The pristine white Presbyterian Church at the top of the dirt road is the only church there is. A little girl, four years old, 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, because the priest comes only once in each two month circuit, it is all right to send her daughter to Presbyterian Sunday School. God is God, after all.
The little girl draws pictures and listens with rapt attention to the Bible stories. She gets along well with the other children and enjoys their company because she does not often get to play with them. Her mother will not let her run barefoot or wade in the 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 to the class. They have been learning the Lord's Prayer, and he wants to check on their progress. The children stand up and speak all 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 something else.
The minister looks at the girl 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 recites it again.
"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 mother and father.
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 would not give him the satisfaction of her tears, and she would not be pushed by any means to do something she did not think was right. "My daddy says some people say extra words that people added a long time after Jesus said the prayer. I know it the way Mama and Daddy taught me. I know 'Hail Mary,' too. And 'Angel of God, my guardian dear'."
At this point, the minister begins to mutter words she does not understand. He puts 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.
"I can't. Mama told me to wait for her to come and get me. I have to sit on the steps until she comes." By now the girl is not only in pain; she is getting angry, very angry, at the minister. But she controls herself. She knows her mama will fix it.
As soon as the man slams the door, the girl allows herself to cry. She sees blood drops on her clothes. Her mother, seeing tears and blood, runs up the road to get her. She is bleeding from her mouth, because the blow forced her teeth into the inside cheek. Her eye swells shut by the end of the day. The girl has welts on her face and her upper arms which finally fade after two days, being replaced by bruises in the perfect 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 other things happened to her or her brother. Mama always says, "Ignorance does not excuse brutality." The girl doesn't know exactly what the words mean, but she does know they mean Mama's gonna do something about it.
A service is going on, but Mama doesn't care. She takes the girl and marches right up the center to the minister who is holding forth on something Jesus said or did.
She turns the girl around to face the congregation, bloody rivulet down her chin, welts rising on her face and arms.
She is brief: "That man did this to my daughter, and you call him a Christian."
Needless to say, Mama never sent the girl to Sunday School again.
I was that girl.
Copyright (c)1997 Ramona K. Silipo. All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission of the author.