressive. Often dressed in white, flowing dresses with impeccable posture and mesmerizing intonation, she was a teacher and exhorter. With the benefit of time, it is impossible for me not to see her as having modeled her ministry on Aimee Simple McPherson, and to think to some extent of her as a (less zany) kindred spirit with Kathryn Kuhlman. Mostly, I think of her fondly because she was one of only a few women allowed to break the Bread of Life and in so doing she helped instill in me a belief women should not be restricted in service to God. (Of course my mother was my primary model for the liberation of women.)

Finally, my all-time favorite guest preacher was Brother J. T. (Jake) Roberts. Brother Roberts had been a prominent pastor and State Overseer for the Church of God. In my childhood he was the National Overseer for the “Colored Work” which was headquartered in Jacksonville. This made it convenient for him to visit our services on occasion and thus to fill the pulpit. I believe he had at one time (prior to my birth) served as pastor of the Springfield Church of God.

He was a figure larger than life, cloaked in lore of quixotic behavior made believable by his own accounts and actions. Pentecostalism was rife with stories of the phenomenal, persons with no musical training playing the piano perfectly under the unction of the Spirit or worshippers going to the heaters and withdrawing a handful of flaming coals to hold up before the Lord. The story was told that after the church converted to central heat Brother Roberts would remove a light bulb from its socket and insert his finger as a demonstration of God’s power.

His raspy voice was heavy with a southern drawl and further fashioned by association with the distinct dialect of southern Blacks. His sermons were one-person theater, dramas of Scriptural stories and personal anecdotes woven into a single presentation. He performed the message with his whole being. He did not limit this embodiment to wild gesticulation; He made props out of whatever was at hand. On one occasion as he proclaimed “He will cast your sins as far as the east is from the west” he frisbeed a hymnal over our heads sailing it into the back wall with a thump. On another he reported confronting the Devil “Get thee behind me Satan” slinging a convenient folding chair across the width of the platform.

Jake Roberts was a showman for Jesus. He was entertaining. He was passionate. He was fun. He was serious. He was never boring. His presence was known. The last time I saw him was around 1974; he was standing on the campus of Lee College in front of one of the women’s dorms, leaning on a cane, dressed in brightly colored striped pants, a polka dotted pink and purple shirt, white shoes, and a checkered hat. Nothing matched, but neither could you ignore the elderly gentleman who gave the strange ensemble both flair and dignity.

Deep inside of me is a little Jake Roberts. I had not made the connection until now, but when I talk to my alter ego I call myself Jake. One day I shall dress as I please, say what I want and let my passion for Christ overwhelm my need to represent Him with dignity.

1 comment:

Phil Hoover, Chicago said...

Brother Roberts must have been a wonderful man! And yes, Jackie, you are too!