by Tim Gilmore, 7/27/2018
The cross affixed to the stucco that fronts the 700-square-foot church stands directly between two small front windows like a mark between the eyes. How might any congregation fit into this sanctuary, which is, in fact, a 1943 one-bedroom / one-bathroom house with a 90-square-foot addition? How could I have imagined the thunderings of women preachers here? (Not for them that verse of the Bible that says, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.”)
Gary, who lives around the corner on Shrike Avenue, says Jesus Christ the Son of God Holiness unto the Lord Revival Church is the smallest church in the city. I ask him how many worshipers might possibly attend. A dozen? 25? The ceiling of the 6×6-foot open-air porch is too low for me stand beneath it. (And the women who preached here had no need of that verse of the Bible that says, “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but to be under obedience.”)
And is Gary’s street really named for that tiny carnivorous bird that weighs two ounces but eats larger lizards and rodents? In her classic Southern Gothic novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor describes Hazel Motes, chased by a “wild ragged” Jesus swinging “from tree to tree in the back of his mind,” as having “eyes the color of pecan shells…a nose like a shrike’s bill and a long vertical crease on either side of his mouth.”
Surrounding streets are named for birds as well. Other than Flicker, there’s Finch, Waxwing, Thrasher, and Tarling, since an “avenue” elsewhere in the county was already Starling. Then there’s Redpoll, where rapist and serial killer Patrick Allen Herald staged the body of a prostitute in 1993. What would Herald have thought of that Bible verse that says it’s “better to dwell in a corner of the housetop, than with a brawling woman in a wide house”?
Back at the (possibly) smallest church in Jacksonville, I talk to Minnie, whose house next door was built in 1934. She’s as tiny as she is old. Her skin looks like paper on bulbous blood vessels and bones, if paper were made of silk. I’ll make no pun on her name and its homonym.
She’d expect a Holiness church to be loud, raucous, charismatic. She knows what they’re like. She knows about the singing and foot-stomping and “speaking in tongues,” quotes the Book of Acts, in the New Testament: “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
But Minnie’s never heard a sound from this church whose name is bigger than its sanctuary. I call the church’s posted phone number. No one answers. I show up for Sunday morning services. Alone. The newest mail that drips from the pitched-roof, brick, concrete-block and stucco mailbox is six months old. How could I yet imagine the women who preached and praised and hollered and hosanna’d without headscarves here, in spite of the Bible verse that says, “Every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head”?
Lincoln Villas, as so many other communities, urban districts, and unincorporated municipalities mostly built for or inhabited by black residents between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, named itself for the president who’d issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Jacksonville didn’t absorb Lincoln Villas until city-county consolidation in 1968. It’s still mostly rural, mostly black, but most of its wooden 1920s and ’30s and ’40s houses have been demolished.
Traveling these roads both lush and barren, both historied and never-been (since the earth—especially in Florida—takes the world over so quickly, viciously, verdantly) reveals as many churches as homes. Houses don’t last long here, but churches spring anew like the earth does: Like irony: The earth consumes churches just after they’re sprung.
On Flicker Avenue, there’s Jesus Christ Deliverance Center, Moncrief True Church of God, New Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church, True-light Ministries Non-denominational Church, and this smallest church (in the woods) in the city. Flicker Avenue’s only three rural blocks, numbering 24 addresses, including non-residential municipal properties owned by the Jacksonville Electric Authority and the City of Jacksonville.
And on these few blocks women preached, roared, and prophesied, despite that verse of the Bible that says, “The man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.”
Surrounding streets list as many churches, including First New Zion Missionary Baptist, which since Minnie Hall’s death has become Deliverance Temple Global Ministries, around the corner.
Minnie Hall was no mere member of First New Zion at 8225 Moncrief Dinsmore Road, but—as her obituary claimed on April 19, 2004, 14 years before someone who called herself Minnie Hall talked to me about Jesus Christ the Son of God Holiness unto the Lord Revival Church, next door to her home at 5951 Flicker—“the mother of the church.”
Minnie’s wooden church, built in the 1950s, holds fast a story-and-a-half tower. I won’t spell my confusion out for you. I still don’t fall for ghosts. Nor could I have expected less from the smallest church in the city. No turn in any story surprises me. Even back on these sad, lush, poor, rich, desolate, vibrant roads, I recognize all too easily the ways the world deludes us.
When Emanuel Washington III refers to the little sanctuary on Flicker as his parents’ first church, I make the mistake of calling it his father’s. “Actually it was my mother’s church,” he says. Ethel Washington founded and pastored it, while Emanuel Washington Jr. co-pastored, despite that Bible verse, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.”
From 1982 to 1986, Ethel Washington’s Church of the Redeemed met at 5943 Flicker, where Jesus Christ the Son of God Holiness unto the Lord Revival Church sits today. Emanuel says, “People enjoyed the Bible study, but no one wanted to become a member as long as the church was held in that tiny little shack.”
When Emanuel was a boy, his mother took the family to hear “the First Lady of New Thought,” Johnnie Colemon, at the church she’d founded in 1956, Christ Universal Temple in Chicago. Louis Farrakhan played violin on his 60th birthday there in 1993. Barack Obama spoke there in 2005.
As far back as 1902, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James called “New Thought” a “Mind-cure movement,” related in some ways to Emersonian Transcendentalism, empirical idealism (George Berkeley’s systemic philosophy based in the notion that reality is a mindset), even Hinduism. James describes New Thought as bearing “an intuitive belief in the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes as such, in the conquering efficacy of courage, hope, and trust, and a correlative contempt for doubt, fear, worry, and all nervously precautionary states of mind.”
By the time Ethel Washington died in 2010, the church begun on Flicker Avenue had moved to its third and largest yet location, a red brick sanctuary at 2311 W. 12th Street, approximately 10 times the size of that first building, and added one word to its name, becoming the Mighty Church of the Redeemed.
I triangulate sanctuaries and come back to Jesus Christ the Son of God Holiness unto the Lord Revival Church. The boggy earth smells sweet and sour, metallic and pungent. Something glitches in the sky back of the pines. A charley-horse wrenches the heavens. A male voice, deep, slowed-down like a dragging vinyl record, recites the Bible: “As the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their husbands.” Then the fact of Ethel Washington and Minnie Hall burns silver in the blue sky like tintype and is undeniable.
To hell with men who believe it their right, as instructed in the verses of the Biblical book of Deuteronomy, chapter 21, when “seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her,” then “thou shalt bring her home to thine house,” and “thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife,” but “if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go wither she will.”
Here’s to Minnie Hall! Here’s to Ethel Washington! Here’s to the fact that each woman spoke in the church the other founded! Here’s to Artemisia Gentileschi, whose 1614-1620 painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes, an interpretation of a Biblical scene, depicts Gentileschi as Judith decapitating Holofernes as Agostino Tassi, the artist who’d raped Gentileschi!
When I was a child, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” terrified me. If I had to fear fear, it seemed, I had to fear fearing anything, everything. No one pointed me to New Thought writer William Walker Atkinson’s 1908 book Thought Vibration or the Law of Attraction in the Thought World , in which he writes, “[Do not] fear Fear, for he’s a cowardly chap at the best, who will run, if you show a brave front.”
I raise a dog-eared copy of Thought Vibration, shake it fitfully, forget the toast I’ve prepared, release from my throat the voices of women, and bow down to the earth, which knew our abnegations before she ever grew the first flower from a corpse.