By Rick Marschall
Special to ASSIST News Service
Swartz Creek, Mich. – A number of years ago I was working on a book, a three-part biography of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, and country music superstar Mickey Gilley, who all are first cousins to each other. A friend offered me his unused condo in Montgomery, Texas, to get away for research and writing one summer. Since Lewis lived in Mississippi, Swaggart in Louisiana, and Gilley in nearby Pasadena, Texas, it made geographical sense.
Once settled, I took out the Yellow Pages to chart the location of Assembly of God churches for all the weeks ahead, intent on visiting as many as I could. East Texas was in every way new to me, and I wanted to experience everything I could. I was born in New York City… you get the picture.
Well, the first church I visited was in Cut and Shoot, Texas. That’s the town’s name; you can look it up. A small, white frame AG church was my first stop that summer… and I never visited another. For one thing — coincidence? — I learned that a member of the tiny congregation was the widow of a man who had pastored the AG church in Ferriday, La., the small town FOUR HOURS AWAY where, and when, those three cousins grew up in its pews. She knew them all, and their families, and had great stories. Beyond that, the pastor of the church in Cut and Shoot, Charles Wigley, had gone to Bible College in Waxahachie, Texas, with Jerry Lee Lewis and played in a band with him, until Jerry Lee got kicked out. Some more great stories.
But there was more than that kept me there for that summer. In that white-frame church and that tiny congregation, it was, um, obvious in three minutes that I was not from East Texas. Yet I was treated like family as if they all had known me three decades. It was the Sunday before July 4, and a fellow named Dave Gilbert asked me if I’d like to go to his farm for the Fourth where a bunch of people were just going to get together and “do some visitin’.”
On the Fourth I bought the biggest watermelon I could find as my contribution to the get-together. Well, there were dozens and dozens of folks. I couldn’t tell which was family and who were friends, because everybody acted like family. When folks from East Texas ask, “How ARE you?” they really mean it. There were several monstrous barbecue smokers with chimneys, all slow-cooking beef brisket. (Every region brags about its barbecue traditions, but I’ll still fight anyone who doesn’t claim low-heat, slow-smoked, no sauce, East-Texas BBQ as the best) There was visitin,’ after all; there were delicious side dishes; there was softball and volleyball and kids dirt-biking; and breaks for sweet tea and spontaneous singing of patriotic songs.
I sat back in a folding chair, and I thought, “THIS is America.”
As the sun set, the same food came out again — smoked brisket galore; all the side dishes; and desserts of all sorts. Better than the first time. Then the Gilberts cleared the porch of their house. People brought instruments out of their cars and trucks. Folks tuned their guitars; some microphones and amps were set up; chairs and blankets dotted the lawn. Dave Gilbert and his brothers, I learned, sang gospel music semi-professionally in the area. Pastor Wigley and his saxophone, later in the summer, opened for Gold City Quartet at a local concert. But everyone else sang, too. In some churches, in some parts of America, you’re just expected to sing solo every once in a while. You’re not only expected to — you WANT to. So into the evening, as the sun went down and the moon came up over those farms and fields, everyone at that picnic sang, together or solo or in duets or quartets. Spontaneously, mostly. Far into the night, exuberantly with smiles, or heartfelt with tears, singing unto the Lord.
I sat back in a folding chair, and I thought, “THIS is Heaven.”
Recently I came across a video that very closely captures the music, and the feeling — the fellowship — of that evening. A wooden ranch house, a barbecue picnic just ended, a campfire, and singers spontaneously worshiping, joining in, clapping, and “taking choruses.” There were cameras at this one, this video, but it took this city boy back to that Fourth of Ju-lye, finding himself amongst a brand-new family, the greatest barbecue I ever tasted before or since… and the sweetest songs I know.
Rick Marschall is the author of 65 books and hundreds of magazine articles in many fields, from popular culture. He is recipient of the 2008 “Christian Writer of the Year” award from the Greater Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, and produces a weekly e-mail devotional, “Monday Morning Music Ministry.” His e-mail address is: RickMarschall@gmail.com.