The Pieties and Sacrifices of Mrs. Odetta James
There are several places of worship in Scobee, Mississippi, the Trinity United Methodist Church, the Corinth Presbyterian, the Tabernacle Pentecostal, and the only one which offers true salvation, the Calvary General Baptist Church on the corner of Second and Wilson Street.
I take my worship and soul's destination very seriously and choose to sing God's praises and bow my head in fellowship with the Baptists.
Since the late Reverend Mack Thurman's passing, God rest his soul, our blessed congregation has been led by the Reverend Ardel Walker. A young man in his thirties and burdened by Claudette, a wife who sashays around in skirts too short, in my opinion, for a godly woman to wear. Far be it for me to judge, but last Sunday, as she stood beside the reverend greeting parishioners arriving for the morning service, she stuck out like a lone dandelion poking up through a freshly mowed lawn. God love her.
But who am I, Mrs. Odetta James, a poor, old widow woman living on a fixed income to judge? I am but a living testament to show how God can use a willing soul. Thank you, Jeezus.
However, despite the shortcomings of the church's leadership, I am at Calvary every time the doors are open, praise the Lord, occupying the third pew from the altar closest to the center aisle. My late husband, Earl, used to sit to my left, but since his passing, Sister Tutti Bernard has the honor.
Since Tutti moved to Scobee about twelve years ago, she also claims to be a widow. She tells a fascinating account of how her husband got sucked up by a tornado while working a barge on the Mississippi River and was never seen again. If this makes it easier for her to accept her husband's quest for freedom, bless her heart, then who am I to question?
Now, every Sunday morning, if weather permits, Sister Tutti and I walk to church service. On this particularly blessed day, the temperature had pushed about eighty, and the humidity had the straggling hairs from my do sticking to my neck. When I walked outside, my dear friend was already waiting for me on the sidewalk in front of my house.
"Good morning, Sister." I stepped off my front porch carrying my purse and the black, leather-bound Bible given to me in appreciation for producing and directing the entire Christmas pageant back in '63. However, my progress down the sidewalk stalled. The turquoise feathered fedora she wore with her floral dress looked as if a pheasant had roosted on her head. "New hat?" I said, having to force myself to smile and walk at the same time.
"This old thang?" Sister Tuttie tilted her head and adjusted the adornment with the palm of her right hand. "Mr. Benard bought this for me when he was in New Orleans working the river."
I patted her arm and nodded. "Well, it's lovely, dear," The good Lord needs no advice from me, but the hat should have disappeared with her husband.
Sister Tutti smiled and strutted a few steps down the sidewalk then made a three-point turn. God love her. What possessed her to take a white ribbon and cinch that dress so high? It only accentuated her sagging breasts and made them look as though they'd wilted in the heat. Red and yellow, black and white, and the ones who aren't so bright. Thank you, Jeezus, for loving all kinds.
Sister Tutti returned to my side before asking. "How was your Saturday?"
We walked a few steps before I answered. "Sister, you will not believe what I came upon." I retrieved the handkerchief I kept in the side pocket of my purse then dabbed the sweat from my brow and upper lip." My heart is weighted from the debauchery."
She rested her fingertips on my shoulder. "What wat it, Sister Odetta?"
"I was on my way home from the Rexall. Now, I don't normally pass the school, but I was led to go the extra three blocks. The FFA boys had a car wash on the baseball field, and the FHA girls were having a bake sale right close." I closed my eyes and shuddered.
Sister Tuti held my hand. "Go on, Sister Odetta. It's all right."
"The Olsen girl was there, and you know how her mother, bless her heart, tries to make those pecan praline bars and how the crust is always as hard as a brick and the praline hasn't been cooked long enough and sticks to your teeth?"
Tutti held her hand in the air and nodded. I knew right then she'd been victim to the bars.
"I was going to stop and buy a few, so the girl wouldn't have to return home with the same number of praline bars she'd left with."
"You're always thinking of others."
"Thank you, Sister." I appreciated her honesty and continued. "Some of the girls had left their post behind the table of baked goods and joined the boys washing the cars." My breath caught before I could continue. "The way one of those girls was draped over a fender as she worked to evenly spread the soap--the way another helped a boy polish the chrome."
"No," she said wide-eyed.
"I can't believe it."
Sister Tutti covered her mouth with her hand. "Oh, Sister Odetta, you poor thing."
"The Lord won't make our crosses too heavy to carry." Again, I closed my eyes. Give me strength, Lord Jeezus."
With a block to go until we reached the church, we passed Vernice Carter sitting on her porch, picking at the shawl that covered her crippled-legs. Her pomeranian, Marmalady, lay by her side.
"Poor Vernice," Sister Tutti said. "Can't get around these days."
"Morning, Vernice." I waved but kept walking. In a lowered voice, I continued the conversation with my companion. "Several years ago, you couldn't have slowed Vernice Wilson-Barney-Decker-Carter down. Married three times. Divorced two and buried one."
"Is that right? I only knew the one who died."
"She'd chase any man she thought she had a chance of catching. But God is good and saved her from her wicked ways. Remember what the Good Book says. If one eye sins, God will poke it out. Don't quote me word for word. I'm just translating one of the Gospels. But I'm sure if He'll take an eye, He'd take the use of your legs to help you cease your sinful ways and save your soul from eternal damnation."
As we went along our way, we contemplated the Lord's word and arrived for church service ten minutes early. Reverend Ardel greeted us just inside the vestibule, and there was Claudette cornering several of the deacons. I should have joined the conversation and offered my expertise, but I was tired from the walk, and there would be plenty of time to correct any of their plans if they'd made a decision before properly thinking it through.
Eventually, Reverend Ardel took his place in front of the congregation. He began the service with a welcome then announcements. "Virgil Jacobs ran off the road and overturned his tractor, but the doctors say he's doing fine."
Mr. Jacobs attended the Tabernacle Pentecostal. Therefore, the salutation of Brother was omitted, but we still had the obligation of praying for his full recovery.
"Sister Phyllis Foley was forced to retire due to a bad back," Reverend Ardel continued. "And the ladies of the church are throwing her a little retirement party right after Wednesday evening's Bible study."
Sister Phyllis, bless her heart, had worked at the Butterfield Chicken Plant, but I knew her forty years ago when she pranced around the Jugs and Chug. What ruined her back was wearing high heels while carrying trays loaded with alcohol, not boxes of frozen chicken wings. The wages of sin--an arthritic back and buckled-up feet.
"Now, we have an unspoken request," the Reverend said.
Help us, Lord Jeezus! I had to bring one hand to my mouth and the other to my heart. Someone had a problem too shameful to share, but at least they had brought it to the right place. Thank you, Jeezus.
"Let us bow our heads to pray," Reverend Ardel instructed.
But it was my duty to lift my eyes to the Lord and see who may be in need of a special prayer. I searched the choir. It couldn't be Brother Herman Dewitt. He drank too much but keeping it hush-hush wasn't a priority, and there was no secret Sister Thelma was in therapy for her nerves.
Finding the ailing soul would take the expertise of a seasoned Christian and a piece of Bit-O-Honey, which I kept in the side pocket of my purse. The summer had been awfully dry, and the dust in the air left a tickle in my throat. I'm sure the good Lord would understand the need for the sweet treat under the circumstances.
Rhoda Edwards sat two rows up and to my right. She was not a regular attendee and was a strong candidate for being the troubled soul. I wanted to be thorough and scanned the remainder of the church family. As the last of the Bit-O-Honey, slid down my throat, I noticed Sister Sara Henson was on her knees between the pews like a Catholic during a Saturday evening mass. Her head hung low, and she prayed hard. Her lips moved as fast as a June bug on a string, and she had her fingers wrapped and twisted so tightly into her Kleenex it constricted the blood flow to her knuckles and turned them white.
Oh, dear Jeezus. The revelation of her being the one in need baptized me in perspiration. I needed the prayer book from last week's revival. I had stuck it between the pages of my Bible, not wanting to litter the pew. The Lord provides. Yes, he does.
Before I received the Lord's guidance, Reverend Ardel ended the prayer and turned the service over to Brother Stanley Meeker, the song leader. As the congregation and the choir sang "Victory in Jesus," I abided with the Lord and waited for His guidance to wash over me.
The situation continued to lay heavy on my heart. I watched for a sign from above but even after the good Reverend's sermon, four choruses of "Come Home," and the altar call, the Lord had not yet acted upon my request for direction.
As I watched Sister Sara leave her pew and exit the church, I waited for the hand of God to move. Then praise Jeezus, as if on the wings of a dove, he supplied my need by enlisting Sister Tutti's feathered fedora to lightly brush across the back of my neck--a heavenly sign urging me to follow the troubled woman. A petition for me to share my words of comfort by dipping my finger into the water drawn from the well of knowledge He had so graciously awarded me for my life's service to Him.
When I next saw Sister Sara, she was a good half-block ahead. My quickened pace, along with the heat and humidity, caused my breathing to become labored and my throat to become dry. I took another piece of Bit-O-Honey from my purse. As the candy melted in my mouth, I realized too late that I had not been diligent enough in removing the wrapper. The waxed paper had slid from the candy and stuck to the back of my tongue.
After gagging, then coughing, then wheezing, the piece of wrapper, along with the candy, lodged sideways in my throat. I believed it was an act of God that Floyd Kemper parked his Pontiac along the curb and that he didn't believe weekly church attendance was necessary unless the alderman's seat he held was up for re-election.
Leaning over the Pontiac, I beat my hand on the trunk of the car. Not even a deep cough made progress at getting the candy, or the wrapper broke loose.
Floyd stormed from his house wearing only a pair of trousers and a sleeveless t-shirt, wanting to see who'd hit his car.
By now, Sister Sara had retraced her steps to see if she could be of assistance; Marmalady, Vernice Carter's pomeranian, followed. Sister Tutti had noticed I'd left her behind and had caught up with me after the Reverend and some of the parishioners heard the commotion. They were only a few seconds behind.
Sister Tuttie yelled. "Help her! Help her!"
I figured as much. She was useless in a crisis.
Reverend Ardel asked," Are you okay, Sister Odetta?" Providing proof, his deduction skills had not yet matured.
Unknown to me, Floyd had taken action. He surprised me from the rear by wrapping his arms around me the way no man should. He put his fists under my breasts and squeezed, lifting me off the ground, grunting with each heave. I struggled to break free from his violent embrace. God knows I did, but Floyd Kemper was a burly man.
The lack of oxygen left me weak. My purse dropped from my arm, and before my eyes rolled back into their sockets, I saw Marmalady dive snout first into its side pocket, pulling out my last piece of Bit-O-Honey.
The arms that had once tried to squeeze the life out of me relaxed, but instead of setting me free, they threw my body over the car's rear fender. I felt the cool metal slap against my face and a taillight press into my thigh. His brute strength sent waves of fear and delight throughout my body. Oh, forgive me, dear God. The Bit-O-Honey had become the nutty flavor of temptation, and Floyd Kemper, the devil in disguise.
I knew if I died during these next few moments of tribulation, I would surely be sentenced to an eternal life or torment, burning in hell for a sin I was enjoying so late in life and yet so much. A sin I didn't have time to repent, nor knew if I wanted to. My lifetime of service to God would have been for naught.
As the light around me started to fade, I prayed to hear the voice of the good Lord calling me home and not the devil laughing over the triumph of my soul. But I heard neither because Floyd Kemper yelled when he hit me square between the shoulder blades. The sticky, gooey candy flew from my mouth and landed on the sidewalk. However, the test of my faith and obedience did not end there. With the same commanding presence of Moses leading the Israelites to the promised land, Floyd slid one arm around my waist as he led me to his front porch.
Oh, how I yearned for the strength to resist this temptation. To faint would have been a blessing.
Inside, a battle raged between the contentment of being wrapped in my Savior's righteous embrace and the sinfulness of being held hostage in this wretched man's arms of carnal pleasure.
I prayed in earnest for my Savior to extinguish the flame burning inside me--an all-consuming fire devouring my soul. I vowed to no longer indulge in confections of such sweet nature and watch carefully for the path that might take me to a place where the sins of the flesh may lurk.
As I beseeched the Lord not to forsake me, I faltered as did Lot's wife. Where she turned to witness the fire rain upon Sodom and Gomorrah, I was drawn to the smoldering eyes of Floyd Kemper.
I waited for the wrath of God. A bolt of lightning sent from the gates of heaven, banishing me into the depths of hell. I waited and waited. Then praise, Jeezus! A revelation descended upon me. I had not discarded my spotless robe of virtue for the veils of a harlot. Satan had not scorched my soul with his sly seduction. Rather, my Lord and Savior had filled me with a divine light. He had not allowed a depraved desire to be ignored within me. Instead, He had sparked a passion to fulfill a sacred request.
Floyd Kemper was well on his way to spending eternity in the charred caverns of hell, but in His infinite wisdom, my Maker molded me like a clump of potter's clay to the rear end of a Pontiac. Floyd was a sinner in need of salvation, and I, the sanctified vessel chosen to water his spiritually parched soul. Thank you, Jeezus. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.