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The Small-Town Preacher Who Could Do No Wrong

May 09, 1987

In the depths of the Depression, my stepfather owned, by the skin of his teeth, two small houses, side-by-side, at the eastern edge of a small town in Illinois. They were pitiful--hardly habitable, far beyond the reach of the town's sewers and pavements. The battle to keep ourselves warm and clean was unending. Summer was a time of desperately intensive gardening, of harvesting, canning, preserving, in order to eat during the winter.

We lived in the larger house. There was heat only in the kitchen and the "front room." Seven people shared three bedrooms and an outdoor privy. I would have bet you, on a cold winter night, that the privy was 100 yards from the back door. The coal shed was out there, too.

My stepfather finally succeeded in evicting non-paying tenants from the other house--$10 a month for three small rooms and a garden patch! The next tenants were a minister, his wife, and three small children. The reverend managed to scrape up $20--first and last month's. First and last indeed, my stepfather said, for he never paid another cent in two years.

He preached, he evangelized, he sang, he spoke in tongues, he passed the plate, in a curious wooden structure in the middle of town. What its intended use had been, I cannot guess, but its sides--its walls--could be raised outward in warm weather, and propped up, much like awnings. His small flock would gather three times a week to sing, pray, shout and dance and wait for the second coming. When the "awnings" were up, townspeople would come to stand outside and watch the "show." My mother was caught up in all this. She was, I thought, the best singer, the best dancer, and spoke in tongues the most convincingly.

It was because of her that the reverend moved into the little house, and there was many a row because she insisted to my stepfather that a man of God should be gladly supported by his flock and not have to pay rent. My stepfather always retorted that he was not a member of any flock and that the man was an accomplished leech who wouldn't even try to raise a garden.

It was always my job in the morning, before school, to lug in enough coal for the day. There was the same chore in the evening. Coal was a dear item in our meager budget, and I monitored the height of the coal pile closely. I told my oldest sister that I thought someone was stealing coal from us. I did not dare say that I thought that it was the preacher. My sister was a spirited, resourceful girl, much given to long silences, and, perhaps, longer thoughts. She taught me to read when I was 4, if that means anything to you. She said that we would hide in the coal shed's little loft, to watch and wait. Sure enough, after dark, here came the reverend. He filled his shuttle, not worrying much about the noise. As he turned to leave, we leaped down from the loft, yelling and flaring a light on him as he high-tailed it across the garden plot, not forgetting his coal. My mother appeared at the back door of our house, holding a lamp high.

She saw no one. She did not see him cross the garden plot. She did not see him carrying the coal hod, she did not see him go through the back door of his house. It did not happen.

We were punished severely. My sister took it stoically, but I would not say I had not seen what I had, and was whipped till my mother was exhausted. Weeping, shouting, praying to God for my salvation, she whipped me till I could not stand. Late in the night, my sister came to my bed to console me. I whispered to her, "Why did she not see him?". She said, "Little brother, it wasn't that she did not. She could not."



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