Growing Up Baptist, Caught by Judaism
Steeped in an all-encompassing church life, a resonant dream shakes her to her Jesus-Loves-Me core. What happens after pulls her to Judaism.
“Your church friends are always your best friends,” Pastor Yeman was fond of saying, and it was sure true for me growing up in Greenland Avenue Baptist. Bonny Atkins, my next door neighbor, the Magate twins, Gale and Dale and Pat Lovelace–those were my girls. We did everything together and shared all our secrets.
We sang in the youth choir, went on weenie roasts and hayrides with our youth group and joined Sunbeams. As we got a little older we graduated to G.A.s, Girls’ Auxiliary. Both the Sunbeams and G.A.s had their own song. “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” was the Sunbeam song and the G.A. song was “This Little Light of Mine,” a mission with which all G.A. girls were charged. None of us girls knew exactly what that meant, but we were honor-bound to do it—let our light shine, that is. When you were initiated into G.A.s you got dressed up like it was Sunday morning, white gloves, black patent kitten-heel pumps, a dab of Evening in Paris behind your ears, and the barest swipe of Revlon’s Cherries in the Snow on your lips. You had a ceremony where you took a vow to let your light shine for Jesus—and you held a candle to signify your light. You blew it out as soon as the leader pinned the little gold G.A. emblem on your dress.
My best friend at school was Gail Tallman, and she belonged to the Methodist church uptown. I loved nothing more than going to church with Gail on Sunday nights. She sang in her youth choir too, and when I visited they let me sing with them. Sometimes I spent the night with her on Saturday and went to her church Sunday morning and Sunday night. My mother grudgingly allowed it, although it took a whole lot of pleading, cajoling and promising that I would not be swayed by anything I heard that Methodist preacher preaching. My mother was a little overly concerned about my soul. Even though I had been saved, she didn’t want me dabbling around in other religions, because Jesus himself was a Baptist. We knew that because it was John the Baptist who baptized Jesus—dunked him right under in the river. Full immersion, that was the way. Methodists sprinkled. When Jesus said, “I am the way and the only way,” he meant it. And that meant Baptist was the way and the only way. That’s why we baptized. Fond as I was of Gail, Methodists’ salvation was on pretty shaky ground and there was just no way around it.
Another thing about growing up Baptist is you’re at church just about every day of the week. Tuesday nights I had G.A.s and Mother had her circle meeting, Wednesday night we went to prayer meeting, Thursday night, choir practice. Only nights we had off were Monday and Friday, and we probably wouldn’t have had that except most all the deacons bowled on Friday night.
Sunday morning was the highlight of the church week, because on Sunday morning at the close of the sermon was the altar call. The altar call is something unique to Baptists. The choir starts singing real soft-like “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling…calling for you and for me…” and Pastor Yeman is saying, “I want you to get up from your seat right now and walk down the aisle. Jesus is here waiting for you. Say, ‘Jesus, I want you to take this weight of sin from me. I’ve been carrying it so long’. Don’t be ashamed. Jesus said whosoever denies me before man, I will deny before my Father…. Come now, don’t wait till it’s too late….” With the choir singing all five verses and Pastor Yeman pleading, people would just flood down the aisle to the front of the church to accept Jesus as their personal savior.
I was nine years old when I was saved. After you had answered the altar call and been saved you still had to be baptized to make it official. Your mother took you shopping and bought you a beautiful white dress and didn’t make a peep about what it cost. As soon as enough people were saved, there’d be a baptismal service where everybody would get baptized. Every few months or so we’d have one. If you had a baptismal pool in your church you’d do it there and if you didn’t, you’d just go out to the river like Jesus. We had a baptismal pool in our church. The organ would be playing and the preacher would get a good hold on you and say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost” and you’d hold your nose and under you’d go. And you’d come up with your beautiful white dress soaking wet, muddy if you’d been in the river, and your hair dripping, but you were officially saved and it was a happy time. You’d get dried off and change your clothes and there’d be dinner on the grounds and everybody hugged you and treated you real special. You only got to get baptized once, but you could rededicate your life to the Lord as many times as you felt the spirit lead you to.
I rededicated my life to the Lord so many times I lost count. Every time Billy Graham came to town, and in church too. I just loved that feeling walking down that aisle with the music playing, feeling all cleansed and new and good, my mother crying happy tears. It’s the only time I recall feeling like my mother was proud of me or like I was good. Maybe that’s part of the reason I rededicated my life so often. I think I also liked the idea of surrendering to the music; you see, the truth is I suspect it might have been the music I was surrendering to more than Jesus, that feeling of just letting it take you where it would.
My daddy was not a church-going man. “Never darkened the door,” as my mother would say. Once in a while, she’d shame him into going with us on Easter Sunday or for the youth choir’s Christmas Cantata, since I was in it. During the altar call, I’d shut my eyes real tight and pray real hard for Daddy to walk down the aisle and be saved. But when I opened my eyes, he was still in the pew. So our regular routine was that on Sunday mornings Mother and I went to church and Daddy mopped the kitchen floor. “If you won’t cleanse your soul, the least you can do is clean the floor,” she’d say. And Daddy seemed to prefer mopping to praying so it all worked out. This business of my daddy not being a churchgoer wasn’t something I ever gave a whole lot of thought to, although I would have felt better if he’d get saved. Besides saved or no, my daddy was my hero and best buddy. He took me everywhere—to roller derby, the fair, the rodeo, baseball games. We went to see westerns at the movies and the Harlem Globetrotters at the Coliseum. Daddy had been a pitcher on the local league and he taught me how to throw a knuckleball. “There’s no batter that can hit a good knuckleball,” he’d say. He was the grandest person in my world.
Now what I’m about to tell you, you probably won’t believe. That’s okay, I’m going to tell it anyway because I truly believe it happened to prepare me for what would come nearly five years later because it was the remembering of it then that helped me do what I believed I had to do. When I was eight years old, I had a dream that Jesus was sitting at the foot of my bed. I guess the rebbe from Nazareth was the best person God could send to visit an eight-year-old Baptist girl. And remember, I wasn’t even saved yet, so you can see what a kind thing it was for God to do. In my dream, my whole room was lit with a soft, glowing light and I felt his presence all around me. He spoke to me but not with words. It was more like just instant understanding. And as close as I can come to telling you what he said is to tell you how it felt; it was like I was wrapped up in this soft, warm blanket and I felt safe. He said—Go your way, I will always be with you. I will not leave you. Then the light and Jesus were gone, but the feeling was still with me. I can still recall it today—clear as I felt it that night, and I’ll tell you later how that dream opened a new door for me.
One other thing you need to know about Baptists is that they love their revivals and they generally have at least one every year, sometimes more. Revivals are when you bring in a guest preacher for a whole week. He kicks it off on Sunday morning with glorious anthems by the choir, maybe a solo “How Great Thou Art,” a rousing sermon followed by more preaching every night for a solid week building up to the most dramatic service of all the following Sunday morning. That’s the service that closes the revival and determines how successful it’s been by the number of lost souls brought to the Lord.
This particular revival happened the summer I turned 13. It was just fine as revivals went, but it was no record breaker. So the deacons and Pastor Yeman, and the visiting preacher, Pastor Snyder, got together and decided to hold an allnight prayer vigil after the Saturday night service—just like Jesus prayed all night in Gethsemane. Pastor Yeman announced the plan Friday night when he was thanking Pastor Snyder for leading us in such a fine revival. He talked about how good the revival had been and how blessed we were by all the souls that had been won for the Lord but how many lost souls were still out there. Then he dragged out this basket full of rocks right up there on the pulpit and invited the members to come up get one and take home with them and write somebody’s name on it that they had been praying for. You were supposed to bring it with you to the Saturday night service and put it back in the basket. Then they would take the rocks with the names written on them to the prayer vigil. Anybody that wanted to pray with them was invited. My mother went right up there and got her rock. She put it in her pocketbook and carried it home.
Later that night, she came in my room while I was getting ready for bed and she slipped that rock she’d written my daddy’s name on out of her robe pocket and gave it to me. This was her plan. Tomorrow night, we would tell Daddy that I was spending the night with Bonny but actually I would go down to the church and join the prayer vigil so Daddy could go to heaven when he died and be with Jesus and be with us. She thought it was important that I be the one to do the praying. She believed Jesus would listen to a child because he had said, Suffer the little children to come unto me. It was the perfect time, because the youth choir was singing at the Sunday morning service and that’s how we knew Daddy would come to hear me sing. Although I never told my daddy a lie, lying about this particular thing seemed different because I truly believed he needed to get saved, and Jesus said, No man comes unto the father except through me… and whosoever believeth on me shall be saved. Believeth not doeth. Baptists were much bigger on the believing part than the doing part. Believing was the ticket. The doing could be forgiven. The Bible says All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Once you were saved, naturally, you were expected to be doing more good than bad, but there was nothing you could do bad enough that God wouldn’t forgive you. So we lied to Daddy and God forgave us. It wasn’t even a whole lie, just a part lie. I did go home with Bonny after the revival that night. I ate dinner with them and we watched Ozzie and Harriet on television. Then, instead of coming home, I walked on down to the church with my rock. There were a dozen or so people already there. In addition to the deacons, and Pat’s daddy, my Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Dabbs, was there and a few of ladies from my mother’s Lottie Moon circle. Someone had brought a chest with ice and bottles of Coke and there were also pimento-and-cheese sandwiches, cookies and lemon pound cake. I was the only kid there, but they all said how sweet it was that I had come to pray for my daddy. Although it was a warm night, the smooth rock felt cool in my hand as I took it from my pocket and placed in on the pile. I looked at his name written on it, Bernard Proctor, and prayed my own silent prayer, please, Jesus, save him. People took turns taking a rock leading the prayers for that person. At first, it was going just fine but as the night wore on, to tell the truth, I got restless and it got harder and harder for me to stay awake, harder to pray, and I drifted off to sleep more than once. But finally we made it, and as the sun came up, we all held hands in a friendship circle. Then it was done. When I got home, I couldn’t even eat my breakfast, I was so excited. I just said I ate at Bonny’s; got myself ready for church and went over to Bonny’s so we could walk together like we always did.
Even though I knew Daddy would never break a promise, when we filed into the choir loft, I was relieved to see him sitting there in the pew beside my mother, wearing his best grey suit, a white shirt and yellow and grey striped tie. I sang with all my heart because today, my daddy was going to be saved. It was really going to happen! The sermon ended; the organist started playing the soft strains of Just As I Am…and waiting not to rid my soul of one dark blot to thee whose blood can cleanse each spot…. Lost souls began making their way down to the front where they were greeted with open arms by Pastor Yeman and Pastor Snyder. I wasn’t so worried when my daddy didn’t lead the march down the aisle. I just squeezed my eyes shut and sang harder and truer on the second verse. Just as I am though tossed about, with many a conflict, many a doubt, stirrings within and fears without oh, Lamb of God, I come. Still, he didn’t come. Then the final verse. Without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me and that Thou bidst me come to Thee, Oh Lamb of God, I come, I come. Every time you turn Him away, your heart hardens a little more until finally, you can’t even hear Him anymore and you’re lost.
I went straight to my room when we got home. I refused to come out for lunch or supper. I could hear them arguing. She was telling him the whole thing about the rock and the praying about how much store I’d laid by him answering the altar call and couldn’t he have just done this one thing for me whether he believed or not. Of course he hadn’t known any of it, but no matter now—he was going to burn in hell forever, and it was my fault. I had been weak and fallen asleep just like the disciples at Gethsemane. I hadn’t prayed steady and true through the night. Now it was too late. The sun was setting when he knocked softly on my door. “Can I come in, Chicken?” It was like he knew what I was feeling, like he always did, and I could see the sadness in his eyes. He’d never hurt me so bad before, and I knew that hurt him, too. He didn’t say much, just put his arms around me and let me cry. After a while he said, “You sang beautiful today. You know I’d do anything in the world for you. But I can’t do this. Honey, I don’t want you worrying about me. I have my own way of believing. I just don’t believe the same way you and your mother do.” Then he kissed the top of my head and left my room. I am the way and the only way. No! I remembered my dream—Go your way, I will never leave you….
That was the last time I was in church. All I knew was I didn’t want any part of a God that would send my daddy to burn in hell for eternity, and if he was going to, I’d go with him.
Go your way, I will never leave you…. I set out to search for my own way. I was 13. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had become a bat mitzvah. Years later, I learned that my Hebrew birthday is 6 Kislev, 5704, and my birth parasha is Vayetzei. The words God spoke to Jacob after his dream were the same I heard in my dream at eight years old.
For a lot of years—not 40, but for a goodly number—I wandered through my own desert of isms, studying, trying on various wisdom disciplines. In the beginning, I was just angry at God. But mixed in with that anger was also an emptiness. I turned to Sufism, Buddhism and Hinduism. The silence and pacifism of Quakerism spoke to my soul for a time. But it only was when I picked up a copy Martin Buber’s I-Thou, and later immersed myself in stories of Sholem Aleichem—his characters with their strange names—did I realize that I had found my place. I discovered the enlightenment of Abraham Heschel. As a Christian, I had been taught to accept, not question. Here was a faith that not only accepted questioning but encouraged it. I slowly recognized kinship and the knowledge that I had a Jewish soul; that I had stood at Sinai and I was coming home.
I found a rabbi and began studying with him and attending services. He invited me to join a Torah study class and a beginning Hebrew class. I was not even a member of his congregation, yet we studied together weekly and he never asked for a dime. We had studied together for nearly a year when I asked to convert. He turned me away three times—which I did not realize at the time is customary in traditional Judaism. Each time, he turned me away with kindness but also with firmness, saying it was a big decision for one so young, After all, I could meet a nice Christian man, then where would I be! Still I kept coming. On the fourth ask, he accepted me. He stood up, walked around from behind that big desk and embraced me. He said, “You will be a blessing to Israel and the Jewish people.” Now, as a Jew by choice, an adult Anshei Mitzvah, and with close to 50 years of studying with Jewish scholars, studying, questioning and arguing texts that I love—Torah, Talmud, Midrash and the mysticism of Kaballah—I can be grateful for that rock with my daddy’s name on it, and a Baptist revival that served as the impetus to return my Jewish soul to its rightful home.
Susan Proctor is a member of Temple Beth El, a Reform congregation in Charlotte, NC. Her work has also appeared in Jewish Values.