Our street might as well have been the River Jordan.
In my small town growing up our church anchored one corner, and another church the corner opposite, both large, dominant brick structures. Nothing about this arrangement seemed strange to me since it was all I knew.
Our house was the parsonage for the Baptist church, with a porch the size of a ship’s stateroom. When rainstorms battered the neighborhood and filled the air with the scent of wet dust and worms, preventing us from riding bikes, swirling hula hoops or roller skating, we sat on the porch furniture inherited from Grandma Olive and happily witnessed the deluge. We felt the spray on our skin as if we were skimming the surface of the Atlantic from the deck of a vessel cutting through the waves.
Rain flooded the street’s gutters between our house and church and the house and church across the street: the Methodist church and parsonage. Occasionally true to our Baptist belief that immersion is better than sprinkling, and that our feet needed washing, we jumped in and splashed in the rushing water.
But never did we venture into the Methodist church. I played Combat with the neighborhood kids all around its periphery, hiding in the alcoves, which were perfectly suited for our play as American soldiers against German Nazis. This was a couple of decades after the end of WWII, but we had a TV show that all of us loved called “Combat” with Vic Morrow as Sgt. Saunders and Rick Jason as Lt. Hanley. In my memory these soldiers are calm and peaceful purveyors of the gospel of goodness and light.
Besides being the setting for the enemy we searched and shot to peaces in combat play, the Methodist church was where they conducted dances in the basement. Now dancing was forbidden in our Baptist circles as sinful (in spite of scriptures about David dancing before the Lord). After football games I stood in the high school gym under the sparkling ball and watched my friends dance. I never went to the junior-senior prom, though my football player boyfriend asked me. I didn’t even consider consulting my parents, though I longed to go. We must be separate, holy.
Surely the God of the Methodists was more understanding and fun-loving than the God of the Baptists. Dances in a church basement must be safe, wholesome and bright, not tawdry like the close body-pressing in dark, smoky jazz clubs of my mother’s pre-Christian past. There must be a world where dancing (and card playing and saxophones and sex) was a natural and delicious response to the human urge to move, to feel the body’s presence in the air, like the fragrance a rose emits naturally, with no effort, and without any particular end. I had no way to understand the possible harmony of God and dance.
After my parents died my sister and I crossed the Atlantic for two weeks in Paris in 1997. One night we wound down a stair into a subterranean jazz club near the Luxembourg, drank gin and tonics, and listened to an American singer croon standards with a soft jazz ensemble. We were adults now with no parents to protect us from unholy endeavors. Among the tables and chairs with barely enough room for bodies there was no room for a dance floor, but I assure you, we were dancing, in paradise. God was everywhere.