The tent is huge—the largest I’ve ever seen. It’s been set up in a grassy field next to the small Sears store. The Sears catalog is where, when I still believed in Santa, I got my ideas for what I wanted for Christmas or, when I was older, for what to tell my parents I wanted and, when even older, I got a thrill from the models in underwear. But this Sears is just for mowers, refrigerators, washing machines, and other boring stuff. Nothing a kid would want, except maybe a riding lawn mower.
But tonight, the Sears store is not on my mind. The Tent Revival is. It’s the biggest show in our small town. And I am a little kid with big, frightened eyes. Hundreds and hundreds of people are walking across the field to get inside the tent. I’m not sure why we’re going. We already go to church a lot. Sunday School, Sunday Worship Service, Training Union on Sunday evenings along with Sunday Evening Worship Service, a Covered-Dish Supper and a Prayer Meeting on Wednesdays, Royal Ambassadors—our church’s version of scouting—on Mondays after school, and Vacation Bible School in the summer. It’s like my parents think they will go to Hell if they miss just one thing the church offers. Or, maybe they think there is a special prize for the Most Devoted Parents. Whatever the reason, we are making our way across the grass to take our place inside the tent.
Once inside, we wait for it to start. I wonder what “it” is. Someone walks up to the microphone on the stage, tells us to bow our heads, then leads us in prayer. We keep our heads bowed in silent agreement with his supplications to God. “Amen!” we say when he finishes. I don’t like doing the same as everybody else, so I just make a coughing noise—my private little rebellion.
Next, we sing a hymn, although I just shuffle my feet and watch the show. I’m too young to be holding a hymnal and singing along. When I’m older though, my mother will hand me a hymnal at Worship Service and give me the evil eye—meaning I better sing along. If I like the song, I will. Otherwise, I’ll sing a few words here and there—just enough to convince her that I’m trying. Tonight, though, I just watch and wait.
We sing a few more hymns, then someone stands at the microphone and begins to introduce the preacher. He must be someone famous. We are fortunate to have him in our little town nestled among the swamps of North Florida. He’s saved thousands of souls for Jesus. Saved thousands of sinners from perishing in Hell. We must pay for this great man, so we start singing again as ushers walk the aisles with small wicker baskets that are passed down each row to collect our offerings to God and his servant. When I am older and more cynical, I will ask myself how much goes to God and how much to the servant.
Finally, we’re done with the offering, and the great man stands to deliver his sermon. He starts with a prayer, asking us to bow our heads to the Lord. He prays that any Lost Souls who are in the tent tonight will heed the Call of God and come forward to make their public Profession of Faith in Jesus Christ. Next, he reads a passage from the Bible, the Holy Word of the Lord. The scripture verses contain the theme for his sermon tonight—basically that you will suffer for Eternity in the Fires of Hell if you don’t repent and take the Lord Jesus Christ into your heart. He follows the Holy Scripture with stories about the horrible things that happened to people who didn’t have Christ as their Savior. He tells stories about Lost Souls who took Christ into their hearts and turned their lives around, living lives of purpose and meaning, and serving the Lord God faithfully until the end or their days. These are the souls who sit at the right hand of God in Heaven.
But for now, he returns to the horrors that await unrepentant Sinners. He gets louder and louder, pacing to and fro across the stage. The audience is becoming mesmerized. Many shout “Amen!” to punctuate his sermon.
Amen! Amen! Amen!
Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!
Some members of the audience begin Speaking in Tongues. Others throw themselves onto the sawdust-strewn aisles, where they plead for Mercy from the Lord: Forgive me Father, for I have sinned!
The preacher’s clothes are drenched with sweat, his hair all askew. He’s carrying the Bible and waving it over his head as he roars his ministrations. People raise their arms high, shouting Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Eventually, he begins to slow his pace. He stares at various audience members, acknowledging their piety or their anguish. His voice is calmer now, soothing and encouraging. The audience can sense the end is near, and they begin to look around. Who will walk the aisle tonight? Who will open his heart to Jesus? I wonder to. I’ve already learned that one day, probably soon after I become a teen, I will make my Public Profession of Faith. Be baptized in the Baptismal Pool that sits above and behind the choir in the church sanctuary. It’s supposed to be done willingly, of course. It’s not a requirement. We can’t force you to be saved, they say. But I know that defying them will cost plenty. And that I will go along with it just so I don’t have to pay the price. But I must admit it does look pretty exciting to see people hold their breath in their white baptismal robes, be taken underwater by the preacher and held there for a while before they return to the air and to a New Life. I wonder if I can do that without too much fear, without screwing it up in some way—like when Susie wrestled with the preacher when it was time for him to dunk her under the water.
The preacher has begun his final call to Those Who Will Be Saved, Those Who Are Lost, and Those Who Will Be Found. He invites the Music Director to lead the audience in singing Just as I Am. As we sing, the preacher continues to exhort Lost Souls to come forward, to take Christ into their hearts, to walk the aisle to a New Life. He calls to the Doubters, to the Unsure, to Those Who Hate Themselves so much they don’t want to receive Christ’s gift.
And they come. People walk the aisles and kneel in front of one of the many lay ministers who are there to receive them, to welcome them to their New Lives, to tell them the words to say to make their Public Professions of Faith. It takes quite a while for all these Lost Souls to be processed. Through it all the minister never lets up: If you’re holding out, thinking you’ll do it next week, think about this—what if you’re hit by a bus tonight on your way home? What if you don’t make it to next week? Do you want to spend Eternity in Hell? Do you?
And someone sees the wisdom of that argument and walks to the front.
Eventually it comes to a close. We make our way out of the tent, across the field, across the street to where we parked our car. We get inside. We don’t say much on the drive home. There is school tomorrow. Yard-work on Saturday. Church on Sunday.