As hard as it is for some people to believe, I was churched as a child, and somewhere or another, I have the gold Sunday School stars to prove it. So, if I am a heathen, it's certainly not my parents' fault.
There's something real interesting in the fact that religion is one of those deeply personal and private matters that people seem to enjoy murdering, swindling, torturing and raping over, isn't there? (You know who you are, and shame on you, too.)
But one Sunday every year, I head down the road to Wittman, to the New St. John's Methodist Church to attend the Gospel Song Feast. You see, once a year the Rev. Ella Everett comes over from Baltimore with two bus loads of folks from the former Rose of Sharon Baptist Church, and I wouldn't miss that for the worldly world.
I call Reverend Everett Mother, and so do a lot of other people you might not think of in those terms. The purity of that woman's heart just shines out of her. She's up in years now and in a chair, but that doesn't stop her from being one of the most spiritual people I've ever met in my life.
You can take all your Orals and your Tammy Fayes and your Maharishis and sew 'em up in a sack as far as I am concerned; I'll take Mother any day. When you meet a genuinely holy person, you know it. They freely give spiritual comfort and advice; they don't ask for a Mercedes or their very own theme park in Florida.
Mother is a saintly woman whose faith is real, whose blessing I'm humbled to ask for and receive. She can look right into your soul and tell you things no one else knows, see right down into the places where your secrets live. Now, that's a gift.
Pagan I might be, but I hope I'm not so cynical that I don't know sincerity and faith when I see it in someone else. Besides, Reverend Everett is an Eastern Shore woman who was raised right down the road in Claiborne, who picked berries to put herself through school, who knows adversity, endurance and belief. When there's a Gospel Feast there's food for the soul and food for the body and there's the music.
Now you may say, what does this white woman know about African-American church music, and all I can say is I know what I like, and it's not a soloist standing under a baby spot with a microphone crooning some syrupy slush like a Las Vegas lounge singer, as I have seen, because some people like that and that is their right.
What I want is the Rev. Joyce Jenkins singing "Precious Lord." Now, I am here to tell you that woman has the gift.
When that coloratura voice tells you "His Eye is on the Sparrow," it's enough to make an atheist believe. That woman's mezzo can fill up a church to the rafters and touch you where you live. And you haven't lived until you've heard her handle "God Will Take Care of You."
Then there's Sister Margaret Johnson, with a contralto that must wake up Bessie Smith, rich and deep and from the heart. And there's the Rose of Sharon Inspirational Singers and Sister Patricia Brown and Friends.
That's church music. That's the place in the heart from which Aretha and Otis came. It's the music of George Jones and Kitty Wells. It's not just African-American music, it's not just white music; it's the source of all that is uniquely American in our culture, and it belongs to all of us.
Come the holidays, I want the Five Blind boys singing "White Christmas," not the Chipmunks.
Besides, if gospel was good enough for Elvis, it ought to be good enough for you.
Helen Chappell is the amanuensis of Oysterback.