When I was a boy back there in Floyd, Va., (population 500, one stoplight) tent revivals made week-long stops in town once or twice each summer. Sometimes they set up in a field across the road from my house. All the boys in my neighborhood would go watch them set up, driving stakes in the ground, pulling ropes taut to stretch the canvas. It was so like the circus.
And at night, two or three of us would cross the street to peek under the sides of the tent to watch what was going on inside. In the dusty light, a preacher would hold forth, his comely assistant at the keyboard for accompaniment. The crowd, more often than not a packed tent, would shout and weep and dance, leap when the spirit so moved them, swear allegiance to the God presented them.
I didn’t have a clue what to make or not to make of the theology pouring out of that tent. I can’t remember so much as a sentence of what was preached. What I remember is the fervor. That’s what drew me back another night, and another after that, to lift the canvas and watch and listen. That’s what would have me stealing across the street again the next summer to watch the show. The fervor.
It was so unlike my church, my small-town Methodist church filled with people I knew and trusted, and with a minister who was there for a very long time by Methodist standards. I loved the people at my church. In whatever state my own faith stood, I loved the people I knew there.
But at 11 or 12 or 13 years old I was drawn to the fervor of the tent meetings. It was something exotic, foreign. Even when I grew old enough to be the skeptic, I couldn’t help longing for something like that, something that could stir me the way the people in that tent were stirred.
Now I’m older enough to be skeptical of my own teenage skepticism. But across the years, as across the street, there’s a tug at my emotions. The fervor.
I think, really, that’s why I come to Ginter Park Presbyterian. My definition of fervor has broadened — but not beyond recognition. There’s a spirit in the air at Ginter Park — you could call it the Holy Spirit — that makes my heart leap if not the rest of me. There’s a preacher who can make tears well up in my eyes. The choir and its genius leader have many of us almost, almost dancing. And if some of us leapt and wept and danced, I know this church would wrap its arms around us in celebration, joy, empathy. That’s because, as was the case at the little Methodist church I attended on Sundays back in Floyd, I love the people I know and trust.
These are people whose love bursts forth from the church, and who accept my feeble approach to faith, so marbled with doubt that it’s hardly an approach at all. These are people who, even if they don’t share my doubt, encourage me in my struggle with it. These are people who welcome me, I know.
More than two decades ago, when Ann and I contemplated finding a church after a long time for both of us without one, we crossed the street and lifted the canvas to peek inside Ginter Park Presbyterian. What we saw drew us close and has never let us go.
The fervor. Amen to that.
Randy Hallman, the second contributor in our miniseries of published writers, happens to be married to the first – Ann McMillan. Randy teaches our older youth Sunday School class,where his daughter was a member a decade or so ago. He has made a career of writing and editing, with many years spent in several capacities at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He currently authors the paper’s Biz Buzz column.