“Knowing where you come from is one thing, but it’s suicide to stay there.”
—Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain
When I heard that my great grandmother was a holiness preacher, and that her husband rebuked backsliders with his fists, I knew I belonged in the Huggins line. That’s a family tree I can lay hands on, name and claim as my own.
People tell me that our families are the hardest people to love. Maybe that’s because they’re the hardest people to find. We spend most of our lives turning into our parents and grandparents, and we spend most of our adolescence convincing ourselves that we’re not the same as they. One of two things happens: we assume that because we’re from the same seed we’re no different, so we already know each other; or we assume that because we’re not the same, we can’t relate. And in both, we feel no need to look for each other. We get homesick, and we don’t know why.
November 1, 1974, All Saints’ Day: I quit my mother’s womb and greet the universe, Memphis, Tennessee, clutching for breath. The doctor socks me, I whimper, and everything changes.
November 2, 1980: I’m a first-grader at First Assembly Christian School (FACS), recently converted from First Assembly of God School (FAGS) for appearance’ sake. Sitting in the cafeteria, I decide to abandon my egg-blue tray and hash browns, climb up on the table, and take off all my clothes. I do not know what has gotten into me.
November 3, 1991: I sign the dotted line. I have decided to join the underground Klan group at Bartlett High School. My friends congratulate me. I feel that I am loved, and I don’t know why.
February 4, 1993: Karl, my new friend in Smith Hall Dormitory, wants to convert me. I overhear his Bible study group praying in his room: “OhdearLordourFather-pleasehearuspleasehearus-savehimsavehimnowLord-nowinJesusname-Amen.” In that moment, everything changes. I do not know what gets into me. I feel that I am loved, and I don’t know why. Feels like someone back home has been looking for me.
I’m still lost, but not like I once was lost.
I converted at 18 and found a beautiful church home. A few years later, I moved into the housing projects and learned racial reconciliation—a taste of heaven, minus the cockroaches.
I graduated, moved to St. Louis, and graduated again, this time from seminary. Then I got on EBay and bought a 1964 Dodge Dart from an old woman in Wichita. The car smelled like wigs and tobacco. I offered this description to people, and they replied, “That’s a great line.” So, with an old car and a great line, I decided to become a writer.
Every time I drive, I think about wigs, tobacco, and God. Every time I write, I think about home. So I figured I’d drive to Colt, Arkansas, and write about my great-grandmother Phoebe, the holiness preacher.
Phoebe’s real name was Ophelia. I’m not sure why she changed it, but my hunch is that she wanted people to think of her alongside the Phoebe of the early church, the new-testament deaconess.
It has taken me 28 years to learn that it’s okay to think about myself, about who I am, why I might want to change my name. John Calvin wrote a book about everything that he could think of. You’d think he’d start with God, but he doesn’t. First: knowledge of self.
Jeremy Clive Huggins: I am the great grandson of Raiford Clive Huggins, Sr., husband of Phoebe Huggins, the preacher. In 1957, Phoebe and Clive reopened Faith Chapel Pentecostal Holiness Church in Colt, Arkansas. Phoebe was the preacher, Clive the shepherd with a breadbasket belly and a ready staff. They sought to keep their flock’s eyes on Jesus, but Colt isn’t known for its sheep: a young man attended church for a time, and he refused to bathe, so the deacons took up a love offering and mailed him a bar of soap (“pastoral care must be provincial”). There was Sister Mallory, whose former pastor laid his hands on her and prayed for Jesus to help her win the grocery store sweepstakes, worth a thousand dollars. Phoebe was glad to help a soul with a ticket to heaven, or even a bath, but she wasn’t dispensin’ no lottery tickets.
These are my kind of people.
At my graduation, I won the preaching award from my seminary. I don’t fancy myself a preacher, but I don’t mind filling the pulpit, either. A few weeks after receiving the award, I found an old reel-to-reel recording of one of Phoebe’s sermons. That woman filled a pulpit, too, and I had a desire to see it.
Three weeks ago, I cranked the Dodge Dart and headed south. My car has a push-button transmission on the left side of the dashboard. Behind the dash there’s a box that I don’t fully comprehend, but I know that when I push the D or R button, something happens in there, and I start moving. Old folks call it a typewriter transmission.
When I hit Arkansas Highway 42, I listened to Phoebe’s sermon:
. . . But say to Satan, Satan, my mind is under the blood. And listen, friends, the Devil can’t come under the blood. He’s afraid of the blood. He’s scared to death of it. And as long as we keep our minds under the blood, Satan can’t get to us. . .
That’s a comforting word to hear driving a 38-year-old car on a backroad in Arkansas.
. . . It seems like I am in paradise even as I talk to you. Glory to God touching heaven. It seems that I can just raise my head up and be there. . .
Phoebe couldn’t wait to get home, to meet her Savior in the sky. I laughed for doing it, but I couldn’t help sticking my head out the window and scanning the clouds for sign of my great grandmother. She’s where I want to be.
. . . And no wonder he says over there in Philippians the 8th Chapter and the beginning of the 4th verse, he says for us, “Thank on peace and joy and happiness and things of good report and truth and the God of peace will be with us, but if we thank on jealousy and malice and hatred and envy and, and immolation and variance and . . . and . . . pickin’ each other to pieces and things, the God of confusion will be with us, which is the Devil, the adversary of our souls. Oh, let us march forth to victory and realize that the Lord Jesus Christ is at the helm of the boat.
I don’t know if it was the Devil or King James who was confusing me, but I couldn’t recall an 8th Chapter of Philippians. Maybe the Spirit, who obviously had taken Phoebe, decided to take a few chapters of Paul while he was at it; either way, I was comforted by Phoebe, who was doing for me what she was asking of me, helping me to think on good things. And I was assured for the moment, mixed metaphor and all, that the Lord Jesus Christ was at the helm of the Dart.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m just pushing God’s buttons and I don’t understand why he loves me. Maybe because he had to search for me, or because he gave me a new name. And whether my name is figuratively or literally typed into the Book of Life, it’s comforting to know that this world ain’t my only home: Jesus gone and prepared a place, and sometimes it seems that I can just raise my head up and be there.
I learned recently that Phoebe also drove a 1964 Dart. Whether it was Jesus or Phoebe in the car with me that day, I had no idea where to find Faith Chapel. And yet, somehow, I drove straight to it.
The original church is no longer there, but the white cross is still out front, and the Pentecostals in Colt still believe that Jesus Heals. I parked my car in front of the new church building and tried to shut the Dart’s door quietly. A dog barked, a screen door opened on the trailer across from the church, and an ancient woman stepped onto the porch. The stair-rail leading up the porch was white; painted on the white, the words “Repent or Perish.” I didn’t like the options I was given, so I just introduced myself. She took my hand, introduced herself as Sister Goodall, and led me into the new church building. She knew Phoebe, and though Phoebe probably wouldn’t have liked the Bible bumper stickers collaging the walls, she certainly would have approved of the rapture poster behind the pulpit.
“Either way,” said Sister Goodall, “I’m the preacher here now, and people just don’t concern themselves with the things of the Lord like they ought, but I just keep preachin’. Got three or four come reg’lar. Sister Huggins, glory, she could preach the Word.”
Sister Goodall was honestly surprised, and obviously disappointed, that I had turned into a Presbyterian. When I told her that I had been to seminary, she said that I needed to get rid of my theology and pick up some knee-ology, “Cause the floor’s the place to find the Lord.”
Rebuke and all, I was glad to have met Sister Goodall, and she was obliged, as well, as she sent me off with a box of chocolate-covered cherries and a rapture postcard to stick on my wall. I suppose I can make room for the rapture.
I started writing this morning thinking that I would write about Phoebe, but the “I’s” are staring out from all over this page. Phoebe might have read this and said that it wasn’t much of a testimony, either, since the pronouns are out-of-balance: I’ve talked more about myself than Jesus, too many “I’s” and not enough “He’s.” I can’t seem to escape myself, and I have a feeling I’m not going to be able to, or should even try. But I’m finding that the more I talk about myself, the more I talk about my family, and my words keep turning themselves toward home. I’m finding people one by one, and I’m finding out that they, too, are homesick. I need that kind of family.
Phoebe got there before I did. For her sake, I’m glad. When I drive the Dart, I think of her. I like to picture her in paradise, under the blood, singin’ glory, because she’s home, where there’s no more tears, no more sorrow, no more pickin’ each other to pieces and things, glory to the Lamb.