For as long as I can remember, summer has meant one thing – revival. Numerous weeks of morning and night revival services. My mother, like her mother before her, and her mother before her, was raised going to little foot washing Baptist churches scattered throughout North Georgia. Most of them only meet once a month, which allowed people to visit each other on their home churches’ off Sundays. Each little church had its own week long revival during the summer.
Daddy was a Catholic when Mama met him, but when I was three, he was saved and not long afterwards, he was called to preach.
By the time I was seven, my Daddy was running revivals, first as a helper, then as a pastor. We spent Saturday nights at conference, where the church conducted its business. We spent Sunday mornings in church and Sunday afternoon at church members’ houses. If we were lucky, they had children; if we weren’t lucky, we’d spend the afternoon staring at wallpaper, doilies and each other, listening to the adults talk. We spent the summer going night and day to revivals. Fred and I knew that’s just the way it was, and it never occurred to us to argue.
Things were different in the days before air conditioning. The night air blew in through the windows and the sounds of singing, preaching, praying and shouting blew out into the night. Wooden handled funeral home fans were a necessity for stirring the air and swatting insects.
There were unwritten rules that I never remember being told, I just knew. To this day, I’m not sure if they were universal church rules or just Betty Sue rules. They were the respect rules.
We knew never, ever to come in or out while someone was praying. We never left during preaching unless something was in imminent danger of exploding, and even then, we had better be sure we were about to spring a leak. Otherwise, we slipped out quietly, either after altar call was in full force or, during regular services, between preachers.
No one left when conference was open, period. This always confused me since conference was left open during revivals, but I guess that rule came with an amendment.
I don’t remember Fred or I taking toys or food, but if we did, I’m sure they had to be soft enough not to make a noise when they were dropped.
There were times, though, that we managed to make noise. More than once, after stacking a pile of books one level too high, they’d topple over banging against benches and floor and echoing throughout the church. There was the time I tied a sleeping Fred’s shoelaces together, then violently shook him awake causing him to kick, grunt and fall off the bench. Giggle fits were frequent visitors too, things are just funnier when you aren’t supposed to laugh.
Talking during church was my weakness, the one rule I broke most often. I tried to whisper, but neither Fred or I ever mastered a good whispering technique. I learned to read lips, I learned the sign language alphabet, and I learned the magic of carrying little notebooks and pencils. Some things just had to be said right then.
Don’t misunderstand me, I wasn’t perfect by any means. There was the time I inexplicably decided to introduce myself to the little girl sitting behind us by taking a big bite out of her; and the time I was supposed to be standing quietly beside Mama while she played the piano, but must have decided my full, frilly dress was too good to waste, so I did the twist while she played.
Girls wore dresses in the church house. Mine always had to be of the appropriate length and height. This elicited more than a few grumbles, since all my dresses had to conform to this rule. This was during the mini skirt craze and knee kissing dresses at school drew the kind of attention I didn’t want. I endured it though. Truth be told, the thoughts of ending out in the altar and having the old ladies scramble for towels or afghans did not appeal to me at all.
As we grew older, sneaking out after altar call became a new challenge. After altar call, the big kids had their outside hangouts, and it was cool to feel like we were doing something a bit naughty. We had to time it just right while Mama was praying. The great thing was, back then, you could hear when the meeting got going good and we could usually get back inside in time to witness what we were all there for, the joy of seeing someone saved. I never remember not knowing that’s what we were there for, that was what was most important and I never remember not wanting to be in the church when it happened.
The friendships forged during those weeks were permanent and deep. There’s a love there that I could have never found anywhere else. Going back to the places Daddy pastored, years later, I am still met with the same love and acceptance that I got when I was young.
After my girls were born, my health was not always agreeable enough for me to be able to carry them to church as often as my parents did me. They were blessed to be able to go with Mama and Daddy to different churches across three counties, just like their mother and uncle before them. I don’t remember telling them the Betty Sue respect rules, but between she and I, we made sure they knew them.
We have a new little grandchild coming along now and hopefully there will be more in the future – a new generation to learn the respect rules and to know that summer means the same thing to them as it has for generations before them – revival time.