John L. Doughty, Jr.
(A modified version of a cultural process paper written for anthropology 3110 class on October 20, 1993)
My visit to the Mt. Pilgrim church actually started more than thirty years ago. Tullos, Louisiana, my hometown, had an African-American Baptist church, and, as a child, I wanted to attend its services. The white Baptist church in Tullos was a huge two-story red-brick building that contrasted sharply with the African-American church. The Tullos African-American church, which no longer stands, was a one-room shack with a tar-paper roof and unpainted board and batten sides. The interior looked as coarse as the exterior. It had home-made pews.
I never fulfilled my wish to attend services at the little African-American church in Tullos, but I attended services at the white church throughout my childhood. My grandfather, a Baptist minister, preached many sermons there.
On Saturday afternoon, October 9, 1993, I drove to the Mt. Pilgrim church on Highway 1226 about five miles from Clarence, Louisiana. Thus began the process of satisfying a life-long desire and the fulfilment of the requirements of an ethnology course. As will be explained later in this paper, thus also began the discovery of a religious process as part of an even greater cultural process and the answer to why an entire culture group moved, leaving behind no trace of their culture but a church and graves.
Mt. Pilgrim church faced east and sat in a lonely area beside Highway 1226, a narrow country road. Behind the church, gray clusters of Spanish moss dangled from giant oaks and cypresses and waved gently in the afternoon breeze. Beneath the cypresses, algae lay like green carpet on the floor-like surface of a lazy bayou.
Unlike the African-American church of my childhood memories, I found the Mt. Pilgrim church constructed of solid materials: concrete blocks painted white. It was about thirty feet in width, eighty feet in length, well-maintained, and had a new, tan asphalt shingle roof. Twin white steeples on both front corners soared toward the clear blue sky. Bright green indoor-outdoor carpet on the floor of a small foyer led to wooden double doors, the main entrance to the building. Mounted to a wall, a marble plaque proclaimed: Mt. Pilgrim B. C. 1880. Rebuilt 1948.
On the north side and slightly to the front of the church sat a neat, white-painted frame building approximately twenty feet in length and width. This small building, I discovered the next day, served as a kitchen. Also on the north side of the church, an open area about one hundred feet in width extended to the edge of the woods and, as told to me the next day, contained the site of an early African-American school. A cemetery shaped like an upside-down "L" lay around the church on the south and west sides and evidenced freshly-mown grass and well-tended graves.
The neat and well-maintained church and grounds surprised me; I returned home with a question on my mind: Absolutely no African-Americans lived along Highway 1226, so where did Mt. Pilgrim's congregation live? Possibly in Clarence, I assumed, but why drive five miles to church when Clarence has several African-American churches?
But I knew that shotgun houses, the homes of African-Americans, once lined Highway 1226. I recalled a conversation I had about that subject with a white farmer. I asked, "What happened to all those shotgun houses?"
"We tore them down," he informed me. "We tore down twenty-five of them on just my farm. There was so many black people on that road [Highway 1226] that they had five schools."
"Why did they leave?" I asked.
"They moved into Natchitoches," he answered. "Got free government housing."
At the time, the white answer made sense. And, on Saturday, October 9, it still made sense. I arrived home, called the pastor of Mt. Pilgrim, and unwittingly started the process of hearing the African-American and correct answer to the question I had asked the white farmer.
The Reverend Robert Williams seemed delighted that I wanted to attend his services at Mt. Pilgrim, whatever my reasons. But, he explained, he was eighty-four years old, confined to a wheelchair, and the Reverend James Johnson, the assistant pastor, would conduct the services the following day. He gave me Reverend Johnson's telephone number, and I called him.
The Reverend Johnson also seemed delighted that a white man wanted to attend his services, but he was not so enthused about his services being the subject of an anthropological survey. I had to explain my purpose in detail.
"What did you say you were?" he asked.
"An anthropology student," I explained. "I want to study the process of your religious ceremony. I'll sit in the back and take notes."
"Okay," he finally agreed, "we'll look forward to seeing you there."
"Great," I replied, "what time should I get there."
"Eleven o'clock," he told me.
I hung up the telephone, smugly satisfied that my plan had worked out and totally unaware that Reverend Johnson, I believe, had a plan of his own.
The following morning, Sunday, October 10, 1993, I donned the best clothing I owned, stuffed a five-dollar bill in my shirt pocket for an offering, and drove to Mt. Pilgrim. When I parked in the gravel parking lot in front of the church, my wristwatch read: 10:45 a.m. In addition to my car, the lot contained only three cars and a pickup truck. Not much of a congregation, I thought.
I nervously waited alone outside the church, and at 10:59 a.m., I opened the front door and stepped inside the building. I saw a large room approximately thirty feet in width, sixty feet in length, and walled with hardwood paneling. An aisle ran down the middle of the room and had rows of pews on both sides, facing west, toward the pulpit at the rear of the room. The gleaming pews looked brand-new and had fancy red cushions. New-looking red carpet ran down the aisle.
An open area about fifteen feet in length, twenty feet in width, and also covered with red carpet, extended from the front pews to the pulpit, which sat on a raised platform. A wooden fence about three feet high jutted out on both sides of the pulpit and ended at the edge of the raised platform.
On the floor in front of the pulpit, to its south and to my and the congregation's left, sat a piano. On the floor directly in front of the pulpit sat a brown table about three feet by three feet square. Two wooden chairs with red cushions sat on either side of the table, both of the chairs facing away from the pulpit and toward me and the congregation. I label these chairs "chair #1" and "chair #2."
Beside these chairs, to their north and my and the congregation's right, sat an identical chair, which I later discovered was called the "confess chair." The cover-term "confess" has both material and non-material cultural meaning. When someone places the "confess chair" out in the open area in front of the pulpit, it becomes a thing, a place. When someone sits in the chair, it becomes a state of mind.
Alivane Trotter explained "confess" to me. I interviewed her later that day on her job at Bill's Restaurant in Clarence. She was African-American, over seventy years old, and attended Mt. Pilgrim church for many years: "What is 'confess,'" I asked her.
"You go there," she replied.
"What do you do when you get there," I asked.
"You confess," she told me.
I thought about the Catholic confessional. "Do you tell all your sins?" I asked.
"No," she said with a laugh. "You say what's in your heart."
"What do you say?" I asked.
"You say 'I found Jesus in my heart,'" she informed me.
Against the wall on the north side of the room, to my and the congregation's right, sat the deacons' pews, three short rows of pews facing the open area in front of the pulpit.
Alivane Trotter explained the cover-term "deacon": "They take care of church business," she said, "and paint the church and mow the grass; things like that. Sometimes they visit the sick."
"Are there any women deacons?" I asked her.
"No," she said, "ain't nothing but men deacons."
"How does a man get to be a deacon?" I asked.
"He goes to the deacons and says, 'I want to be a deacon.' If they think he's a good man, they bring it up before the church and we vote on it."
In a telephone interview the next day with Reverend Johnson, I asked about deacons.
"They take care of church business and maintain the church," Reverend Johnson informed me.
"How many do you have?" I asked him.
"Seven," he said. "Some churches have thirteen, but the Bible says 'seven,' so we have seven."
"How does a man get to be a deacon," I asked.
"We have to have a good report," he replied.
"What's a 'good report,'" I asked.
"You know," Reverend Johnson said. "He can't run around, and he has to take care of his family. And he's got to have wisdom."
"'Run around'?" I asked. "Like drinking and stuff like that?"
"Yes," Reverend Johnson replied.
"What's the most important requirement?" I asked.
"Wisdom," Reverend Johnson informed me.
Against the south wall of the room, directly opposite the deacon pews, sat an identical three rows of short pews, the mission lady pews. Alivane Trotter explained the cover-term "mission lady": "They mission," she said. "You know, visit the sick and try to get people to come to church."
"How do you get to be a mission lady?" I asked her.
"You just want to be a mission lady," she informed me.
In my telephone interview with Reverend Johnson on October 11, I asked him, "Can a man be a mission lady?"
"No," he informed me, "a man can't take care of a sick woman."
Behind the pulpit area a room-like and indented area contained four rows of short pews for the choir. A tapestry of the Last Supper of Jesus almost covered the rear wall of the choir area. The interior walls of Mt. Pilgrim contained three portrayals of the Last Supper of Jesus: the tapestry already mentioned, a painting on the north wall and a painting on the west wall.
The only other pictures adorning the walls was a poster of white and African-American children playing together in harmony and located on the south wall, and an oil portrait of the Reverend Williams located directly behind the pulpit and near the ceiling on the wall in front of and above the choir area. From the etic, outsider, point of view, it seemed to me that the portrait of the Reverend Williams established his overall control of the church no matter who served as assistant pastor. The congregation could not watch the Reverend Johnson at the pulpit without seeing the image of Reverend Williams above and behind him.
After entering the room, I quietly sat down in the very first pew I encountered, amazed at the unexpected beauty of Mt. Pilgrim. I had interrupted Sunday School. Far in front of me and to my right, several women, teenagers, and a few small children sat in the first two congregation pews on the north side of the room. Five men sat in the deacons' pews. All the women and children were dressed in fine clothing; all the men wore suits. The poorly dressed anthropologist felt out of place. A man about forty years old and wearing a tan suit and a black shirt sat on the far end of a deacon pew. He spoke: "This is Junior . . . What's your name?"
"He's an archaeologist," the man I then rightly assumed was Reverend Johnson wrongly told the people around himself. "He's going to study our services and, later, tell us what he thinks about it."
That threw me for a loop because I feared public speaking. While I worried, Reverend Johnson ordered, "Come forward Mister Doughty. Sit with us."
The people in the congregation pews started waving me forward. I rose, walked to the third row of pews, and sat down. The Sunday School I had interrupted continued, an active learning process I soon discovered. Reverend Johnson, from his seat on a deacon pew, would turn to a woman and say, "What did I tell you, Sister So-And-So, that Moses told the Children of Israel?"
She would answer, and, if she did not, he would tell her again what Moses told the Children of Israel. He would repeat the process with the men and with the children, asking question after question, reinforcing the lesson he had taught them before I entered the room. After a few minutes, we all rose to our feet, and he said a prayer. He finished; we sat down, and a female child about five years of age started passing the collection plate around. It was gold and shiny and she was beautiful.
She had pig-tails tied with blue bows sprouting from her jet-black hair, and she wore a baby-blue dress with pure-white lace around the collar. She grinned from ear-to-ear when she reached my side. I pulled the five-dollar bill out of my shirt pocket and put it in the plate. At the time, I did not know I had interrupted the end of Sunday School, and I assumed I had arrived early for the main services. That's strange, I thought. They take up the collection right after the services start.
I looked up and saw Reverend Johnson now sitting in a chair behind the pulpit. The rest of the people in the room milled around, socializing. Realization struck me that I had donated five dollars to the Sunday School collection; another one would follow. Right then, I prayed. I had a ten in my wallet, I knew, and I prayed for a smaller bill. Reverend Johnson, I believed, had set me up for a double collection.
At that point in time, a clock on the wall behind the seated Reverend Johnson read: 11:10 a.m. The following is in chronological order by that clock:
I thought of my curiosity about where they lived. Some of them told me they lived in Clarence. To my amazement, some lived in Natchitoches, fifteen miles away, and some even lived in Winnfield, about twenty-one miles away.
The elderly mission lady who had read the list of church business lived in Natchitoches. I asked her, "Why do you drive all the way out here to go to church?"
"I went to school here," she said, pointing toward the grass at the edge of the woods, the site of the school. "And I confessed here."
"Where did you live back then?" I asked.
She raised her arm and pointed toward Highway 1226. "We lived all up and down that road. There was houses as far as you could see."
I remembered the question I had asked the white farmer. "Why did so many people move?" I asked her.
"We had to," she explained. "They started using all that machinery in the fields, and there wasn't anything for us to do. We had to have jobs, so we moved to town where there was jobs."
Mt. Pilgrim church, therefore, serves as more than a ceremonial center for this culture group: once a week they return to their roots. The church is aptly named.
The services in which I had participated also have more than a religious function. They teach this still-oppressed group dignity and that they are not meant to serve the rest of mankind. They teach the youth of the culture group to respect and obey their elders. And they forge the group together in an almost unbelievable emotional bond.
I felt that bond; I felt like a part of the group. I can not say "I found Jesus in my heart," but I found something. I tried to analyze why I felt as I did, and the answer lay in the ceremony.
It was like an emotional roller-coaster ride. One moment I felt sad, the next happy. A joyful change soon turned mournful. And the "reach out and touch somebody's hand" ending solidified the togetherness bonded during the ride. An electric current shocking one of the group would have shocked us all.
In my later interview with Reverend Johnson, I asked him about the young deacon. It seems, he told me, that the regular, elderly deacon was sick. The young man came from the congregation. They must have seven, he reminded me. The realization struck me that I was the only adult male left in the congregation. If the young man had not attended that Sunday, the anthropologist might have become a deacon. My grandfather, a minister but also a member of the Ku Klux Klan, would have turned over in his grave.
Before I left, the Reverend Johnson informed me that the annual homecoming service at Mt. Pilgrim was on Sunday, October 24, 1993. I would definitely attend, I told him.
"Be there at eleven o'clock," he told me.
Back to the Juke Joint
Copyright 1993 by John L. Doughty, Jr.