The traveling minister Reverend Myrtle Black is a proud, strong African American woman, passionately devoted to God, justice, and intimate female contact. Enraged over a brutal assault on two young prostitutes, the good pastor comes to Nashville intending to organize local women in protest over the racism and sexism the city’s officials seem all too eager to ignore. Then, in the course of her crusade, a beautiful, profoundly damaged stranger walks through the church door . . . and turns Myrtle’s life upside down.
A world-famous rhythm-and-blues singer, Travis Lee has experienced more than her share of pain and heartbreak. Having hit rock bottom—burned out on drugs and stuck in her latest very bad relationship—she comes to Reverend Myrtle seeking the kind of hope and salvation only Jesus can bring. What she experiences instead is a profound and powerful physical and emotional attraction that neither she nor the minister can ignore. But in the media spotlight, in this town where intolerance rules, a love such as theirs is a most dangerous thing, inspiring the hatred and violence of those who would go to any lengths to destroy it.
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About the Author
Ann Allen Shockley is an acclaimed writer of novels and short fiction, as well as a librarian, critic, and editor. She is best known for her book Loving Her, which was the first novel to feature an interracial lesbian relationship. A self-described black feminist, Shockley writes about the struggles and the achievements of individuals battling sexism, racism, and homophobia. Her other works include the novel Say Jesus and Come to Me and The Black and White of It, a collection of short stories. She currently lives in Tennessee.
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Say Jesus and Come to Me
By Ann Allen Shockley
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Ann Allen Shockley
All rights reserved.
Myrtle sat as majestic as a black queen in the high, straight-backed thronelike chair in the pulpit of the Hillside Union Church. She made an imposing figure in her red robe with the black braid fringing the collar and sleeves like icicles. Her clerical wardrobe contained gowns for each day's service in a revival week. This was an expensive variation, but the way she looked was important in getting herself across, along with the word of the Lord.
She could detect by the gaping of the country worshipers that she was creating a strong impression on the packed congregation. Her thick black hair was wrapped in mountainous tiered coils above her head, enhancing the beauty of her rich dark complexion and pointed features. A white missionary who had been to Africa told her years ago that she resembled the Hausa women in northern Nigeria. When the white apostle of the religious faith went on to relate the history of the Hausa who developed pre-European cities and governments, the knowledge nourished her budding, young ego. Soon after this revelation, she began to develop the habit of drawing her lean body up straighter to make herself appear as lofty and regal as a mountain. In the confines of her own imagination, she was a proud transplanted African queen reincarnated out of the past, who possessed an inherent bred-in-the-bone gift to be a savioress and high priestess of her people.
Shifting restlessly in her chair while listening impatiently to the droning voice of the host minister, her sharp black eagle eyes appraised the congregation. She was still packing them in, even though it was a Thursday night. The Reverend Tinder Mills's introductory praises of her, delivered in a monotone, sifted through her ears: "Yes, indeed, we are especially happy to have with us again tonight the renowned Reverend Myrtle Black, who came all-l the way from South Carolina for this three-day revival to help spread the word of the Lord and save those in need."
Watching him closely, Myrtle wondered how the short, balding minister, dressed in a shiny, frayed black suit, managed to hold his church together. By the look of things if it wasn't for the faithfulness of the congregation, there wouldn't even be any church building. The walls were peeling and the pews looked like they had been obtained from Goodwill. Myrtle was critical of all male ministers because they were a threat to her. But, no matter how dilapidated a church, she still dressed elegantly in her expensive, fashionable robes. This was done to outclass the males and provide an ostentatious show to help her with her own pursuits—if a thing of interest was around.
One of decided interest had been found on the front row pew the first night. The girl had been there for all the services, and Myrtle's experienced and appreciative eyes had singled her out immediately when she came slinking down the aisle exuding an aura of sex. The object of her attention was a cute girl, tawny colored with long eyelashes and a rosebud face. It was her figure that really got next to Myrtle—the ripening curves readymade for tactile exploration. This evening they were bursting out all over in a tight-fitting green dress. She was hesitant to guess if the lovely's interests were aroused. The signs indicated that they were. The girl had kept her eyes glued on Myrtle in rapture, clinging to every sacred word. Myrtle blessed her with the pseudonym Magdalen and designated her seating locality to be the crucial amen corner.
"Befo' the Reverend Black brings her stirring message, let's turn to page eighty in our hymnals and sing 'God's Goin' to Help Us On,'" the Reverend Mills said.
The barrel-shaped pianist with a lopsided black wig thumped out a loud chord on the upright piano, signaling the ten-voice choir to lead the congregation. There was a heavy scraping of feet as bodies rose sluggishly from the pews to raise their voices in song:
God's go-in' to help
Us on to glo-o-ry.
Myrtle stood up with them, her voice rising loud and clear above the others. Her father had always drilled into her that she had a good-sounding voice for "preaching the gospel and making it hold." In keeping with this, he started her instilling the word of the Lord at the age of twelve. From church to church in cities, hamlets, and towns, she joined her evangelist mother and father as a propagandist for the faith. When her father died of a heart attack in the pulpit, her mother took the circumstances of his death to be a sacred omen of their divine mission to continue the family tradition of spreading the Almighty's wisdom and carrying on the good work. Through the years, Myrtle developed a proficiency in propagating the gospel and psyching the secret minds of those seeking spiritual guidance.
Not only did she perfect her voice, but herself in dispensing God's word. In line with her skill and training in theology, she also became adroit in the ways of the mortals who sought sexual love. The initiation into sex was subtly given by other lady ministers, churchwomen, and gospel singers who loved to hug, pet, kiss, and furtively fondle the "cute little girl preacher."
She remembered the first one who took her all the way down the path of carnal love. The Reverend Lily Smith was a huge, buxom woman five years older than Myrtle's mother. At the age of sixteen while a guest minister at the Reverend Smith's church in Cloverdale, Kentucky, she spent the night in the small cinder block one-bedroom parsonage behind the church. Here she shared the bed with her hostess minister, and that night there was more than the usual kisses and hugs she received from the sisters during her travels. She got very little rest that night, and the good, good feeling introduced to her never left. From then on, she angled for it with an addict's zealousness.
As she became older, the whispers grew about her on the evangelists' circuits. She had more females following her and filling the pews than males. The men who attended her services did so either out of curiosity to hear a female minister acclaimed as one of the best, or to entice her into their beds. When reflecting upon this side of her nature and sex in the church, she often declared to herself: If people only knew the extent of the gay life in the black church!
The song ended, and the Reverend Mills offered a brief prayer: "Dear Lord, we are gathered here again to hear Thy word—"
When he finished, the congregation sat down and Myrtle came forth in her long, self-assured strides to take her place behind the lectern. The church was permeated with a hushed, expectant silence, and she took advantage of the captured stillness to stand dramatically before them like an ominous accuser and savioress. Eyebrows pinching together in a heavy frown, her gaze circled the room, penetrating through the worshipers like the power of God. Finally she rested her sight on the girl staring up at her, lips half-parted, face flushed with admiration. Myrtle realized time was running out. She would have to move in from the pulpit, since tonight was her last chance.
Abruptly she opened her mouth wide to let the words scream a shock, breaking the silence: "Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak: And let the earth hear the words of my mouth."
"Luke, fourth chapter, eighteenth verse says: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.'"
Like phosphorous lightning, Myrtle moved quickly from behind the rostrum to the side in full view of the congregation. "Yes-s-s, I know there are you who are op-press-ed by this unjust society, by selfish family members, and by disloyal loved ones." To this, she saw Magdalen nod her head, and thought: The poor girl's been deceived by a lover. Myrtle knew that she must utilize this disclosure. "But, fortunately, the world is not made of all-l-l oppressors. There are people who can give help, kindness, and love to heal the wounds and make you whole and fre-e-e again. The greatest force for freeing the oppressed is the power of love. Love for all-l-l. Love is the equalizer, for if you are filled with love, you won't have the desire to deceive, betray, be the conqueror or enslaver of humankind!"
"Ev-errryone needs love. 'Man shall not live by bread alone—'"
Ain't it the truth!
"I kno-o-w!" Myrtle bellowed to the rafters, lifting her arms high, the balloon sleeves of her robe falling back to expose a diamond watch given to her by a former lover—a retired minister of the Apostolic faith. "I tri-i-ed to live without sharing human love once—" She paused for effect. The personal confession, whether a lie or truth, invariably aroused them.
At this instant, she saw Magdalen's body jerk upright. Her lips were slightly apart as she leaned forward eagerly to hear. Perceiving the intense exhibition of interest by the girl, Myrtle began to hammer home. "I know you can't live without love. All people should have someone to love, hold, share sadness and gladness—"
"Yes-s-s, Lord!" The shrill lone sanctioning voice came from Magdalen, who was bent halfway out of her seat, glassy eyes fastened on the Reverend.
Upon seeing the girl's dress slide up farther exposing the soft, firm thighs pressed together, Myrtle wet her lips. It was time to spew forth fire and brimstone, she thought, to heat up the church and Magdalen. "Jesus-s-s believed that love is the key to the goo-oodness of humankind. Through love, you can accomplish anything and everything. I have love within me. You have love within you and you!"
"I do!" the girl exclaimed, waving her arms excitedly.
Myrtle savored the quickening movements of the full breasts jiggling from the action of her arms. I'll bet you do, she mused, envisioning the feel of the twin spheres in the palms of her hands.
"You got to have love in your mind, soul, and hearts. You got to love Him who giveth love." On this cue, she began to move, strolling up and down in a prance on the pulpit, the folds of her robe swinging in a billowy cloud. Her arms flailed, punctuating the words spewing forth, while her voice intensified, rising and falling like a singer's without music.
"The world has no room for oppressors—white, black, man, woman. Love is the key, the redeemer. I want to hear this wonderful choir sing my mother's favorite hymn—the song she requested on her deathbed that I have sung in remembrance of her wherever I preached—'Love is Life.'"
The pianist crashed down dissonantly on the keys and the choir rose to sing. "Ah-h-h, yess-s, sing about the wonders of love!" Myrtle urged, before stepping down from the pulpit to pace rhythmically up and down in front of the church, spreading her arms in an allembracing gesture. Suddenly she stopped in front of Magdalen, who was staring at her in a hypnotic trance.
Looking down upon her, Myrtle asked low, "Honey, you got love in your heart?"
The girl stared at her, half in awe, half in adoration, and nodded her head in assent. Myrtle's eyes drew flints of light which pinpointed the young body in a sensuous caress.
As though a signal had been given, the girl leaped out of her seat to fling her arms about Myrtle. "Love! I got love in my heart!"
"This child's got love in her heart!" Myrtle screamed to the rear of the church, squeezing Magdalen in an embrace. The singing stopped and the congregation belched forth assertions of joy for the girl with love in her heart.
Magdalen was crying and trembling, wrapped inside the batlike cape of Myrtle's robe. Myrtle felt the youthful body pressing against her and swallowed hard. Using the fullness of the robe to camouflage her movements, she tightened her arms around the tantalizing form and ground her hips into the girl, rotating them as she pretended to sway with her holy utterances to the worshipers: "Jesus-s-s is love!"
God, the girl sure felt good, good, good fastened to her like that. Was she imagining it, or were Magdalen's hips answering back, gyrating bone against bone, leg to leg, pelvis rubbing pelvis? What a glorious feeling! It was so magnificent that a slight wetness began to ooze down between her legs as the ache there grew sharper. She sucked in her breath with a hiss, reminding herself that she was supposed to be preaching, not dry-fucking.
To mask her sexual excitement, which was causing her to breathe faster, she looked up over the girl's head at the churchgoers, although she really did not see them for she was blinded by her overwhelming passion. Maneuvering her voice to rise and gasp out the words in frenetic passion, she shouted, "Jesus loves ev-errybody. All those great and small, rich and poor, ugly and beautiful—" At this point, she expertly pressed her thumb over the angle of Magdalen's jaw and kept it there. The girl fainted in her arms. "See, God has struck this child with love!"
Two stewardesses in white uniforms rushed forward, but Myrtle waved them away. "I can bring this child back to her earthly home. Child, look at me," she ordered, releasing her pressure.
The girl slowly opened her eyes in the arms of Myrtle, who pretended to bend over to see if she had been revived. Then she whispered without moving her lips, "Meet me afterwards?"
The girl mouthed consent.
"Bless you child," Myrtle said aloud. And under her breath: "My black Buick's parked at the back of the church." Solicitously she eased the girl back to her seat, slyly brushing her hand across her breasts.
"Let's all follow the example of this child and get filled with the spirit of love. I can help you to see the light; to know God's word by joining in spirit with Him!"
The choir began one of its own homespun rolicking renditions, the pianist thumping out a foot-stomping, earsplitting, body-shaking beat. "Praise the Lord!" Myrtle cried, shaking her head and pulling up her robe to perform some intricate footwork that would have made a professional dancer envious. This part of the service always worked them up. She called it the release of tensions to God. As the repenters filed up to her, she stopped to shake their hands, kiss and bless them.
The music became more rocking, louder, and someone produced a tambourine which added to the beat. Myrtle's face was twisted in delirious holy flight as she began once more to wiggle her body and shuffle her feet in time with the music. She imagined herself an ancient Hausa queen performing religious rites around a fire in the African thicket. The movements and mind-image heated her spiritually and sexually, causing her thoughts to focus around the young thing and how it was going to be later. So-o-o goo-ood! With this anticipation in mind, her rhythmic twisting movements happily carried her back to the girl whose eyes were riveted on her in fascination.
Smiling, Myrtle half opened her mouth to dart out her tongue in a snakelike path before she said, "Say Jesus and come to me!"
"Hallelujah! Jesus-s-s!" the girl yelled back, standing up wavering, face ecstatically convulsed in orgasmic agitation as she swayed toward Myrtle. "I'm com-m-ing!"CHAPTER 2
Myrtle's eyes opened for the second time that morning in the blind-drawn chalky mist of the motel room. The girl, whom she had named Magdalen but had discovered was Leotha, had had to leave early for work in the burton factory. Before she departed, their lips had pressed together in deep good-bye kisses with Myrtle fervently promising to write and keep in touch, murmuring her routine words of tearful endearments and commiserations reserved for such partings. As soon as the girl closed the door, Myrtle, exhausted from the sexual demands of the young thing, promptly went back to sleep.
Now fully awake and leisurely resting in bed ruminating over the past evening, she felt pleased with herself, glorying in the long, stimulating night of lovemaking. The girl, obviously not a novice in the art of Sapphic loving, had been very receptive. Smiling to herself, Myrtle stretched out lazily, still smelling the too sweet fragrance of the young thing's cheap perfume. Streaks of powder and lipstick stained the white of the other pillow like a disconnected face.
The bed and room flagrantly testified to loving. In contrast to her usual orderliness, the place was a mess. Her two-hundred-dollar robe had been thrown in careless haste across a chair, and underclothes and shoes made a helter-skelter path to the bed. On the dresser were a seven-dollar tray of assorted soggy hors d'oeuvres, and a champagne bottle floating precariously in a plastic bucket of melted ice. Champagne was bought to impress the cute things. The room was murky with the odors of wine, Leotha's cigarettes, woman-sweat and sex.
The caution of time reared its warning into her thoughts. She reached over to look at her watch on the nightstand. It was 10:00 A.M., which meant that the time had arrived to start moving, shower, and get on the road. She was due in Nashville that evening to preach for a week. She liked the big cities best, for there she could get lost and loose.
Excerpted from Say Jesus and Come to Me by Ann Allen Shockley. Copyright © 1982 Ann Allen Shockley. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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