In the early sixties, I was a relatively-happy if somewhat ignorant girl growing up in a working-class, predominantly-Southern Baptist community in the deep South. Largely because of the circumstances of my birth (I'd been born to a father who, by the time I'd come along, was a new convert to the faith, a good man who very much wanted right-standing with God and, if not a pulpit of his own, then maybe one day a deaconship), I was immersed in the Church and its activities: choir practice, Sunday School, Training Union, Girls’ Auxiliary, Lottie Moon Christmas fund for the missionaries, Thursday night visitation, Wednesday night prayer meetings, Sunday sermons, Bible drills, Vacation Bible School, Summer Church Camp, to name a few.
I was trying, about then, to figure out some of the church's more perplexing tenets. Like the one about the just and the unjust (the rain fell on both equally, according to Preacher, but the just one always has the satisfaction of knowing that, if drowned, he’d be called straight to Glory). And the odd difference between the saints and the sinners (we were all sinners, born that way, and the only way out of it again was to "die to the world" and "live in the spirit"). There were the saved and the damned (which had something to do with sheep and wolves and how the sheep were able to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice when He called them) and how the saved were those "called" by God; the damned never get the call – or, if they did get it, they didn't answer it. The saved ones are safe in the "Fold of God." The unsaved, uncalled, are wandering alone through the world without God's protection, among the wolves-in-sheep's-clothing in the wilderness of man's Original Sin which, by the mid-1900s, had been neatly categorized into sins of commission and sins of omission. Or as my grandmother used to wryly put it, Damned if you do and damned if you don't.
I listened so hard back then, so intently, for that Call, I think I missed a lot of what was said to me at school, and at church, and at home. I was in trouble for not paying attention at school, I got into trouble at home for not listening to my parents, and at church, I was fidgety and restless and full of questions that I was told were "off-topic, young lady." I was like a stunned thing, unable to attend to anything except that intense listening for a "still, small voice" that I was certain was somewhere just underneath the loud racket of the world.
I worried, day and night, that God would call and I would miss it. Worse, what if He had already called and I had not heard? Maybe He thought I had heard but had refused the Call. So each night I would lean on my windowsill and look up into the star-strung heavens and would pray as earnestly as I could, God, I am listening very hard now. Please, please call me again. Please.
On my way home from school each afternoon, I would head down to the riverbank near my home, thinking that maybe I'd be able to hear The Call if I was someplace quieter, if I was calm and easy and at peace, which I almost always was sitting by myself on the dock by that river. When that didn't work, I went deep into the forest near my house – to listen. And to be where no one would see me if I cried, in frustration and shame, when no Call came.
I already knew by then, even at eight, that I was "peculiar," an odd girl. I cried easily. I stammered in school if I was called on or made to talk aloud. I sat at the edge of the schoolyard and didn't join in the games. I'd rather spend any day lost in a book and stories than riding bikes or playing outside with the other kids my age. I was peculiar. And that is the truth of it. I could accept that most people around me thought so too and steered a wide path around me, but what if I were even too peculiar for the Alpha and Omega? What if I was no good fit for heaven?
One early spring morning, when I was eight, just as I was giving up on God – or I thought He might be giving up on me – a miracle happened at the Lane Avenue Baptist Church: I got called. The invitational hymn was underway. In the congregation, all heads were bowed, all eyes closed, and the choir was humming in four-part-harmony the chorus of “Almost Persuaded, Now to Believe,” while Preacher stood at the front of the church, his hands raised, his eyes closed, entreating us to “listen for that still small voice.”
“Respond to God’s call,” he urged us, “as Eli did in the temple: Here am I, Lord.”
It was just about then that I heard my name: Ruth Anne...Ruth Anne.
Soft. Still. Just over my shoulder, behind my right ear. Hushed. Barely audible. And sort of. . . girlish. So, as He had with Mary, Jesus' mother, God had sent an angel to do his bidding. He was famous for that sort of thing. The angels stayed pretty busy, according to Preacher, going back and forth from heaven to earth and back to heaven again. The quiet voice called softly again, just underneath the piano and the humming choir. Clearly, it called my name.
So I knew I should step out then from the pew, to walk forward in a kind of confused joy, moving forward, one awkward step at a time up the wooden floorboards of the aisle, stumbling on feet that had always seemed to have a will of their own even when God wasn't involved, towards the pristine altar where The Word of God lay open on a white cloth and a vase of sickly-looking yellow mums and carnations bloomed, towards Preacher, towards the kingdom of heaven, to declare Here am I, Lord and to take my place at last among God’s chosen, to be a child of God.
There would be much amening and praise-the-lording across the congregation. There was always a good deal of joy when a sinner was called out of the cold world and into the "Fold," which is what Preacher sometimes called the group of believers, though I never could figure out, at eight years old, just how the saved had gotten folded.
It seemed to me that the congregation would be unusually joyful – or should I say relieved – that one of the more ardent young "story-tellers" among the Church families was to be "saved." Finally, I would be God's problem, not theirs. Or that is how I imagine it now, looking back. My young father, who would be directing the choir, would look over his shoulder and smile in a kind of amazement. In the choir-loft, a look of profound relief would pass over my new mama's face. My four-year-old sister, Michele, would be standing up in the pew and waving wildly at me because that's what she does in church.
And me? I would do what I always do when a crowd of people suddenly turns its full attention on me: I would stand facing the congregation, biting my bottom lip and staring down at my shoes, a hot crimson flush moving up my neck and into my face.
But try as I might, I could not get my feet to work. I was rooted to the floorboards of the sanctuary. So I'd convinced myself that I would tell my parents what had happened first, let them decide if I'd really heard right. I did, too – tell my parents, I mean - right after Sunday dinner. They told me I should step forward that evening at service, to walk the aisle and take Preacher's big hand and make that commitment to follow the Lord.
So I did it. I took that long walk out into the aisle and up to the church altar and told Preacher what had happened. To my surprise – and terror – I was also invited to participate in the baptism that night right after the service. Now that was a whole other matter. I hadn't brought along a change of clothing. Maybe Mama would say I would have to wait until the next baptismal service for that. I returned to the pew.
At the very end, I discovered that the "still, small voice" I'd heard calling my name had not been God or His angel - it had been Elizabeth Harvey, the preacher’s daughter, who had been trying to slip me a Sunday church bulletin where she'd drawn a booger falling out of the nose of John the Baptist as he baptized Christ in the river.
A mistake then, that Calling. A mistake I didn't know how to explain or take back. I waited until the time came to head to the back room and "robe up" for the baptism, then I found Preacher and confessed the mix-up to him while my Mama was off somewhere trying to figure out what I would wear underneath the baptismal robe. Preacher said sternly that he would take the matter up with Elizabeth first and then with the Holy Spirit and then he would get back to me. But I suppose even after lengthy and earnest consultation with the Most High Host of Heaven, he also couldn't figure out a way to take back, or make null and void, a public confession of faith. How could anyone mortal – especially a girl – just say Oops, sorry, my mistake to the Great Everlasting, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, once the earnest promise to follow Him had been made?
I sat as penitently and quietly as I could, outside that Prayer Room, on the old half-pew in the vestibule. I could hear a few words of the conversation inside, a conversation Preacher was having with two deacons. Things drifted out to me like, Well, maybe this is the Grace of God in action. After all, the Lord’s ways are mysterious. Things like, Well, Elizabeth is saved and thus she is an instrument of the Lord. Things like, Well, I don’t see any way around it. We’ll have to give it to her.
And so it was unanimous: the conversion stood. I was saved.
I was relieved. I could finally stop straining to listen for that Voice, that Call; I would be folded too, a child of God among the other children of God. But somewhere in all that upsweep of relief, I remembered there was to be a baptism – and in the Baptist church, baptism means complete immersion in water, head to toe – and that I might also be joining those who were already slotted for baptism.
I got the news: I was to be "baptized straightaway" and I, who for most of my life had been terrified of deep water and drowning, went back to Preacher and pled earnestly, to be “let off” of the commitment then. Maybe it was a mistake, I said. Maybe we ought to think about it and pray about it more. Maybe God would be mad for the big rush.
But to no avail. The decision was unanimous: I was saved now. And that was that.
So, down I went into the chilly waters of the baptismal pool in a white robe about three times too large for me. I stood, shivering, with my arms across my chest, listening for my "cue:" when Preacher said, I baptize you in the name of the Father and The Son and The Holy Ghost, I took a big breath and closed my eyes tightly. Preacher placed a white hankie over my mouth and nose and leaned me backwards into the water.
But something went wrong: the hankie wasn't tight enough and the chlorinated water rushed up into my nose. Something took hold of me then and I don't think it was the Holy Spirit. When my feet went out from under me and it seemed like it was taking a long time for my sins to be washed away, an unholy terror seized me: I am drowning!
I fought to get back up into the air and, in the process, I clawed Preacher's arm hard with my fingernails. It surprised him and he let go for a second. I remember falling backwards and the burn of chlorine in my nose and eyes. I swallowed water and came up choking and sputtering and coughing. Suddenly, salvation and the kingdom of heaven seemed a lot less appealing than it had before I'd entered the waters and troubled them. Heaven could wait. That whole washing-away-the-old-sinful-life-and-being-resurrected-to-a-new-life-in-God had almost killed me. I was certain of it.
Too close for comfort, my grandmother said sympathetically when I told her about it later.
I would think, for many years to come, about the good dunking I'd gotten on that Sunday evening. But our family transferred membership to a new church the next year - one closer to our house - so I could almost forget how embarrassing and terrifying baptism had been for me.
A few summers later, at Baptist summer camp, all of us church kids were gathered around a campfire one evening singing and playing guitars – mostly, singing and swatting mosquitoes – and we got to a song, an old spiritual, that went something like this: "The Gospel Train's a-comin'. I hear it just at hand, so come on children get on board and join that holy band. Get on board, little children; get on board, little children; get on board, little children, there's room for many a more."I stopped singing somewhere around the second "get on board, little children." It occurred to me that the Gospel Train might be just some other Baptist trick to lure children into heaven and I might not want that ticket to Glory to be handed to me so quickly as all that. Maybe later, I told myself, maybe when I was older and maybe not so afraid of water and everything else. Maybe when I trusted adults more than I did back then. Maybe, until that day, I'd just bide my time on this earthly plane and enjoy what could be enjoyed here, in the flesh. After all, what did I have to lose? I'd heard all my life, "Once saved, always saved." That's how Baptists believe it works. And Lord knows, I had been saved: called, folded, dunked in the cold waters of salvation, declared a child of God, saved - though, in those days, I wasn't sure exactly what I'd been saved from. Thus came I, at the ripe age of eight, to be among those who call themselves the children of God . . . though perhaps I am not so certain as others are of that "salvation," and though I suspect I am, more accurately, a step-child of God: in by the skin of my teeth. And Preacher has the claw-marks to prove it.