The air inside our narrow storefront church felt like hot maple syrup. Grandmother's brown hands reached up toward the high white ceiling, the glowing globes, and the cobwebs, as if trying to pull down heaven and touch God.
"Praise yo' name Je-sus!" one church mother shouted.
"Hal-le-lu-jah," intoned another.
It was another Sunday service at True Vine, a weekly spit-spewing Pentecostal revival. After six days of enduring one thing or another among the travails of life in the ghetto, the saints usually sought rejuvenation through these teary testimonials and spirituals. Although I once had branded the whole business as snake oil, being of the mind that the spiritual powwows were no better than smoking weed or drinking cheap wine, I was of a different mind since life happened-marriage, two children, and another on the way by age twenty-one. It all led me to seek the intoxication of the spirit. Standing in front of the sanctuary, lifted up by the uh-HUHs and Amens of Grandmother and the little old ladies of the church, I testified:
"Giving honor to God, to the pastor and his wife, to all the elders, saints and friends."
The congregation urged me on, the fingers of the organist fluttering over the keys.
"I-I-I don't know how I made it this week."
Tears streamed down my face. Truth was, I couldn't see how I could make it through another. I can still hear Grandmother's soothing voice, "Ho-o-old on my darlin', hold on."
Whenever I got so down that I found it hard to go on, when everything else in my faith network had failed to lift my spirits and I felt like dying more than I felt like living, the little fiery gray-haired ladies or the prayed-up young Christian sisters at the church would tell me that God was going to bless me someday, if I could just hold out. They made these proclamations at the Tuesday and Friday morning prayer services. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I was the only man amid the "prayer warriors"-elderly women, including Grandmother, who basically rolled out of bed every morning and hit their knees calling on the name of the Lord.
There was Mother Vaughn, Mother Chapman, Missionary Hawkins, Aunt Mary, Sister Crane, sometimes Aunt Scope and others. Few of the church mothers had an education beyond high school, most of the elder mothers having come up through the South at a time when hands were needed at home and in the field. But, man, they knew how to pray.
"Oh, Law-aw-awd. We praise yo' name. Ya' been maht-tee goo-ood. Ummmmm. Glo-raaay-to-yo'-name, Je-sus."
On those mornings, as I washed my face and got dressed, I often wondered why I was seeking the counsel of a bunch of grannies or spending so much time on my knees when my situation seemed so desperate. It sometimes seemed so ineffectual to pour out my soul and never see any miracles or wonders, such as fire raining down from heaven or something more practical-like a job. There had been little miracles before, like the wads of tens and twenties that had popped from beneath the water heater while I was cleaning my apartment, like the times when a check arrived unexpectedly at Christmastime from the city's Neediest Children's Christmas Fund. But I was still poor, still unable to take care of my family, still always needing something or someone to sustain me.
In exchange for my faithfulness to the church, the prayer warriors assured me that God would someday "pour you out a blessing you won't have room to receive."
"The greater the suffering, the bigger the blessing," Sister Crane, a short woman with the voice of an opera singer, used to say.
"God's gon' bless you mightily, Johnnn Foun-tain," Grandmother always assured me. "He's going to do something great in your life. I just hope I'm still around to see it."
With winter approaching, I was more depressed than I had ever been. I felt that sense of achy hollowness that accompanies the death of dreams, which happened all the time in the ghetto where valedictorians turned into crack addicts, church girls became prostitutes, and choirboys became pimps and pushers. It all began to seem like a waste of time. And though I had managed to hold out until now, my faith was slipping.
I sat in the car with Grandmother, sullen and about to start sobbing.
"I'm tired, Grandmother," I said, my words slow and heavy. "I ain't never gonna find a job."
"Oh yes, you will, baby darlin'. You just keep holding onto the Lord," Grandmother answered.
"I can't even afford to buy my children shoes," I fired back. Tears welled up in my eyes. "If God loves me so much, why does He let me suffer so much?"
She didn't answer. Maybe there was no answer.
"Grandmother, I just give up," I said tearfully. "I ain't even got no dreams no more. I give up, I just give up."
This time Grandmother did not offer to pray or break into a sanctified praise. She did not scold or even offer a dry shoulder. She did not speak in tongues or moan in the spirit. She spoke simple words that struck me in a way that few ever have.
"Wait a minute now, you can't stop dreamin' or you start to die," she said, her words half sung. "Oh no, baby darlin'. You can't stop dreamin'."
Sitting there in that moment, I tried to recall my dreams, to remember what I had wanted to be before life happened. The more I searched the corners of my mind, the more I encountered empty black spaces. Dead was the childhood dream of becoming a lawyer. So was the dream of someday buying my mother a home, of someday buying one for myself. It was as if life itself had been sucked out of me and, along with it, every dream I had ever had.
You can't stop dreaming or you start to die. Grandmother's words jarred me like smelling salts.Or you start to die.
In the hours and days that followed, Grandmother's words churned inside. And for the first time in a long time, I began to think seriously about what I might like to become someday, about the places I might like to go. I gave myself permission to climb aboard the dream boat of my imagination, to take a temporary excursion from my island of constraint, poverty, and circumstance without feeling like I had to plot out the course or determine whether the journey was even feasible. It took some soul-searching. But eventually I found my dreams, lying like sunken treasure at the bottom of the sea of my subconscious, deep inside my heart.
I wasn't sure where those dreams would take me or how far. I still could not afford to buy shoes for my children, their toes bunched and half corned. My own shoes still had holes in the soles. I still had no job and no prospects. We still had no car, no life insurance, no kitchen curtains, no checking account, and not even a single dime of savings.
But I had found hope. At least I had hope.