Sunday, May 9, 2010

My first Baptist Church visit

Bill and I attended Mantee Baptist Church where his parents were members. I was amused by the best Sunday dress attire and the country club atmosphere. I was running through my mind the content of my meager wardrobe and it did not seem to find any matches for a suitable Sunday service dress. Needless to say, any event that required dressing well, meant that I would have to borrow a dress as I had no money for frivolous purchases.
I certainly have never seen cookies, coffee, and socializing in our crumbling churches. Orthodox churches had a mystical aura, with their old icons, paintings, candles, incense, statues, and other religious symbols. I felt the presence of God and feared retribution oozing from the medieval walls adorned with symbols of past reverence. I feared that God's wrath might strike sinners for past transgressions. There were no stools or comfortable chairs for the parishoners, we had to kneel on cold concrete or at best carry a pillow from home. The ornate chairs lining the walls were reserved for the deacons and the very elderly patrons of the church, the regulars, as they were called. During almost 30 years of communist reign, very few people dared to show up in church regularly for fear of retribution. The elderly had very little to lose and the regime left them alone. We went to church on Easter, Christmas, for baptisms, weddings, and burials. If you wanted to keep your job, you had to stay away from church. Bibles were hard to find, they were bought, sold, read, and studied underground.
The very poor and destitute congregated around the existing churches, supported by the elderly parishoners' donations and the food donated by families who celebrated weddings, baptisms, and burials. It was customary to cook and give certain foods to the poor "in memoriam" of the deceased.
The American Bible Society had donated thousands of beautiful Bibles but Nicolae Ceausescu, our communist president, had ordered them recycled into toilette paper. The print was so good and their recycling so poor, that Bible verses were still visible. It was blasphemy and I refused to use it. I used newspapers - I preferred ink on my behind, I did not want to deface the word of God. Toilette paper was a precious commodity at that time. Many rolls were so poorly made, I could see wood splinters through the paper. I saved a small roll years later for show and tell for my students and, to this day, they do not believe it. The toilette paper was brownish in color. Americans are so spoiled by Charmin and its abundance, they have no idea how other people live and that life can be any other way but good.
We spent an hour in church during which time we sang, prayed, and listened to the sonorous voice of the preacher. To this day, I have a hard time remembering sermons - after the first two or three sentences my mind wonders off. It is not that I am disrespectful or uninterested, I fall asleep easily, or day-dream when the cadence of the preacher's voice is monotonous.
Orthodox priests wear different garments and ceremonial attire that is significant to their position. Somehow, I could not associate a suit-wearing person with a priest. I was not questioning their religiosity at all, it was just harder to listen.
The liturgy lasted so much longer in the orthodox religion, I was pleasantly surprised at the shortness of the Baptist service, by comparison. Sunday school was a novelty too, lay people were not supposed to teach religion. So I thought.
In the end, running through the gauntlet of parishoners, Bill introduced me to everybody, nice, kind, God fearing people who gawked at me, pinched me, talked about me as if I was not even there, was deaf or dumb, or as if I was not a legal alien, but a bona fide alien from Mars. Nobody had heard of Romania, it might as well have been a crater on Mars. Rural Mississippians did not travel much outside of their communities, much less outside of their state in the 70s. They are salt of the earth kind of people and generous to a fault. As I found out much later, Governor Finch told me in 1979 that I was the only Romanian in the great State of Mississippi at the time. He was looking for a translator for the International Ballet Competition in Jackson and found me. It was a lonely and disheartening feeling to know that I was the only one of a particular ethnic group. Talk about being a minority of one!

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