The Confession By J. W. Taylor
GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
From PRX and NPR, welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT "The Pariah" episode. My name is Glynn Washington. And most of us, most of us want to be part of a crowd. No one likes to be cast out. But we know sometimes, when you walk out to the frame, sometimes good things happen. J. W. Taylor tells of his story live for the wonderful storytelling event Tales from the South.
J. W. TAYLOR: It was 1 in the morning when Brother Benji sat me and Dana McDuffie (ph) down in his office. Dana was looking at me and Brother Benji, too. But I focused on the cross on the wall behind his desk and tried to breathe. You kids have two options, he said. Option one, I pick up that phone, call your parents and tell them to come get you. And I'll let you explain why. Now, brothers and sisters, listen to me. I didn't care if option two meant being stripped naked, dipped in honey and rolled in fire ants, while singing all six verses of "Amazing Grace." I was going with option number two.
TAYLOR: Now a new Brother Benji wouldn't kill me and bury me the backyard, but I wasn't so sure about mama. I was 14, the summer of 1985, the night of the youth lock-in at Calvary Baptist in Shreveport, Louisiana. For the teenagers, a church lock-in was a stay up as late as you want extravaganza. A night away from home with movies, music, pizza, games and a bit of hair pulling mixed with the occasional slap fight. For the parents, it was even better. With a promise to pick them up at 8 the next morning, they began dropping their darlings off at 6 p.m.. And by 6:15, the church parking lot was enveloped in a thick black fog smelling suspiciously of burning rubber.
TAYLOR: The man in charge of the 40-plus teens was Brother Benji the youth minister, who was an angry little man with slumped shoulders, a squatty face, thick glasses and the joyful spirit of a man at a perpetual IRS audit. He had shooed us into the fellowship hall and led us in prayer before outlining the rules that no one in the room intended to follow. Then he turned us loose. I grabbed some pizza and talked to some friends all while watching Dana McDuffie. For weeks, Dana and I had been engaged in that time-honored teenage courtship ritual of circling each other like feral cats - staring and preening and puffing, neither willing to make the first move. Feats of strength and fluttered lashes, a bicep flex and a hair flip, cologne and perfume applied in such copious amounts that we could smell one another through walls.
TAYLOR: It was all prelude in preparation for tonight. I had decided tonight was the night. But I was nervous. I was new to the game of love, but Dana had what we in the evangelical community called a reputation. And unlike leprosy or rickets, you couldn't take vitamin D or rub some aloe vera on a reputation and make it all better. A reputation was terminal, but I didn't care. I decided. So around midnight when I found Dana alone as she was coming out of the girls' bathroom, I made my move.
Want to talk? That was my move. I had practiced it in the weeks - for weeks in the mirror. But then Dana threw me a curveball. Talk about what? Now if my move had been a ship, they'd have been ringing bells and hanging out lifejackets 'cause there was six foot of water in the boiler room. In my practice mirror sessions, Dana had always responded either yes or no. I was woefully unprepared for her to answer my question with a question. So I just stood there in the wreckage of my move. The smell of my own sweat and a half bottle of Stetson burning my nostrils.
TAYLOR: Dana gave me kind of a sideways look like the RCA dog. And then she smiled, and she grabbed my hand. And we ran through a side door into the church courtyard. We found another open door, and she led me up some stairs and down some others until eventually, we arrived in the elementary Sunday school wing. At the end of a long haul, we open the door to the first grade classroom. I turned on the light. She turned it off. Shortly thereafter, we commenced a sinning.
TAYLOR: Now I may have been new to the game of love, but it didn't take me long to figure out that we weren't playing the same game. Dana was playing bridge and chess and backgammon all at the same time. I was hitting rocks with hammers. Yet, just about the time I was learning how to hold my own, I was blinded by a bright light not unlike what I imagined Saul experienced on the road to Damascus. Only instead of God's voice, I heard Brother Benji's. And to this day, I don't know how he found us or how even knew we were missing. But he had caught us at play on the fields of love, and he promptly called the game on account of darkness in our souls.
And so the long, slow walk back to his office. He sat us down and shut the door, took off his thick glasses and tossed them on his desk. He rubbed his wee little face, rubbed it again. I looked at Dana. She looked at me. Silence. You should be ashamed, he said. Ashamed. This is God's house, a place of worship, and you two have turned it into a den of iniquity. Thus began an impromptu sermon on the evils of the flesh. And as he spoke, I was struck by two almost simultaneous revelations. One, for the first time in my life, I was a fornicator.
TAYLOR: Two, I should not have been quite so happy about it.
TAYLOR: I had committed a real, live, grown-up sin, and it was all I could do to keep the smile in my heart from reaching my face. But my parents didn't take me to church every Wednesday and twice on Sunday for nothing. My temporary euphoria was replaced by the cold and creeping feeling that now, after 14 years, all 10 of the commandments were suddenly in play. Instead of just keeping the Sabbath holy and honoring my mom and dad, now I had to watch out for coveting my neighbor's wife, along with bearing false witness - whatever that was - and murdering and thieving and adultery. A whole new world was opening up, and I was afraid it was going to swallow me whole. Are you listening, Brother Benji said. Yes, sir. Then he gave us the options - call our parents or option two. And so it came to pass that option number two lead us back to the Fellowship Hall to a small, raised stage in the front of the room.
The congregation before us, Brother Benji behind us. And in a loud voice, Brother Benji did say J. W. Taylor confess before your peers and your God and low, I froze. Never had 40-plus teenagers been so quiet. The whole scene seemed like a photograph, a still-life. No one was moving except me. As bad as I was shaking on the outside, it was worse on the inside. Voices and laws and rules and commandments were swirling in my head. Love and lust and heaven and hell all blurred together until I couldn't figure out what I needed to confess because I couldn't keep track of all my sins. J. W., the voice said. Dana took my hand. Her hand was as warm as mine was cold. I took a deep, shaky breath and said me and Dana went to the Sunday school rooms and kissed and stuff. The voice - and what you did was wrong, wasn't it? Yes, sir. And you won't do it again, will you?
No, sir. Dana let go of my hand. I had a lot to learn. And again the voice - Dana McDuffie, confess before your peers and your God. And then it happened. Dana took two steps forward to the front and center of the stage, and she confessed and confessed and confessed. In fact, she confessed in such a vivid and salacious detail that Brother Benji tried to keep her from confessing anymore, but that only made her confess louder. And the louder she confessed, the smaller Brother Benji became until he receded completely into the background of the great passion play that was unfolding before him. And the more Dana confessed about what had transpired in that first grade Sunday school room, the more I began to wonder whether I had even been there. It was a tour de force of repentance. And when Dana finally finished her stem winded confession, the wee little man behind her didn't ask if what she had done was wrong or if she was going to do it again.
He just stepped down off the stage, and walked right out of the doors of the Fellowship Hall, leaving me and Dana and our peers and our God to figure out what to do next. When I woke up later that morning, Dana was gone. My parents picked me up, and I rode home in silence. I went to bed, and slept another six hours without dreaming a single dream. I never saw Dana McDuffie inside the walls of Calvary Baptist Church again, but I saw her again the next Friday night and the one after that and the one after that.
WASHINGTON: We want to thank J. W. Taylor for telling his story. That piece was recorded and produced by the folks over at Tales from the South. And they've got plenty more where this came from. Check out their podcast at TalesfromtheSouth.com. We're going to have a link at snapjudgment.org.
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