Can I Get a Hallelujah?

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“As the fog and mist of ecclesiastical darkness clears away, and believers regain primitive Pentecostal simplicity and power, true revivals will doubtless rise to climaxes of power now unknown.” — Martin Wells Knapp

I was tired from a long tent-revival weekend and wasn’t eager about attending yet another worship service. Mom, Pop and I had already spent the morning and most of the afternoon at church. We’d just finished our Sunday supper at Shoney’s and were on our way home for a brief nap, before we’d return downtown to Calvary Temple Assembly of God for the weekend finale.
    I whined all the way home. "Can’t I stay home tonight? Just this once? I’ve had enough of God for one weekend."
    From the back seat of the car, I saw my mom clinch her jaw and glare at my pop. Pop, a stoic farm boy turned factory worker, remained silent. He stared straight ahead, his hands clasped tight to the steering wheel. I could tell he was as tired as I was and may have been thinking the same things I was saying.
    "You can never have enough of God," Mom snapped. After a moment, she regained her calm and cooed, "I thought you liked Sunday night service."
    She was right. Normally I did. I loved the choir and the drama and the stomping and the shouting. But I was whipped by too much frenzy and rejoicing that weekend. Plus, I had math homework, and I sucked at math, so it took me lots of time to figure out. But in Mom and Pop’s minds, homework wasn’t nearly as important as praising the Lord. Neither one of them finished school, and they didn’t really expect me to, either. Mom wanted me to find a nice Christian boy and settle down once I was old enough, but I was thinking maybe I’d make other plans. Mom even pointed out a boy at the tent revival the night before. "He’s the preacher’s son," she said to me. "That’s the sort of nice, steady young man you should be talkin’ to."
     "Ah, yeah, right," I said. The boy needed to blow his nose and wash his face. I avoided him and Mom the rest of the night.
    Tent revivals didn’t come through town often, maybe once every couple of months. Of course, we had attended all weekend. The visiting preacher, Reverend Swell from Wichita, Kansas, and his entourage had

I was addicted to the ecstasy that emanated from underneath that crazy orange canopy.

erected a large, orange canopy in the parking lot of a Kroger’s grocery store downtown. Rows and rows of metal folding chairs were lined up in anticipation of faithful born-agains like us. People from all over the city filled those chairs for a chance to witness Reverend Swell’s miracles.
     This particular weekend revival consisted of the laying of hands on the sick and morally weak. Hepatitis was healed. Deaf-mutes talked. Cancer was cured. Cripples walked. Souls were saved. There was lots of fainting and chanting and oohing and aww-ing. I didn’t question a thing. I was addicted to the ecstasy that emanated from underneath that crazy orange canopy. I wished that I, too, had some ailment so that I could take the stage and be cured.
     I thought about this. I could claim that I was coming down with a cold, but that paled in comparison to others’ woes. I could claim the truth, and say that I was starting to think about boys differently and was afraid that my thoughts would eventually doom me to hell. Only that week I had taken one of the neighborhood boys into the woods and kissed him. He had grabbed my boobs, and I didn’t stop him. I had liked the way his hands felt under my shirt, clumsily squeezing my nipples. But now, I was ashamed and wanted to ask Reverend Swell to cast temptation from me. I thought better of that, though, because I didn’t want to suffer punishment here on earth from Mom or Pop. So I just watched and daydreamed, and when time came to sing or pray, I rejoiced and repented silently.
     After our nap, we were back in church. Pop served as an usher most nights, so my family usually sat in the back rows next to the aisle so he could easily move from the doors to our seats. But on this particular night, Pop wasn’t on door duty, so we sat a little closer to the front and in the middle. Mom made me sit between her and Pop. I felt imprisoned.
     Mom shook hands with fellow brethren and made nice: "God bless you, Sister Johnson. Nice evening to praise the Lord. Jesus loves you, Brother Jackson." Occasionally she’d turn and glare at me like I was full of the devil, and I was beginning to think that maybe I was. I didn’t want to be in church, all I could think about was the neighborhood boy’s rough handling in the woods, and I wasn’t even that thrilled about witnessing the chaos that was soon to follow. Even Sunday evening service madness was becoming mundane. I was restless and impatient for the choir to get the ball rolling so Mom would forget about being upset with me and dissolve into the spirit.
     Calvary Temple was a big, urban church with a seventy-person choir that took great pleasure in orchestrating grand entrances. Their sheer number — in combination with their shimmering, purple and white floor-length robes — was impressive enough, but their theatrical penetration into the womb of the church was always breathtaking. Our church had just embraced electric guitars and amplified music, so a full-on Christian rock band had started accompanying the singing only a few months before, and I was developing a crush on the drummer. He wasn’t very cute: pale, pimply, skinny. But I admired the way he looked to the heavens and made an "o" with his mouth while keeping time. I had lain awake many nights thinking of his "o"-shaped mouth and nonstop hands.
     The singers congregated in the hallway at the back of the church and in the balcony. While out of eyeshot, they started singing softly, without the benefit of the band. The buzz of the congregation settled. I felt a slight urge to pee.
     As the choir raised their voices, some of them started walking down the two stairways that connected the balcony to the outer aisles of the inner sanctuary. Meanwhile, other singers came marching down the center aisle. As they assembled in the front, a few of them playing tambourines, they filled the room with energy.
     When most of the choir had taken their places on the podium beneath the gigantic, gold crucifix, the band kicked in. Drummer Boy bent back his neck, stretched his face to the ceiling and began tapping out the

Brother Wolf, the former-alcoholic-con-man-turned-preacher, took center stage.

beats. In a flash, Mom was on her feet, singing along tunelessly. She kept bumping her hip into me. Her singing was so shrill I wanted to cover my ears, but I resisted. I stared at Pop’s hands, quietly tapping his thigh in beat with Drummer Boy. Tap, tap, tap, tap.
     I held back my urge to pee. Brother Wolf, the former alcoholic-con-man-turned-preacher, took center stage, pulled the microphone from the stand and began to work the congregation into a call-and-response fervor. "Oh, I feel the power of the Lord in the room tonight. Can I hear an AMEN?"
     The congregation shouted back, "Amen!"
     Worship foreplay had begun.
     "We’re here tonight to thank our Lord God and his blessed son Jesus for saving us from our immoral and sinful lives. Can I get a hallelujah?"
     "Hallelujah! Hallelujah!" we answered.
     Brother Wolf, decked out in his J.C. Penney suit, his sandy coiffed hair already falling out of place, stomped on the floor. He pulled out his handkerchief to wipe the sweat off his brow. "Without Jeeeeeesus in our hearts, without the son of our Lord God in our thoughts, we’re doomed to burn, burn, burn with our lust and our desires. Temptation is everywhere. It’s on our televisions. It’s in our schools. It’s in our malls. It’s in our living rooms."
     It’s in the woods, I thought as I slid down in my seat. My bladder was uncomfortably full. But I held it. And held it. And held it.
     Brother Wolf then began his standard oration. "Acts 2:1-4. Yes, Hallelujah! ‘And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, there came a sound from heaven like a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues.’"
     Right on cue, Sister Candillo stood and started speaking in tongues: Hundo hundo I kaydo I kundo hay do I hundoodolay. Brother Littleton, who was sitting in the row directly in front of us, stood and interpreted: "And the Holy Spirit spoke and said, ‘Yea, thou shalt repent your sins and turn yourself over to Lord Jesus.’"
     My mom started hugging our neighbors and crying out in joy. She stepped on my foot. The pain momentarily distracted me from my urge to pee. I turned to Pop. His eyes were half closed, and he looked as though he might fall asleep. My foot throbbed.
     I scanned the room for Sister Gridiron, who was a big woman, black as eggplant, with carefully painted hands and face, and beauty salon hair; she wore a different fancy dress and hat every Sunday. I had a crush on her youngest son, Reggie, until he stole my Bible in Sunday School.
     Then I spotted her. I knew that once the frenzy caught hold, Sister Gridiron could be counted on to dance up and down the aisles, filled with the Holy Spirit. She had already found her way into the center aisle just a few rows back from where we sat. Reggie was sitting nearby, poking his index finger into the ribs of new girl whose family had only recently joined the church.
     Sister Gridiron threw her hands in the air, began to sway, and started moaning. At first her moans were low, guttural. The low moans grew louder and louder, transforming into high-pitched hollers. Brother Wolf thanked God for banishing the devil from our midst. The Sister kicked off her shoes and started running up and down the aisle. Her hat flew off. The floor shook. Other brethren ran to the pulpit, falling to their knees in prayer. "Forgive me, Lord. I’m a sinner. Forgive me, Lord."
     My urge to pee became stronger and stronger. I felt close to bursting. I turned to my mom, who was waving her hands in the air and chanting, "Thank you, God. Thank you, Lord. Bless me, Lord. Thank you, oh Jesus."
     "Mom," I said, "I think I gotta go."
     "Thank you, Lord Jesus!"
     "Mom. I gotta go to the restroom."
     Mom ignored me. She was too far gone. Pop overheard, though, and turned to me and smiled. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a roll of Certs — he was compulsive about his breath mints — and handed me one. "Suck on this, baby doll. You can hold it for a little while. Don’t get up until you can’t hold it no more."
     Okay, I thought. I popped the Certs in my mouth, crossed my legs tight and shifted my weight off my bladder as best I could. Mom kept chanting. Sister Gridiron was in full command of the center aisle. Brother Wolf was pounding the foreheads of sinners with the palms of his hands.
     Then Brother Hernandez started. Brother Hernandez always sat at the back left side of the church, and he always chanted in Spanish. He had been down on his luck for some time, and his bad luck showed itself in his pockmarked face and his lonely life. None of us belonged, really, but Brother Hernandez struck me

I felt my face begin to flush. A strange sensation surged throughout my body.

as the loneliest. He was a short, quiet man, hardly noticeable, almost invisible. But when he started his Spanish chanting, he seemed to grow ten inches, and his insecurities about his broken English disappeared. His testifying was the equivalent of howling at the moon.
     As Brother Hernandez’s dramatic Spanish howls radiated from the back, Sister Gridiron continued running up and down the center aisle, while from the stage Brother Wolf slapped foreheads and yelled into the microphone, "Be gone, Satan!" The band started playing again, Drummer Boy’s "o" larger and rounder than usual.
     I crossed and recrossed my legs and rocked a little in my chair. Nobody noticed my fidgeting, because most of the congregation was already standing, waving their arms, clapping their hands and answering Brother Wolf’s calls. "Amen! Hallelujah! Thank you, Jesus!"
     I wound my body and legs as tightly as I could. I bit down on the Certs. The peppermint exploded in my mouth.
     I crossed my legs at the knee and hooked one of my feet beneath the opposite calf. I rocked. And rocked. And I began to feel a tingling sensation between the upper parts of my legs. I listened to the choir sing: "What wondrous love is this, O my soul!" I felt myself pulsating down there. "What wondrous love is this — " I shut my eyes," — that caused the Lord of bliss!"
     I felt my face begin to flush, and I closed my eyes tighter and squeezed my thighs together as hard as I could bear. A strange sensation surged throughout my body. My impulse to pee vanished. My awareness that I was sitting between Mom and Pop in the middle of Sunday evening service vanished. My self-consciousness vanished. I heard nothing, felt nothing, knew nothing, except for this one moment. My entire body convulsed. And then, I was back, shivering, awake, aware. Confused. Satisfied. Happy. Anointed.
     For once, Mom was right. If this was God, then no, I couldn’t get enough. But was it God? Or the devil? Or something altogether different? I knew the walls had come tumbling down and on the other side I discovered that to leave my body, to shed myself of ego, to experience ecstasy, I had to be willing to embrace a secret.
     After that evening, I tried to repeat the experience. At home, I’d drink lots of water and wait until the urge struck, then I’d cross my legs at the knee, hook my calf with my foot, twist my body and squeeze. Sometimes I’d start to feel it and then, just like that, the feeling would disappear. I tried to recreate the experience during Sunday services, too. Most times were failures, but every once in awhile, I got lucky.  

Elva Maxine Beach comes from a family of preachers, teachers, and storytellers. She has worked as a janitor, waitress, secretary, advertising copywriter and theater reviewer. She has an MFA in creative writing from Louisiana State University and is an adjunct professor at Austin Community College, where she teaches creative writing, composition, and literature.

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