When things got off track back home we’d hold a tent revival. Now, I didn’t have nothing to do with it. I was just a boy. I never knew who organized it. Who set up the tents and rounded up all those benches and straight back chairs? Or who decided how many nights or what time it would start each evening?
We just went. EVERY night! Mom’s philosophy was it couldn’t hurt any. And there was an outside chance it might help me, Leon and David Mark see the errors of our ways…..
The Lord apparently determined what time we ended. If the evangelist’s voice could hold out (it was supernatural how long that thing could last) and the people kept singing, jumping benches and “hallelujahing” we could be there past everybody’s bedtime!
They usually set up the big tent out just off Highway 79, in a vacant lot along Cherrywood Avenue way before you got to the Mount Olive Cemetery. There was plenty of room for parking. And the late night shenanigans didn’t bother nobody but the edge-of-town dogs.
The tent was always lighted. I don’t remember how they did that. But it must have been a generator. We’d start in the broad daylight but the stars would be dancing before they sang, “Just As I Am.”
You couldn’t hardly sleep at one of these things. It was usually hot. The singing was loud, the bench and chairs were equally hard and every evangelist that came to our little town preached as if he was trying to wake the dead!
I would take the right toe of my Sunday shoes and swirl the sawdust around till I had a small circle formed. Somewhere between Deuteronomy and Ecclesiastes I’d lean a little forward and try to drop some spit into the circle. Mom would pinch my arm with a look of disappointment she usually reserved for Leon.
I would listen with all my might to how God spared the three Hebrew children from the fiery furnace but my restless mind would soon wander…..why would someone want to throw innocent children into a fire? How could anyone possibly survive that kind of heat? Wouldn’t their clothes melt right off? And who was that fourth Man walking around down there with them?
The preacher would pause to wring out his handkerchief and I’d get to looking around at the crowd. There would be Baptists sitting beside Presbyterians. Methodists would be singing without a hymnal. Church of Christ folks would be perfectly content right in the middle of a group of Holy Rollers. I’m telling you, I was witnessing a miracle of my own—and we hadn’t even sung “There Is Power in the Blood” yet!
Mother admonished us quite smartly about judging other people. But I couldn’t help myself. I’d go down each row trying to figure out who needed reviving the most, and who might just need half-reviving. And could I find anyone “amongst us” that might be worthy? ’Course, just the fact that they were there was kind of telling, don’t you think?
If the spirit got to really moving, people would jump up and go to testifying. That could be a bit scary. And downright embarrassing in a small town if the testifier got to naming names!
These tent revivals were more regular than the county fair. We were going to have one or two a year. If it was a bad drought summer or there was more sickness than usual or if hog prices took a nose dive, we might have an extra one.
Listen, I don’t know how you feel or where you come from, but when I was a young boy, we didn’t take no chances! The worst sinner in town was familiar with the 121st Chapter of Psalms.
We were not without hope. We didn’t despair. And we didn’t look for some political guru from Memphis to come up and tell us what to do.
A bunch of grownups set up a tent and we went to “fixing” things.
I’ve seen the hardest of hearts melt on that sawdust floor. I’ve seen enemies fall on each other’s necks in tears. I’ve seen families reunite. I’ve seen prodigal sons return. I remember in the extra dry spring of 1957 it rained the last two weeks of June and all of July. I’ve seen hog prices rebound in one day and folks at death’s door defy all medical logic and live to dance at their granddaughter’s wedding.
I reckon that evangelist yelled loud enough for God to hear. Or some faithful saint kneeled till her heart fell on the altar…..
This article originally appeared on The Star: “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”