Out of Chattanooga: “The Life and Times of Bessie Smith”

By Clifford Eberhardt

Chapter 2

Bessie’s eyes slowly moved across the inside of the wooden structure, and Andrew had made his way to join the other three children who would be serving with him as junior ushers that Sunday.  Standing beside Andrew, there were two girls and another boy.  Like Andrew, they were all between the ages of nine and 11.  The boys wore black trousers, white shirts and a black bow tie.  The two girls wore white dresses and white gloves.  They all wore high-laced black shoes.

As the four junior ushers gathered around a small table in front of the podium, Bessie couldn’t help but notice the people sitting in the other pews.  They were divided into two sections: one was the Sunday school class for adults and the other was the class for children.  The adult class took up the first five pews on the left side of the church; the children’s class took up half of the last five pews on the right.  This arrangement separated the children from the adults and allowed each class to talk without disturbing the other. Bessie sat in the last pew across from the children’s class.

When Sunday school ended, parents who had children sitting in the class gathered them together and found a place to sit and prepare for Sunday Morning Service.  Other church members who did not attend Sunday school were now entering.  Sitting in the back, Bessie watched as they came in and filled up the small church.  One by one, each pew in the church began to fill up, except for the first two pews on each side – which were always reserved.

When the church was filled with worshipers, the door was closed and the four junior ushers took to their stations standing in the front and back of the first and last pews.  The four young ushers stood like four posts attached to a large bed.  Andrew stood up front in the left corner of the first pew facing Bessie with his back to the podium.  He made eye contact with Bessie and they smiled at each other.

Suddenly, the door to the backroom of the church flung open, and seven men in black suits walked out, followed by five women dressed in white dresses.  The men were deacons and trustees; the women were mothers of the church.  They took their place in the second pew on the right side.  This group knew everything about everybody in the church.

When everyone was seated, a group of 12: five women, two men and five children then came out from the backroom—this group was the unsaved.  As the group of 12 slowly walked out, there were shouts, cries, moans, groans and prayers coming from them.  Two large male ushers, one in the front and one in the back, escorted them to the first pew on the left side, facing the podium.  After they were seated, the two ushers walked to the front entrance of the church and stood near the door as if to prevent anyone from leaving.

Shouts, cries, moans, groans, and prayers kept coming from the people on the first pew. “Oh Lord, forgive me,” one of them said.

“Oh Lord, I know I sinned… won’t you save my soul dear Jesus,” another cried.
These were the cries of the unsaved in the Baptist Church, and it was the custom that they sit on the first pew of the church that was called the ‘Mourners’ Bench.’

Now, the front door of the church opened and the junior choir marched in, followed by the senior choir.  They marched down the center aisle in their red robes.  When the choirs reached the podium, choir members sat one behind the other in the rows of chairs to the left of the podium.

Behind the choirs, the Rev, Jones entered, followed by his two assistant preachers, and they marched down the center aisle as well.  The Rev. Jones was a light-skinned, tall, slim good –looking Colored man with bright eyes and straightened hair.  He was in his early 30s and spoke very proper and correct English.  He wore a black robe and his two assistant preachers, elderly men with gray hair, wore white robes.  They sat in high-back chairs on the podium, with the Rev. Jones in the middle.  A wooden stand stood in front of them on the podium’s edge serving as a lectern.

And there, in front of the Rev. Jones on the ‘Mourners’ Bend’ sat the unsaved; every word of his sermon was meant for them.  Whenever Bessie saw or heard those poor souls on the ‘Mourners’ Bench, ‘ it reminded her of that Sunday two years before when she and Andrew left the ‘Mourners Bench’ to join the church and were baptized.  How could Bessie ever forget that day because it was the worse day of her young life?  It was a Sunday like this Sunday – only two years before – and Bessie never forgot the unpleasant experience of that day.  Bessie and Andrew, unlike their sisters, had spent a few years on the ‘Mourners’ Bench’ before Andrew gave his soul to the Lord.

It was always a painful memory for Bessie because on that Sunday, she led a group of 11 unsaved who occupied the ‘Mourners’ Bench.’  Andrew followed behind her and there were shouts, cries, moans, groans, and prayers coming from the others.  As the group of sinners entered the church from the backroom and walked the length of the first two pews they were seated on the left side in front of the podium.  Bessie sat in the right corner, Adrew sat next to her, and next to him was a man named Peewee.  Peewee had been on the ‘Mourners’ Bench’ since Bessie could remember, and Peewee joined the church every Sunday, but never got baptized.

Next to Peewee was a young girl about 13 years old.  She was new on the bench and had a baby in her lap.  It was obvious she was on the bench to repent for having a child out of wedlock.  The young girl would be there until she confessed to the church the name of her baby’s daddy.  Some believed that she would never confess who the real father was because he was a deacon in the church.  So, she would be on the ‘Mourners’ Bench’ for a long time.

Three small children sat next to the young girl with the baby, a boy and two girls.  Each child looked to be about five or six years old.  Since they were too young to join the Baptist Church, it appeared that someone had placed them on the ‘Mourners’ Bench’ because they needed a baby-sitter.  These kids were crying because everyone else was crying.  They had no idea why they were there.  Next to the three children was a big black woman who kept shouting, and everyone else on the first pew was either shouting, crying, moaning, groaning, or praying except Bessie.

As Bessie painfully remembered her horrible experience in the Baptist Church, she realized that she had sat on the ‘Mourners’ Bench’ for three years.  She was only seven years old when Viola first commanded that she join the church or sit on the bench.  Viola, Lulu and Tinnie never sat on the bench because they joined the church right after they turned seven years old.  Andrew wouldn’t join the church because Bessie wouldn’t join. Now, Andrew was crying in a very low voice, “Oh my Lord Jesus… oh my Lord Jesus.”

“Hush up, boy,” Bessie said to Andrew after nudging him in his side.  But, before Bessie could finish speaking to Andrew about his crying, the junior choir stood up to sing “Amazing Grace.”

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound… that saved a wretch like me…” could be heard coming from the junior choir.  Because there was no piano the choirs sang in cappella.

After the junior choir finished singing, the assistant preacher sitting to the Rev. Jones’ left stood and walked to the wooden stand.  He stood a few seconds and then said —“Now, brothers and sisters… this is the time to bring yo’ burdens to the Lord in prayer.”

“When times get tough, we gotta pray… when times get rough, we gotta pray… we gotta pray ‘til the Lord Jesus come… can I get y’all to say A-men!” the assistant preacher started out saying.

The junior choir now seated began humming, “Amazing Grace.”  Next, the assistant preacher held up his arms, stretching them out before the congregation saying, “Now is the time for Altar Call!”

This was and invitation for the faithful to come and kneel before the podium and pray. About half the members in the church crowed around the front of the podium to kneel and pray with the assistant preacher.

The prayer consisted of the preacher mumbling the same words over and over:
“Dear God, you been so good to me… I thank you for yo’ daily bread… have mercy on my soul, dear God… you have carried me a mighty long way, dear God… have mercy on our soul, dear God… you can deliver us from our sin like you did the children of Israel… I know you gonna deliver me ‘cause you been so good… have mercy on our soul dear God.”  The assistant preacher repeated this broken prayer several times until the congregation kneeling before the podium was shouting and praying with him.

“Oh, Lord Jesus have mercy on me,” “Jesus forgive me of my sins,” “A-men, Lord Jesus,” were the cries coming from the people kneeling at the foot of the podium.  Bessie watched intensely as the preacher ended the Altar Call. Then, the members made their way back to the pews.  When everyone was seated the senior choir rose and sang two songs. They stared with “Old Rugged Cross” and finished with “How Great Thou Art.”  Then the other assistant preacher walked to the wooden stand on the podium.  It was time to collect the Sunday offering.

“Now is the time to give.  You gotta give ‘fore you can receive,” he said.  “The ushers will be comin’ by with the bowl… so don’t forget to give with all yo’ heart!  What you got ain’t y’alls anyhow… the Lord Jesus gave it to you… so you gotta give back to the Lord Jesus.”

Bessie watched as one of the girl junior ushers slowly walked away from her station to the small table in from of the podium.  She picked up the large silver-plated bowl from the small table and walked back to the far side of the first pew.  She then passed the bowl down the pew of worshippers until it reached the junior usher who was standing on the other side next to where Bessie was sitting at the end of the first pew. The young girl received the bowl from Bessie and stepped to the second pew and passed it down until each person sitting on that pew had the opportunity to give.  This was done until everybody in the church had the opportunity to give.  When the two young ushers reached the last pew, they finished collecting the money, and the same young girl who first picked up the bowl walked back to the small table and placed the bowl-full of money on it.

The assistant preacher who was still at the wooden stands stepped off the podium and made his way to the small table.  He said a brief prayer over the money, and then picked up the bowl and went into the backroom of the church.

With the money collected it was now time for Sunday’s sermon.  The Rev. Jones always preached the Sunday sermon.  He could make everybody shout, moan, groan, cry, and pray, except Bessie.

Amid the shouts, cries, moans, groans, and prayers Bessie’s eyes locked on the Rev. Jones as he stood and walked to the wooden stand.  He had a big black Bible in his hands. He put the Bible on the wooden stand, and turned the pages until he found the passage in his Bible he would preach from.

Before speaking a word, the Rev. Jones looked out into the congregation of about 130 faithful, and looked down on the 11 sitting on the ‘Mourners’ Bench.’  Next, his eyes slowly panned the inside of the small church and he said, “Ain’t God good!”

“God has given us another day to praise His name… can I get an A-men,” he said. “We should be thankful for this day… can I get an A-men.”

Immediately, shouts of  “A-men!” “Tell the truth!” and “Lord have mercy on my soul!” could be heard coming form the congregation.

The Rev. Jones then looked to his right at the first sinner sitting on the first pew.  His eyes moved up the pew and stopped at Bessie.  As the Rev, Jones was staring at Bessie, their eyes momentarily locked and the Rev. Jones said, “You gotta be born again… you gotta be baptized or you won’t go to heaven… you gonna go to hell… you gonna go to hell if you’re not baptized, can I get an A-men!”

Bessie broke her eye contact with him and then bowed her head.  She couldn’t look the Rev. Jones in the face, so she kept her head bowed throughout the sermon.




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