Holy Ghost Girl
Books for a Better Life Award
A compassionate, humorous memoir of faith, betrayal, and coming of age on the evangelical sawdust trail.
Long before the Blues Brothers coined the term, Donna M. Johnson’s family was on a mission from God. She was just three years old when her mother signed on as the organist for tent revivalist David Terrell. Before long, Donna and her family were part of the hugely popular evangelical preacher’s inner circle. At seventeen, she left the ministry for good, with a trove of stranger-than-fiction memories. A homecoming like no other, Holy Ghost Girl brings to life miracles, exorcisms, and face-offs with the Ku Klux Klan. And that’s just what went on under the tent.
As Terrell became known worldwide during the 1960s and ’70s, he enthralled—and healed—thousands a night, andthe caravan of broken-down cars and trucks that made up his ministry evolved into fleets of Mercedes and private jets. The glories of the Word mixed with betrayals of the flesh, and Donna’s mother bore Terrell’s children in one of the secret households he maintained. Terrell’s followers, dubbed “Terrellites” by the press, descended on backwaters across the South to await the apocalypse in cult-like communities.
The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy. Brother Terrell reveled in that characterization.
“I know they’s people call me David Nut Terrell. I’m not ashamed of it.” He bounced up and down the forty- foot- long platform with the pop and spring of a pogo stick. “I’m crazy for Jesus, crazy for the Lord.” The crowd was on its feet, pogoing with him.
The tent went up in all kinds of weather, but in my memory it’s always the hottest day of summer when the canvas rises. A cloud of dust hangs over the grounds, stirred by the coming and going of the twenty to thirty people it took to raise the canvas. Local churches sent out volunteers, but most of the work was done by families who followed Brother Terrell from town to town, happy to do the Lord’s work for little more than a blessing and whatever Brother Terrell could afford to pass along to them. When he had extra money, they shared in it. He had a reputation as a generous man who “pinched the buffalo off every nickel” that passed through his hands. He employed only two to four “professional” tent men, a fraction of the number employed by organizations of a similar size. The number of employees remained the same over the years even as the size of the tents grew larger. “World’s largest tent. World smallest tent crew,” was the joke.
The air smelled of grease and sweat. Men dressed in long pants and long- sleeved shirts (the Lord’s dress code) ran back and forth, calling to one another over the gear grind of the eighteen- wheeler as it pulled one of seven thirty- foot center poles into the air. I held my breath as the men wrestled the poles into place, praying that a pole didn’t fall and knock a couple of men straight to glory, but making sure I didn’t miss it if it did. With a couple of center poles secured, the men broke for lunch, mopping their faces with red or blue bandanas or an already soaked shirtsleeve. Pam and I brought out the trays of bologna sandwiches our mothers had made and walked among them passing out the food. I tried not to wrinkle my nose at the greasy imprints their fingers made in the white bread or the sour hugs that accompanied their thank- yous.
It took three to four days to put the tent up, and the site looked different each time we visited. Some days I picked my way through red and blue poles that lay on the ground in seemingly careless arrangements, imagining them as tall slender ladies who had fainted in the heat or young girls waiting to be asked to dance. Proof that a romantic temperament can take root anywhere, because the only dancers I had seen were believers who jigged in the spirit. The men rolled out sections of canvas over the horizontal poles, attaching the cutout pieces to the base of the now- raised center poles. They laced the sections together and swarmed the flattened tent like a team of tiny tailors stitching a ball gown for a female colossus. With the sewing finished, a man was stationed at the winch attached to each of the seven center poles. Someone shouted, “Go!” and the men cranked in unison. The canvas rose around them, and when it reached waist height, crew members hunched over like gnomes, scrambled underneath, and pushed up the secondary poles. A few more cranks and the peaks billowed thirty feet in the air.
With the tent secured, the crew hung spotlights and secondary lighting from the poles, hammered together the sections of the platform, unloaded the Hammond organ, and positioned the amplifiers and speakers. The expanse of the tent posed a challenge for the sound system, so it was important that the speakers be positioned in just the right places. The tent families unloaded stacks of wooden folding chairs and arranged them in orderly sections that fanned outward from the platform. Twenty- five hundred chairs for the first night, with a thousand more stacked in the truck to be squeezed in as needed throughout the revival. Long one-by-one boards were placed between the chairs’ legs to connect them and keep the rows uniform.
By seven o’clock on opening night, a dusty brown canvas and a collection of scuffed-up poles had been transformed into an ad hoc cathedral. People came from near and far. Black and white, old and young, poor and poorer. Women with creased brows and apologetic eyes as faded as their cotton dresses, clutching two and three children who looked almost as worn out as their mothers. Men, taut as fiddle strings, hunch- shouldered in overalls or someone else’s discarded Sunday best, someone taller and better fed. They came to find a sense of purpose and a connection to God and one another. They came because the promises of the beatitudes were fulfilled for a few hours under the tent, and the poor were truly blessed. They came for miracles, answers, and salvation. They came to see the show.
It was our first night in Chattanooga. Up on the platform, Mama pulsed out a bass line on the organ and Brother Cotton swung his arm through the air like a metronome as he led the audience through another chorus of “Jesus on the Mainline.” He yelled, “Call him up and call him up” into the microphone and the audience screamed back, “Tell him what you want.” Brother Cotton’s job as song leader and front man was to warm up the audience for Brother Terrell. Sometimes the crowd was cold and unresponsive, and he sweated through his undershirt and dress shirt just trying to get them to say amen. He said the crowd in Chattanooga was so hot, they warmed him up. He and the audience fed off each other, tossing the lines of song back and forth until the words gradually ebbed and music took over.
In the Holy Roller lexicon, “shouting” is another word for dancing in the spirit. Believers clap their hands and sway, stamping one foot and then the other as the organ, trombone, drums, guitars, and tambourines pull them into an ecstatic dance that wipes out the conscious mind and leaves the body with little control over its movements. The crowd was in full shouting mode that night, churning the sawdust and the dirt under it into the air. Floodlights filtered through the dust, casting the scene in an otherworldly haze as Brother Terrell’s wife threaded her way through the flailing bodies and herded Pam and Randall and Gary and me under the packed tent. Betty Ann’s job was to keep the four of us kids corralled and quiet during a service that lasted from two to five hours, depending on how the spirit moved on a particular night. Given that our ages ranged from one to seven, she may have pulled the toughest tent duty of all. Jostled by the clapping, stomping people, Betty Ann pulled Gary from Randall’s arms and shifted him onto her hip. She peered through the crowd to point out a row of chairs, and that’s when Randall made his escape. She called after him, then looked around and smiled apologetically at whomever happened to notice. People held the Terrell offspring to a higher standard than other kids, and when they fell short, it was her failing, not Brother Terrell’s. She shrugged and steered Pam and me to our seats. We joined the singing just as Brother Terrell walked onto the platform and took the microphone from Brother Cotton. He finished off the chorus with the audience and raised his hands in prayer. Mama slowed the tempo of the music and brought the volume down.
Brother Terrell spoke in a low, quiet voice. “Put your hands up with me and tell Jesus how much you love him. We looooove you, Lord. We magnify your holy name, God. We ask you to look down and bless us tonight, Lord. Open our hearts that we might hear what you have to say. Ooooooooh, God.”
In a matter of seconds the mood went from celebratory to somber. Hands were raised across the tent. Hundreds of people, maybe a thousand or more, raised their voices in an orchestration of prayer and unknown tongues that gained in volume and momentum, then drifted to a close. Brother Terrell walked over to the podium and opened his Bible. “I feel like we need to carve deep into the meat of the Word tonight.”
Three hours later he was still carving, explicating scripture after scripture. In all that time, he had not once roused the audience to its feet, danced across the platform, or asked a single person to run around the tent for Jesus. His Bible lay open on the pulpit and his finger moved across the page. “Hebrews, chapter eleven, verse one. ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ ”
The thin slats of the wooden folding chair cut into the backs of my legs. The crinoline petticoat my mother forced me into sawed at my waist. A three- year- old’s version of hell. I yawned and squinted across the curved backs of all those people, leaning over the Bibles flapped opened in their laps. Hungry, hungry, devouring every morsel of spiritual food Brother Terrell handed down.
“Now what does that mean—faith is the substance of things hoped for? Everyone thinks Paul is talking about miracles here, and he is. But that ain’t all he’s saying. He’s saying faith is a real thing in the world. It has substance. It is substance. Amen?” He looked over his shoulder at the preachers lined up behind him on the platform.
“Amen. That’s right.” Their heads bobbed in unison.
Brother Terrell pulled at his nose, put his hands on both sides of the pulpit, and rocked forward. “Let’s go on a little deeper in the Word now. Hebrews, chapter eleven, verse three. ‘Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.’ ”
He moved out from behind the pulpit and strolled up and down the platform. He held the microphone so close to his lips, it was almost in his mouth. “Saints, this means the world and everything in it was spoken into existence by the world of faith. What Paul is saying here is that the very earth we walk on, the earth we are made up of, was created by faith. Are y’all with me?”
Amen, they were.
He walked over to the song leader, who sat with the ministers on the platform. “Brother Cotton, what time is it?” The man looked at his watch and mouthed back the answer.
Brother Terrell turned back to the audience. “It’s eleven thirty. Time fl ies, don’t it? Y’all ready to go home?”
The crowd yelled, “NO!”
I groaned and dropped my sweaty forehead into my hand. I had faith that if something didn’t happen soon, I would die of boredom and go straight to Beelzebub. My legs pumped back and forth, hitting the underside of my chair. Betty Ann reached across Pam, grabbed my knee, and applied pressure.
She shook her head from side to side. My brother lay with his head in Betty Ann’s lap and his body curled in the chair on the other side of her. My legs slowed. A stream of drool oozed from his sagging
mouth onto Betty Ann’s skirt. My stomach went queasy.
“You got spit on you.”
My words came out in a whisper loud enough that people turned and stared. Pam giggled, and her mother yanked her hair. Pam shot me a look that meant I would get it after church. At five, she was two years older than I was and capable of making me pay for every sin I committed against her. I placed my hands on either side of my seat and pushed my weight away from the wooden slats to relieve the pressure on my bony butt. I leaned forward slightly and the chair tossed me headfirst into one of the metal tentpoles. Two adults jumped up to see if I was okay. One of them helped me up and dusted the sawdust off my dress. The other said too bad there was no ice around. I put my hand to my head and felt a bump rise under the skin. Pam looked at me with suspicion.
“You did that to get attention.”
Betty Ann shushed us.
“Donna, sit down. Now. Pamela Eloise, shut up and pay attention.”
Pam pointed her finger at me. “She’s not paying attention.”
Betty Ann pinched her full lips into a hard little knot, raised her eyebrows, and inclined her head toward the platform and my mother. I sighed and sat down. Brother Terrell preached on.
“Faith changes things. When I was a boy doctors diagnosed me with cancer of the bone. They operated nine times and removed all the bone in my leg. I spent so much time in hospitals, I had to drop out of school in third grade.”
I sat up and listened. This was the story of the scar. Brother Terrell clipped the microphone around his neck, bent over, and rolled up his right pant leg to just below his knee. He spoke off microphone, and his voice sounded small and distant. “They wanted to amputate, but my mother wouldn’t let them. She believed God would heal me.” He gripped the white rail of the prayer ramp behind him, balanced on his left leg, and held his right in the air, crooked at the knee. His calf gleamed white under the spotlights, exposed between the dark fabric of his pant leg and sock like some subterranean creature seeing light for the first time. Only it wasn’t the first time. Brother Terrell revealed the scar at almost every revival.
“Come on up here, you that wants to see.”
People rose across the tent and made their way to the front. Men, women, children, even the scoffers crowded ’round.
“Go ahead, touch it. Jesus told Thomas to put his finger in the nail holes. See for yourself what faith will do.”
He lost his balance for a moment and one of the ministers on the platform brought him a chair. He took a seat and stretched out his leg. The scar ran along the inside of his right leg, from knee to ankle. One by one, people laid their fingers in the long trough of purple tissue. It was two fingers wide, two fingers deep, and marbled with yellow and green.
Pam and I threaded our way through the crowd. We never missed a chance to look at the scar. Randall stepped from behind a rear corner of the platform where he hung out with the tent crew and walked with us to the front. Brother Terrell acknowledged each of us with a quick hug and we huddled there beside him as people came forward. Randall was seven years old and not afraid of anything. He laid his fingers in the scar as he always did. Later, I would ask him for the hundredth time what it felt like, and he would tell me that it was as slick and hard as the devil’s backbone. As much as I longed to run my fi ngers down the length of the scar, I could not bring myself to touch it. I stared at it for as long as I could, trying to peer past the outraged skin into the empty cavern of Brother Terrell’s calf. There was something there or something not there that I needed to understand, but I did not know and could not have articulated the nature of that something.
Brother Terrell picked up the microphone that hung around his neck and spoke directly into it. “The doctors said I’d never walk without crutches, that I’d be a cripple for the rest of my life.
“Then one day when I was nine years old, Jesus stood in my room. He said, ‘David, get up. Walk.’ I reached for my crutches. He said, ‘Not with those.’ ”
Brother Terrell leapt from the chair and people scattered like the jacks Pam and I threw between services. “When Jesus heals you, praise God, you don’t need no crutches. You don’t need no bone. You don’t need nothin’ but faith to take that first step.”
The words flew from his mouth with the ferocity of hornets and we rushed before them to our sections and seats. It wasn’t so much what he said, but how he said it. Every word uttered with such urgency that I half expected the world to end before he finished his sentence.
He prowled in front of the audience now, swishing the microphone cord when he turned so that it trailed him like a living thing. His pant cuff fell a bit as he walked, but I could still see the naked glow of that pale patch of skin.
His words slowed and lulled the crowd into believing the storm had passed. “My mama had faith. She believed.”
Then he crammed the microphone into his mouth again and the veins on his neck popped up. “You got to have faith. You got to hold on. You can’t lie there on your cot and die!”
His voice grew louder with each sentence. “You got to get up. Get uuuuuuup. Get uuuuuuup!”
He went hoarse each time he screamed “get up.” The ministers on the platform stood. Mama stood and clapped her hands and amened.
“Yes. That’s right. Bless him, Jesus. Tell it, brother.”
“When Jesus tells you stand up and walk, you better get on your feet. Get up!”
People all over the tent rose from their seats, hands in the air. Pam and I stood in our chairs, trying to see over or around the grown- ups. My mother began to play “God Don’t Never Change,” a fast- paced song that turned up the energy.
Brother Terrell stood at the top of the prayer ramp and the crowd moved toward him. The sick, the blind, the deaf, the deformed in body and spirit. By the time the prayer line formed, his right hand was red and hot and jerking like a downed power line.
My mother was deep into the music, a gap- toothed double- wide smile parked across her face. Betty Ann left my brother in the care of a friend and moved to the front to help with the prayer line. Pam and I climbed down from our chairs and made our way to the side of the platform at the end of the prayer ramp. Brother Terrell was someplace else entirely. Randall came and stood beside us, his cowlick standing straight up.
“Look at that.”
A woman with a stomach so large she looked two years pregnant labored up the ramp, pulling herself forward by the rails, breathing through her mouth. With each step, her face turned a little redder. Randall put his hand over his mouth.
“Her stomach will be there three days before the rest of her. Daddy’ll be lucky if she don’t die before she gets to him.”
We giggled. Brother Terrell leaned over and whispered something to the woman. She nodded and raised her hands. The people who stood in line behind her on the ramp backed up. Betty Ann and the preachers who waited in front of her on the ramp moved away. If this woman went down in the spirit, no one wanted to go with her. Randall, Pam, and I edged beyond the corner of the platform for a better view. No one was left on the ramp but the woman and Brother Terrell. The music and the clapping stopped. He raised his hand to place it on her forehead, but before he could touch her, the woman’s skirt dropped around her ankles. Her big stomach was gone. Randall let out a whoop. Brother Terrell looked over his shoulder at the men on the platform, and they all doubled over laughing. He whirled back toward the audience and jumped up and down, just above the ramp where the woman still stood with her hands raised and her eyes closed.
“She’s healed, praise God. The spirit of God has filled this place like a mighty wind, just like in the Bible, hallelujah! The healing power of God destroyed the tumor. It’s gone.”
Anyone still in their seats rushed to the front. My mother pounded the Hammond and we sang on and on about all that God could do and how he never changed.
The woman stood there in her blouse and slip with her eyes closed, her arms and hands raised, her lips speaking a language that made sense only to her. Betty Ann and the other women recovered their composure and moved toward her. Someone pulled up her skirt and held it in place at her waist. Someone else grasped her elbow and eased her down the ramp. She never opened her eyes or put her hands down. When they reached the bottom, the women talked to her and tried to get her to hold her skirt up. She grasped it for a moment, then let it fall and began to dance in her blouse and slip. Pam, Randall, and I watched in astonishment. The woman didn’t seem to know she had lost her skirt, or if she knew, she didn’t care. Brother Terrell had that effect on people.
The miraculous and the mundane tap- danced up and down the aisles of the tent together, and it never occurred to me to question if one was more real than the other. I don’t think it occurred to the adults either. We experienced the world through the scrim of belief, and that made everything possible. No one followed up to see if the miracles held, but people who said they were healed often returned. The Woman Who Used To Be Big, that’s what we called her, came back and gave her testimony several times during the month long revival.
“I went to the doctor to be checked out like Brother Terrell told me. The doctor said, ‘What happened to the tumor?’ I said the man of God healed me.”
As word of the healing spread, the crowd increased until people stood two and three deep along the outside perimeter of the tent. Ambulances transported people from hospitals. Stretchers and wheelchairs lined the aisles until the fire marshal complained and we moved the sick behind the platform, where they waited until Brother Terrell called a prayer line."Holy Ghost Girl turns, as good books must, from promising read into sure bet. Ms. Johnson's enthralling memoir, her first book, is about growing up on the road in a clan of what she calls Holy Rollers."
-New York Times
"A page-turning, thrilling tale set in the 1960/70s containing adultery, KKK face-offs, fasting to the point of collapse, child neglect/abuse, show business and family connection."
"Sensitive and revelatory...an impressive achievement of perspective and maturity...a haunting and memorable book."
"A trustworthy narrator, Johnson is consistently funny, poetic and remarkably devoid of bitterness."
"What a life! Holy Ghost Girl takes you inside a world where God and sin and miracles and deceit and love are so jumbled together you can't tell them apart. Donna Johnson sorts through her story with great insight, compassion and humor, giving us an indelible portrait of a charismatic preacher and the faithful who so desperately believed in him."
-Jeannette Walls, New York Times bestselling author of The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses
"This is a thoroughly provocative memoir. Memoirs don't usually resist the obvious. This one does. You won't find Donna M. Johnson dithering in anger, cynicism, or self-pity. Holy Ghost Girl is a sensitive exploration of the power that inheres in faith communities, however flawed."
-Rhoda Janzen, author of New York Times bestseller Mennonite in a Little Black Dress
"Holy Ghost Girl is a wonder of a book. Chief among its marvels is how clear-eyed and deeply compassionate Johnson is as she recounts what it was like to grow up believing all things are possible and how hard it was to leave that harsh and deeply flawed paradise to become a part of the world in all its 'gaudy glory.' With evocatively precise details, fond humor, and an utter lack of scorn or cynicism, Johnson accomplishes the camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle miracle of rendering the world through the eyes of a young child. Arriving at a time when the war between fact and faith is escalating, Holy Ghost Girl is a book that people will be talking about."
-Sarah Bird, author of The Gap Year
"A wrenching and extraordinarily beautiful memoir. If you're a fan of The Glass Castle, you'll be mesmerized by Donna M. Johnson's true-life tale of how her young life was upended by her mother's love affair with an infamous charismatic preacher."
-Lisa Napoli, author of Radio Shangri-La
"Donna M. Johnson's memoir captivated me from the first page. Vividly written and richly detailed, it evokes a curious subculture that few Americans are familiar with - that of the Pentecostal revival tent, with all the spiritual and carnal ecstasy that simmer beneath it. Holy Ghost Girl is also a cautionary tale of preachers whose followers elevate them to a godhood then blind themselves to their leader's often extravagant sins."
-Julia Scheeres, author of New York Times bestseller Jesus Land
"A brilliant and beautiful story of people who passionately loved God and broke his commandments in almost every way possible. The kind of story the Bible is full of, told with rare compassion and grace."
-Christine Wicker, author of Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead and God Knows My Heart
"I read this gorgeous book with a hand to my throat, at once drawn to and repulsed by the story of Donna Johnson's coming of age underneath a revivalist tent. Hers was a bizarro world, and yet her voice is lush and clear and full of compassion."
-Karen Valby, author of Welcome to Utopia
Q. What did you hope to accomplish in writing Holy Ghost Girl?The writing allowed me to go home again, to sift through my childhood and try to reconcile the world I experienced as a kid with the more rational world I lived in as an adult. As a writer, I also wanted to explore the mysterious nature of reality and human beings. Our views of life and people have become overly simplistic, like a Disney movie. Everything is black or white, good or evil. Religion has helped bring about this idiocy, but so have the media and the unexamined assumptions we accept at face value as individuals. When I looked back at my childhood, I realized my experience of the world was more nuanced. Terrell was both an angel and a monster. My mother loved me and yet failed me in so many ways. Reality was a dappled thing, neither black or white and thus hard to pin down or sum up.
Q. You spent many years trying to sever all connections to Brother Terrell and his ministry. Yet, you don’t seem to blame him or indulge in any selfpity about the way you were raised. How long did it take you to get to this point? Are you using humor as a way to deflect the pain?At times I have blamed Terrell and my mother for the hardships of my childhood, but when I considered the harshness of their childhoods, and all that they did without, I realized there really is no one to blame. It’s hard to accept that, where we kids were concerned, they thought they were doing what God wanted them to do. Were they also making selfish choices? Of course. Don’t we all to some extent? The process of writing the book stirred up and also helped dissipate animosity toward my mother and Terrell. I tried to write out of compassion for the discrepancy between who they wanted to be and how far from their ideals they strayed. I could do that because I too have failed myself and others in big ways. I think the humor came naturally as I detached enough from my story to see it as exactly that, a story. As for using laughter to deflect pain, couldn’t that serve as a working definition of comedy?
Q. Is there anything you regret including inor excluding fromyour book?Of course! I wish I had done a better job of reflecting the contradictions and oddities embodied by Terrell. He picked up hitchhikers, bought them meals and sent them on their way with enough money to ensure they could rent a motel room for a night. He tried to respond to everyone in need, and yet he took money, and in later years, a lot of money, from the poor and used it to fund a somewhat lavish lifestyle. He is also a very twitchy person, given to tics. I’m not sure I adequately conveyed that physical aspect of him.
Q. Have you ever confronted Brother Terrell about the way he treated your mother?After spending much of my childhood trying to manage their relationship, I finally decided it wasn’t my business. Terrell has apologized to my mother on two occasions.
Q. How many of your siblings have remained Terrellites? Do your three halfsisters maintain relationships with him?Only my brother has remained close to the Terrellite faith, though he would say his beliefs have changed drastically. As for my sisters’ relationship with their dad, that’s not for me to discuss.
Q. Brother Terrell seems to attract ardent protectors. Are you concerned about any potential repercussions from revealing what you’ve written?The Terrellites are a passionate group, but they’ve never been violent. Still the book has already stirred animosities and harsh words within the extended family. At times I do worry that one of faithful might physically accost me as a result of the book.
Q. In remembering your time with Sister Waters, you write, “Having no idea I was a povertystricken kid, I pretended to be poor” (p. 150). It seems incredible thatdespite your lack of clothes and foodyou didn’t realize you were poor. At what point did this realization sink in?I didn’t realize we were poor because everyone around us was poor, and I had no TV image with which to compare our life style. Plus when we (the kids) traveled with our parents, we never went hungry. Bologna is not the best food, but it was a staple for lots of families in the South. For some reason, life with Sisters Waters was desperate at every level. It’s possible the ministry was going through one of its many down times, and that my mother and the Terrells didn’t have enough money to send back to Sister Waters for groceries. Or maybe she used the money for other things. It may sound odd, but only when I reflected back during the writing of the book did I realize that we were poor!
Q. This year, the New York Times published a study indicating a strong correlation between religion, education level, and incomewith Pentecostals representing the lowest end of the spectrum. And you write that your mother was “one of the few in the evangelistic team with a highschool diploma” (p. 69). Why do you think this branch of Christianity gives such short shrift to education?From the perspective of an outsider at least part of the answer might be that people with an education are more given to questioning the rulebound theology of Pentcostalism. The insider perspective is more complex. If you believe the world will end at any moment and that God has commissioned you to save as many souls as possible before the Apocalypse, education falls toward the bottom of your priority list. The hierarchy of needs also comes into play. When you’re struggling to survive and your kids have to work to help put food on the table, education can seem a luxury. But neither of these answers fully addresses the question. Many Pentecostals do not value material things. Possessions and status mean nothing to them, so to pursue an education to increase one’s standing in the world makes no sense. It is the unseen world, the world of the spirit, that matters. Terrell lost sight of this value system once the money started rolling in, but the principles I’m describing here are still alive in many of the small backwoods Pentecostal churches that exist today. It could well be argued that this radical antimaterialism (minus the antieducation stance) is at the true heart of Christianity.
Q. Not long ago, another preacher, Harold Camping, predicted that the end of the world would occur on May 21, 2011. Based on your own experience with Brother Terrell’s failed prophecy, how do believers react after the world continues as usual.Camping has recalculated judgment day twice, saying he made a mathematical error. I’ve read that millennialists tend to rationalize why the world continues so that it makes sense within their belief system. For example the Branch Davidians who followed David Koresh (and survived the fire) still believe he was a true prophet and one who may very well return. Terrell’s fall from grace caused many long time followers to dessert him. The ones I know joined charismatic megtype churches and still espouse a literal interpretation of scripture and divine oneonone revelationtwo tenants I believe enable the rise of prophets like Terrell.
Q. At what point did you tell your daughter about your early life? How did your experiences inform the way you chose to parent?I never wanted to burden my daughter with the painful aspects of my early lifeso we never had that kind of talk. On occasion my mother would take her to a revival without my permission. Once she came home insisting she needed to be saved, but she wasn’t sure what from. On another occasion she wondered what God had against earrings. I made many mistakes in parenting my daughter, but I did some things right too. I married a man who had experienced a loving, stable family and knew how to recreate that for my daughter. We stressed higher education and encouraged and supported her participation in a variety of school activities. I wanted my daughter to know she could accomplish things in the world and that the world was a beautiful place, worthy of any effort she might invest in it. The best values of Pentecostalism were incorporated into our livesa lack of emphasis on material things and the understanding that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and that if we see others suffering it is our responsibility to respond on a human level and not just write a check.
Q. Do you have plans to write another book?Yes, I am considering two very different ideas, both nonfiction projects.
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