WEST VIRGINIA PRESBYTERIAN (1952)

The tired old Presbyterian Church at the top of the dirt road is the only church here. A girl of four, neat as a pin, sets off from her house at the opposite end of the road to walk the 200 yards or so to the church. Her mother stands in the middle of the road watching her, until she is greeted on the porch steps by an elderly woman. The mother feels that, since the priest comes only once every two months to say Mass, it’s all right to send her daughter to Presbyterian Sunday School. God is God, after all.

The girl listens with rapt attention to the Bible stories. She gets along well with the other children and likes seeing them because she doesn’t usually get to play with them. Mama won’t let her run barefoot, or wade in the coal mine run-off creek, or catch insects and pull their wings off. And she isn’t allowed to say words like “piss” and “shit,” which are everyday words to the other kids.

At the end of the lesson today, the minister comes in. They have been learning the Lord’s Prayer, and he wants to check on their progress. The children stand up and all recite together: “Our Father, which art in heaven…”

The little girl knows it by heart already; she learned it long before she began coming to this Sunday school. “… but deliver us from evil. Amen,” she finishes. But the other kids say more.

The minister glares at her and says, “Why didn’t you learn it, like you were told?”

“Oh,” she says. “I already learned it.”

“But, you didn’t learn it all.”

“Oh, yes,” she smiles. “I know the whole thing.” She repeats it.

“No, that’s wrong,” the minister insists, “you must say the whole prayer. Now, say it the right way.”

She says the prayer again, exactly as she was taught it by her Catholic parents.

The minister raises his right hand all the way back, above his head, and slaps the child hard on the left side of her face. “Now,” he says, “say it again, the right way.”

“I don’t know the way they say it.” She doesn’t give him the satisfaction of her tears, and she won’t be pushed by any means to say something she doesn’t think is right.

“Daddy says some people say extra words that people added a long time after Jesus said it first. I know it the way Mama and Daddy taught me. I know ‘Hail Mary,’ too,” she added proudly, “And ‘Angel of God, my guardian dear’.”

The minister begins to mutter words she doesn’t understand. He closes his huge hands around her upper arms and plucks her out of the group of children. Still muttering, he drops her on the church steps. “Go on, get yourself home,” he thunders.

“Mama said to wait for her to come and get me. Ten o’clock she said. I have to wait for her.” By now she is not only in pain; she is getting mad, very mad, at the minister. But she controls herself. She knows Mama will fix it.

As soon as the man slams the door, the girl allows herself to cry. She sees blood drops on her front and cries harder because this is a new dress.

Her mother, walking up the road to get her, sees tears and blood and breaks into a run.

The girl is bleeding from her mouth, because the blow forced her teeth into the inside cheek. Her eye will swell shut by the end of the day. She has marks on her face and her arms which will finally fade after two days, to be replaced by bruises in the shape of the minister’s fingers.
As the girl sobs broken sentences into her shoulder, Mama gets madder and madder.

The girl has seen Mama like this before, when things happened to her or her brother. Mama always says, “Ignorance never excuses brutality.” The girl doesn’t know exactly what the words mean, but she does know they mean Mama’s gonna do something about it.

The service is going on, but Mama doesn’t care. She takes the girl’s hand and marches right up the middle aisle to the minister, who, astonished, stops his speech mid-sentence.

She turns the girl around to face the congregation, bloody rivulet down her chin, welts rising on her face and arms.

Mama is brief: “That man did this to my daughter.” She stops for breath.  “And you call him a Christian.”

Mama whispers to her, “Stand up straight.”

Embarrassed coughs and shuffles follow them as they walk away.

Mama never sent me to Sunday School again.

©2008, Ramona K. Silipo. All rights reserved. (Note:  Earlier  versions of this story have appeared online.)

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