Church Folk by Michele Andrea Bowen, NOOK Book (eBook) | Barnes & Noble
Church Folk

Church Folk

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by Michele Andrea Bowen
     
 

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Theophilus Henry Simmons is young, single, sexy, and just about the finest black man any wishful mother and daughter have ever seen in Charleston, Mississippi. He's also a pastor. And when he starts courting the quiet, homespun Essie Lee Lane-and she accepts his marriage proposal-a few of the church folk decide to teach Essie what it really means to be a pastor's wife

Overview

Theophilus Henry Simmons is young, single, sexy, and just about the finest black man any wishful mother and daughter have ever seen in Charleston, Mississippi. He's also a pastor. And when he starts courting the quiet, homespun Essie Lee Lane-and she accepts his marriage proposal-a few of the church folk decide to teach Essie what it really means to be a pastor's wife, and show her how little she knows about them. But as Theophilus gains prominence in his denomination, Essie evolves from a mousy parishioner into an independent and Godly woman. Now sporting an afro and driving her new purple Cadillac, Essie teaches the church folk what it really means to stand by your man-and your beliefs.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Bowen's avowedly Christian debut shows a young black minister struggling in the early 1960s to balance romance, church politics, and spiritual uprightness. Before beginning his seminary training in Atlanta, Theophilus Henry Simmons formed an unfortunate liaison with the dangerously passionate Glodean Benson, who can only be described as a clerical groupie. As the story begins, newly graduated Theophilus finds that his first ministerial assignment is at the Greater Hope Gospel United Church of Memphis, the very church Glodean's family attends. Fortunately, he soon meets Essie Lee Lane, a cook at Pompey's Rib Joint. She may be less educated and cultured than other women pursuing Theophilus, but Essie Lee has a sterling character and good legs, the two attributes Theophilus requires in a wife. Once they marry, Bowen doesn't hold back on showing the minister's happy sex life with his bride in order to remind us that the gifted preacher is also a man with strong needs. Meanwhile, although Theophilus makes references to the civil rights struggles in his sermons, most of his energy is directed toward fighting enemies within his denomination, particularly a band of sleazy ministers and bishops whose thievery and lasciviousness are rendered in great detail. The split in power within the Gospel United Church between the righteous and the evil comes to a head at the Triennial Conference, where Theophilus's allies uncover a brothel set up in a parishioner's funeral home specifically to service visiting ministers. As one might expect, the forces of good prevail, though it's to Bowen's credit that she realistically shows their victory as incomplete. A blend of sermons and romantically veiled sex,spiced up with some violence, that will probably please churchgoing readers. Others may find the self-righteousness an annoying yawn.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780759524644
Publisher:
Grand Central Publishing
Publication date:
06/21/2001
Sold by:
Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format:
NOOK Book
Sales rank:
229,327
File size:
369 KB

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

1960

AT THE AGE OF TWENTY-NINE, THE REVEREND Theophilus Henry Simmons had developed one unshakable conviction about God-that He loved women. If He didn't love women, how could He have created such a magnificent creature as a fine, deep, dark chocolate woman who looked real good in pinks and oranges, had big, sexy legs, and a stardust twinkle in her smile-the kind of exquisite Negro woman who compelled the Universe to praise every swing of her large, shapely hips?

But there was a time during his senior year at Blackwell College, before he entered The Interdenominational Theological Seminary in Atlanta to study for the ministry, when he had mistaken God's love of women as an excuse to become entangled with one Glodean Benson. Being a young, single, good-looking Negro man, the kind many a Negro woman wanted to make her own, he had constant opportunities to get in trouble but managed to fight off that particular temptation- until Glodean. Her brand of loving was intoxicating but deadly, like cheap corn liquor that numbs your brain before you have the sense to figure out it's no good for you. Then when you finally let it go, its bitter aftertaste lingers, along with the burning in your stomach and the aching in your head.

When Theophilus finally told her, plain and simple, "I'm leaving you, Glodean," she blinked back her tears, looked at him like he was crazy, and smiled as she said: "You poor man-walking around thinking I wanted you just for you. Just what is it you thought you could offer me-unless and if you ever do become a reverend-besides the seat in the front pew of your church reserved for the First Lady?"

Those words sliced through him right down to the bone, but she wasn't through: "And now that you're off to the seminary, Mr. Hope-to-Be-Reverend, believin' you're too high and mighty for Miss Glodean, don't think I can be dismissed like some silly little shouting churchwoman, shakin' all up in your face. I'm going to stick to you, 'Re-ve-rend'-and some day, some way, I'm going to get you ..."

Theophilus couldn't imagine what she could do to him. But he was already so ashamed of what he had done, it didn't matter. What did matter were her words, which crushed him so until he thought he heard his heart shatter from the impact of them on his spirit.

He knew he was wrong to go with Glodean-"a gal with somethin' in her drawers that snapped," as he once heard an old man say about women like her. It was his curiosity about that "snappin' " that caused him to put Glodean's feelings, his reputation, and his relationship with God in jeopardy. He repented to God, and he knew God had forgiven him-but it was the kind of mistake that he never dreamed would dog him long after the affair ended. Glodean's words and his sense of remorse haunted him, even in his sleep, making him toss and turn, only to wake up tired and hurting in body and soul. It was only the rigorous demands of his seminary training, along with a lot of prayer and meditation on God's word, that eased the disappointment he felt with himself. Then, to his dismay, just before his final ordination, he heard that Glodean was working in Atlanta, where she had family. She began turning up at seminary social functions, and with no more than a look she tormented him, filling him with fear and-he had to admit it-a still-glowing spark of his old desire. He managed to fend her off, but the war between his resentment at Glodean's obsession over him and those sparks she could still ignite, was an agony that made him feel like he was losing his mind.

And now, as graduation day approached, he had been assigned to take over the pastorship of Greater Hope Gospel United Church in Memphis, where Glodean and all of her family had gone for years.

Reverend Murcheson James, the pastor of Mount Nebo Gospel United Church in Charleston, Mississippi, raced over to Atlanta when Theophilus found out about his assignment and then got up enough courage to place a desperate call to his friend and mentor, asking for help with his dilemma. Rev. James knew Glodean's family-her aunt, Willie Mae Clayton, owned a big-time funeral home chain based in Memphis, with branches throughout the South-and he couldn't even fathom how this boy had gotten caught up with the likes of her. Where was the boy's good sense? But the more Rev. James listened, the less sympathy he felt, and the stronger his urge grew to whip Theophilus's tail until he couldn't see straight.

But maybe Theophilus would learn a powerful lesson from all of this. For some time, Rev. James had been feeling that Theophilus was a little too comfortable with his flirtations with women-conduct unacceptable for a godly man and especially one who was becoming a minister. This time, Theophilus had gone farther than he was sure the young preacher had ever gone before. Not that he didn't understand the boy's needs, because he did. Happily married himself to a wonderful woman, he couldn't imagine pastoring without the love, support, and comfort of a good woman like his wife, Susie. But to seek that kind of comfort outside of your marriage was unacceptable. And as for marriage and Glodean Benson? That went beyond unacceptable. It was a mess, plain and simple. To make matters worse, it sounded like the fool still had the scent of that heifer stuck in his nose. A man didn't need to have a woman's scent branded in him like that, unless it was the right woman, a woman who would stroke your heart, soothe your soul, comfort you, and make you laugh. A woman who is your wife.

Rev. James figured it was time Theophilus learned that pas-toring was serious business. A lot of young seminarians never did learn that and they got blindsided by the temptations that came with the job-liquor, money, politicking, women. Though he loved Theophilus like a son, Rev. James decided not to spare the rod. "Look here, Theophilus," he said. "You smart on most counts, but you lost your doggone mind on this one. You are just a few months shy of getting your final ordination papers, and look at you-miserable, all tore up over what? It ain't God that has you all upset. You know He done forgot about what you did as soon as you told Him you were sorry. No, you tore up about a piece of tail so lethal it ought to be a military weapon. Boy, if I was your daddy, I'd knock you clean out your pastor's chair. 'Cause you know better. I know you know better."

Theophilus stared at the floor, having trouble looking Rev. James in the eye. He certainly didn't have anything worth hearing to say in his defense. He was searching his mind for words but Rev. James wasn't looking for answers. "Now, before you start up, just listen. Sometimes you need to be strong enough to stare evil down in the face. You know why you are getting sent to Greater Hope? You are going because Bishop Percy Jennings wants you there. Bishop Jennings is being reassigned to the Tennessee/Mississippi District. The Board of Bishops is doing some reshuffling after suspending Bishop Otis Caruthers for approaching that little seventeen-year-old girl."

Just thinking about it, Rev. James shook his head in disgust. "You remember that mess, don't you? Little girl so young, she still had milk and cookies on her breath."

Theophilus nodded, wondering himself what would possess a grown man to even think of looking at a little teenager. But men who believed women were beneath them often didn't feel bound by the rules of decency. Putting Bishop Otis Caruthers "on location"-taking away his district-would keep him out of commission for a while. But there was always a chance that a corrupt bishop would bounce back. A few wads of bills placed in the right palms, at the right time, and a bishop was back in power. It wasn't so easy to get rid of a bishop in the Gospel United Church.

"You don't know this, son," Rev. James was saying, "but Percy Jennings asked the Board of Bishops for special permission to take you with him to his new district. Greater Hope is the only open ministry there, and he personally assigned you the pastorship. He has been watching you. He believes that young pastors like you, who are godly men, who can preach the rafters out of the roof, and who can understand what this new civil rights movement is bringing, are the future of the Gospel United Church."

Theophilus could not believe what he was hearing. Why would Bishop Jennings take a personal interest in him? He started to ask, but Rev. James held up his hand. "I'm not finished, Theophilus," he said. "You are being tested. You are being tested because it needs to be known if you can handle yourself right when in the fiery furnace. Can you be like those three Hebrew boys, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and trust that the Lord will stand with you and guide you? Then will you be obedient to do what He tells you to do? 'Cause that the kind of faith and commitment you gone need, not only for pastoring Greater Hope but when you go even farther than that. If you can't pass this test, you can't handle this call God has on your life. Don't let your flesh lead you in another direction. You hear me, Theophilus? Can you accept this call?"

"Yes," said Theophilus. "I accepted God's call on my life a long time ago-and yes, Rev. James. Yes, I will go to Greater Hope."

Now, for the first time during the visit, Rev. James smiled.

"Glad you still got some gumption in you, boy," he said.

"Scared me for a minute there. Thought that gal took all your strength away, just like Delilah did that fool Sampson. Now, let's pray."

To ease Theophilus's passage at Greater Hope, Rev. James appealed to Mrs. Coral Thomas, his wife, Susie's, best friend and a longtime deaconess of the church, to keep an eye on the young pastor. Many a morning Theophilus would come to work and find Coral Thomas bustling around his office, setting out a pot of delicious-smelling coffee and a plate of fat ham biscuits, saying, "Sit down, Pastor, and get yourself some breakfast. Made up these biscuits 'specially for you."

During his first year, Coral became his right hand. It was she who encouraged him to make some much needed reassignments in the church, giving jobs to the most qualified members instead of those who gave the most money. There had been hurt feelings at first, but now folks acknowledged that the choir had improved a hundredfold and that the Usher Board, which visitors barely recognized before, conducted their duty with a new pride. Now, instead of regular church clothes, the men wore dark suits, white shirts, and blue ties, while the women wore white shoes and white dresses with blue lace handkerchiefs fixed to their shoulders with gold usher pins.

The church was growing, with new members joining every week, attracted by the new pastor's fiery preaching and his message of social justice. But every Sunday, Theophilus scanned the faces of his congregation with his heart pounding and sickness in his stomach, ready to break out in a cold sweat, should he glimpse the pale pink suit, pink lace gloves, and matching rose church hat that was the signature ensemble of Glodean Benson.

To honor his first anniversary as pastor, Bishop Jennings and Rev. James arranged for Theophilus to serve as the guest preacher for a week-long revival that was being held at St. Paul's Gospel United Church in Jackson, Mississippi. Usually more seasoned and well-known pastors worked revivals, for it was a way to gain visibility in the denomination. Theophilus recognized that choosing him was an expression of confidence and faith, and he fervently thanked God for granting him the strength to face the challenges of that first year. Every morning before he started working, he got down on his knees and prayed, saying, "Thank you, Lord. Thank you for forgiving me, Lord, and keeping me strong and stead-fast. My trust is in you, Lord. Thank you for walking with me each day, lighting my path into the future you have set before me."

And the Lord, ever mindful of the most pure, sincere, and heartfelt desires of his children, now granted Theophilus a two-for-one prayer miracle. The first miracle was blessing him so that he preached with such power that it was as if he was trying to raise the dead. And the second miracle dealt strictly with matters of the heart.

His first revival sermon sent folks home feeling good about what God had said to their hearts, thinking about what Theophilus had prayed about, and looking over the scripture readings that accompanied his text. But with each passing day, his sermons became hotter and hotter, until on that last night, he walked up in the church so full of spiritual fire he felt like he had what his mother said was "fire all shut up in his bones." He had "gotten the spirit" before, but he had never felt anything so consuming as the power of God in that little church on that last night. All while he was preaching, he couldn't keep still, couldn't stay put in the pulpit, and before he knew it, he was taking one long-legged stride out from behind the podium, shouting, "Thank you, Jesus," and running right into the center aisle of the church.

When he ran into the aisle, folks started coming out of their seats, waving their hands in the air, fanning fans and programs in his direction, talking about, "Preach, boy, preach!" And when it was clear that just about everybody in the sanctuary was becoming lit up with the Holy Ghost, the organist hopped up from his seat and began to play duum-duum, duum-duum-that generic, deep-bass-sounding melody thatalways let everyone at a highly charged Negro church service know it was time to cut loose.

When the organist saw that folks were itching to shout, he started playing louder and with more intensity, looking around to see which one of the women would get the spirit first. But it was Theophilus, and not one of the women, who took up the cause and got everybody dancing and running through the aisles. And at that point, the duum-duum, duum-duum turned into a fast-paced duum-duum-duum-duum, duum-duum-duum-duum that set off a chain reaction of shouting, dancing, and praising God that tore up every pew in the sanctuary. When the congregation reached a peak that couldn't be surpassed and Theophilus started experiencing a climax of his own raging emotions, he looked over at the musicians and signaled for them to calm the music down.

At that point he walked back into the pulpit and said breathlessly, "I don't know about you but I'm sure glad that these musicians found some time to steal away from Hallowed Ground Church of God and Christ to play for us tonight. You know, church, I do believe that God likes that music about as much as we do. Who ever said that the Gospel United Church didn't know how to praise the Lord?"

"I don't know, Reverend!" the organist, a tall, thin, ebony-colored man, shouted out. " 'Cause y'all is sho' havin' some church tonight. The Holy Ghost ran by and touched every Saint in the house. Praise the Lord!"

"Thank you, Brother Organist. And if you will, sir, I would ask that you play 'At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light, and the burdens of my heart rolled away ...'"

As the organist started playing, Theophilus called the congregation to join him in a circle of fellowship that went around the entire sanctuary. Once the circle was in place, he said they needed to come together to cement the spiritual bond they had formed over the course of the revival week. And when everybody joined hands, he led them in a prayer petitioning for forgiveness of past transgressions-including his own- asked for healing of their sorrows, and thanked God for stopping on by St. Paul's Gospel United Church tonight, because they all knew He had His hands full with all that was happening to Negroes in the South. Then he pulled himself up off his knees, opened his arms in a symbolic embrace of the congregation, and with the permission of St. Paul's pastor, opened the doors of the church to everybody at the revival looking for a church home.

Copyright (c) 2001 by Michele Andrea Bowen

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