Authors: Neta Jackson
Tags: #ebook, #book
I noticed that she didn't say “we.” I stood uncertainly. But our new friend had generously offered the other side of the mammoth bed, so I dragged my suitcase into the bedroom and plopped it on the floor on the other side of Florida's nail salon.
Well, this was going to be interesting. I had thought it would be quite an adventure to get to know Avis as my roommate for the weekend. As members of the same church, this was a chance to get beyond the niceties of Sunday morning and brush our teeth in the same sink. But I hadn't counted on a third party. God knows I wanted to broaden my horizons, but this was moving a little faster than I felt ready for.
As I hung up the dress I hoped would pass for “after five” in the narrow closet, I suddenly had a thought. “Florida, what number is on your registration packet?”
Florida finished her big toe and looked at it critically. “Number? . . . Oh, you mean that gold sticker thing on the front?” She looked over the side of the bed where she'd dumped her things. “Um . . . twenty-six. Why?”
s I walked between Avis and Florida toward the ballroom where the Friday night session was going to be heldâfeeling rather like the white stuff in an Oreo cookieâI could hear keyboard, drums, and bass guitar already pelting out some contemporary praise song I wasn't familiar with. As loud as the instruments were, however, I could hear a woman shouting, “Glory! Glory!” amid similar repetitions from other powerful female voices.
I cringed. Were we late? The schedule said the first session was at seven o'clock, and my watch said only six-fifty. No way did I want to walk in after the thing had started and have people stare at me. On the other hand, maybe it was a good excuse to just slip into the back and observe from afar.
But I guess we weren't late because there were still quite a few people milling around, finding seats, and greeting each other with enthusiastic hugs. I needn't have worried about people staring at me because no one seemed to care a spit. In fact, several women squealed when they saw Florida, as if they could hardly believe their eyes that she was here, but she didn't introduce me to any of her friends.
Meantime, I gave up any hope of sitting in the back because Avis was moving steadily toward the front, where people were already walking back and forth in the space between the front row and the platform, waving one arm and praying out loud over the music.
Oh, please God,
not the front row.
No telling what was going to happen during the meeting, and I didn't want to be a target for some well-meaning prophecy or someone who decided I needed to be slain in the Spirit.
Fortunately Avis turned into the fifth row backâstill too close to the front to my way of thinkingâand went all the way to the end of the row next to an aisle. Same as she does at Uptown Community, because she likes to move about during worship. I sighed.
Relax, Jodi. Don't be so nervous.
After all, I knew Avisânot very well, but stillâand trusted her to be rock solid when it came to the Christian gospel. Whatever was going to happen at this conference, Avis thought it was going to be good and had invited me to experience it too. Like I said before, that counted for something.
There was no actual “beginning” to the first session. But right about seven o'clock the worship band swung into another thumping contemporary song and a lady with mocha-cream skin and a red suit came onto the stage with a hand-held mike and revved us up like a cheerleader at a football game. “Come on! Come on! Let's hear you praise the Lord!”We all stood, and everybody was moving to the music in one way or anotherâstepping, clapping, waving hands. Five hundred female voices tackled that song like a powder-puff football team: “Cel-e-brate . . . Je-sus . . . Celebrate!”
I clapped and sang along with everyone else and started to enjoy myself. This was good. If only Amanda and Josh could see me. Denny too. My family thinks I'm too stiff. The kids love to go to Cornerstone in the summerâthe music festival out in the cornfields of Illinois sponsored by an aging group of Jesus Peopleâand they come home pumped. We tried it as a family when Josh was in middle school, camping on the grounds, choosing from various sessions by the likes of Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, and John Perkins, and listening to all the Christian bands. I tried not to walk around with my mouth open staring at the kids with green spiked hair and dog collars sporting Jesus T-shirts. “I Broke the RulesâI Prayed in School” . . . “He Blew My Mind When He Saved My Soul” . . . “He Who Dies with the Most ToysâStill Dies.” But by the time we got home, my ears were ringing and I wanted a T-shirt that said, “I Survived Cornerstone!”
We'd been singing in the ballroom about twenty minutes when I realized we were only into the second song. At forty minutes I wondered if we were ever going to get to sit down. Didn't these women ever get tired? But Avis and Florida were still going strong at sixty minutes.
Finally the speaker for the evening was introduced: Evangelist Olivia Mitchell, from right here in Chicago, though I hadn't heard of her before. She was about my ageâin her fortiesâand very attractive. Not just her looks, which were fine enough. But she moved and talked like she was comfortable in her own skin. Whew! She laid it on thick, coming off the platform, speaking directly to this woman or that one, about needing to be “women of purpose” and “living into our destiny.”
I scrunched down in my seat, hiding behind the women in front of me. Destiny? Who had time to think about destiny! Trying to keep up with a classroom of thirty third-graders, half of whom could barely speak English, much less read it, two teens with raging hormones, a happy-go-lucky husband who was more generous than thrifty, and a full schedule of church meetings at Uptown Community, I felt lucky to wake up each morning knowing what day it was.
But listening to her challenge us to “be the woman God created you to be” started me thinking. Who
God create me to be? Did God have a particular purpose for Jodi Baxter? If so, I couldn't put words around it. I grew up in a solid Christian homeâwell, after my dad got “saved” when I was still in preschool. We not only went to church on Sunday, prayer meeting on Wednesday, and Pioneer Girls Club on Saturday morning (Boys Brigade for my brothers), but we had family devotions every night after supper, which I didn't mind if they were short, but we always prayed “from the youngest to the oldest,” and my dad tended toward long-winded prayers. Every Sunday morning we had to say a Bible verse from memory at breakfast, and John 3:16 wasn't allowed as a fallback. I knew the Ten Commandments and the nine “Blesseds” of the Sermon on the Mount, and even though we were “no longer under the law but under grace,” I definitely knew what was expected of a good Christian girl from Des Moines.
But who was that little girl, really? Baby of the family (a fact I shamelessly milked to my advantage whenever possible) . . . nuts about teddy bears (I'd collected one hundred stuffed bears by the time I went to college, a feat that impressed no one) . . . a scaredycat about bugs and big dogs (giving my two big brothers plenty of fuel for driving me crazy) . . . dreamy and romantic (of
I would get married to a dark-haired, handsome man and live happily ever after) . . . told everyone I was going to be a missionary to Africa when I grew up (which I never put together with big bugs and scary animals).
What did that safe, protected, idealistic little girl have to do withâ
The voice of the lady in the red suit broke into my thoughts. “âthe number in the little gold dot on your registration packet,” she was saying.
The mystery is about to be revealed.
I felt around under my padded chair for my registration packet, even though I knew my number by heart: twenty-six. “This is the number of the prayer group you have been assigned to for the weekend,” she went on, waving a packet. “Each group will have ten to twelve women. Roommates will be together in the same group; otherwise we have mixed up people from different churches and different parts of the city. After all, ladies, a major purpose for this Chicago Women's Conference is to break down the walls and link hands with our sisters . . .”
The red suit with the hand-held mike went on giving instructions, but my mind was already leaping ahead. A small groupâ now that might be more my speed than a huge crowd. On the other hand, I backpedaled; a small group was a pretty intimate setting for a group of strangers. I craned my neck and looked around the ballroom. Pretty diverse all rightâif 80 percent black and 20 percent “other” counted as diverse. If this conference was supposed to draw together women from a broad spectrum of Chicago-area churches, where were all the white churches from Elmhurst and Downers Grove and Wilmette?
The worship band and singers struck up a thunderous chorus of “Awesome God” as the rest of us began to file out of the ballroom to our “prayer groups,” presumably, though I'd missed where we were supposed to go. But Avis and Florida were “twenty-sixers,” too, so all I had to do was follow alongâ
“Mmm. Getting on toward my bedtime,” Avis's voice murmured behind me. “Maybe I'll just go back up to our room.”
I turned, opening my mouth in protest. But before I could say anything, Florida jumped in. “Now I
these touchy-feely groups aren't my thang.” A touch of street slang slipped in, making me realize I didn't know cucumbers about this woman. “Though it ain't my bedtime, that's for sure.” She laughed, her beaded braids shaking around her head. “But I sure could do with a cup of coffee and aâ”
“Whoa, whoa! Just a minute.” I was surprised to hear my own voice throw a block on the deserters. I looked at Avis, who was stifling a yawn. “You got me into this, girlfriend.” (Whoops. The moment the handle slipped out of my mouth, I was sure I'd gone too far using the familiar tag I'd heard all around me that night. But I rushed on.) “The prayer groups sound like a major part of the weekend, so I'd like to go.” (Yikes! Was that true?) “But I don't want to go alone.” (
part was certainly true.) “Come on. Let's go together. It's for prayer, after all.”Now I was getting shameless. The Avis I knew on Sunday had a big thing about prayer. But just in case, I looked at both women and added hopefully, “Please?”
Florida crinkled her eyes at me and her mouth broke in an open grin. “Girl, you are so funny! You beggin' me to come to this prayer group thang?” She wagged her head, setting the little beads to dancing again. “Okay, okay, I'll come. Just give me a moment to get some coffee and a cig. Meet you in ten minutes in . . .” She looked at something she'd scribbled on her packet. “ . . . Room 7.”
I watched her bounce through the crowd and disappear toward the general direction of the coffee shop. “Think she'll show up?” I asked Avis, who now looked resigned. I took that as a good sign and steered us toward the bank of meeting rooms that circled the ballroom. “Maybe that's why God put Flo in our suite,” I blabbered on, “so we could be in this prayer group thing together. She could use some deliverance from those cigarettes, for one thing.” Obligation and guiltâI was good at laying it on thick.
“Ten o'clock,” Avis announced as we fought our way through a river of women in the hallway, hunting for their meeting rooms. “I'll stay till ten o'clock. Then I turn into a pumpkin.”
I smiled to myself as we sidled into Room 7. The clock on the wall said 9:05. Ten o'clock was fine with me. I couldn't imagine praying longer than an hour with a bunch of strangers anyway.
Four circles of chairs filled the four corners of the hotel meeting room, with a large printed number hanging on the back of one chair in each circle. Avis and I headed for number twenty-six, where several women of differing ages, sizes, and colors were already beginning to fill the twelve chairs.
Twelve chairs. Twelve women.
I had no idea.
vis and I sat down on two of the folding chairs beside each other. I tried to save a seat for Florida, but a large black woman with close-cropped reddish hair and big gold earrings handed me my tote bag that I'd put on the seat and sat down with a
I shrugged and tried a smile. “Hi. My name is Jodi.”
“Adele.” The woman gave a short nod.
O . . . kay. That was a ragged start. Almost all the seats were filled now, with just a couple vacant. Well, if Florida showed, she'd have to fend for herself.
For a few minutes, everyone just sat silently or talked to the person next to themâtheir friend or roomie, I presumed. But by now the clock said 9:15. If someone didn't get this thing rolling soon, we wouldn't have any time for prayer or whatever it was we were supposed to do.
I took a big breath. “Well, I'm not sure what we're supposed to do, but I don't know most of you so maybe we could just go around the circle and introduce ourselves.”
“We've got nametags,” said Adele, voice flat.
She might just as well have sat on me. I felt my face go hot.
Just then Florida slipped into the vacant chair on the other side of the circle. She looked around curiously, taking in the awkward silence. “Y'all didn't wait for me, did you? What are we doin'?”
“Uh . . . introducing ourselves, I think,” said the woman next to her. Hispanic-looking. Slightly plump, but pleasant face, her dark wavy hair pulled back into a ponytail at the nape of her neck. She grinned at Florida. “Why don't you start?”
I could have kissed the lady. The ball had been dribbled to the other side of the circle, giving my face time to return to its normal pasty hue.
“Who, me?” Florida shrugged. “Oh well, why not. My name is Florida Hickman. I'm five years saved and five years sober, thank the
Got three kids. Two are living with me right now; the oldest one is ADD, otherwise they doin' good. My husband works full time”âshe gave a little laughâ“lookin' for work.”