Lena was a religious woman. She attended church at every opportunity even though an ancient tribal belief had been deeply instilled in her. She did not forsake "the old way" as she called it, and she taught both ways to the grandchild in her care. From the time it was a baby, she carried her not only to a variety of churches, but to the "Indian doings" as well. The churches dotted the hills, and Lena knew each church that sat near her family's allotted land. She had lived there for three-quarters of a century, her lifetime.
Lena's faith in all the denominations baffled and angered the pastors of the little country church-houses. For she was not the only one like that; there were other Indian people who were the same. The ministers decided then that the Indian flock were like children who had simple minds and led simple lives. Painstakingly, theology was explained to each of these potential converts, but patience was sorely tried on Lena. The preachers' frustration was held in check to simmer under Sunday smiles.
Lena attended each church erratically. Her absence and presence were duly noted on the rolls kept by the different congregations while she divided up the Sundays equally between churches. One by one, the pastors approached Lena to ask the same question. "Sister Lena, do you know what you are doing ? All these churches you been agoing to . . . they ain't the same."
Lena pursed her lips. The wrinkles in her face settled into a hint of a smile. She nodded her scarfed head. "I'm gonna church. Be with Jesus."
"But Sister Lena," the pastors went on to say, "these churches don't all believe the same way."
Lena's sunken eyes widened. "Oh?" she asked with a naive smile.
Each pastor answered, "No. You see, Sister Lena, we have different rules we go by. We believe that God wants us to live in a certain way, and it's very different from the way those people in other churches live. Otherwise, we'd all be alike. Wouldn't make much difference what church we went to."
Lena sat for a while and looked into her grandchild's eyes. Then she looked at the church pastor she spoke to and said, "Ever since I a little girl, some peoples, they tole me that. But it don't matter. It's alla same."
In a state of exasperation, the preachers would say, "No, it's not the same, Sister Lena. You don't understand."
Lena would then purse her lips and nod her head again. "It's alla same. Yes, it is. Alla same. You don't understand."
Often Lena's response would end the conversation there. But one time a boyish preacher visited Lena's home to "try to talk some sense into her dense ole head," as he himself said. He wore a black suit and tie, even though the sun was unbearable that day.
"Save your soul, Sister Lena," he said outside her house. "You getting old. Someday soon now, you going to die."
Lena's face settled into a playful smile again. She looked into the hills. She answered, "Face death ever day I live. Ever thing dies. It does. Shouldn't come as no surprise." As she talked, a mosquito landed on her wrist. She slapped it. She went on, "It happens like that. One day, you walking round and round. Next day you dead like this one here. Life's gone out. Them's the way things are. Don't worry bout that. Boy, you sceered to die?"
The preacher's pink face became red. Lena couldn't tell if he was angry or not. "No, I'm not scared to die!" he said. "I'm worried about you. Me, I'm saved. You . . . you going to burn in Hell unless you're saved. And then the Devil will rejoice. He's won!" He wiped his red face with a damp, limp handkerchief.
Lena's grandchild had been playing in the distance, crawling around in the dirt for some time. She came running to Lena then. Her face dripped with sweat. She said, "Grandma, looky here." She held her hand up to Lena.
Lena answered her, "Not now, baby. This man here, he's been trying to say something." The grandchild sat on the bench beside the preacher, her fingers clutched together.
The preacher continued louder than before. "As I was saying, Sister Lena, Hell is hot. You'll burn for eternity. Do you know how long that is?"
Lena wiped the child's face with the printed skirt of her faded dress. "It's lotta lifetimes. Too many to count. Too long to remember," she said. Her smile was gone and her voice was wistful. Thoughtfully, she looked at her gray house that once was white, then back to her grandchild again.
The preacher feared he'd lost her attention. He added quickly, "Don't give the Devil that chance to rejoice, Sister! He's evil! And Hell is hot!" He took off his suit jacket and threw it beside him as if to emphasize what he said.
Lena studied the tall, lanky white preacher with the sweat rolling down his neck. She was definitely interested in what he said, he could tell. His chest puffed out a bit to think he'd done it, scared some sense into her. Then she said, "Oklahoma must be like Hell a lot. It's sure hot!" The preacher was momentarily speechless. Lena continued. "The Debil? Well, you right bout him, preacher. I heered stories bout him. Seen him once too. Know what he looks like."
The preacher deflated like a punctured balloon. "Sister Lena," he enunciated each syllable angrily, "You don't know what the Devil looks like! What are you talking about?"
Lena rose from the upside-down can she sat on and walked to the preacher. Face to face with her, he saw the wrinkles in her face shift around as she bent to him and said, "Lissen here, I know." She whispered to the excited man, "He looks like you. Yes, he does. The Debil does. Looks jest like you."
His face went through several contortions before he was able to speak coherently. Lena's grandchild watched him go through the range of emotions. He blurted out several words. Lena knew two languages and couldn't make out what he said in either one of them. She wondered if he knew himself what he said. When he had calmed down somewhat, he told Lena, "Sister Lena, you're trying my patience."
Lena herself was patient with him as he recovered control. Eventually he wore a tight strained smile and managed to ask, "Why do you come to church anyway, Sister Lena? Do you believe in God?"
Lena answered without hesitation. "Because alla these peoples, they ask me to come. Sides, I like it. Jesus I like. The songs, too."
The preacher shook his head and seemed to understand. He asked, "What do you know about God or Jesus?"
"Not too much. Jest what I heered over yonder in church," she admitted cheerfully.
He became more confident then and boldly said, "I hear you people don't have religion. Don't believe in God or Jesus."
For the first time in their conversation, Lena's mouth clamped shut. Her lips pursed tightly. She looked at him with open distrust and sat down again on the makeshift chair. She looked at the girl and said, "I'll tell you what I can. We don't got Jesus. We got something else. It's ever thing. Hard to sit and talk bout it. Can't say it in so many words. So we sing, we dance. What we have is a mystery. Don't got answers for it and don't understand it. But it's all right. Jest live right in it. Side by side."
"You talking superstition now Sister Lena," the preacher said. "Ain't nothing to it. That's what's wrong with you people. Better put that stuff behind you. For the sake of your grandchild there, if nothing else." He pointed at the little girl who watched his every move.
Lena answered him. "Thank you, preacher, but we came this far. Us peoples. Been looking out for ourselves. Came this far since the beginning. This girl's gonna know jest how things are."
When the preacher stood to leave, Lena's face was bright as she promised, "We see you at church come Sunday, preacher." He scowled while Lena giggled and the child waved.
From The Sun Is Not Merciful, Firebrand Books, Ithaca.
© 1995, 2001 Anna Lee Walters
Return to the Anna Lee Walters website