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A Baptist Country Preacher Out on the Road : In a Weedy Field, in a Sweaty Tent, the Theme Is the Same--Salvation

November 26, 1987|PAUL HENDRICKSON | The Washington Post

LANDRUM, S.C. — This isn't Sunday School, this is back-of-the-moon, old-time American tent religion. It's so real it's terrifying; it's so awful it's beautiful.

"Beautiful, aren't they?" says the big smooth voice behind the wheel of the big smooth car, a Delta 88 Olds gunning north on South Carolina 414. Two knuckles rap window glass.

"That's the Blue Ridge out there. Fabulous. Wonderful. The Lord's handiwork. Fact is, I'd like to move into this country someday. Fact is, city life can weigh on a man."

Brother Benny Carper, Baptist Salvationist, Carolina pistol, is cruising and chatting, chatting and cruising, through the supernaturally green spaces of Spartanburg County.

He's on his way to a tent revival up on the mountain border, where every prospect pleases and only Lucifer is vile.

Thoroughly Equipped

A wrinkle-free, double-breasted linen sport coat with a red silky kerchief shooting from the vest pocket is hanging on the hook behind his head.

The Good Book is resting on the back seat.

The Primitive Quartet is on the tape deck.

A local constable is squawking on the police scanner, which is bolted to the lower dash.

And the car has rolled by a fish-bait store. And the Bo-Nat 7-Eleven. And a sign, out front of a church, that asserts: "Risk Is the Back Side of Trust."

And the rhythms this evening are straight out of the King James version.

"The callings of God are without repentance," he says as if he were talking not just to one sinner riding up-country, but to a whole passel of sinners jammed into, say, the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Once Upon a Diamond

"Do you know what the word repent means at its root? It means to turn. Anyone can turn. You could turn, friend. Fact is, before the Lord called me to preach, I wanted to play baseball. I could play some pretty good baseball, too. But the Lord wanted me to preach. I couldn't hide from it. Fact is, I knew the Lord wanted me to preach when I was still in junior high. But I fought it, I resisted it."

Brother Benny's hands are suddenly off the wheel. He is pushing out, palms wide, as if warding demons from his person.

"Now, people used to say to me, when I was just a little shaver"--he has dropped into dialect--" 'Brother Benny, you goin' to preach like your papaw?'

" 'Nah,' I'd always tell them, 'Not me.' But of course the Lord was working on me. God can't use a man who is lifted up in pride, can he? Jesus said, 'If I be lifted up, I will draw all men to Me.' John 3--I think the verse is 14. We'll look it up.

"But God simply cannot use a prideful man. Or a righteous man. God uses crooked sticks to draw straight lines, I'm sure you've heard that. God is repugnated in pride, God is sickened in that."

The word has a startling and overloud and slightly nauseating sound to it. But just as quickly, Brother Benny grins reassuringly.

"Fact is, when I graduated from high school, I preached that Sunday over in North Carolina."

This is how a hard-shell fundamentalist preacher man, who stands at 5 feet 7, who weighs 185, who was saved at 6 and on the radio airwaves at 13, who is nobody's fool but the Lord's, is fitted out for tonight's fever: in a bright-red bow tie with black dots on it (his grandmother made it specially for him); a pair of midnight-blue suspenders (he hasn't tucked his thumbs in them yet and made a popping sound, but maybe this is coming); a pair of black-and-white two-tone spectator shoes with slightly elevated heels.

Maybe the Last Pair

The shoes look so clean you could eat off them--and be proud. Brother Benny and his wife Judy saw them one day sitting in a window in a Greenville shopping mall. Went in and got them, like that. It took all the money in both their pockets.

"Fact is, my wife insisted on it. She said, 'Ben, we better go, they might be the last pair in all of Greenville.' "

She was saved at 9. She is riding to the revival in another car.

Brother Benny has a leather grip laced onto his steering wheel, the kind race drivers like to use.

His class ring--from Tabernacle Bible College--is ruby-red and big as an onion and catching color from the last of evening.

His last name is stitched in tiny black script on the left cuff of his crisp white shirt.

O'Connor's Motes

In "Wise Blood," her apocalyptic novel about the fundamentalist South, Flannery O'Connor wrote of the central character: "He didn't look, to her, much over 20, but he had a stiff black broad-brimmed hat on his lap, a hat that an elderly country preacher would wear. His suit was a glaring blue and the price tag was still stapled on the sleeve of it."

Hazel Motes' new suit cost $11.98. Not Brother Benny's, not even close.

And how old is this man anyway? It's hard to tell. "Real young, my friend, real young," he says, before you can actually ask the question. "Don't need to know that right now."

The black box bolted to the lower dash of the car is squawking.

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