Joy in her heart...
It's for real Jasmine's in love! She never thought she'd be boy-crazy like her girlfriends Camille, Alexis, and Angel, but now Jasmine and football star C.J. Taylor are inseparable they've even been voted the school's cutest couple. And with love in the air, everything seems to be going right: Jasmine's mom has allowed her and C.J. to go out on dates, and even her relationship with her brother Jaquan has improved. Maybe love is contagious!
Gone in a heartbeat?
But Jasmine's happiness is shattered when a neighborhood gang begins harassing Jaquan and trouble quickly escalates to tragedy. With C.J. and his family caught in the crossfire of lies and violence, Jasmine will have to hold on tighter than ever to her faith, to the friends who have never let her down...and to the belief that love truly does conquer all.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Different day, same drama. Me and two of my best friends, Camille and Angel, were just leaving our history class when we noticed a commotion in the hallway.
"What's going on?" Camille asked, standing on her tiptoes trying to see over the crowd of students. Camille Harris was the nosiest person I'd ever met, which was why I thought she'd chosen the perfect career to pursue -- news reporter.
I shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. It's probably just another fight, or some girl goin' off because her boyfriend was talking to another girl. Who knows? Who cares?" I never was one to be all up in someone's business, and I wasn't about to start now. Until I met Camille, Angel, and our other best friend, Alexis (who went to a different school), I really kinda kept to myself. I'll admit it, I'm not the friendliest person on the face of the earth, but after you spend your life getting teased and talked about because of your size (I am supertall and thick -- not fat, but thick), then you just start to keep your distance from two-faced girls.
But the Good Girlz changed all of that for me. The Good Girlz is a group that was started over a year and a half ago by Rachel Jackson Adams, the first lady of Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church. She started the group here in Houston as part of a church youth outreach program. Miss Rachel gave us that name because she said she wants us to always "strive for the good things in life." I know the name makes people think we're all goody-goody, but trust, we are so far from that. Camille is always getting in trouble behind some boy. Angel is a teenage mom. Alexis was the loneliest rich girl I'd ever met. And I had trouble with my temper. Our lives are nothing but drama, but we've been growing and, I'd like to think, learning a thing or two, which was why I had no interest in the mess brewing in the hallway.
"Is that your locker everybody is standing in front of?" Angel asked, bringing me out of my thoughts. I peered closer. Last week somebody vandalized a bunch of school lockers. I hoped they hadn't gotten to mine, especially because I had my brother's MP3 player in there and he would kill me if something happened to it.
Since I was close to six feet tall -- and one of the tallest girls in the eleventh grade -- I could easily see over the commotion. The crowd was gathered right in front of my locker, staring and pointing. One of the lockers next to mine was empty, but maybe they were looking at something in Daysia's locker, which was on the other side. Daysia was always caught up in some mess, so it wouldn't surprise me if somebody had tagged her locker.
I began making my way through the crowd. "That's my locker," I said, pushing my way past everyone. Camille and Angel were close on my heels.
I braced myself. I still wasn't the most-liked person around school, so it very well could've been someone writing some mess about me.
"Dang, that has got to be the biggest basket I've ever seen!" Camille said as we stopped in front of my locker.
My mouth was on the floor at the sight of the huge candy bouquet and gift basket sitting there, with a big banner that said FOR JASMINE JONES. Camille had her nose all up in the basket.
"Girl, look at these chocolate-covered strawberries. Dang!" Camille exclaimed once again, reaching inside the basket. "And is that an iPod?"
"Who is it from?" Angel asked. "And why in the world would they leave all this stuff out here for somebody to steal?"
A small smile crept onto my face as I thought about my complaints yesterday about not having an iPod.
"Who do you think it's from?" Camille snapped, pulling a box of perfume out of the basket. She turned back to me and grinned widely as she sprayed perfume on her neck. "It's from her boo."
My smile grew wider. My boo. C.J. Taylor definitely knew how to treat a girl. I knew he was planning something nice for Valentine's Day, but I had no idea he was gonna go all out like this.
I casually glanced over my shoulder at Tori and some other cheerleaders who were standing around, staring at my basket.
Tori -- who hated my guts for no other reason than the fact that she was just a hater -- would never give me my props. But when I looked at the little dried-up carnation she held in her hand, she didn't have to say a word. I knew she was sick with jealousy.
"Oh, there's a card," Angel said, pointing inside the basket.
I reached for it, but Camille beat me to it.
"Oooooh, let's see what C.J. has to say," she said, snatching the card out.
I playfully rolled my eyes. Normally, I would've been embarrassed and jerked the card back and gone somewhere to read it in private. But when I tell you I really don't like Tori, I mean that. So I took a lot of pleasure in letting Camille read the card out loud, especially because of the growing crowd.
Tori stood back off to the side trying to act like she wasn't interested, but I knew she could hear. And even if she couldn't, her girls were goin' to go back and tell her.
" 'To the most beautiful girl at Madison High School, no, make that in the world,' " Camille began reading. "Now, what is he writing about me for?" she joked.
I laughed and reached for the card. "Give it here."
"Okay, okay," she said, pulling it out of my reach. "I'll finish. 'I was wandering around knowing something wasn't quite right. Then I figured out what had been missing when you came into my life. My life wasn't complete, this much is true. My life wasn't complete because I was missing you. Happy Valentine's Day.' "
"Awwww," several people around us said at the same time.
"Man, that's some corny stuff!" a boy yelled from the back. Several girls turned around and shot him evil eyes.
"That's why you don't have a girlfriend now," some girl snapped at him.
"That is so sweet," this girl named Zinetta said, also trying to sneak a look in my basket. "Is that from C.J.?"
"Yeah, it is," I said, taking the card from Camille.
Zinetta's boyfriend was standing next to her holding a single balloon with a ribbon. She looked at him and cut her eyes.
"What?" he said, frowning up. "Everybody can't be Rico Suave. That's some old busta stuff anyway."
Zinetta huffed and stomped off with her boyfriend close behind her.
"If you all would excuse me," I said, leaning down to pick up my basket. It was really heavy. I couldn't wait to get it home and go through every single item.
I said my good-byes, then walked toward the football field where I knew C.J. would be practicing. I loved the fact that he would do sweet stuff like this and not care about anybody riding him. With C.J., if he was feeling it, he would do it, and unlike most boys his age, he couldn't care less what anyone had to say about it.
I stood back and watched him as he darted around, over, and across anyone trying to tackle him.
C.J. was a thin guy, but he had supernatural speed. He was a senior but looked like a professional football player as he ducked one guy, jumped over another, and left some player in his dust as he headed toward the goal line. He was an all-around superstar athlete, starring on both the football and the basketball teams.
I sat down on the bleachers and waited for him to finish practice. He saw me and blew me a kiss. I blew one back.
It's hard to believe that a dude has my nose wide open. Of me and my friends, Camille is the boy-crazy one. She's the one who spends every waking moment thinking about boys. Shoot, her Myspace ID is Boycrazy. My other best friend and fellow Good Girl, Alexis, is boy-crazy, too, although not to the extreme Camille is. Angel, the fourth member of our clique, is a little bit more reserved. But it's nothing for a cute guy to turn her head.
Me, on the other hand, I'm not trying to hear nothing about no dude. Or let me rephrase that, I didn't use to be trying to hear nothing. I know I'm sixteen and all, but I didn't even start liking boys until last year. That's when I hooked up with my first boyfriend -- Donovan.
Donovan is the only other boy that has been able to get in my head. He played basketball at my school before heading to the University of Texas at Austin to play there. I know it might not seem like it, but I'm not into athletes. Just like C.J., Donovan pursued me. Then he dropped me like some hot fries when he got to college.
C.J. had been a pain in my behind since middle school, when he used to call me Grape Ape because I'm so tall and thick. And he was a little scrawny something. But C.J. must've prayed really hard, worked out, or something, because he came back from summer vacation this year a good foot taller, filled out, and actually looking pretty cute. He had smooth, dark skin, a close-cropped fade, and the most perfect white teeth I'd ever seen.
I didn't want to give C.J. the time of day at first, but he wore me down and got me to give him my phone number. We started talking and I haven't looked back since.
"Hey, baby," he said, racing off the football field. "I see you got your Valentine's Day gift." He removed his helmet and dropped his backpack, which he'd stopped to pick up on his way over to me.
"I did," I said, leaning in and quickly kissing him on the cheek. "But I can't believe you just left it sitting by my locker. Anybody could've taken it."
"Trust, somebody was watching it. My boy Spencer would've been right there if anybody had dared touch it."
"Well, thank you." I glanced at the basket. "I can't believe you got me an iPod."
C.J. had a part-time job at his uncle's construction company and I know his family had a little money, but I definitely never would've guessed he had it like that.
"You deserve it. Sorry it's the small one. But my paycheck wasn't what I thought it would be."
"Please, it's bigger than the invisible one I have right now." C.J. and I had been together only two months, but I was so into him, I didn't even mind his dripping nasty sweat on me.
"Happy Valentine's Day," he said.
"Same to you. You know you tripped out with this big ol' basket." I squeezed the big bouquet. I felt bad because I'd gotten him only a card. I made a mental note to see if Alexis would loan me some money so I could go buy him something after school, because as usual, I was beyond broke.
"You know how I do it," C.J. said, taking a seat next to me. "Nothing but the best for my baby."
I blushed. "I told you, you didn't have to go overboard like this."
"Then I guess you don't want part two of your Valentine's Day gift." He pulled a small box out of his backpack and held it up.
"Yes, I do," I said, happily snatching the box from him. I had been dead broke all my life, and I wasn't used to nice things. So although I didn't want to seem like some money-hungry chick, I absolutely loved getting gifts from C.J.
He grinned as I tore open the package. Inside was the prettiest bracelet I'd ever seen. It was sterling silver and had a cross dangling from it.
"Oh, my God. This is tight!" I said, holding it up. But I quickly lost my enthusiasm. "Where in the world am I supposed to tell my mom all this stuff came from?"
"Tell her it came from your man," he said boastfully.
"Yeah, right." I laughed. "Let me try walking in my house talking 'bout, 'Oh, Mama, look at my iPod and bracelet my man bought.' I don't think so." My mama didn't play that. She and my grandmother were old school. They didn't even let me talk on the phone with boys until recently. But I'd been wearing my mom down, trying to get her to let me start going out on my own with C.J., and I had a feeling she was about to give in.
"So, am I still coming over for dinner tonight?" C.J. asked.
"Yep. My mom wants to meet you before she decides if she's going to let us go out."
He jumped up. "Let me go clean up. I'll see you at your house at six thirty."
I smiled and waved good-bye. C.J. coming to my house to meet my mom. I never would've thought I'd see the day. But I also never would have thought I'd be feeling someone like I was feeling him.
I said a quick prayer. "Lord, please don't let any drama go down with my mama," I whispered. I had a good feeling about C.J. and me, and I definitely didn't need any drama messing it up.
Copyright © 2009 by ReShonda Tate Billingsley
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Say Amen, Again includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author ReShonda Tate Billingsley. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Rachel Adams is trying to find a way to forgive her husband, Pastor Lester Adams, for having an affair. Her task is made all the more difficult by the reappearance of his former mistress, Mary Richardson, in their family’s church. Now pregnant, Mary claims that Lester is the child’s father and is intent on seducing him away from Rachel. Meanwhile, a tragedy rocks the foundation of the Adams family and everyone involved is confronted with an ultimate decision of forgiveness.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. What does Rachel’s dream in the novel’s opening chapter reveal about her fears? How is she able to overcome these fears by the end of the book?
2. Despite Lester’s continual refusal of her affections, Mary protests that the love she feels for him is real. Do you think this is true?
3. Rachel fears that her anger is interfering with her growth as a Christian. Do you agree with her decision to leave the church until Mary is removed? Likewise, do you think Mary should be removed from the church—or do you agree with Deacon Jacobs’s assessment that “if they kicked one transgressor out, they had to kick them all out” (p. 14)?
4. Mary’s visit from her mother, Margaret, is unwelcome and reinforces why Mary removed Margaret from her life in the first place. How does Mary feel when she sees her mother? How do you think Mary’s relationship with her mother has influenced her as a person?
5. Mary’s dealing ex-boyfriend, Craig, is another unwelcome visitor who brings “nothing but trouble” when he comes around. Is there anything Mary could have done to rid Craig from her life and leave her past behind? Or do you think her past was always destined to follow her?
6. Fed up with Aunt Minnie’s constant judgment of his family, Simon reveals a few of her deepest secrets to prove that she’s not as perfect as she pretends to be. As Simon says, do you think she “had that coming”?
7. Although Bobby never makes an appearance in this novel, Rachel can’t help but think about him from time to time. She wonders if chasing after him in the past influenced Lester’s affair with Mary. Do you feel that Rachel is right to take on part of the blame for Lester’s affair?
8. After Rachel’s interaction with Pastor Terrance Ellis at Lily Grove Church, she felt humiliated for having misunderstood the pastor’s intentions. Did you also think Pastor Ellis was coming on to Rachel? How did you react to her reasoning that having an affair of her own would help her recover from Lester’s affair? Have you ever felt a similar urge to seek some kind of revenge?
9. Did Roderick’s suicide take you by surprise? Teenage bullying due to sexual orientation is a prominent topic in the media today. How does Roderick’s story echo other tragedies you’ve read or heard about?
10. Rachel’s father offers words of advice after Lester is arrested: “Baby girl, God is in the blessing business. He’s not in the punishing business. . . . Just know that God doesn’t give us more than we can bear” (p. 197). Do you agree? Has there ever been a time in your life that you felt you were being tested beyond what you could bear?
11. What did you think of Rachel’s decision to keep Mary’s son, despite him being a constant reminder of Lester’s indiscretion? Would you have made the same decision? Similarly, how would Rachel’s decision have been different if it had turned out that Lester was, in fact, the boy’s father?
12. How did your opinion of Mary change as you read the book? By the end of the novel, did you find yourself sympathizing with her situation? Or did you think she got what she deserved?
13. How does the role of forgiveness impact both the characters and the events in the novel? Is Rachel truly able to forgive Lester for his indiscretion by the end of the book? Do you think Jonathan will ever be able to forgive himself for what happened to Roderick?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Let the Church Say Amen, the first in ReShonda Tate Billingsley’s Say Amen series, is currently being produced as a feature film. If you were in charge of casting, who would you cast as Rachel? Lester? Mary?
2. Roderick’s suicide, like many other teenage suicides committed by those who do not feel accepted by their families and/or communities, came as a saddening shock to those who loved him. If you’d like to help troubled teens in your area, consider taking part in one of the following campaigns:
• The It Gets Better Project, a worldwide movement of hope for LGBT youth: www.itgetsbetter.org
• To Write Love on Her Arms, a movement dedicated to helping those who struggle with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide: www.twloha.com
• The Trevor Project, a campaign for a future where all youth have the same opportunities, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity: www.thetrevorproject.org
3. Say Amen, Again is the third book in ReShonda Tate Billingsley’s series about Rachel and her family. If your book group hasn’t yet read the first two books in the series, consider Let the Church Say Amen or Everybody Say Amen for your next discussion.
4. You can learn more about ReShonda Tate Billingsley and her books on her official website (www.reshondatatebillingsley.com). You can also follow her on Twitter (twitter.com/ReShondaT).
A Conversation with ReShonda Tate Billingsley
Say Amen, Again is the third book in the Say Amen series. Which character do you think has grown the most since Let the Church Say Amen, the first in the series?
It would definitely have to be Rachel. I mean, did you ever imagine the Rachel we first met would be capable of adopting the child of her husband’s mistress?
Do you have any plans to write another book about Rachel and her family? What’s next for the Jacksons and the Adamses?
Rachel is one of those characters that won’t let me tuck her away. I never planned to write the first sequel, and she demanded that her story continue. Next up, she’ll meet up with Jasmine Larson Bush, the main character from author Victoria Christopher Murray’s Jasmine series. The two women are so much alike and so different and they’ll clash as both try to get their husbands elected to a prestigious position in a national organization. That book is called Saints and Sinners and comes out in 2012.
Before you began writing Say Amen, Again, did you know how it would end? Was Rachel always going to accept Mary’s baby into her life?
Oh, I never know how my books are going to end. That’s why it’s so hard for me to write an outline. My characters take over and they tell me the direction in which they want to go. So, I had no idea if the baby was going to even be Lester’s, let alone Rachel’s plan for the child.
Roderick’s suicide is undoubtedly one of the novel’s saddest moments. Why did you feel this was important to include?
I just wanted to show the tragic side of what can happen when our young people feel like they can’t talk to anyone. I don’t even know whether Roderick was gay, but the simple fact that he was conflicted was cause for concern. Yet, for various reasons, he had nowhere to turn.
When it comes to writing, what would you say is your greatest challenge?
Whew, I guess it would be I can’t write fast enough, and I write pretty fast! There are so many unchartered territories I’d like to venture into, but my plate is pretty full. Some people would think that time might be a challenge, but I believe that you find time for your passion and writing is my passion, so time has never been an issue for me.
In its starred review of Let the Church Say Amen, Library Journal raves about your ability to infuse your text with “just the right dose of humor to balance the novel’s serious events.” Do you find it difficult to strike this balance in your writing?
I don’t. At all. People are always telling me how funny I am and I just don’t see it. I guess it’s because I’m not trying to be. It’s just a part of me; so naturally it’s reflected in my writing.
When you write, do you craft your novels with a mostly Christian audience in mind? Or do you aim to reach a wider readership?
Well, I’m a Christian who writes fiction, but that’s about the scope of my target. I mean, of course I want Christians to enjoy my book, but I also want nonbelievers, people of other religions, anyone and everyone to be able to pick up my book and enjoy it. And more than anything, get a message out of the book. In fact, my greatest joy in writing comes from those who found themselves growing closer to God, stronger in their faith, because of something I wrote. But at the end of the day, my message is for the masses. I believe that’s what God has called me to do.
What most inspires you to write?
A pure, simple passion for telling stories.
If one of your readers wanted to write a novel of his or her own, what would be the first piece of advice you would offer?
Don’t just talk about writing, write. And every minute you spend talking about what you don’t have time to do could be spent doing it. So many people don’t get their book finished because they let that get in the way. Something will always get in the way. The road to success is paved with tempting parking spaces. Don’t take a detour in trying to reach your dream. And finally, set small, attainable goals. I started with three pages a day, five days a week. No matter what, I committed to that. Well, before I knew it, three turned to thirty and I was able to finish my book.
What would you say is the most important thing for your readers to take away from Say Amen, Again?
The power of forgiveness and moving past your anger. I also hope that the book helps people reflect on how judging someone is something that should be left up to God.