This Boy's Faith: Notes from a Southern Baptist Upbringing

This Boy's Faith: Notes from a Southern Baptist Upbringing

by Hamilton Cain

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An unforgettable memoir about growing up Southern, grappling with faith, and confronting a childhood colored by religion, Bible Belt culture, and a mother who minces words better than a food processor
A child stumbles upon a vintage photograph and glimpses salvation. A young girl vanishes in a famous cavern when she runs away from her tour group. A hijacked plane circles overhead, its passengers’ lives in jeopardy. A mystical stranger, a refugee from the Holocaust, seals off her secrets behind an elusive smile. From simple blessings to historical tragedies to random twists of fate, This Boy’s Faith plumbs the uncanny mysteries and surprising revelations at the heart of a Southern Baptist childhood.

Hamilton Cain came to Jesus on a trampoline, or as his devout parents described it, “He just jumped and bounced his way to the Lord.” Growing up in Tennessee in the 1970s and ’80s, he set himself on the path to becoming the best Baptist boy he could be. The veil between the concrete and the magical shimmered all around him, nourishing his soul. Religion was a map to help him navigate his life, to steer away from the reefs of temptation. Yet as he grew older, Hamilton began to notice fractures and cracks in a world that had once promised sanctuary and transcendence, perils threatening to shatter the protective shell of family and community. Like an escape artist, he cut himself free from his evangelical milieu, and eventually gravitated north, to cosmopolitan New York.

Twenty years later, the smooth flow of Hamilton’s life reversed itself yet again when his first child was born with a grave genetic disease. Thrown into a chasm of confusion and despair, he found the primal voices of his original culture reaching out to him. He picked up that faded, half-forgotten script to see what values, if any, could steady him in the here and now. The result is a story of growing up Baptist, and then growing up. 
Haunting, evocative, and gorgeously written, Hamilton Cain’s debut will resonate with fans of poignant personal memoir, readers interested in faith and spirituality, and anyone who has known what it’s like to engage the complexities and contradictions of one’s past.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307463968
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/05/2011
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

HAMILTON CAIN was born in Orlando, Florida, and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He graduated with High Distinction from the University of Virginia and earned an MFA from Hollins University. A former book editor, he now writes for various publications and was a finalist for a 2006 National Magazine Award. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt



once upon a time in chattanooga . . .


o do you know why you're here today?"


"And why is that?"

"So I can tell you how I accepted Jesus."

"Now what does that mean, 'accepted Jesus'?"

"Accepted Jesus into my heart."

"As your personal Lord and Savior?"


Behind his desk, Brother Roy shifted against the chair's cracked leather, shirt buttons straining against his barrel torso, gray hair greased into a pompadour. His face sagged, jowly, mouth bracketed with commas of wrinkles. The bridge of his horn-rimmed glasses wore a knot of electrical tape. He steepled his fingers beneath his chin, glanced down at a green felt ledger with a copy of the Annie Armstrong missionary budget, a

tablet with faint blue lines, a framed head shot of Sister Beryl, his wife, almond brown eyes and a tress of dyed hair.

"Now when did this happen?"

"Sunday afternoon, after church."

"You were at home?"

"No sir."

"He'd gone across the street to bounce on the Twichells' trampoline," my father interjected.

Strange to hear such a transformative event pared down to a simple sentence, but in a sense it was true: home from church last Sunday, I'd stripped off my polyester suit like a dead skin, wriggled into a tank top and nylon shorts, the pair that rode high in my crotch. After a desultory detour past my father's desk in the living room, I'd strolled into the kitchen and silently chewed my lunch, pulled pork on a sesame seed bun with a dollop of coleslaw, then asked my father could I go check out the Twichells' trampoline, which they'd just bought at a sporting goods store on Brainerd Road. My chest was bursting with revelation.

"When the boy come back from the Twichells', he said he was saved."

He was slouching on the divan in Brother Roy's study, beneath a window that looked onto the church parking lot, the Quonset bus garage, and the parsonage opposite it. A dour expression carved lines around his watery blue eyes, his face swollen from sunburn and the snacking-on- Hostess-cupcakes habit he'd recently acquired. The study seemed a capsule cut off from the world, with its shaded lamps, shelves of books, and a curio cabinet brimming with mementos of Brother Roy's travels: bracelets from a Cairo bazaar, polished gems from Indonesia, a tiny amphora excavated from a cliff near the Dead Sea. Mrs. Tomlinson, his secretary, had drawn the blinds to fend off the afternoon glare, but heat was filtering back through the air- conditioning ducts, dense and stifling.

"A trampoline. Well, that's . . . unusual," Brother Roy said. "Were there any witnesses?"

"Just the dog," I said.

"He was looking after Duchess while the Twichells were up at their cabin for the weekend," my father said.

"Do I know the Twichells?" Brother Roy asked.

"Neighbors across the street, Church of Christ," my father said. "Boys play ball together. I asked him was he sure and he said he was but then I thought it best for him to meet with you so y'all could pray about it."

Brother Roy nodded in my father's direction but kept his gaze fixed on the small, scared orb of my face, his manner pleasant but alert, like a doctor's, humoring me as he probed for a diagnosis.

"Now what does that mean, being saved?"

"Means I'm saved from the fires of hell," I said, swallowing hard. "Don't want to burn in hell. Want to go to Heaven and be with Jesus and my family."

Brother Roy nodded again, as though I'd just confirmed a suspicion. He jotted notes on the tablet, lips pursed. I could hear the scratch of the fountain pen.

"I have a question," he said. "You saw A Thief in the Night when we showed it in the Fellowship Hall?"


"Kinda laid it all out in black and white, yes?"

"It was in color," I said.

"I know that," he said, his voice a frog-in-the-throat rasp as we approached the critical juncture. "A color movie, absolutely." He coughed into his hand. I could sense something massive and invisible in the room-God or the Devil, I couldn't tell which one-but I knew Brother Roy would wrestle it out of my way, in a feat of theologian's skill.

"How did it make you feel?"


A Thief in the Night had debuted that spring, sparking prolific praise from evangelical audiences throughout the country. All the Baptist churches had rented reels for special screenings. My parents had granted me permission to kneel at the front of the darkened Fellowship Hall, head ducked beneath the projector's ghostly ray as I watched.

Set in the near future, during the prophesied Tribulation, the low- budget film told the story of Patty, a newlywed who couldn't quite commit to Jesus. She woke one morning to find her husband, a believer, vanished, leaving behind an electric shaver on the bathroom sink. From a radio broadcast she learned that millions of Christians had mysteriously disappeared, all around the globe. Over the course of the film, Patty fled the militant forces of the Antichrist as they hunted her down for her refusal to pledge allegiance to their leader. The film's climactic scene took place at a high dam somewhere in the Midwest, all canted shots and leering faces. Cornered by a squadron of helicopters and menaced by a muscular villain with a goatee and bushy sideburns, Patty scaled a fence, hesitating a moment before jumping into the whirlpool that sucked her beneath the floodgate. In the last frame, the whirlpool's maw rushed up toward her as she fell and fell.

A pang of vertigo doubled me over. God had put this movie in front of me to show me the consequences of a world without faith. Two boys from my Sunday School class, Tad Swope and Craig Allison, had sat cross- legged on the tile floor behind me, editorializing as the story unfolded.

"No, run the other way, the other way!"

"Girl, don't open that door!"

"Aw, so stupid."

Tad had leaned forward, rapped me on the shoulder.

"Them 'copters gonna come after you if you don't get saved real quick."

"Bet they got some pretty girls up in Heaven," Craig said. "Like Patty." A giggle betrayed his insincerity.

"Don't you got eyeballs in your head?" Tad said. "Patty ain't going to Heaven. The Antichrist got her. Basically roadkill." He whistled his scorn.

"I didn't say Patty, I said pretty girls like Patty," Craig said.

As the credits appeared on-screen, I could hear sobs in the Fellowship Hall, a sense of doom as palpable as the film's dirgelike theme song: Life was filled with guns and war, and everyone got trampled on the floor-I wish we'd all been ready. As the lights came on, I looked around, all those dolorous faces. Something shining and good had withdrawn into hibernation; something meant to be seen plainly, and loved.

"Cholly and I been talking with him for a while," my father now said. "We haven't pushed him." He fumbled for the precise word that would convey his theory. "Well, let's see, guess A Thief in the Night made, oh, an impact."

"We got a lot of kids and even teenagers wanting to be saved after we showed that film, Lanny," Brother Roy said to my father. "Our membership rolls have spiked. Seven years old, well-that's young, we usually wait until third or fourth grade to baptize, but he's a smart boy, he gets it."

I'd reached a fork: Brother Roy's road or Patty's. My body closed around this burden and held it in, like diarrhea.

"Did you bring a Bible?" Brother Roy said. "Could you read John 3:16?"

My father pressed his copy into my lap, a King James Version with a supple leather cover and onionskin pages that sighed as I flipped through the Gospels to the somber conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. My voice quavered, fell beneath the gravity of the moment, fell and fell. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

The Salvation Verse, the cornerstone on which the rest of my life would be built. There: I'd read it out loud.

"And this means your name will be written in the Book of Life and forever inscribed, ensuring you a mansion in Heaven, for as Jesus said to His disciples, 'In my Father's House are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you.' "


"Let us pray then." We bowed our heads. With my lids squeezed shut, I listened to the quicksilver flow of his words, fidgeted until he amened. I opened my eyes. Brother Roy reclined back in his chair, palms down on his desk, grinning at the pleasure of mortaring a new brick into the church's future foundation. My father stood, fleshy and reserved.

"The first in his Sunday School class, my, my!" Brother Roy said. "Leading the pack, as usual. We'll do the baptism this Sunday evening, Lanny. You'll need to show up early, with an extra undershirt and a pair of socks, a change of underwear."

"How about a pair of tube socks?" my father asked. "He has several pair, from T-ball."

"T-ball!" Brother Roy said, capping his pen. "What's the name of your team?"

"The Hornets," I said.

"Plays outfield in the Hillcrest league," my father said. "They name their teams after insects: hornets, wasps, dirt daubers, chiggers."

"The tube socks will work just fine," Brother Roy said. He outlined the procedure: I'd step into the fiberglass well, and after a few words and a full immersion, I'd bob to the opposite stairs and climb, dripping, to the catwalk concealed behind the choir loft. "Five minutes from soup to nuts," he said, a holy parenthesis unlike any other five minutes of my life. He instructed me to cross my arms over my chest and stare straight ahead and not out at the audience.

He rose to show us out, swung open the study's door too vigorously, startling Mrs. Tomlinson as she nibbled a sand-wich at her desk. "We'll see you on Sunday, then," he said, lending his callused hand to my father to seal the deal. "Out-fielder, huh?"

"Got a big game coming up with the Spiders, week from Saturday," I said.

He punched me on the shoulder. "Good luck, my fine

young man."

My father and I descended the stairwell to the parking lot, our footfalls muffled in the building's weekday hush, so removed from the bustle of Sunday or even Wednesday evening, early supper in the Fellowship Hall followed by midweek prayer meeting. The heat had intensified, strangling breath or even a clear thought. My father unlocked the passenger door for me, silent.


We met my mother and my sister at the Red Food store, the anchor of a shopping center close to our neighborhood, shoehorned in between Highway 58 and a swamp confettied with trash. There wasn't much else on this side of Chattanooga: a smattering of subdivisions, the Hillcrest diamonds, and the mammoth oil tanks of the Colonial refinery.

My mother maneuvered a cart through the produce aisle, listening to my father's account of the interview with Brother Roy. She'd just had her hair frosted at the beauty shop, a platinum sheen over a nest of dark roots. My sister had climbed into the cart's wire-mesh seat, plaid skirt askew, revealing a crescent of cotton panties. She was singing something she'd learned in Children's Church, the cinder-block basement where kindergarteners were segregated during the worship services.

I'm no kin to the monkey, no no no,

The monkey's no kin to me, yeah yeah yeah.

I don't know much about his ancestors,

But mine didn't swing from a tree.

"He brought up that movie," my father said, tossing a couple of tangerines into the cart.

"Don't bruise that fruit," my mother admonished. "You mean that one about the Rapture?"

"Yes, A Thief in the Night."

She halted beside a pyramid of canned niblet corn. "Stay next to your daddy," she said to me. Last month I'd been chasing Derek Twichell around the Red Food store when he'd lost his balance and careened into a tower of canned peaches, gashing his forehead and requiring a few stitches. I leaned back against the cart.

"Did y'all pray, Killer?" she said to my father. In public she usually called him by his proper name, Lanier, or by his ubiquitous nickname, Lanny; but among the four of us, she preferred an abbreviation of his old Army nickname, Lady Killer. The guys in his platoon had christened him when he'd served in the occupation of Germany, just after the war. He'd driven a tank, rising to the rank of first lieutenant before an honorable discharge. Back in Georgia, he'd returned to university on the G.I. Bill, resumed his interrupted business courses, then met my mother. I liked the fact that he had three names, each with its own texture: Killer, with its hint of the macabre; Lanier, like an En- glish duke; Lanny, which morphed into whorls and curlicues when my mother wrote it out in her florid hand.

"Yes," my father said. "Brother Roy said he was young but that he understood."

"Phew, one down, one to go," my mother said. She knelt to embrace me, hazel eyes moist and wide with elation. "Your name has been written in the Book of Life," she said. "You're safe from the fires of hell, safe for eternity!" I offered a sheepish grin, flustered by her outburst, her fluttery, female gestures, so contrary to Brother Roy's calm baritone voice as he'd prayed, the stern, masculine business of grace.

At the butcher counter, she inspected cuts of rump meat, ground beef parceled in wrapping paper. "We should celebrate, maybe grill some cheeseburgers," she said. "Or some more of that pulled pork, Sugar, I know you love that. We can ask the Twichells over."

"They're going back to their cabin this weekend," I said.

"They asked you to feed Duchess again?"


"We'll cook out anyway," my mother said. "To think that just last Sunday you were saved and this Sunday you'll be baptized. The Lord moved quickly-He's got some special things planned for you!"

I believed her. It all seemed preordained.

On Sunday evening, then, I stood at the apex of the baptistery, high up in the sanctuary and just beyond the congregation's line of vision, swathed in an old choir robe and a blue satin collar, a T-shirt and shorts underneath. I stepped into the water, warmer than a bath, not tepid as I'd assumed. It rose to my shoulders, gave off a whiff of chlorine. The custodian had dimmed the sanctuary's immense chandelier, keeping the footlights on in case of an emergency. A floodlamp beamed down into the pool, scattering light.

Table of Contents

Author's Note xi

Prologue: Sacrifice of Isaac 1

1 A Thief in the Night 29

2 J. C. Purgatory 54

3 Death of a Dentist 65

4 The Tameka Problem 81

5 Persephone in New Mexico 93

6 Victory 118

7 Plant Pain 135

8 Fall Creek Falls 146

9 The Book of Lamentations 157

10 Green Eyes 183

11 Searching for Vasha 200

12 Jamboree 224

Epilogue: In Prospect Park 238

Acknowledgments 251

About the Author 253

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