When you grow up in a Southern church, you learn quickly how things are done. And how they’re not done.
Some kids learn early. Some kids never get it.
Bethel Missionary Baptist Church was a small, white frame structure. Like many churches of mid-20th Century America, it was plenty big enough to accommodate the 75 or so who went there. It was a lot like a weekly family reunion since many attendees were kin to each other.
That’s one of the first things you learn in the South. Your family hangs out a lot, including on Sunday.
When you’re a kid, you get a grace period on behavior. The little old ladies in the church all carried contraband. Gum, candy, drinks, and other food substances were a no no. But if you were a kid, the geriatric widows would give it to you, even if your behavior wasn’t the best.
Mrs. Arnett carried gum, usually Juicy Fruit. If you smiled and asked nicely, she’d palm you a piece while you were on your way to your assigned pew seat.
My grandfather always had spearmint gum, and he chewed it constantly. A habit he picked up after he gave up his previous habit – smoking. He also would slip me gum.
I liked Juicy Fruit better, but if I couldn’t get to Mrs. Arnett in time before the preacher started, I’d take a stick of Spearmint.
Those who deal in pediatric church contraband can’t be picky.
Something else you learned attending a Southern church is that each hymn has a third verse, but you don’t sing it. I never understood why, but if I’d ever had a Sunday School pop quiz on the words to the third verse of Amazing Grace, I wouldn’t have passed.
I hope that’s not a pop quiz question at the Pearly Gates.
One great thing about Southern churches, especially Baptist churches, is pot luck lunches. Before air conditioning, they were called, ‘Dinner on the Grounds.’
They weren’t every Sunday, but pot luck lunches were something you looked forward to.
Well, except for Jell-o dishes, green bean casserole, and a few other unholy concoctions that the same little old ladies who carried contraband always brought.
I’ve never understood the necessity to infuse gelatin with fruits and vegetables. It is the epicurean equivalent of a square peg in a round hole.
The dinner on the grounds were where the payback for accepting contraband in the Lord’s house came back on you.
If you had taken Mrs. Arnett’s Juicy Fruit Gum, you had to also accept her Jell-o with pineapple and carrots in it.
I can still see the pineapple and carrots shaking as I carried my plate to the table. Ugh.
Discipline was taken seriously in Southern churches. Kids who acted up got taken outside and spanked.
There were the repeat offenders whose backsides regularly met with their parent’s insistence on behaving. But most kids took the long stroll down the aisle to the exit at one time or another.
The inevitability of what was coming was met with a stiff upper lip, but there were a few who protested all the way down the aisle and out the door.
Many things were said, but the best story recalled is the kid who, just as his dad was closing the church door screamed, “Ya’ll pray for me!”
The annual Christmas program was always something that was looked forward to. At least by the adults.
The pressure felt by each kid was pretty intense. Not everyone has an innate ability for memorization, so trying to recall and recite four or five Bible verses in front of everyone in the church could be tough.
Doing that while dressed as an angel, a shepherd, or a wise man, made it seem even tougher.
Moms put a lot of effort into those homemade costumes, so you didn’t want to blow it when your turn came to speak your part.
There was something pleasantly simple about growing up in a small, Southern church. The rules really weren’t that tough. Act right, remember your verses, and if you’re going to chew contraband gum, eat your Jell-o.
I’m now the grandpa who carries contraband gum on Sunday. And as for the third verse of Amazing Grace, I’m working on that. Just in case there’s a pop quiz.
©2022 John Moore
John’s latest book, Puns for Groan People, and his books, Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, are available on his website – TheCountryWriter.com, where you can also send him a message and hear his weekly podcast.