Editor's Note: This is the third installment of the novel, The Battle for Nashville , which we're serializing every week on our Web site.
It was not even 11 o'clock, and the traffic at the Gethsemane Baptist Church on Jefferson Street was backed up 100 yards. City cops were directing traffic, orange cones had been placed strategically in the middle of the street, and two ushers stood at the foot of the church's front steps to make sure the worshippers crossed the street safely. But the waves of people filing into the medium-sized red brick church, set amid beauty shops and used car lots and liquor stores and the local headquarters of the NAACP, were overwhelming the best-laid plans. The people came by the dozens, God's people, solid men and women from the neighborhood or from downtown office buildings nearby, people who had decided to spend their early lunch hour this Wednesday by partaking of the ministry of Dr. Floyd T. Winning, pastor.
As the crowds poured over Jefferson Street, they walked through a veil of hickory smoke from a nearby barbecue hut, the sun casting laser-like shots through the haze, the people all smiling brightly as if they had come home to a family reunion after years of being away. Up the steps they climbed, the ushers shaking their hands or hugging them warmly, the people then cascading into the small, front lobby where a long picnic table was stacked high with pamphlets, books, cassette tapes and videos of the life works of Dr. Floyd T. Winning. Once in the lobby, like river water hitting a rock and splitting evenly in two directions, the worshippers flowed right and left, evenly and smoothly, walking into the sound as if they were walking into something as pleasing as heaven itself.
The sound inside came from a system of speakers12 of them, the size of medium-sized refrigeratorsmounted high above the pews on the walls of the church. As the people walked in, the voices, rhythms and vibrations poured over them like rain, dousing then washing over them, and they raised their hands, pointing to the sky, opening their mouths and singing along even as they walked down the aisles to find a seat. Ushers with nametags identifying them as belonging to a particular volunteer organization within the churchthe Gethsemane Women's Club, for instance, or the Gethsemane Parking Committee, the Gethsemane Youth Camp or the Gethsemane Job Corpsdid the best they could to cram everyone in. Worshippers began to flood the space behind the podium at the front of the church, where the choir normally sat, since, today being Wednesday, the choir wasn't performing. The balcony was crammed to capacity, and all of the folding chairs situated in the aisles had been claimed.
At the podium, the choir leader, a 40-ish man dressed in a chocolate brown suit and black loafers, led the crowd gospel-style.
"I raise my hands up unto the Lord," he said, half singing it, half speaking it, the crowd then singing along the next line to the accompaniment of bass guitar, organ and drums. "I raise my hands up unto the Lord," the crowd sang boldly, evenly, in perfect harmony.
"I raise my hands for he is great," the choirmaster then sang into the microphone, his voice rippling up and down in a nimble arpeggio of sound, the crowd then following once again with its chorus of "I raise my hands up unto the Lord." As the singing continued, the choirmaster experimented, his body now and then leaning back, rocking off the side of the podium, his singing changing melody and words here and there, the crowd continuing to provide the chorus, the momentum building, building, building.
Two hymns later, with the church so packed that it felt like the place would split wide open, the choirmaster stopped and began to speak. "Brothers and sisters in Christ, I woke up today, and I said, 'Lord, you gave me another day to live.' " Several in the crowd shouted out, "Amen," or "That's right," or "Uh-Huh."
"And I said, 'That's why I'm gonna give my day to you.' "
More Amens and That's Rights and Uh-Huhs.
"Today we are indeed fortunate to have Gethsemane Pastor Dr. Floyd T. Winning here to preach to us at our lunchtime ministry. As you know, the Super Sunday Sermon videos and cassettes are for sale in the back, all part of the "I Am Winning for God" collection, and I would invite you to look at them. Proceeds from these for the month of December will go to support our voter registration driveso buy one for the little lady for Christmas, huh brothers?"
Ripple of laughter, a high-five in the corner, one woman shrieking, "That's Right!"
The choirmaster then moved back to his chair, one of four, high-backed white chairs with red velvet cushions that were lined up in a row behind the podium. The organ then held a suspenseful chord. The crowd grew incrementally quieter. Then, from the highest of the high-backed chairs, confidently and slowly, Dr. Winning rose to his feet. No longer in his prime, Winning was nonetheless a commanding presencethe flecks of gray in his beard and in his tight, curly Afro lent a sense of charged wisdom to the old lion. As a young pastor in the '60s, Winning was known as a preacher who could breathe the fire. Any different Sunday would find him skipping down the aisles, singing at the top of his lungs, exalting the word of God in a great union of drama and religion. In later years, though, Winning had turned down the volume. He no longer relied upon as much emotion in his sermons as he once did to inspire his flock. That had disappeared somewhere in middle age. Oddly, that was when his power began to climb.
Winning had been raised in the country, but from the moment he had stepped foot onto the inner-city campus of Tennessee State University in 1960, his universe had opened. Winning jumped headlong into The Movement. It was so clear-cut then: He knew, in the morality play of civil rights, that he might never have so easy a time in his life to fight what was wrong. He was also smart enough to know that this magnitude of wrongness simply didn't come along very often. Despite the fact that some local white critics then had labeled him a rabble-rouser, Winning was actually seen by many others, both in Nashville and across the South, as decidedly moderate. Part of this may have had to do with the fact that, compared to the violent struggles in Birmingham and Selma, Oxford and Little Rock, Nashville had integrated nonviolently. Something about the city's easiness, its courtesy, its will to get along had rubbed off on Winning. He was never one to destroy a place to save it.
It was within this moderation that Winning thrived. He learned how to throw his weight against the white establishment, feel it budge, then buckle, then take what he could without causing any real damage. Ever the pragmatist, he became over the years as much a part of the power structure in the city as the bankers, media executives and politicians. Just as they looked out for their interests, so did Winning focus on protecting his constituency: the people on the streets. For his flock, he sought jobs and health insurance, police protection and zero-interest housing loans. If someone needed visitation rights at the prison, he called the assistant warden. If a recent high school graduate wanted to become a lineman at the electrical utility, he called the chairman of the utility board. That was Winning's ministry.
Winning was a founding member of the Interdenominational Clergy and Brotherhood, a gathering of white and black ministers and rabbis who had attempted to bridge the great divide of race and religion. He had held out hope for the group in its early years, but over time, he viewed it as just so much comedy. He loved the frankness of the rabbis, and he appreciated the earnestness of the work-like-a-dog Presbyterians, and he was rather blown away by how seriously the Episcopalians tended to take themselves. But in the end, Winning saw the white clergy as making way too much of their guilt and God's grace. For Winning, here in his later years, it was all just a matter of putting the grease to the system.
It was in the hallways of city government, where the gears shook and council meetings droned on and police units whirred into motion and people swilled weak coffee from Styrofoam cups, that Winning saw the action. He saw the pie getting cut into various pieces, and he made certain that his hungry public got their fair helping. It was, to Winning, a matter of scratching the backs of the politicos and waiting for them to scratch back. The older he got, the circularity of the great body politic at work was so logical and rational a system to him as to nearly create an entirely other doctrine of belief. It had become, simply, his theology of getting something.
And so, over the years, Winning had emerged in the white community as the go-to guy in black North Nashville, the man with whom one could do business, cut deals and turn the temperature of a city down wherever needed. When Floyd T. Winning agreed to have his name listed on the letterhead of a candidate, everyone in the white community interpreted that as meaning black support had gone that candidate's way. In the black community, to be sure, there were always dim murmurings. Some were jealous. Some thought he had sold out. But others loved him because he had looked out for them for so long. And no one disputed his power.
"Open your Bibles please to the second chapter of Luke, verses 6 and 7," Winning said quietly, so quietly that as people began turning their thin pages to the New Testament it sounded as if the speakers had begun spewing static. From the pocket of his dark blue suit, he plucked a pair of reading glasses that he perched on his nose. He turned the pages of his own Bible deliberately, and, upon finding the Book of Luke, took a handkerchief from his pants pocket and clutched it in his hand. A few people were pulling out notebooks to take notes, including Dorthula Rogers, who was seated in the second pew on the right hand side. She had heard nearly every sermon Winning had delivered in his 38-year career here. Rogers had been scheduled to be an usher today, but she had bumped her knee swinging open the dishwasher door at the Moseley household the day before and couldn't walk well. Nonetheless, she wore her badge: "Treasurer, Gethsemane Candidate Barbecue Fund." She was looking forward to the lessonshe loved Winning's December discussions on Jesus' birth.
"While they were there," he read from the Bible, "the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."
It was a honey-rich baritone voice, still soft if nearly 70 years old, and it fell across the pews like candy. "You see, Joseph had no money. All he had was a donkey to get his wife to town, because they were being counted up by the king. They were just a working man and a working woman, and mama was pregnant. You can't stop a baby from coming, can you ladies...." Here, he pointed out to the crowd.
That's Right, Uh-Huh, Amen Brother.
"Of course you know you can't stop the will of God, either, and so, in the midst of being called to Bethlehem, the hand of God set to work. We do not know how he sets everything to work, but it is fair to say that as Joseph and Mary and the donkey traveled to the city, God wanted to send his son, to us, to redeem us, and so to save the world. You all know this storyLord, how it is such a beautiful tale."
His cadence had picked up intangibly, as had the volume.
"So let me repeat the passage: 'She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.' "
That's Right, Uh-Huh, Amen Brother.
"You see," Winning said, his hands clasped together in front of him, his face creasing into a slight smile, his feet shifting from one to the other as if he were getting traction before starting a footrace. "You see Joseph was a ca-a-arpenter. He wasn't a doctor. He wasn't a lawyer. He was a ca-a-arpenter. He was a simple man with a huge dutythe duty of God. And so he did the best he couldhe loaded up his wife on a donkey and drove her to town."
"They weren't, by any stretch of the imagination, aris-to-crats," Winning said forcibly. Here he staggered out the word, crashing down hard on each syllable, doing so in a 3/4 beat that he measured out like a song. "The aris-to-crats were staying in the inn up the street. But there wasn't any room in the inn, which Joseph probably couldn't afford anyway, so Jesus, the Savior, the man who had come to redeem the world, the most important man ever to be born in the world, was wrapped in a scrap of cloth and placed in a manger with the donkeys and the chickens and the cows. Jesus, my friends, was born with the farm animals."
"How many of y'all ever slopped a hog?"
That's Right, Uh-Huh, Amen Brother. The question was rhetorical.
"How many of y'all ever slept in a barn?"
Uh-Huh, That's Right.
"How many of y'all remember that smell? I do. Growing up in the country like I did, I remember that smell. I never told y'all this, but I may as well reveal myself to y'all now: I never did like that smell."
Laughter. Winning shifted his weight again, foot to foot, left to right, right to left, gaining traction.
"Brothers and sisters, I'm hear to tell y'all that Jesus wasn't born in any fancy-pants Ritz Carlton hotel with room service, and Joseph sure didn't head down to the lounge after the baby came, and Ma-a-a-ry sure didn't charge a trip to the day spa after she had that baby, because they were living in what we would consider today to be a shack. A humble shack. A pile of wood and nails, brothers and sisters. The humility of this moment in the history of the world is so astonishing as to cause me to go weak in the knees sometimes. When I look out over this city sometimes, and I see the big cars and the big houses and the big lives everyone is trying to lead, I think then of Jesus Christ the Almighty, Jesus Christ the Savior, Jesus Christ who came into a world in a bed made with straw, and it is then that I see clearly the parallels between Christ's shack of yesterday and the world we're trying to live in today."
His voice was now in a steady crescendo, pealing out like distant thunder, rolling along, confident. The organist, whenever Winning would pause, would drag his finger down from the top of the keyboard to Middle C where he would then maintain another expectant-sounding chord at a low volume. Meanwhile, a dozen people were now standing in their pews, half of them pointing to the sky, the other half folding their arms across their chests.
"Ain't nuthin' wrong what-so-ever, brothers and sisters, 'bout livin' in a shack," he stated now more forcefully, his accent slipping imperceptibly into a country black vernacular. "Ain't nuthin' wrong livin' behind the Big House. Ain't nuthin' to be ashamed of if the aris-to-crats' Big House is bigger than your little-old po' house. Go ahead and let those aris-to-crats think they a bunch of aris-to-cats anyway, let 'em priss and preen, let 'em shake and bake, let 'em talk tall and walk big. 'Cuz Jesus wasn't no aris-to-cat, he was just the son of a mama riding on an ass and a daddy who hammered nails all day for a living."
Another several dozen people in the crowd leaped to their feet. Arms were waving back and forth in the air, and laughter shot through the rafters.
"Now, this is not what I came to tell you here today, brothers and sisters, but I'm gonna let tell of it anyway. I just heard they's sumthin' goin' on in town, goes like this: They got a Big House right outside of town called Darby Glen, out south of here, big plantation house, big field, big deal, and they turnin' it into one of those big residential developments with the golf course and the clubhouse and the swimming pool. It's gonna have all those kinds of toys the aris-to-cats like to play with. They tell me they gonna fix up the Big House real nice. Out back, however, they got some slave shacksthe kind of old shacks your great grandmamas and great granddaddies lived in when they was taking care of the hogs and chickens and donkeys and cows. Brothers and sisters, I can barely tell you what they gonna do with those shacksbut I will anyway."
Pause. Long pause.
"They gonna tear those slave shacks down."
Say It Ain't So, Brother. No Way, Uh-Uh, Don't Do It.
"They gonna tear those slave shacks down."
People stood on their feet now: Say It Ain't So, No Way, Uh-Uh.
"It's okay for the aris-to-cats to get THEIR house, but why they gonna tear down the little man's shack? Have they no shame? Have they no sense of his-to-ry? Would they have torn down the shack in Bethlehem where Jesus Christ was born to make way for a planned unit development with a golf course and a luxury swimming pool and a fancy clubhouse and Roman guards out front making sure only the right people can enter the club?"
Angry people. Everyone rising to their feet. Uh-Uh, Ain't Gonna Happen.
Dorthula Rogers was not standing. Dorthula Rogers was, instead, in a state of disbelief. There was only one Darby Glen, she knew. That Darby Glen was the same house in which she had worked for most of her life. How was this happening? How had such a thing come to pass? Why was her preacher now saying these things? What had the Moseleys done?
"Lemme tell y'all something, brothers and sisters. This is not a black and white thing. This is not a thing about the white man burying the black man's history. The longer I been around this world, the more I know the devil most often operates under the influence of money, and I got a feeling the devil has got his cash register out at that place called Darby Glen right now!"
Amen, brother. Uh-Huh, Praise God, Make It Happen, That's Right.
Dorthula sat in her pew, her crimson dress hidden underneath a navy blue overcoat, her pen dropping from her hand to her notebook, and then from her notebook to the floor. She looked up to see Winning still speaking, and she knew he had moved on to the rest of his talk. She knew he was now discussing more Godly issues, issues completely unrelated to Darby Glen. But even as she could see his lips move, his hands gesture outward, his weight shift from left to right, his hand wipe the sweat from his face with a white pocket handkerchief, she could not make sense of what he was saying. The words would not register. She could not reckon. All she could think of was her world with the Moseleys in stark collision with the world of her church.
It was all such a muddle. The minutes passed. The words continued to pour forth, without understanding. But then, suddenly, she noticed it was over. Dr. Winning had left the podium. And the congregation was now standing and walking to the exits. Collecting herself, she rose without speaking to anyone. She could not decide whether to call Joanie Moseley immediately or keep her story to herself. Instead, she raced to her car. She started the engine, and she drove straight home. She would pray about the matter, she thought. Surely God would have an answer for her.
After Winning had climbed down from the podium, meanwhile, he walked out the back of the church to his private office. Striding ramrod straight past his secretary's desk, he said, "Go ahead and send out those faxes, if you'd be so kind." He then picked up the telephone and called Andy Hobbs, in the County Clerk's office.
"Well, you owe me," Winning said matter-of-factly, as if he were speaking to an old college buddy.
"You are the greatest sonofabitch on the planet," Hobbs replied.
"My interest in historic preservation is well documented," Winning said. "And I am concerned that the normal planning and zoning process has been trampled."
"Oh my, Joe Mudge is gonna be so tickled," Hobbs said.
"Please inform Mr. Mudge of our upcoming barbecue. Details will be forthcoming, but we do expect him to participate. I also anticipate you will be there as well, correct?
"But of course, my man. Just lemme know."
In newsrooms across Nashville and the greater seven-county area, the fax began spilling out on the desks of Nashville television news directors, newspaper city editors and radio deejays.
"For Immediate Release: Coalition Announced to Stop Darby Glen, Dr. Floyd T. Winning Announces"
Internationally renowned minister Floyd T. Winning today announced plans to halt development of Darby Glen farm, a site he described as "rich in African American history" and "an important link to the culture of the black South."
The broad-based coalition, which includes historic preservationists, representatives from the Ladies' Hermitage Society, and Citizens for Smart Growth, will employ a grassroots marketing campaign over the coming months to convince planners of the destructive nature of the project, Winning said.
"I am proud that so many of us, from so many different perspectives, have been able to link arms to fight a common enemy," he said. "The destruction of our common history is not something we should allow to happen without a dialogue."
Winning said his group had not met with the developer, Trigg Moseley, but would arrange one soon.
"How much of our past can we bulldoze?" Winning, an influential player in local and state political circles, asked in today's sermon. "While this is certainly not a black-white issue, do we not understand that saving a slave shack is as important as saving a big plantation house?"
Winning said the group's strategic plan called for public meetings in the Darby Glen area, sessions with public officials, petition drives, and legal appeals through the court system and the appropriate planning and zoning boards. He expressed confidence that the development would ultimately be halted.
"We shall not cease until the casual destruction of our history becomes, in fact, history itself," Winning concluded.
For further interviews, call the church desk at 259-4859. Dr. Winning is available for live interviews from the church's satellite broadcasting center.
Arriving at her tiny North Nashville home, Dorthula Rogers walked through her front door with the sounds of Babel crashing in her ears. In one terrible swift judgment, she had heard the Moseleys called to task. Called to task by Dr. Winning, no less. And called to task on issues of money and materialism and insensitivity to black people. It just would not square. She loved the Moseleys, respected them, would do anything for them. Nothing could be made to fit. Who was right? What was wrong?
Dorthula removed her coat and hung it carefully on a white, plastic hook on the side of her bedroom closet. Then she took off her shoes and laid them neatly on the floor. At the foot of her bed, beneath a framed painting of Jesus Christ nailed to the cross, she fell to her knees, on the hard wood floor. She would pray. She would not quit praying, she vowed, until she had an answer. Give me some direction, she pleaded. Amid the noise, she wondered if she would even be able to hear God's answer if it came.
But in an instant, like a thunderbolt, a divine reply broke through the chaos just as she knew it would. It came quickly and loudly, flying in on the wings of grace, complete and whole and full and asking for nothing in return. Oh how God worked in such glorious and mysterious ways if only she prayed to him for guidance! Oh how she knew everything would now turn out right, if only she relied on Him for advice! Allowing herself a smile, she rose from her knees and picked up the telephone. The number she dialed connected her to the newest law partner in the downtown offices of the most prominent white-shoe law firm in the city. If anyone could figure the mess out, she was certain that this lawyer could.
"Honey, we gots to talk," Dorthula said.
"Sure, Mom, what's on your mind?"
COPYRIGHT 2004 BY BRUCE DOBIE.