Every time I return to Valdosta, and especially into the neighborhood of my childhood, so many memories clearly rewind, unfiltered by the opaqueness of time.
Last Saturday I visited St. Timothy A.M.E Church. Before the service began I walked into a room near the pulpit. I opened a cabinet and lifted the silver top from a tray, and I began to laugh, as I remembered what happened yesterday — more than three quarters of a century.
This story first appeared in my third book, I Wish You Had Been There.
Be on Time . . . For Communion
During my childhood, services at St. Timothy A.M.E. Church on the first Sunday of the month were special. We thanked God for another month of blessings by serving Holy Communion. My grandfather, Papa, was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E) Church. Even after Papa officially retired, whenever he wanted to deliver a sermon at any A.M.E. Church, the present minister’s greeting would be, “Welcome to ‘your pulpit,’ Reverend Alexander.” He occasionally chose to preach the first Sunday sermon at St. Timothy, where almost every Alexander had been baptized and continued membership.
Because Papa’s ministry lasted most of their fifty‐six years of marriage, my grandmother, Mama, was accustomed to making certain preparations for the communion celebration. I frequently assisted her. On Saturday she washed and ironed special vestments to drape the altar. I kept the fire burning in the kitchen stove where, on top, she heated the heavy cast irons, while a thin, light, wafer‐like cake of bread baked in the oven. Later that afternoon she and I went to the church to make the final set up.
On our way we stopped at the store and bought two bottles of grape juice. In the communion ceremony the bread and juice would be symbolically transformed into the body and blood of Christ, a ritual which Christians call transubstantiation.
The Reverend G. U. Alexander scorned tardiness for any appointment. His frequent caveat: “James Eddard, life is time. Wasted time is wasted life. You will not be successful at anything until you learn the value of time and how to use it productively.” He especially despised anything that disrupted religious services.
During the half‐hour break between Sunday School and the morning services, we children were expected to form a line and file into the outdoor toilet for whatever was necessary to avert squirming in our seats or leaving during the sermon. Even if I deviated from the strict rules the penalty was never imposed on Sunday. Instead, Papa had his own way of letting me know when he would put the thick strop to my butt. “Young man, we’ll ‘discuss’ this matter before the sun sets tomorrow.” That schedule also was inflexible.
One day I needed to go to the toilet, so I just strolled out, fully aware of the consequences. Before I returned to my seat I also made another stop.
Reverend Alexander gave his usual intense sermon, after which he raised his arms and extended to the worshipers this invitation: “Draw nigh to the altar and commune with God.” Members of the Steward Board took their places of assistance around the circular altar which Mama and I prepared for this ceremony. Another member went to the vestibule to get the silver-covered tray which contained about two dozen tiny glasses. The choir sang a hymn that would last throughout this celebration. I had returned to my seat near the big wood‐burning heater, nursing a tremendous bellyache. Very quickly, the man from the vestibule re‐appeared and whispered a message to Papa. Both of their faces registered surprise. Papa’s expression also showed what I recognized as disgust. He turned and motioned the choir to stop, as he stepped forward to make an announcement. “Brothers and sisters, this morning we will have water instead of wine. God knows our intentions are pure.” Then, turning to look directly at me, he added, “And, God knows I’ll find the person responsible for this despicable act.”
He did. Immediately after adjournment he left the pulpit and walked directly to me and ordered me to follow him to the vestibule. There was no need for lengthy interrogation. Noting my protruding belly and frequent departures during the service, he strongly suspected that I was the party responsible for the missing juice. His only question was, “James Eddard, what did you do with that juice?” I confessed. “I drank it.”
We further discussed the matter before sunset the next day.