Storyglossia Issue 21, July 2007.

Louder Gospel

by Anthony Neil Smith


1. Meeting


The Pentecostal youth ministers of the Gulf Coast district met at Shoney's in Biloxi to plan youth events for the school year. It was late September and still hot outside but chilly in the restaurant, arcs of condensation on the tinted windows. Less than half the tables were occupied. Brother Brian from Gulfport suggested the lock-in.

"We'll have it in the gym on a Friday night. And we'll put a band together, some pizzas, and each of us can say a little thing." Brian was three hundred pounds but pretended he wasn't. He breathed too hard, and his white dress shirt strained at the collar buttons. He leaned over a bowl of tomato soup even though they hadn't prayed yet.

At the table were Brother Walter, the district's overall youth leader; Brian's wife Debra, who didn't say much, a young woman with long thin blonde hair and shy lips, small eyes that couldn't look at people; Brother Ethan, who led seven young people, most of them related to the pastor, from a small church in Ocean Springs; Sister Christina, a recent convert and co-head of the youth in Pascagoula with an older couple who filled the current hole but let Christina do most of the work. They all liked the lock-in idea and set a date in November.

Brian nudged Ethan. "You'll play guitar in it, and I'll sing and play bass. We'll rock it down."

Walter said, "Be careful. I'll want to hear a rehearsal first."

"It's cool, ain't it? It's my thing."

"Our thing. You do it right. No worldly stuff."

(Later, Brian speaks to Ethan alone. "We can do it however we want. I know you played rock. You can jam."

"It sounds okay, but it won't be any good if we get shut down and kicked off youth ministry."

Brian winks. "We'll play real gospel songs, but they'll just be louder.")

Ethan was fresh from college, teaching junior high English. He was tall, had thick eyebrows and shaggy brown hair. Walter had been after him to get it cut.

Christina only had the Holy Ghost for a year but was serious enough that Pastor Burtleson let her work with the youth. She and Ethan were the same age but clashed often in meetings. Walter said it was their similar personalities: aggressive, sarcastic, serious.

Christina said, "We'll have games, right?"

"A gym full. Plenty."

"And we can do themes for our little sermonettes."

"Themes?" Ethan made the face his students made when they didn't want an assignment.

Christina said, "Calm down, Brother Ethan. It's going to be okay, you know? So some of us aren't as smart as you. We need a little structure."

Ethan rolled his eyes. He thought she thought too big. "You don't have to say it like that."

Christina's dyed-black hair was just then growing past her collar, the real strawberry blonde starting to show, and she kept praying it would grow like the ladies in church with the hair so long down their backs, uncut, glorious. She visited the pastor's wife all the time and asked for tips on dressing right, doing her hair right, dating right. She had to get used to life without make-up, jewelry, rental movies, and pop music.

Walter assigned them topics. Ethan got spiritual warfare. Christina got fasting. Brian got holiness. Walter took worship for himself. He said a blessing and they went to the buffet.


2. Brian & Debra


Brian's wife Debra was pudgy, and had gotten pudgier since the wedding. She met Brian when he was at Bible College while she was a high school junior. They married a year later, a month before her graduation. They didn't have kids yet because Brian kept putting it off. He was working too hard for the church and his day job, managing the pet department at Wal Mart.

They lived in a small trailer behind the sanctuary. Too many times, she heard the wind whistle through cracks in the fiberglass, spaces in the tin, and thought, In winter, we'll die from the cold.

Brian talked about the lock-in all the way home. Debra didn't like doing this youth work and didn't like staying up all night. She wanted her husband to become a traveling evangelist. At least it would be more exciting, traveling and being the special guests, the center of attention. That was really doing God's work.

At home, Brian sat in the recliner, bought at the flea market and reinforced with boards, and unbuttoned his shirt. "This is a big deal thing, though. I'm in charge."

"The kids are in charge. You'll be a referee."

"This band is going to be great. All our kids can invite their friends. We'll get ten new members."

Debra paced and pretended to tidy things. She didn't want to look at him. He had been funny when they met, made her laugh, but now he was just big and when he got a chance to preach, he'd usually say something embarrassing about her: "The first time she tried to cook greens, they were all salty. Like, Gulf water salty, you know what I mean? Praise the Lord," and "You all know what it's like, your wedding night, and she's in the bathroom for an hour. The woman don't even wear make-up and I have to say, 'I'm not going to be looking at your clean pores, honey!'"

She prayed for God to really get a hold of Brian's mind. "Pour out the dirty water and make him a vessel of honor, Jesus, with your new wine, Lord."

He kept on about the lock-in while she went into the bedroom. He got up and put on a tape from a Christian comedian. Brian used a lot of the jokes, but changed the details to make them personal. Debra sniffled to keep from crying and called her mother for the third time that day.

"Mom, how can someone who likes being around kids so much not want his own?"

Debra's mom laughed. "Baby, you don't see he's a kid himself? But now he's the popular kid."


3. Ethan


Ethan practiced his sermonette in his empty classroom at the public junior high during off-period. Spiritual Warfare. Talking about praying, interceding, so he needed a military analogy—generals and field lieutenants and infantry, how that worked in the church with pastors and youth ministers and young people. At the same time, he thought about how Christina was the only person who could shut him down so fast when he was on. Sometimes, she pushed ideas through on sheer volume and will, and if they didn't work out, she shrugged and said, "Praise Jesus."

(An old girlfriend from high school told Ethan a story about Christina once, before he had known her. About a weekend in summer of her junior year.

"Three guys. One at a time. We were at the house, goofing around, and she takes Ryan back to the bedroom. When Ryan comes back, he sends Alan, then Paul."

"You're kidding, right?"

"I was there. Maybe they weren't doing it, but it was something. The guys wouldn't tell me."

It was a story Ethan couldn't quite believe because this friend lied so much, but he thought about it every time he saw Christina. She had really changed, if that was the case. So had he.)

Ethan thought God had called him to youth ministry, so he asked his pastor about taking the empty spot, even if the pastor had enough grandkids of his own to worry about and sometimes couldn't remember Ethan's first name.

But the kids didn't like his youth services and stopped coming. He couldn't think up games all that well, had a hard time giving them other stuff to do. Once, he took all his rock CDs and let the kids smash them—a sign to the group of his commitment. He took them out of a cardboard box and tossed them on the ground, one by one, the kids shocked and excited, some guys saying, "C'mon, let us have a few." The pastor's eighteen-year-old granddaughter, with her nasal voice and bumpy face, was the first out of the pew, stomping on the plastic cases, making a rhythm to sing along to, while she waved her arms, said, "Yes, do it, Jesus, crush Satan, crush Satan." The boys picked up the discs and snapped them in two with big grunts. Ethan loved it, a great moment, watching them care so much.

(The pastor's granddaughter ran off half a year later with a man twice her age who wasn't in church. They eloped to Alabama.)

Several months had passed and Ethan would have liked those CDs back. They were Van Halen and Zeppelin, Men at Work, Rush, Talking Heads. But he believed God would show him a better way, and he would find great Christian music that did the same things for him.

He thought of how he wanted to order the sermonette, but didn't write it down. The band would be a nice thing, too, but he knew his real chance at doing music was writing songs and trying to get others to record them. That was better than talking to people. He always stumbled on words and lost his train of thought, always got big circles of sweat under his arms. And singing to people felt worse.

The buzzer for class rang, and he would have to gear down for a bunch of eighth graders who didn't like Romeo and Juliet. Ethan unlocked his door and mumbled prayers under his breath.

"You want the same things for me that I want, right?"


4. Lock-in


On the night of the lock-in, Ethan pulled his car up to the church gym's gray metal wall, near the door, and unloaded his group. There were many kids, mostly born-and-raised Pentecostals and their friends from school, the wild ones on church prayer lists who got the holiness kids' attention. The Gulfport pastor's daughter Marilyn was a happy sixteen-year-old with wide hips that didn't match the rest of her. She wore fuzzy slippers and held a big stuffed giraffe. Her glasses were big and looked like something she picked out on her own. The drummer for the band was Liam from Pascagoula who had moved there from South America, where his parents were still missionaries.

They started at eight o'clock with food. Pepperoni pizza, all pepperoni. Then relay races. Some extra adults stayed to chaperone, not trusting the younger youth ministers so much, and Walter had warned them about the band, too.

Half the floor of the gym had thin blue carpet. The other half was hard concrete. Brian had forgotten to turn the heaters on. He finally did, but it wouldn't get warm until late into the night. Debra thought the folding metal chairs might as well have been ice sculptures, her in a long thin skirt and T-shirt because Brian had told her there would be heat and she wanted to be comfortable. Her windbreaker wasn't thick enough.

"We'll survive," Brian said. Debra looked unhappy as she poured Coke into a few more plastic glasses for some kids. The extra adults swarmed the big coffeepot in the kitchen. Brian winked at Debra and said, "Body heat, hon. Remember when we were kids at lock-ins?"

Debra nodded but remembered better things, such as dating her church's drummer when she was fifteen, making out in the balcony during a New Year's Eve watchnight service.


5. The Band


The band played at nine. Brian had mixed things too loud and Ethan took twenty minutes fixing the levels before plugging his Fender into the amp. He had brought a wah-wah pedal along, too. That was asking for trouble normally, but maybe tonight the chaperones would let it slide. Either that or rip the guitar away and lay hands on him right there to cast out spirits of worldly music.

It was pretty loud. A couple of mid-tempo David and The Giants' tunes, some revved up worship choruses. Brian turned to Ethan and mouthed C'mon. Ethan punched the wah-wah and soloed through some blues licks he'd picked up from listening to hair metal. But playing it for God's glory instead. That felt good. The kids, though, maybe sixty of them, liked it but clapped differently. It wasn't praise-clapping or emotional like church service music. It was only something to do. The extra adults had raised eyebrows and crossed arms.

After four songs, Ethan noticed a couple of uniformed police walk in the doors. One of the chaperones went over and spoke to them while the band kept playing. A cop pointed at the band, flicked a thumb towards the outside, while the chaperone nodded, explained, then obviously agreed. The song ended, and the chaperone waved for Brian's attention and slid a finger across his throat.

"Now that's a trip," Brian said into the mike. "We've been shut down by the police."


6. Debra


The girls in Brian's youth group didn't talk to Debra as much as they did to the previous youth minister's wife because they knew she didn't open up like a big sister or pep-talk them like the captain of a softball team. She sat in a chair tonight and watched them run around and laugh, but they'd do that no matter what. The pastor's daughter, Marilyn, acted like more of a leader than Debra could. Some of the older adults talked to Debra some, but mostly she sulked in her chair trying to keep her breath and arms and legs warm. She bunched a dishtowel in her hands under her chin.

Brian knelt beside her and said, "What is wrong with you? It looks like you're about to cry."

"I want to go home."

"That's not fair. We don't do this every night, sweetie, pretend to like it."

"Why is it still so cold? I'm too cold to move."

Brian looked into her eyes a long moment, Debra not sure if he was mad. He had ignored her most of the night. They had talked before about how they needed to work separately at youth functions because it made them a stronger team. Brian had spent the last hour in a corner with some of the high school boys trading stories about pranks he pulled in Bible school.

Debra said, "Some of us can't stay up so late. I feel sick. Let Walter do it and you take me home."

He said, "Jesus, help," under his breath. Told her, "I don't want you to feel so bad, but it's not much longer. Not so selfish, okay? It'll be fine. You can sleep twenty hours tomorrow if you want."

She nodded and forced a smile, what she always did with him even though she thought, If I make a scene, I can tell my side. He'll have to shape up. But she couldn't make herself do it. She left her chair and climbed upstairs, then went to the older teens' Sunday School room, where Brian taught the lessons. The walls were covered with contemporary Christian band posters, fund-raiser charts, slogans drawn on a long, spotty chalkboard. The carpet was a multicolored patchwork of scraps taped together with silver electrical tape. The new carpet was rolled against the far wall, waiting for Brian to find time to put it down. There were scattered chairs and a makeshift wooden podium.

The closet was empty except for a tape rack of youth lessons. She squeezed into the tight spot on the closet floor and slid the door shut, feeling warmer in the darkness. She pulled her knees closer to her chest and frisked her hands quickly up, down, making the friction, wanting the static. Her teeth chattered and she shook and tried not to scream. She thought, Jesus, Jesus, this is a test I can't pass. I give up. I want a way out, okay? You care, you know what we can and can't take, Jesus, you know Lord, but she said, "Not happy."

After a few minutes, calming herself, tightening her muscles, she thought she heard voices and giggles. She stuck her little finger into the space between door and frame, making the smallest slit she could, leaned her eye towards it, and watched the pastor's daughter Marilyn kiss the drummer Liam from Pascagoula while they sat on the roll of new carpet. The giraffe sat in a chair. The slippers were off, Marilyn hiking her leg and running her foot over Liam's thigh. It was a deep kiss.

"We'll get caught," he said.

"We'd hear them coming. The stairs are loud."

"You've done this before?"

Marilyn pushed at him. "Why'd you ask that?"

"You know what you're doing. That's all. There's nothing wrong with that."

His hand was rubbing her stomach, creeping towards her breasts. She undid the top button of his shirt, then another. They kissed again, hard enough that Debra heard them exhale through their noses.

"You want me to keep doing that then?" Marilyn said.

"Oh, please, yeah, it's nice."

Debra's palms were warm and slick. She pushed her fingertips across them, then rubbed her knees. She bunched the fabric of her skirt at her lap, held it there. Bunched again. She thought about jumping out, surprising Marilyn. It could be so nice, having that over this girl, who would cry, do anything not to get caught. But then again, she might say, "Why are you in the closet?" Laughing. But Debra thought, I should do something. God wasn't telling her what to do and she needed Him to do that.


7. Sermonette


Ethan took his turn that night as speaker. Right from the start, kids laughing distracted him. He turned a dirty look towards a guy lying across three chairs, his head in the lap of a girl from Ethan's group, but was ignored. He got through the analogy and the importance but sped up when he realized how long it would run. He stopped early, maybe seven minutes. Sweat under his arms, but the big farm jacket he wore hid that. The denim of his jeans got colder as the night went on, and he wanted to be in his flannel sweatpants in bed at home. And if not, then in thicker socks.

Scattered applause and "Amen"s as he finished. He shrugged and went to the guitar equipment while Walter took the mike and said good things about how much work these youth ministers had done. "Show them your appreciation. Give them a hand."

Ethan wrapped his guitar cord into a bow, tossed it into the back of his amp compartment. He sat Indian style on the floor and laid the guitar in its case, but didn't close the lid. He plucked at strings. The unamplified notes sounded good to him then. Christina's tennis shoe nudged his leg. She had very straight arms and was jumpy from the cold.

"You did good. That was so cool," she said.

"It was loud."

"Not the guitar. That was evil. But the talk you did was nice."

"It's not evil. You can praise God with any style of music."

"Okay, fine. I don't want to argue tonight." She sat beside Ethan, legs tucked under her khaki skirt. Her sweater was gray and fuzzy. She whispered, "I'm not sure about this anymore. I want to sleep."

"Me too."

"I want to go out to the van, turn on the heater and stretch out. But I'd die of fumes."

Ethan closed his guitar case, latched it. "I would have done better if I had a different theme."

"It's not my fault."

"But it was too late anyway. Even talking about lust would've bombed. I'm not good in front of people."

"God does fine with you. At least when you let him."

Ethan searched around the room. Walter called for more prayer, and groups huddled around the gym floor, and solitary people knelt at chairs, probably inching towards sleep. Some of the older chaperones began pacing in prayer, serious and moaning. Walter stared at Ethan and Christina a moment with a finger on his lips.

One of the chaperones from Ethan's church, father of three brothers in the youth group, leaned over him and said with coffee breath, "Perhaps you both could police the area some? People might sneak off, you know?"

The man walked away. Christina bounced up and reached down for Ethan's hand. He took it. "Wow, that's really cold."

"Get up, come on. We get to catch people." She said.


8. Sunday School Room


At the second room they checked upstairs, Ethan pushed the door open with his foot, hands in his pocket. Marilyn and the drummer jumped, stood. They couldn't think of a word to say, nothing, no excuses. She grabbed her giraffe and held it tight, scanned the floor for her slippers. The drummer turned his back to Ethan and buttoned his shirt.

Ethan said, "Go back out there. I'm not too late, am I?"

"No, sir, we weren't doing anything," the guy said. The look on the girl's face was more afraid.


Marilyn left, and Christina stepped from behind Ethan into the room. She grabbed the drummer and pointed a finger in his face. "We're going to talk later, you hear? You're not so old as you think. And I will tell the pastor." The drummer shrugged, edged past her. Christina walked to the roll of carpet and sat down. She crossed her legs, knees high, and shook her arms, bunching together, shivering.

"I bet they won't see each other again. It was just something for tonight," Ethan said.

"I can't believe they tried it with all these people here."

"They needed to keep warm." Ethan stood near her but didn't sit.

"It's freezing."

"Keeping warm's not so bad."

She laughed and closed her eyes, a slow headshake. She held her arms towards him. Ethan grabbed her hands and pulled. She was up and in front of him and they still held hands. Christina's smile was like a nerd-girl, teeth on lips, nervous when she said, "We'll die if we don't stay warm."

"Maybe that's a bit much. But it's better than not."

"Sure it is."

Ethan slipped his arms around her. A hand reached under her fuzzy sweater and rubbed cold skin. She slid her palms across his chest and shoulders. They kissed, but small and short, moved cheek to cheek. Christina said, "Mmm . . . " Ethan's hand dropped to her waistband. The elastic stretched and lifted, his fingers slipping between goose-bumped skin and underwear.

She leaned her neck back and laughed in small gulps, then said, "God, Ethan."

"Your skirt's too tight. I can't reach."

"I can't undo it here, you know. Just make do."

Ethan pushed inside, spread his fingers. Christina cupped her hand around his zipper, found the length of him and rubbed. They still didn't kiss, but their lips pecked and brushed. They heard a thump from the closet and a woman's voice saying "Oh, no."

Christina and Ethan were apart like magnets repelling. He went to the closet, slid the door. Debra was there with her hands on her head, saying, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I bumped my head."

Ethan crouched. "Debra, are you okay, what—"

"She saw us, Ethan. God, she saw us." Christina crawled to the closet. "We're so sorry, Debra. Please."

Ethan covered his face, peeking out between fingers. "Maybe we should go back to the gym, let it go. It's late and we're freezing and crazy."

Debra reached forward, grabbed their arms, and pulled. She scooted forward. Tears ran down Christina's face. All three on their knees, facing each other, inches apart, breath mixing in the middle.

"I won't say a word, you know. You trust me, but we need to pray right here. Leave it with God right here, right?" Debra said.

Ethan and Christina nodded. They slipped their arms around each other's shoulders and drew closer. Prayers started as whispers and became urgent words, phrases in other tongues, and "Forgive us, Lord, please."

Debra kept saying, "Just hold on, just hold on."

Copyright©2007 Anthony Neil Smith