A Backslider's Trip Back Down to Jesus Country

Submitted into Contest #132 in response to: Write a story where a character is exploring their religious or spiritual identity.... view prompt


Creative Nonfiction

It’s been two days since they left North Carolina. They inch down, further south, running on fumes. The children stare out the window at nothing, exhausted. The adults hang on to a sliver of sanity, powered by the gas station coffee running through their veins. At last, the crunch of gravel wakes the backseat passengers, and the car slows to a stop. The silver-haired matron of the family runs out to greet them. She asks how the drive was and hugs the boys close to her body. Two big pots of pink and purple petunias stretch out around the small wooden bench on the concrete porch. “The nursery was going out of business. Got ‘em for a really good price,” she offers proudly as they follow her inside. “They’re beautiful,” the daughter says. “We’ll see how long they last until I kill ‘em,” she responds with a laugh. The daughter has inherited her mother’s black thumb, has even killed bamboo.

As soon as they cross the threshold, she’s smacked in the face with smells and memories so strong, she knows they’ve lingered long in her bones. She inhales the aroma of her mother’s pot roast that’s slowly simmered all day. She watches her take a big swig of sweet tea, then spear the meat with a long fork and plunk it down on a platter. She sees the juices run all over, pulling the banana peppers down into spicy clumps. Her mother takes the platter to the table, making room for it in the center by pushing the plate of steaming butter biscuits to the side. She follows her with mashed potatoes in one hand and snapped green beans in the other.

Everyone sits down to eat. She eyes the meat with fork in hand when she sees her mother’s out of the corner of her eye, hovering in midair. “Let’s bless this food, ok?” her mother says. She takes her outstretched hand and closes one eye. The scene appears innocent enough, like she’s kept the other eye open to make sure the children keep their grubby hands off the food, but it’s purely out of spite, a rebellious spirit, a strong will, her mother would say.

“Amen,” she finishes and lets go. Plates are passed around, requests are made for more this or that, and forks and knives start clattering. Everyone exhales contentedly. She hasn’t even added extra butter to her biscuit before her mother brings it up. “Ok, so we need to leave here by 10:15 or so because church starts at 10:30.”

Her husband telegraphs a stink eye across the table, and she raises her shoulders and smirks in defeat. This is the South, she thinks, and when we’re down here, we go to church on Sunday. We eat and then we go to church and then we eat again until our pants are tight. So after dinner, she’ll do what she always does and go into the guest bedroom and start laying out everyone’s clothes for in the morning. She’s already starting to worry about what the children might say while they’re there. They’ve both never stepped foot inside a sanctuary.

Her brother-in-law is the pastor of a small Presbyterian church in town, one of four churches located on the same long, barren road. His father was also a pastor in another small town. “We were actually the first one here,” her sister likes to point out. Compared to the church of her childhood, his is stark white and utilitarian. It’s a long rectangular building with four or five concrete steps leading up to two chestnut-colored wooden doors. The doors are draped with two wreaths, updated to match the season. It’s summer now in Mississippi, so white lilies hang inside the circles, drooping down in the heat.

Sunday sweeps in like she knew it would, so they drive in a haze, passing the three other churches until they get to the right one. They have a preemptive talk in the car first, a family huddle. The parents turn around together to face the backseat. They tell the children they are at church. “What is church?” they ask. “Well, remember how your other grandma is a minister? The church is the place where she works.” The parents find relief in the fact that there is one person they know who could help the children put the pieces together. The simple explanation seems enough for them. They clumsily exit the car and all four of them head toward the door, the children wearing their only pairs of khaki shorts and striped polo shirts, hair gelled into angry little combovers.

As soon as they walk up the steps, two older gentlemen greet them with printed bulletins. She holds tightly to hers, a little off-kilter because she doesn’t have a little white Bible to slide the paper inside. The kids look around at the building and at the people, absorbing every detail. Her mother introduces them to everyone and brags endlessly about her daughter and her grandchildren. “We’ve heard so much about you,” they coo and smile. “It’s nice to finally meet you,” they say but she wonders if they even know who she is. “Welcome,” they say, reaching out and grabbing her hand, patting it lightly. She smiles awkwardly at everyone, feeling unsettled and out of place. She ushers the children further and further down the aisle, closer to the front. She finds her sister and nephew and slides everyone into the pew beside them. Its familiar hardness forces her upright, at attention. Her body tries to reject the rigidity, but it doesn’t show in her face as she runs her finger along the hymnals lined up in the pocket in front of her.

She grabs one and turns to the page mentioned in the bulletin. She notices that one of today’s hymns is His Eye Is on the Sparrow and feels a collision of emotion. The organ pipes sound, a melancholy blast to the ear, as everyone rises in muted commotion. Her brother-in-law shares a friendly welcome, asks everyone to turn to their neighbor and pass it along. Clammy sets of hands reach out to shake hers, her husband’s, her children’s. Her forehead moistens and her stomach churns, the mumbled voices overwhelm and then finally they are all asked to take their seats again.

Her sister digs deep inside her purse and produces paper and bright crayon stubs, passes them along to all three boys, and they smile up at her in adoration. Her two begin coloring, little tongues stuck out in concentration. She sees them look up and down to their paper and back up again as if rendering something for an art class. She expects to see a stick figure portrait of her brother-in-law in action, but then she notices her older son staring intently up at Jesus, hanging precariously high on a wooden cross behind the pulpit.

She wonders what’s inside their impressionable brains right then, what thoughts might be knocking around in their soft, tufted heads. Certainly, there will be follow-up questions about the tableau spread out before them, but she prays they will save them for later. She nonchalantly peeks down at her watch but something in her son’s drawing catches her eye. As the sermon drones in the background, she realizes now, with full focus, that her oldest is scribbling and shading a perfect rendition of Jesus in a numbered football jersey.

Yep, that’ll work, she thinks. Jesus is the MVP of the church, she’ll tell them when they ask. And with a smirk, she turns back to page 65 of her hymnal.

February 11, 2022 18:18

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Marty B
21:54 Feb 16, 2022

I recognize going back to church after growing up in it- I certainly know this feeling, 'its familiar hardness forces her upright, at attention' good work!


Ashley Cullen
22:11 Feb 16, 2022

Thanks Marty! :)


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply