El Goodman had been worried ten or fifteen minutes ago. Now she was scared. The eight year old 1950 Hudson had given trouble before, but she'd always been able to get it started. But no matter what she did, it wouldn't start. A car passed, then pulled over and stopped. She was sure help was coming.
Two months ago, when she'd gotten her driver's license, she'd felt so grown up. Now she felt like a little girl, wishing Mommy could tuck her in. The person coming towards her was suddenly revealed in another car's headlights and fear turned to almost panic.
He was a very large man, colored as she had been taught to say, carrying something in his right hand. Then he was by her door and looking in. His broad face flashed a smile and she could see around his neck what appeared to be a clerical collar, but other than that he looked like a boxer or a laborer. He held up a calling card in one hand a book in the other. With her mind caught in fear she looked at each. In the dim light she could make out "Jeremiah Daniels, Pastor" on the one, and a faded gold cross and "Holy Bible" on the other. He tucked the calling card inside the Bible and motioned for her to roll down the window. This she did, just a small bit.
"Evenin', miss. Ya havin' some problems?"
"Yes." She paused, trying to balance the fact that he was colored with the fact that he was older and apparently a minister. "Yes, sir. My car stopped and I can't get it started," as her nervousness caused her to twist the steering wheel, "and I live thirty minutes from here and I should be home in five", she confirmed by looking at her watch, "and my parents will restrict me and they don't know where I am. Are you a minister?"
"Yes, I am. But I know somethin' 'bout cars. I'll get a flashlight and be right back." His accent was the soft slow drawl of the Deep South. Her boyfriend could probably place it within a hundred miles, but he wasn't here and couldn't be, either. She looked around the car. Something to bribe him with? To protect herself? Was he really a minister? Would her nail file serve? Could it be the ultimate defense? If she didn't resist, would he let her live?
Then he was back. "I'm gonna pop yo' hood, miss," he said and walked to the front of the car. The hood opened and she could see a flashlight in the crack between hood and body. He returned to the window. "Try it now," he said and she tried, but the battery was weak and the starter barely turned over. "I've some cables. Just wait." He returned to his car and she heard it start, then saw it turn around and return. In the glare of his headlights she saw him get out, then what he was doing was blocked by her hood and the beams of his lights. He returned again to her door. "When you hear my horn, try again," and he was gone.
She heard his horn beep and she turned the key. The car started. Her head dropped to the steering wheel, "Oh, Thank you, God. Thank you." Her hood close.
"Your ignition wire got loose."
"I'm gonna be late."
"You follow me. My church is maybe ten minutes from here. Ya can phone your folks and let 'em know you're okay"
If she didn't like where he led her, she could always go on. He'd been very nice so far. "I guess that'd be okay." He led her into a part of Alexandria she never went into, stopping in front of a small clapboard building with a sign that read "Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church". She pulled up behind him and watched as he got out of the car, went up to the door, unlocked it, and then came back to her car.
"This is it, Miss. If ya have anything valuable in you' car, I'd suggest you bring it inside."
"I've just my purse and my guitar."
"Take them." She reached behind her and got her cased guitar from the back seat and her purse from beside her, opened the door and stepped out, locking it behind her. She followed the big man into the church. It was simply furnished, with a small altar with a picture of Jesus behind it. He led her down the aisle, turned, and opened a door which led to a small study. He indicated a phone on a old, beat up wooden desk. She quickly put down case and purse and dialed her number.
Her mother, sounding worried, answered with "Elaine, is that you?"
"Yes, Mommy. My car stopped and a minister helped me. I'm calling from his church right now."
"You're close to an hour late now." Her tone lightened. "You're okay?"
"Yes, ma'am. I'd going to thank Reverend Daniels and be right home. I'm sorry."
"We'll talk about that when you get home. Do you have any money to pay him something or give a donation to his church?"
"I have five dollars. I was trying to do some shopping. Christmas."
"I thought you'd bought all your presents."
"Almost." She had bought all she wanted them to know about. She couldn't say anything about the one for her boy friend without them getting mad. The man deserved something; her parents would probably reimburse her. "I'll see you soon, Mommy. Bye" She hung up the phone and took her purse. "Let me give you something for your time and effort, Reverend Daniels."
"No money for me. Just say a prayer next time you're in church."
"Oh. I don't go to church very much anymore. Just when my folks force me."
"Did you go to church before?" His face showed concern, yet hope.
"Yes. But my folks and I got in a fight over my boyfriend. And I just try to avoid it now, when I can." They could keep her from seeing him most of the time; they couldn't get her ready for church on time unless they bathed her and dressed her themselves. She could live with their anger.
He looked down at the guitar case she still carried. "How well ya play that guitar?"
"I've played for more than a year. I'm pretty good."
"Then ya can pay me. Come to this church on Sunday and play for our service. Our piano is out of tune and our piano player is in the hospital, anyway." He looked closely at her, his brown eyes boring into hers. "Could ya do that?"
"Play a guitar for a church service? That sounds strange."
"No, miss. It ain't. Don't you know that "Silent Night" was first sung to a guitar?" The girl shook her head. "And what does the Psalmist say,
'Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet:
Praise Him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance:
Praise him with stringed instruments and organs'?"
She saw his body sway slightly with the rhythm of the psalm he quoted.
"Okay, Reverend Daniels. You've been very kind to me. I'll come this Sunday and try to play for your service. What time?"
"We begin at eleven. We probably take longer than you're used to, but we're finished by twelve thirty or one. What is your name, miss?"
"Elaine, sir." She felt more comfortable with the sir. "Elaine Goodman."
"Well, Miss Elaine..." but she held up her hand.
"Please don't call me that, Reverend. It sounds like something from Gone with the Wind or Uncle Tom's Cabin. My elders call me Elaine and my friends call me El. Or my good friends do. That's what my boy friend calls me. Should I be here about a quarter of?"
"That'd be fine. I'm gonna write down the number if ya can't come," he said, scratching out something on the back of a business card. "Now I'll follow ya home, just in case."
They walked back out, with him carefully turning out lights and locking doors. She got in her car, started it up and drove off, with Reverend Daniels following her. When she got to her house she signaled for a turn, hoping he'd stop, but, when she turned in her drive he slowed down a bit, then drove to the end of the block and turned around, returning the way she had led him.
Carrying guitar and purse, El let herself in the door to find her parents in the living room, never a good sign. She was interrogated for several minutes and her father went out and looked at the car. He returned and said, "Well, it does appear that the distributor wire might have been loose."
"Dad, this is the truth," she snapped, angry at the distrust. How long would she and Phil have to suffer for a mistake? Bad as it was. "I was so scared. And I called as quick as I could."
"Well, that boy is safe off at school. Just try to be more careful in the future." She noticed he couldn't tell her how to be more careful.
"I told Reverend Daniels I'd come play at his church Sunday. They have a piano, but the player is in the hospital. I hope that's okay. He wouldn't take the five dollars, so I thought this would be a payment for his kindness. He even followed me home to make sure I got home okay."
"Well, why didn't he stop?"
"Maybe he was in a hurry, Dad. After all, I disrupted his evening." In her mind she knew the real reason. She also knew that telling her parents that her rescuer was colored was probably not a good idea. Especially if she was going to play at his church. It was just the one time; then her debt would be paid.
On Sunday she dressed in good school clothes, not quite what she'd normally wear on Sunday, took her guitar, and drove back to the little church. She actually arrived closer to ten thirty than a quarter of, but there were still at least ten people sitting in the old, scarred pews, with several coming in after her. A woman with a mahogany face, age wrinkles just beginning, came up to her.
"You Elaine Goodman?"
"Yes. Yes, ma'am. I'm here to play." She raised her guitar.
"That's nice. Come with me." The woman led her to the room she had been in before, knocked and opened the door when they heard the minister's voice. Reverend Daniels was sitting behind the desk, but he rose when El entered.
"You're a tad early. That's good. Let me show you what we've planned." He gave her some music and pointed towards the chair on the other side of the desk. "Tell me if you can't play them and we'll get somethin' else." She sat down and looked. She thought she could play them, at least to some extent. One was unfamiliar.
"What's this 'Lift Every Voice and Sing'? I don't know it, at all."
He smiled just a little. "I'm not surprised. That's sort of our people's anthem. We sing it every Sunday. Think ya can play it?"
"I think so. May I practice in here? Or is there a better place?"
"Here's fine." She took the guitar from the case, tried its tune, adjusted the "E" string and tried the new tune first. She played softly, and managed to get each hymn played once before Reverend Daniels said, "It's time to start. I'm gonna go out the door and ya follow me. I'll announce the hymns."
"Okay. Yes, sir," she said as she took the strap off her shoulder. He opened the door and they walked into the sanctuary, which now held close to sixty people. He motioned her to a chair close to the door and went in front of the altar and faced the congregation.
"Brothers and Sisters, this morning we have Miss Elaine Goodman to help us with her guitar. Let us worship God and His Son Jesus together in song and word."
The service was different than what she was used to; it lacked the formality she knew, but she could feel the vibrancy, hear the clapping hands, the proclamations from the pews, see the smiles and tears in faces that ranged in color from old ivory to charcoal. She played fairly well, she thought, but wished she had played better. Maybe next Sunday, if she knew the hymns and had a chance to practice more, she found herself thinking.
She had planned on leaving as soon as the service was over, but she couldn't. Half the people wanted to thank her and compliment her. Several children asked her if she could play popular songs. She was amazed by the friendliness and, at the same time, the formality. The children were all polite and the adults called each other Brother or Sister or Mister or Misses. After about fifteen minutes, Reverend Daniels rescued her. "Ya probably wantin' to get home."
"Yes, sir. I hope I did okay. I really enjoyed myself."
"You did fine, Sister." He stopped and looked at her, his face showing concern. "We'd love to have ya come again."
"Give me the hymns for next Sunday and I'll be here," she heard herself saying.
El found herself playing at the church for several months. As she did, she started thinking more and more of her own church, of wanting to go back. She also found herself ducking her parents questions about the church and who the congregation was. She let them know it was Baptist, which was shocking enough.
Then she began to think about church and Phil and her parents. Maybe it was time to stop using the church to fight with her parents. Maybe it was time to stop fighting her parents and find another way. She and Phil would get back together, no matter what.
She came to respect Reverend Daniels' compassion and wisdom. She enjoyed talking with him, discussing hymns, her problems with her parents, Phil, who she could not see, and the new boy she was dating for the thrill of it. Then, after a service she said, "Reverend, may I talk with you?"
He looked at her closely. "What's wrong, child? You're hurtin, ain't 'cha?"
"Yes, sir, I am. I gotta talk with somebody."
"Would your mother be best?"
A look akin to horror came into her face. "Oh, no! I couldn't! I just couldn't!"
"Then go into my office, Sister. I'll be there shortly." She did, sat on the chair and strummed her guitar. "Tom Dooley" began to emerge from her random strumming, but then the minister entered.
He sat down next to her and said, "Tell me what you want to tell me."
"I don't know what to say. I went out with a guy. At first to prove my love for Phil. Then I wanted the other guy. Then I let him do things. Then I stopped him." There were a few tears in her eyes. "I mean, we didn't, ..we didn't...go all the way. But Phil may not want me if I tell him, but we promised we'd tell. And I don't know what to do!"
"If you told your boy friend you'd be honest, then do it. Tell him you still love him. Ask his forgiveness. Then pray, and sin no more. Not with another, not with your boy friend."
"I can't with Phil. We can't see one another."
Reverend Daniels was silent for a few minutes, hours it seemed to El. "How come?"
El blushed. She hung her head. She knew she had to tell him, wanted to tell him, but she was still embarrassed. "Summer before last. He was going to go to boarding school. We'd just started going steady. We, uh , we sort of let things go a little far. His, uh Phil's mom came back home. We were in his room. On his bed." Her eyes looked up, though her face remained down. He didn't seem mad; concerned, not mad.
"Sister Elaine. You know you done wrong. But how wrong was you doin'?"
She paused almost as long as he had. "We didn't,...we didn't, you know." She swallowed. "But we were going to. Phil's mom caught us naked."
Reverend Daniels looked at her. "You're ashamed, aren't you?" She nodded. "That's why you can't see him." She nodded again. "You're sorry for that." A nod. He smiled a little. "You're a smart girl. I bet he's a smart boy. I bet ya'll has seen each other. Bet ya'll will again." His smile became broad. "But I bet ya'll won't do anything like that again.
She nodded her head. "We won't. I'll write him. I'll tell him. Pray for me. And for him. Thanks, Reverend Daniels."
"I always pray for you, Sister Elaine. And now for your boy friend, since you love him. Now go in peace."
She smiled, collected her things and left. Torn as she was between what she had to do and what she wanted to do, she was still torn between playing for this congregation and making her parents happy by going with them. She was still not sure, but, encouraged by Reverend Daniels she went home and wrote the letter and walked down to the mailbox by the main road and posted it, after standing in front of the box's maw for several minutes.
The next Sunday she was close to an hour early, and walked through the almost empty church to knock on the study door. When he called she entered and took an envelope from her hand. "I just want to read this to you, Reverend Daniels. "El, I still love you with all my heart. Please forgive yourself because I forgive you.'
He nodded. "I told you he was a smart boy. He knows a good woman when he finds her." She reached over and hugged him, kissed him on the cheek. Then her face tensed.
"But I've some bad news, too. My folks and I talked. It's time for me to go back to church with my folks. I've really loved playing here, but I guess next Sunday will have to be my last. My folks really want me to worship with them."
He smiled at her. "We'll miss you, Sister. But if ya'll can be at peace, that's good. And I'm glad you and the boy you love can be at peace, too. "
The next Sunday during the announcements, Reverend Daniels thanked Elaine and asked her to stand. The congregation gave her applause and then he said, "We have a custom here. When a member has to leave, he's asked to read from the Book, something he thinks suitable. We'd like you, Sister Elaine, to do the same."
"Thank you. I think I know what to read." Women did not read in her church, but she had heard lessons read often enough. She leafed through the large Bible, muttering about her meeting with Reverend Daniels, then whispered to him. He smiled, whispered back and turned several pages. Elaine smiled back, then, following what she had heard so often, she said, "Here beginneth the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke, beginning at the thirtieth verse: 'A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves ...there came down a certain priest...And likewise a Levite...But a certain Samaritan...And went to him...I will repay thee. Which now, of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him who fell among thieves?". When she finished reading she said "Here endeth the lesson. Now I know who my neighbors are, too."
There was silence for a moment, then the congregation said, "Amen. Praise God." She felt very good.
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