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Bigida - Part I I - Holy Dancing


Growing up, my family attended Price Memorial AME Zion Church. My grandfather was a preacher and was connected with Rock Hill AME Zion Church, where he is buried. I was raised Methodist, but I was Baptist in my heart. In my opinion, Methodists were prim, proper, status conscious and status seeking. The minister preached in a monotone and the choir sing hymns like "Come Ye Disconsolate," which is appropriate for the mood of the service.
After attending Sunday school and worship service at Price on Sunday morning, our evenings were free. When we were young, my sisters, cousins and I use to love to attend evening services at the "Tramp" Church of God. The "Tramp Church” was a small white clapboard building that sat on a dead end street off of Crowell Street midway between our cousins, Annice, Cab and Charlie’s house and ours. Our cousins' church, First Congregation, while a bit livelier than ours, also suffered from a bad case of dignity and decorum -- a lot of professionals attended services there.
The "Tramp" Church was either Pentecostal or Baptist but at the time I didn't know the difference. But I did love the way the Baptists knew how to rock the house and set the place on fire. After the quiet, sterile service at Price, we often elected to go to the "Tramp" Church of God for evening service. (We were almost grown by the time we realized that what we called the "Tramp" Church was actually the "Triumph" Church.)
At the Tramp Church, we could really get into the spirit of old time religion. Rev. Green, the pastor at the Tramp Church, was a little old woman with a short portly husband who served as deacon of the Church and chief collector of contributions. At Tramp Church, we beat tambourines and drums making a loud noise unto the Lord that went nicely with our enthusiastic gospel singing and foot ¬stomping. We clapped our hands to the beat as we sang ourselves hoarse to the "Glory of the Lord." The older sisters would get happy and shout, doing a holy dance until they collapsed onto the hard wood of the benches, short of breath and wet from perspiration. The Tramp Church seemed designed for folks who allowed their inhibitions to fly while giving the spirit of the Holy Ghost full reign. I was tolerant of shouting at the Tramp Church (since nobody I knew went there) but was mortified by my grandmother’s insistence on being a part of such rites at her church.
Mama Stewart, called Big Ida by her sons-in-law, was a Baptist and a member of the First Christian Baptist Church. I was apprehensive every time I attended church with her. I worried because she was a confirmed shouter. She didn't shout every time, just often enough to keep me eying her constantly for signs of the spirit, a prelude to shouting.
Mama Stewart was a "cute" shouter. She dressed to impress in the event that the spirit moved her to center stage. Her iron grey hair was combed straight back into an upturned roll and a small hat crowned the center of her proud head. She would wear one of her good, crisply starched and ironed dresses, low heel dress shoes, black shiny pocketbook and a snow white lace handkerchief to wave at the preacher or singers if she approved of the performance.
MY grandmother, when the spirit moved her was a dangerous woman. If the Holy Ghost took possession of her, she was booked to throw anything she was holding in her hands at the time: fan, hanky, pocketbook, and once, according to family lore, her baby. A really inspired preacher could sometimes get her going, but usually the spirit would hit her during an especially soul stirring gospel song, sung with fervour and, yes, spirit. First, she'd wave her hanky while calling out encouragement to the singers. "Go ahead and sing it child." Then her face would break out in a beatific smile that had an unearthly glow. She'd pat her feet and lean forward slightly all the while talking back to the messengers of God: "Yeah, Sang it” or "Tell 'em Rev."
I would begin watching her anxiously. I was shy as a child and when she got "happy" the other parishioners would take notice of her -- and me. I didn't mind other people shouting, but I was embarrassed by my grandmother behaving in such a barbaric manner. If I was lucky, the song or sermon would end before the spirit had a chance to strike full force and I would get a reprieve. Other times, the spirit would not be denied, and would lash out filling her with the Holy Ghost which could only be excised by a full fledged holy shout. Resigned, instead of crawling under the bench, I'd reach for her pocketbook, while easing back out of her way. If I didn't get the pocketbook, she'd throw it anywhere and then I'd get even more attention as I scrambled out of the pew to retrieve it.
Spirit or no spirit, my grandmother was a lady. On her usually arthritic legs she would tip lightly out of her pew, manoeuvring carefully to pass unharmed the knees and feet blocking her path to the aisle and prance in a delayed skip to the front of the church where she had the necessary room to do her "pretty" shouting with short quick steps that were similar to jitterbug. No falling out or wallowing around on the floor for my grandmother: she shouted as neatly as she dressed. When the spirit lifted, she'd complete her cute holy dance; give a final wave to the singers and, like the queen that she was, strut back to her seat carefully excusing herself as she squeezed into her place in the pew. Mama Stewart was considerate and mindful of the feet and toes of others because of her unfortunate experience in toe-mashing.
According to family lore, one evening as a church sister squeezed pass Mama Stewart's legs, she stepped on Mama’s little toe. Mama’s toes were very sensitive and she was known to pinch or squeeze even her smallest grandchild if one accidently stepped on a foot or mashed a toe. "Excuse me, but you stepped on my toe." Mama Stewart told her. "Well," replied the unrepentant sister, "pick up your toe and put it in your pocket." What did she say that for? Church was out. Mama Stewart, never one to back away from a fight, took the shoe off her abused foot and turned Church out! One did not mess with Big Ida and her toes.

Alice Stewart

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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