Little Silver #5 – Son of a Preacher Man? Actually, the Opposite
Dan McCallum was a year older than me, though I never knew him well. Or at all really, save for our friendly hellos in school. All I knew was that he was a nice kid, and his mom was a pastor at one of the only two churches in our town, the Embury Methodist Church, situated appropriately on Church Street in Little Silver.
I was intrigued that Dan’s centered and cool mom was a pastor, because Connie was and still is an athiest zealot, though less vocal now in her older age. When I say zealot, I mean that she was religious in her beliefs and my brother Alex and I were home-schooled in Connie’s Church of Atheism. She readily threw about aphorisms such as “There is no GOD”, or “You should definitely read the Bible for an education – plus they’re good stories.” (We didn’t.) Or, “Jesus was a loving person in barbaric times. He taught people how to care for one another, but wasn’t the son of God because [as you may remember] there is no God.” When Connie worked at Planned Parenthood, a demonstrator once fixed a hand upon her car door as she was trying to drive out of the parking lot, exclaiming “God doesn’t want you killing little children!!” My mom shot back plainly and calmly with “Yes, God DOES” before nearly shutting the woman’s hand in the automatic window. Her view was that religion caused people to kill each other, though she did say that the church had historically helped the poor in some incarnations. She didn’t think all religious people were lunatics of course, just that when something crazy went down, it was usually in the name of religion.
Connie had grown up going to a Quaker girls’ school in Providence and took us occasionally to the Quaker Meeting in nearby Shrewsbury, where she attended meeting and followed with her weekly “Witness for Peace.” This involved standing on the corner of Shrewsbury and Sycamore Avenues with other demonstrators holding signs, and drivers-by would honk and give you the thumbs-up or the bird, depending on their world views. When either happened, it was thrilling. Signs were obviously geared toward peace, and ours said something about education, which of course, I found dull. Always wanting a bit more drama, I was hoping for a more hard-hitting message, not something everyone could so easily get behind, but whatever – it was my mom’s sign, not mine. And as for the meetings themselves, in theory I really liked them and in reality I found them boring. A lot of waiting for people to speak, and when finally someone got up the guts, it was met with the opposite of applause – silence. That was a let-down.
Frankly, I found all meetings in houses of worship boring. When I slept over at my best friend Malinda’s house some Saturdays, I would attend 9 o’clock mass with her family the next morning at Little Silver’s other church – The Church of the Nativity – and every time, I was ready for THE SHOW. After all, there were incredible stained glass depictions of pretty grizzly looking scenes. That was promising. But the sermons felt long and unconvincing. I suppose by then I was already ruined, or saved. Your call.
Anyway, back to the Methodist Church.
My classmate John Flynn, who also identified as a singer by age 8, went to the Methodist Church Choir and one day in school he told me about the outfit he got to wear. Green flowing pants and a white, blousy shirt. As he described it to me, my eyes widened. “Wait, could you wear it to school?” At that point, his tone became slightly more subdued. “Well, I don’t think you’d want to do THAT…”
Hmm. I struggled to picture a white flowing blouse I wouldn’t wear to school but trusted that he knew what he was talking about. To give you a sense, John has his own cabaret show in LA now, and he had a wider capacity for ideas than most other Little Silver residents. As for me, I loved singing and wearing costumes, so I set my mind on this choir and told my mother I wanted to go to church to sing in it. As is her way, she didn’t skip a beat. “Okay, we’ll have to get you some clothes then,” and she proceeded to take me to Marshall’s where we scored a wrap around kilt (had that big safety pin that I’d so coveted on others – pardon the sin) and a white cotton turtleneck.
Well, I felt so fucking sophisticated, nobody could stop me now.
That Sunday, I walked to the church and announced to Pastor McCallum that that I wanted to join the choir. A lovely person who easily obliged, she showed me to the basement where I went through one run-through before I was handed my outfit. Finally, it was in my hands, and it was full-on Gospel-Choir-Awesome. John was right, though; I couldn’t see a way in which I would get away with wearing it at school. As an aside, I could be, in those days, sometimes flamboyant. It wasn’t until 7th grade when I came into school wearing a heavy black cape, and was told by a popular girl that she was going to kick my ass after school, that I cowed. Right away, actually. Never having never having traveled in ass-kicking circles, I didn’t for a moment consider myself tough enough to rise to the occasion. Rather, I spent the afternoon looking over my shoulder and quivering in fear over my impending pummeling, which strangely never happened. The grace of God, you might ask? I considered it. I took it as a pardon and went straight to the Gap that afternoon, never to show my colors again.
Yep, that’s the kind of girl I am.
For weeks I walked the half mile to church on Sundays to sing and sway. Of course, we were all white so the swaying was disappointingly minimal, but the feeling of hearing, or almost not-hearing, my own voice blend with the bigger, more resonant group voice was a real high. A religious experience, you might say, and to this day, singing “Go Tell it on the Mountain” remains one of my most joyful musical experiences.
(Remember Dan McCallum? Are you wondering how I might meaningfully weave him into the fabric of this tale now that we’re drawing to a close? Well, I can’t because I have no idea where he is or what happened to him, and I didn’t want to edit him out. After all, he’s a nice guy, so why be a jerk? Plus it’s the privilege my indie-press here affords me.)
Church singing was great until I quit for some unremarkable reason – maybe John left so I did? With this, I had to turn in the outfit but by then I had soaked in all the magic that its polyester fibers had to offer. I learned later that many singers honed their passion for music by singing in church: Tina Turner, Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye – Steve Curtis for gosh-sakes! And though I couldn’t subscribe to the organized religion part, church was a stellar first venue for me. To me, this is the strongest endorsement of church outreach yet – that it provided a passionate musical outlet for the Daughter of an Athiest.
Addendum: I contacted John on Facebook to let him know of this essay, can I use his name, etc. and sent it his way for review. Lovely as ever, he dug the essay and told me somewhat apologetically that he never sang in the Methodist Choir, but he wouldn’t call me out! Speaking to the manipulation of memory, this person I spoke with so many years ago who encouraged me to join the chorus is SO CLEARLY John. I can even see his rosy face during the conversation. And if it wasn’t him, I just don’t know who it could be. So one of us is confused and it’s likely me. At the same time, I ain’t lying, folks! Of course, I’m still waiting for John to write me with an ‘Oh yeahhhhh….. now I remember!”
Take it with salt, folks.