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Tales of Xenia: Zion Baptist Church–Part I

15 Nov

My childhood and adolescence were both highly impacted by events and people from our church. Zion Baptist Church sits on East Main Street and is still a rather imposing building. As a child I thought it was truly  the most fabulous church in the world.With its domed sanctuary decorated with stars, its pipe organ and its balcony, all framed with dark wood paneling and pews Zion was a lovely place to gather.

My father was the superintendent of Sunday School and a deacon, so I spent a lot of time in the church when there was nobody there but us. I actually liked it best when we were there doing something for the good of the congregation, but without having to deal with the congregation. Zion was the bougiest black Baptist Church in Xenia. This was caused primarily, but not solely, by the fact that most of the Baptists from the nearby college community of Wilberforce, home of two historically black universities, Central State and Wilberforce, were members of Zion. The Chapmans, the Sellars, the Dinsmores and lots of other Wilberforce folks were good Zion congregants.

Despite Jesus’ well chronicled disdain for the rich the folks at Zion did not mind letting you know if they had a few coins to rub together. For example, well into the 70’s Zion still listed contributions in the bulletin weekly according to amount. So, if you gave the most your name was first, along with the amount you gave. The list went on right down to the names of the children who gave a dime in Sunday School. Needless to say the desire to be first in the program was a common one and was hotly contested. About three families jockeyed for position at the top of the list and it was unusual for any of them to be deposed, unless they went on vacation, or found themselves too sick to attend church.

At Zion we were too sophisticated and classy to sing gospel music. Our music director, Mrs. Zelda Booth, a classically trained musician, selected anthems and traditional hymns for the choir and the congregation. The closest we ever got to “down home” music was “Amazing Grace.” No tambourines, drums, horns, or shouting. Everything was to be decorous and refined. Only one member of the congregation did not follow the pattern. From time to time one of the ladies of the church, Mrs. T, would get overwhelmed with the spirit and shout out something like ” Thank you Lord!” or “Praise Jesus.” Other members of the congregation would roll their eyes and perhaps discreetly shake their heads, but she was a widow, with three children to raise on her own and the conventional wisdom was that she was sorely tried and had to be forgiven for losing control.

Generally speaking services at Zion were orderly, quiet and seemly. Even when we had baptisms, when the choir would have to come out of the choir box, usually singing “Wade in the Water”–we could not find a substitute for that Baptist favorite, to allow access to the baptismal pool, no overt emotion or outward display of passion was encouraged.

As part of the orderly ritual my father and I would set up communion on the first Sunday of each month. This meant a visit to Mrs. Porter’s house. She was an old and faithful member of Zion who claimed to be too unwell to attend church. To keep her bid in for heaven she laundered the communion linens each month. This was no small undertaking, the linens being heavy damask and requiring intensive work to make them look right.

Washing the linens was only the first step, they had to be starched and ironed while wet in order to get the necessary gloss and creases. The voluminous table cloths required to drape the communion table and cover the communion silver were over seven feet long. Mrs. Porter was about 4’11” , I have no idea how she managed, but she did.

She did not have a lot of company, nor did she go out much, so she looked forward to our monthly visits to pick up the linens. Unfortunately, she looked forward to them much more than my father and I did. He was delighted when I got old enough for him to wait in the car while I went in to receive the carefully boxed and tissue papered linens from her. Occasionally she would tell us on Saturday evening, after some conversation, that she did not have the linens ready and we would have to come back in the morning to get them. This threw off our schedule, and added the extra visit to our already busy Sunday.

After we retrieved the linens we either dropped them off at the church, if it was Saturday, or took them in to the sanctuary if it was Sunday morning.  Then we had to get the silver service out for communion. Silver trays for the “body of Christ”, some unleavened wafers that had to be broken into bite sized bits, and round multi-tiered trays of small glasses for the “blood of Christ”, aka grape juice purchased the day before from Brewer’s Market in downtown Xenia. There were two grocery stores in the East End, Mrs. Smith’s and Anderson Grocery, but neither of them carried bottles of grape juice.

At the beginning of my tenure as assistant to the communion guru I had to use a measuring cup to put the grape juice into the tiny glasses. This was fraught with peril. If you left the small glasses in their racks you inevitably spilled grape juice on the surrounding frame. If you took each glass out and filled it then you risked spilling it when you put it back in the rack.

Later my father found a siphon and bought it so that we could just squirt the juice into the glasses in situ, much easier! Then we had to carry the heavy trays of grape juice and lighter trays of wafers up the steep steps to the sanctuary, pull out the communion table at the front of the pulpit, drape it with Mrs. Porter’s fine linens, arrange the communion and drape another cloth over it. Now we could go home, get dressed and come back for Sunday School and church. I loved it. If the doors to Zion were open I was there, and by my early teens I had a key to the church since I was involved in so many details from helping to decorate for Christmas and Easter to teaching Sunday School and Bible School myself.

I overdosed on religion early and now mainly attend St. Mattress of the Springs on Sunday mornings.

One of my favorite memories of Zion has nothing to do with religion. There was a man at our church Harry S, who was known to be a womanizer. His long suffering wife, Mrs. S., kept her head up and pretended not to know what a cassanova her husband was,but it was an open secret. It was known that he had several girlfriends–these were middle aged people so perhaps women friends is more accurate, but his main squeeze was a rather well off widow, Mrs. B. Mrs. B’s husband had died quite young, leaving her well provided for and she was a sharp dresser.  Her prized possession however,was  her mink stole.

As soon as there was the slightest hint of coolness in the air Mrs. B. could be counted on to show up in church with her mink stole. The ladies of Zion in that era did not have any compunction about wearing dead animal skins, my own mother had a mink stole, a mink hat and one of those dreadful stoles that was dead foxes with glass eyes biting each other’s tails to stay connected. That was worn over suits only. The stoles could come out anytime it was not sufficiently cold for a coat, but cool enough to need a wrap. Mrs. S., however did not have a mink or any other fur.

One Saturday night Mr. S. took Mrs. B. out as usual. Perhaps the evening was warm and she took her wrap off, or perhaps she and Mr. S. got cozy in the car and she had to shed her stole for love’s sake. For whatever reason, Mrs. B got out of the car and left the stole in the car. The next morning, bright and early, Mrs. S. walked into Zion Baptist wrapped in a nice mink stole. Amid many knowing smiles and nods she walked to her seat, head held high, stole draped artfully and took her usual seat. Mrs. B. did not make it to services that week.

 

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1 Comment

Posted by on November 15, 2010 in Xenia

 

One response to “Tales of Xenia: Zion Baptist Church–Part I

  1. Janice Graham

    November 15, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    Thank you for sharing the warm detail of Black church life. I read your blog to my Baptist 85-yr old Mom in FL over the phone, and we are enjoying your entries so much. I too was the “girl that could” in my home church. But I would have lost a hand if ever I tried to prepare the communion service. The Deaconesses at Payne Chapel AME would not even let your fingers touch the beautiful, stackable, silver service sets ! They would view it as blasphemy against their holy place in the chruch hierarchy for sure. Every first or last Saturday, they polished and polished until the trays and little glasses glistened and danced with the colors of the sun through the ( real and authentic) floor to ceiling stained glass windows ! I always thought that Ms. Mary, who did the church linens and was a professional laundress for the Post Estate, had those huge arms and hands as required for her craft – creases and perfect folding. At her house there were always at minimum 2 iron boards and irons set up for a job. Thanks Cookie. Nice thoughts for a Monday morning.

     

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