Monday, November 1, 2010

Yazoo City and the Primitive Baptists of Shreveport, Louisiana

I arrived in Shreveport, Louisiana last night after a meandering drive through Yazoo City and Vicksburg, Mississippi. Yazoo City is a rough town trying to reclaim its small Main Street charm. Two blocks of Main Street yielded a drug store, an insurance agency, a general practitioner's office, a furniture store, a newly opened cafe (though closed on Saturday afternoon), three brightly painted loft entrances in a row, and at least ten abandoned storefronts. Speakers pipe happy, old-fashioned music that gives the whole street an Edward Scissorhands-like feel despite the closures.

Can you hear the music?

Walking more than a block off Main Street yielded a much different vibe. No fewer than three men hissed and beckoned for me to get into their cars as I wandered between three gas stations in search of pretzel M & M's. "Hey, girl," they said in low, threatening tones designed to be heard only by me. "C'mere." It was always a demand, never a playful flirt. I hightailed it back to my car and out of town after that fine display from Yazoo City's male species. The town's roughness is physically conspicuous, as well-- broken windows and tired buildings line the non-rehabbed blocks of Main Street, some of which may be a result of a tornado that ripped through last spring. As with all others towns I've been to on this trip, the little money that is there mostly flows through the chain stores and restaurants that were plopped along the highway.

Unrehabbed Main St.; Yazoo City

This Halloween morning, I attended church with the Primitive Baptists of the Bethel Primitive Baptist Church in the countryside of Shreveport, Louisiana. The church is small, and the building they use today was erected in 1847. I woke up at 8am to drive there, not sure what time the service was but definitely not wanting to miss it. Most services this far south are at 10:30 or 11am; this one was at 10:30. In Tennessee, they were typically at 9:30.

Since I know many of my friends are as irreligious as I am, I will steal this bit from Wikipedia and put it here: "The word 'Primitive' does not mean 'backward' but, in the context of this division among Baptists, it means 'original.' These churches attempt to retain or restore what is seen as primitive (or original) patterns of Christianity, such as baptism by immersion, family integrated worship, a cappella singing, close (but not closed) communion, and feet washing."

In other words, their services have not changed much in the last 200 years. This lack of evolution is aided by the fact that it is a dying religion in many parts of the country. At this church, there were ten parishioners (excluding myself) today and one minister. The pastor was 94 years old and the oldest parishioner haltingly told me he will be celebrating his 98th birthday soon. I asked him what the best year of his life has been, and he said "Twenty-one." Conveniently, this is also the age he was in a photo of the parishioners outside the church from decades ago that hangs on the wall in the church kitchen. The rest of the crowd featured five people in their mid-to-late-60s, two in their late 70s, and two in their late 80s (approximations for most).

Baptism by immersion - I would love to record one of these!

I got a chance to talk with Elder Wordy (real name Marty Kent) at significant length before church started because I had gotten there so early. When he arrived to open the church, I got out of my car and we introduced ourselves to each other. He had a bit of a hard time understanding me due to his age (late 80s) and my accent. Without fail, he called me ma'am, said yes'm often, and interjected "ma'am" instead of saying "What?" or "Excuse me?" when he didn't hear me fully. I'm not sure where the origins of his "Elder Wordy" moniker come from, but I have a hunch it might be from his excellent conversational skills. We rarely lacked a thing to talk about in our hour alone. He frequently mentioned the loneliness that has invaded his life after the death of his wife of fifty-nine years six years ago (she is buried in the small cemetery behind the church, along with nine of his twelve siblings), and hinted to his guilt that stems from occasionally going out to dinner with a local widow, a fellow church member. I found out that he attends a folk music session that occurs every Monday night at the Blanchard Town Hall and plays mandolin and banjo for folk and gospel songs. He also leads the singing that occurs at the start of every service. I hope to record him on his own, but still need to think of a polite way to invite myself to his house to do so.

Which leads me to the best part of the week... their numbers were few and the voices were, in many cases, waving, but the hymns they opened the ceremony with were FANTASTIC. It was nearly everything I had dreamed. They sang many traditional songs, and a few others I did not know. After everyone got their chance to choose a song, the pastor began his sermon. At his age, he may have expended the majority of his energy for the day on this spirited sermon. It began quietly and a little hard to understand, but he got quite passionate about it and engaged in the heavy breathing style associated with the Baptists. Much of his sermon was related to a generic promise that God will take care of His own. One example that was particularly noted by me is when he referred to the time he fell off a horse when he was young and "I was laying there when a nigger walked over to me and said, 'I thought you was going to be dead the way your head hit that ground!'" ... Yes, this is on the recording.

Taking secret pictures in church is hard.

Later, he meandered into the evils being perpetrated in Washington over the last few years (i.e. Obama years). He stated that the current administration is denying people the right to worship God, and that our country was blessed to have the Founding Fathers with foresight to create our good Constitution, but that Washington has blatantly disregarded it for years (meaning Obama years) and might as well tear it up. There was no further evidence presented on this, though he did preface the entire rant with "I know some of you may not agree with me, BUT..."

It was really nice to be amongst a crowd who appreciated my vintage dress and shoes without a smirk or casting me a mildly jealous eye (this is not meant to disparage anyone; I get jealous of a lot of my friends' clothes!). None of them batted an eye when they saw my outfit. I didn't realize how rare that was until I was hanging out with people in their 90s! Age seemed quite ambiguous for most of the parishioners. They each chose to see me in the light that they could most relate to. Elder Wordy saw that I was young, and asked if I was recently retired. Another man, one of the people in their early 60s, told me he thought I was 18 or 19.

I will be attending another Primitive Baptist service next weekend if I can find one, in hopes that the turnout will be at least slightly larger so I can get a stronger recording.

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