Church reunion, early 1960s
Church reunion, early 1960s. The author is one of the 10-year-old boys with a crewcut.

The voice, despite being at shout volume, seemed to be disembodied, but the message was clear: If we all didn’t change our ways, we were going to Hell.

I was sitting in my car, waiting for the light to change at a busy downtown Knoxville interchange, three lanes each direction. Finally, I spotted the source of the sermon. The driver of a truck was shouting his message to everyone waiting on the red – preaching to the air.

Raised a Southern Baptist, I have heard my share of sermons, from the raised-stage pulpits of large, rigidly structured edifices and from the worn wooden floors of tiny, no-pulpit store-fronts. But this was the first I had seen delivered from the driver’s seat of a truck with its motor running. This was a man of God of singular determination – definitely qualified for my list of notable preachers.

Up until my late teens, I was a regular attendee of morning and evening services as well as Sunday School and Training Union. And the annual Vacation Bible Schools and week-long revivals. Occasionally there were dinners on the grounds, too, with fried chicken and potato salad and deviled eggs in infinite variety.

We were active in a popular Knoxville congregation.

While I was enthusiastic about the dinners, I was a reluctant attendee of the regular services and the revivals. My father was a deacon, my mother a choir member, and my siblings and I had no choice but to be in church when they were. Decisions to skip the service in favor of the soda counter at the nearby Greenlee’s Drug Store were made risky by Mom’s position in the choir. She scanned the pews to see that we were not only present, but upright and awake.

And staying awake could be a problem. The church was large enough – more than 1,000 members – that ritual took precedence over spirit, at least on Sunday mornings. Longtime members had sat through hundreds of sermons, delivered by dozens of preachers. Many were prone to dozing. There was one lanky member, habitué of the rear of the auditorium, who was well-known to me and my friends. He would nod off, his head would drift backward and his Adam’s apple would bob with his breathing. We found the sight amusing, a diversion that kept us awake.

Another diversion, usually occurring only at evening services, involved Aunt Jenny, an older choir member who would be moved to dance from her seat in the loft down to the front of the altar, choir robe swirling. We didn’t know whether to laugh or run.

Reluctant though I was about the sermonizing, I didn’t mind Vacation Bible School. My dad, a machinist who worked the second shift and was available in the mornings, would be called on for VBS, usually put in charge of crafts for the boys. And I would be drafted to help, loading pieces of plywood into the station wagon, along with the saws and files that would be used to cut them into animal shapes. They would then be decorated with colored popcorn. Sometimes, the end product would actually resemble a chicken or a rabbit – or something nightmarishly in-between. Afterward, I would wield a broom as we cleaned up the scattered popcorn.

By the time I was 12 or 13, plywood animals didn’t hold much interest for my age group. Crafts hour degenerated into popcorn battles, saws and files becoming dangerous weapons.

As I became more of a hindrance than a help, Dad enlisted another deacon. Boomer, as I’ll call him here, was an automobile mechanic, and he had an idea. He brought in several boxes of old carburetors, screwdrivers, wrenches, and a can of kerosene and shop rags for cleaning. He showed us how to disassemble the carbs, how to clean all the parts with kerosene, and how to put them back together. We worked on single-barrels, then two-barrels, and, finally, at week’s end, four-barrels. There were a lot of greasy fingers and oil-stained clothes, but no more popcorn battles.

But as I grew older and bought my own car, with its own carburetor, I moved away from active church participation, eventually working a part-time job downtown. It was then that I started taking note of street preachers. Knoxville had its share, most of them active on Saturdays on Market Square. Their breathy buildups and sing-song deliveries were fascinating, at least as a lunchtime diversion. Too, there was the young guy who was adept at leaping into the air at particular points during his sermons, jumping just as he slapped his Bible against his hand, his timing precise.

After I graduated college and changed jobs, moving from city to city, other Bible thumpers caught my attention. In downtown Dallas, there were dueling preachers who worked a particularly busy street corner. One would sermonize for a while, the other looking on in disgust. When the first ran out of steam, the second would start, his competitor watching with a disdainful look.

Atlanta featured several of note. There was a woman, part of a group that wore white robes, who would smoothly segue from preaching to singing, her “sisters” joining in on the chorus. But downtown Atlanta’s best as spectacle was an African-American man who worked Woodruff Park at lunchtime. He carried a guitar slung over his shoulder, though I never saw him play it. What made him interesting was his “shadow.” At some point, a young white man had decided to follow him closely and mimic his movements, making fun of him. The shadow became enough of a problem that a third person joined in: an Atlanta policeman who made sure the shadow didn’t get too close.

Though I found street preachers intriguing, I had long ago decided I didn’t want middlemen between me and my maker, epiphany coming when I was high-school age and still attending the church of my childhood. The educational minister was a slick, charismatic character with a wife and five children. His spouse, who sat next to my mother in the choir, was the butt of his jokes when he made his reports to the congregation on Sunday mornings. And, I overheard my mother tell her friends, she would whisper funny asides in response, using language not suited for church.

But one afternoon as Mom and her friends gossiped, I overheard a different tale about the minister. It seems that he was having an affair with a church member, also married. I didn’t hear much detail – one of Mom’s friends noticed that I was in the room and I was quickly sent outside.

The next Sunday, the educational minister and his wife were not present at either service. The word quickly spread that he had resigned and that he and his family were leaving Knoxville. Over the next couple of weeks I picked up bits and pieces of the story, but I was too involved in my own high school shenanigans to pay much attention.

The years passed, the neighborhood changed, and the church merged with another congregation. I was living in Kansas City at the time. Mom and Dad were active in the new church for a while, until the fundamentalists started taking over the Southern Baptist Convention. My parents were both strong believers in formal education, and the mail-order degrees held by the new faction appalled them.

Eventually the new church called a new preacher, a fundamentalist whose education was, as far as my mother was concerned, seriously lacking. She soon was at loggerheads with him and he fired her from the Sunday School class she was teaching, even sending a young minister-in-training to suggest that she not tell anyone why she was no longer teaching. She told him that if she was asked by any of the women in the class, she wouldn’t lie. Eventually, she and my dad quit attending.

My parents knew everyone in that area of Knoxville, and my mother, never shy, wielded considerable influence. The new preacher – she had taken to calling him Pope John – decided he needed her back in attendance. He began regular visitations at their house.

His entreaties only angered her. Finally, she told him that if she came to church it would be to call for his ouster. Under Southern Baptist Convention rules, any church member can call for a vote about a preacher at any service; if there is a second, the vote must be held then and there. Her threat was sufficient, and Pope John didn’t come around anymore.

Years later, at my father’s funeral, I spoke with many of his old friends from the old church, the shade-tree mechanics he talked cars with, fellow machinists, the neighbors he helped when their vehicles wouldn’t start. But I didn’t see Boomer.

Later, talking about the crowd with my brother and sister, I mentioned his absence.  My sister looked over at me. I guess you didn’t hear, she said: He committed suicide years ago.

My look of surprise led her to explain. Boomer had had a drinking problem, a problem that became worse with the discovery that his wife was involved with the church’s educational minister.

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Chris Wohlwend

Chris Wohlwend

Chris Wohlwend is working on a memoir titled "Ridge Running: Encounters in Appalachia." He lives in Knoxville.