Ok here is something a bit different. I have been getting a bit bored of the sound of my own writing (but I still love an oxymoron). So I have decided to write a piece of fiction inspired by my visit to Shiloh Pentecostal Church on Ashwin Street . None of these names in my post are real people and some information has been altered to avoid upsetting certain people. Most of what is written is a white middle class agnostic boy’s fantasy about an elderly working class West Indian Christian woman. Hope it’s not as portentously offensive as I first feared. Pray for me.
Sister Seymour don’t smile! So say the children. The pearls of her mouth stay hidden when the children use such poor grammar. A steely stern face with a square jaw and beady eyes are set in a forever frown, unforgettable in her expression and inquisitive of others. An aged beauty queen, she wears her maturity proudly but stiffly, her captivating appearance demands attention but her temperament will turn to anger at those who stare. Once pretty but now glamorous, she is an icon mistaken for a relic by those outside the church walls. Casting a stretching shadow from such a small stature, her presence is as far reaching and powerful as her frame is thin and frail. The children don’t know why they are scared but they are, maybe it’s because Sister Seymour asks so many questions without speaking a word. What reasons can be read from those wrinkles? Who got the goat of the God fearing Gran? And why should the children share her scorn?
So much time has passed Sister Seymour that she is destined to be late. Feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs are all set to slower clock hands than life itself. Luckily Shiloh Pentecostal Church’s sole purpose is to elevate oneself outside time and bask in God’s loving grace. Shiloh’s pure spiritual worship is not restricted by the routine rituals of other churches. God is never late the congregation are always early and Sister Seymour follows the Lord so devoutly that she perpetuates his poor time keeping. Straddled between the wooden stair bannister and her elderly companion Dorothy for support, Sister Seymour makes her entrance an hour into the choir’s rhythmic heavy hymn harmonies. Leaving the stairs Dorothy takes all her weight only alleviated by handshakes and hugs that shepherd Sister Seymour to her seat. Everyone knows that without Dorothy such an entrance might not have been possible, everyone knows except Sister Seymour.
Dorothy don’t complain, Christians can’t or shouldn’t. Dorothy knows it will be her time soon, to be the weight that all good Christians must carry. Sister Seymour is not grateful because it is Gods will, Dorothy, Kima, Sister Clarence are all part of God’s chosen few. No hindrance it should be an honour. The Lord is repaying her for 70 years of dedication to spreading his good word but also the millions of escorts she facilitated that saw the elderly West Indian Christian female community of east London be transported from their humble houses to his glorious home. Not that Sister Seymour dislikes Dorothy she finds her company comforting, it’s just that Dorothy is twenty years younger in age and thirty in spirit. Dorothy dresses like a good Christian woman, wearing a bright blue patterned headscarf and matching dress that covers her knees and shoulders offset by a regulatory plain beige raincoat. The blue is a bit too strong on the eyes for Sister Seymour who prefers conventional black and white dresses and wears a large brown cloth hat instead of a head scarf. No Dorothy is definitely the image of Pentecostal purity but she has a tendency to hurry and hassle and sometimes fuss and fight with others, always with opinions that need to be heard to be validated. Sister Seymour reasons that this is due to her spiritually searching; that Dorothy is slightly unrested and insecure in her soul; She will come of age, Sister Seymour knows this to be true and like her she will be more spiritually at peace. Eventually Dorothy will abandon her dynamo dancing for a slower and more constant form of spirituality but for now she must enjoy her senior youth. Sister Seymour does not need to search for God she knows he is here in her and she won’t let him leave.
A Christian circus of celebration or “a carnival to life,” as one past pastor once described Sunday worship. It still entertains, fascinates and touches Sister Seymour but now she knows how to appreciate God in his many images and not just through her own connection. God is most gratuitously on show in the feverish dancing that fills the nave, arms waving, bums waggling; such infectious celebration makes the congregation conduits to the Holy Spirit. For a time she thought God needed her groove and her spirit would be lacking if she constrained her celebrations but she has become wiser to his ways. Cathartic cries from the congregation in response to the choir chimes are essential to church but they no longer hold the key to Sister Seymour’s faith. She can sing him in silence and knows he will hear. Not that the sight of such ceremony does not stoke her heart and give hope for God’s future when she is gone. Raised as a good Methodist girl she remembers coming to this country and it taking years for others to let her celebrate God’s loving grace as she had back home. Joining the Shiloh Pentecostal church in 1978 she recalls the long road to acceptance that led to the regular Sunday serenade of God’s good work in a chapel that the congregation could call their own. Moving into a new building filled with discarded wooden pews from other churches the congregation believed they could never have been richer but now they have a full band, large choir, live PA system, overhead projector and further plans to add a lift to tackle the outside stairs, as well as HD plasma screens for hymns, readings and sermons and even plans ea new vestry. The church has learned that God’s loving grace knows no financial limit. Time has taught Sister Seymour that such material wealth should not cocoon the church and all new found riches bestowed on the Sunday service should be balanced with preaching the good lord’s word in the pouring wet cold outside Dalston Kingsland’s Shopping Centre on a Saturday.
Others have been and gone but their faces live on in the families that still go to Shiloh. The cycle of Christian learning is passed down through generations. Many would not remember the conceiving of Kayla, the sweet and attentive usherette whose father was the scandalous Derek but Sister Seymour knows all. She was pleased to know, that such a sweet natured girl could come from the neglectful nurture of an often absent father. Age had given her a better perspective of God’s work so she had grown silently tolerant to people’s inadequacies especially the well intentioned. Recent young pastors pleased her but no longer seduced her like the preachers from her past. The young faced, fine dressed and some called handsome preacher from Antigua was such a man that might once have had her swooning in the aisles but he is but a boy to her old eyes. Like the others he too was learning. Last week’s sermon was far too long, the reading could have been paraphrased, the jokes at his wife’s expense were not suitable for a Sunday and the young pastor was yet to learn how to climax a religious rant into an uplifting halleluiah. All these points can be improved once given the time but time cannot save “the broken,” and time has not yet begun for “the reborn.” “The broken, and “the reborn,” are Christian infants and the church’s essential charity cause.
Bessie Walcott calls them “the broken,” but Sister Seymour has learned how cruel and unchristian such gossip and name calling can be. True they are on the fringes of the church community but they are God’s children and Sister Seymour in her later years has found more hope from “the broken,” than from the self-declared saved. Positioned at the back of the nave behind the sound desk “the broken,” are not united by one disability but have been victim to the devil’s many afflictions. Some medical, others mental, but none spiritually disadvantaged. Joy cannot be broken it can only fix one’s soul, so when watching the collection of life’s casualties find such pleasure Sister Seymour almost has reasons to smile but she saves that for the yet to be “reborn.”
The children are clustered in the church corner to the right of the sound desk just in front of “the broken.” More often silent than singing, any non-Christian sound would rightly be scolded by a stare from Sister Seymour. As a self-declared grand high matriarch, her role to rule with an iron fist that is never raised makes her a passive dictator. Only through obedience and discipline can children be reborn to a Christian life, like the disadvantaged their struggle is far more honest to Sister Seymour’s eyes. Not that all the children listen, a broken window in the church nave indicates that few delinquents venture into the church except through chucking stones. The ones who are willing to be taught the trials of life through the cold face of Sister Seymour will gain her approval but it will not be recognised till she feels it’s deserved. The longer the wait the better has always been her reasoning; a few times she let her expression succumb to a smile which caused the children to shout with joy at her amazing pearls on display. A smile is free but does not need to be cheap. Her own wait has been long and she feels better for it, she is ready herself to see the smile of God and she can feel his mouth creasing at the prospect of welcoming her to heaven. Church quickly taught her that the joy of God is a loud and wondrous thing but only through life has she gradually learned that it is also contemplative and silent. Some spiritualism is so hard to describe it can only exist though an absence, like a face without a smile.