My Holy Ghost People
I don’t understand Holy Ghost people, but I know I better believe them — every strange word — probably because I’m a quarter Holy Ghost person myself: Pauline begat Judy and Barbara, and Barbara begat me. As far as I can remember, I’ve never witnessed anybody speaking in tongues, though I must have heard the Word spoken like that when I was little, whenever my grandmother took me to the Sipsey Church of God.
And I’ve heard from my mother what it’s like: When people get worked up in church, somebody might break into what sounds like gibberish. Sometimes they’ll run around the sanctuary, and one of the old ladies will interpret the noises they’re making. Usually it’s something pretty generic: Praise the Lord! the tongue speakers would say, or, Hallelujah! They don’t always interpret, and they don’t speak in tongues at every service. Only when the Spirit comes up on them, as they say, and when it does, they say something like Ashundado ashundado kundai! Ashundado ashundado kundai!
When my mother imitates it, she looks like she’s about to laugh, but she doesn’t. She’s not making fun, she’ll tell me; she’s just trying to demonstrate. Not long after she starts talking about it, she’ll cut herself off, a spooked look coming on her green eyes, and she’ll say she doesn’t understand it, but she’s not going to criticize. The Bible says blaspheming the Holy Ghost is the only unforgivable sin.
My aunt Judy speaks in tongues. Just after she was diagnosed with cancer, my mother heard her do it. The three of them were praying together — Judy and Grandmother taking turns out loud, Mom to herself, and Judy broke into tongues. Ashundado ashundado kundai was part of it. Mom wonders why it always sounds like that: Maybe it’s what comes out when people who’ve heard it all their lives get worked up in prayer. Or maybe it’s the phrase God uses whenever He gives a message in tongues. It’s supposed to be a gift, she knows, but she’s afraid of the Holy Ghost.
When Aunt Judy almost died last week, I was watching people speak in tongues, in Peter Adair’s 1967 documentary Holy Ghost People. Aunt Judy was being resuscitated in a north Alabama emergency room, her blood sugar sky high, while I was getting exhilarated, in a New York screening room, high on taped testimonies, the quickening power of the Holy Ghost.
I was watching at first in awe — the convulsive jerk of an Appalachian woman’s head before she broke into tongues; a younger woman talking about the Lord dealing with her through a tingling in her stomach. As I listened to those Holy Ghost people getting worked up, or the Lord working on them, as they put it, something like revelation came up on me: My people are Holy Ghost people. Their strange Word is my Grandmother tongue. It’s in my blood. Like cancer.
I don’t know tongues, but I know by heart how Holy Ghost people talk to the Lord: how Grandmother prays, in a cadence like crickets, a tender drone, grieving and pleading and gracious all at once, swelling to that harsh stride that comes up on her when she’s Cloroxing the floors with a mop, or when she used to whip her girls with a flyflap: Whap, like that clap when somebody’s getting worked up over the Lord, I mean you better straighten up and start actin’ right, girl, or the devil’s coming after you, she’d say, beating just as hard as she could, like she was in a trance, my mother has told me, over and over. Though I’ve never seen Grandmother like that, I heard her in a clap–the Lord working in somebody, on documentary tape. “Don’t be ashamed to praise the Lord,” the preacher called, repent of it; the people shuddered heal us Lord, help us, Lord, yell Yes, Lord; and fall, whap, to the floor, back to the Lord.
“Have you got that kind of a Spirit?” the preacher’s words haunt me. Or maybe that’s the Lord working on me, ringing in my heart, where Jesus would be, if I’d invite Him in to be my personal savior, like I was supposed to a long time ago. My mother’s asked Him in, just in case. And I’ve tried to get saved, but not whole “heartfully,” like the preacher says, “unto the Lord.”
And then I try to discern: What does the Holy Ghost mean? What is it to be in the Word? I don’t know, probably because I think too much: How coercive it is — that call to come forward and do something for the Lord. How familiar those prayers are, that calling on the Lord, how true familiar resonances can sound.
The Lord spared Aunt Judy this time. And Grandmother prayed, head snapped forward, eyes rolled up under her lowered lids, in a voice not quite her own, almost like crying, but strong and clear: Lord, we know she’s one of your children, and she’s been a faithful servant to you. Lord, you ask us to remind you of the Scriptures. And we remember that You gave Hezekiah fifteen years, and we’re askin’ you today for those fifteen years and more. Lord, we know it’s accordin’ to your will, but we’re askin’ you to relieve her sufferin’, to heal her body, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Judy’s prognosis isn’t good: cancer all over her abdomen; not long to live. But Grandmother remembers, they didn’t give her mother but three months. And she left the hospital to go home and pray, took three days alone with the Lord. And her mother lived six years. My mother believes God can change things for Judy, too: He could heal her completely if He wanted to, she told me. She doesn’t understand why He hasn’t yet –Judy’s the most faithful Christian, the most sincere. Maybe because people wouldn’t believe it was Him if he did it before her condition got critical: People need miracles to believe.
I prayed over Aunt Judy, in the intensive care unit, my hand on her forehead, like I see Grandmother laying her hands on her grown child, sleeping unaware. And I asked the Lord to heal her, half-believing He would if only I fully believed. But I hardly ever believe everlastingly. Most of the time, I forget the Lord. I’ve only let Him work on me in heart-string pangs. And the pangs come when I hear people pouring out to Him, and I remember, that healing-mercy-wrath in one Lord, God; that chorus of hand, heart, and hell on Grandmother’s fly flap, in her prayers. And it sounds like going back to where I was from.
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.