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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2003 by Michele Andrea Bowen
Excerpt from Up at the College copyright © 2008 by Michele Andrea Bowen
Reading Group Guide copyright © 2005 by Hachette Book Group
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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Originally published in hardcover by Hachette Book Group
First eBook Edition: March 2009
GLORIOUS PRAISE FOR MICHELE ANDREA BOWEN'S NOVELS
"Fresh, passionate, and laugh-out-loud funny."
—Dallas Morning News
"Strong . . . humorous . . . Conspiracies, drama, and political intrigue abound. Bowen offers lessons on a myriad of issues including the power of love and forgiveness and the strength of community."
—Greater Diversity News (NC)
"Bowen's writing humorously explores familiar terrain for anyone who has witnessed church politics. [This] book contains important messages about redemption and love—that we are imperfect people who serve a gracious and merciful God."
—Black Issues Book Review
"Bowen [has] an astute sense of character and sharp, humorous dialogue."
"Readers won't regret meeting the spunky, hilarious members of Gethsemane Baptist."
—Romantic Times BOOKreviews Magazine
Holy Ghost Corner
"Ms. Bowen is truly blessed and it shows in her work."
"Both humorous and uplifting."
—Herald Sun (NC)
"Michele Andrea Bowen has done it again! I found myself laughing out loud . . . hilarious and romantic."
—Shades Of Romance (sormag.com)
"Thoroughly enjoyable . . . a funny, juicy story with plenty of Scripture thrown in to keep us humble."
"Filled with delightful characters."
—Southern Pines Pilot
"I loved the setting of Durham, North Carolina, and the characters that she so deftly brought to life."
"Awesome . . . will have you laughing, crying, and praising all at the same time."
"Coupled with quirky characters, Holy Ghost Corner tells a tale of love almost missed and opportunities overlooked."
"Peopled with hilarious characters . . . A lighthearted and humorous look at the issues facing today's black Christian woman."
"Exceptional . . . Church Folk really tells it like it is! . . . Lots of emotion and plenty of truth! Full of the African-American culture in its richest form—church life."
—Salisbury Post (NC)
"Readers will embrace this steamy morality tale, with its bold themes and fallible characters . . . [They] will enjoy the rich glimpses into the spirit-filled African-American church of the 1960s, complete with politicking, blackmail, [and] colorful dialogue."
"Charming . . . some very unexpected twists and turns . . . A joyful and enriching first novel."
"Will please churchgoing readers."
"An entertaining, fast-paced story filled with colorful characters and dialogue . . . Explores the challenges and morality issues church folks face in their Christian walk."
Books by Michele Andrea Bowen:
Holy Ghost Corner
Up at the College
This book is dedicated in loving memory to my cousin, Mack Earl Sanders (1955–2003).
On hot St. Louis summer days, when I was six and Mack was eight, we watched the clouds as I told him some of my first stories.
My first novel, Church Folk, was put on bookshelves across the country. What an incredibly joyous and blessed experience. And it didn't stop there. Because you, the readers, responded to my little ole country story about the folk at "chutch" in a remarkable way. Thank you with all of my heart.
Now I have been blessed with the release of my second novel, Second Sunday. And nothing as big as publishing a novel happens without the help and support of so many wonderful people. I know I can't name everybody, but I want to give a few shout outs to a few.
Elisa Petrini, my editor. Thank you so much, girl. I really appreciate your understanding of my work and what I try to accomplish with each story. I am very fortunate to be able to work with you. You are absolutely the best (and "good people," too).
Hachette Book Group and the artist who creates my beautiful book covers—thank you.
My family. What can I say about y'all? You have been there for me through it all. I appreciate your help and support and ceaseless prayers.
Thank you, Mama, for helping me with the girls. I couldn't tour and travel without your help.
Thank you Laura and Janina for being so patient with all that Mommy has to do with work.
My friends in St. Louis (including the "Theodosia Girls" from back in the day), and in Durham, Richmond, and all the other cities where my loved ones live.
Thank you Valerie Ann Johnson for taking my picture for this book.
A special thank you to the extraordinary pastors in my life. My church home, St. Joseph A.M.E. Church, Durham, North Carolina, Rev. Phillip R. Cousin, Jr., Pastor. My home away from home, Mount Level Missionary Baptist Church, Durham, North Carolina, Rev. Dr. William C. Turner, Pastor. Bethlehem Temple Apostolic Church, Baltimore, Maryland, my uncle, Bishop James D. Nelson, Sr., Pastor.
And most of all, thank you, Lord, for letting me know what it feels like to be exceedingly and abundantly blessed.
A Little Women's Revolution, Right Up Here in the Church
In September 1975, just nine months before Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church was to celebrate its hundredth anniversary, its pastor, Pastor Clydell Forbes, Sr., died. Some church members cried, others immediately started cooking food for the First Lady and her three boys, and Mr. Louis Loomis, one of the senior deacons in the congregation, said out loud what others were secretly thinking: "Why couldn't that cross-eyed, carrying-on stallion of a preacher hang on till the church was a hundred and one? If the boy had to up and die, at the very least he could have had the common decency to get us through the church's hundredth year."
Pastor Forbes was only in his fifties and hadn't occupied Gethsemane's pulpit all that long; just six years to be exact. No one expected that they'd lose him so soon, and at the worst possible time. A church anniversary without a pastor was like a Sunday worship service with no Hammond organ—the pastor was that central—and the centennial was the most momentous occasion in Gethsemane's history. The pastor was the one who would appoint and supervise the centennial committees, oversee fund-raising, and, most important of all, determine the celebration's theme, developing the sermons to herald and commemorate that special day which, for Gethsemane, was the Second Sunday in June.
Now all the planning was brought to a screeching halt until the Forbes family and the church family got through the man's funeral. And it was an ordeal—a long tear-jerking service that became a spectacle when three of his "special-interest" women fell out, crying and screaming with grief, and had to be removed by the ushers. Then the congregation pitched in to help his widow pack up the parsonage and get resettled with her children in a new home. So it was some time before Bert Green, the head of the Deacon Board, thought it appropriate to resume business and called a meeting of the church officers to discuss hiring a new pastor.
As they chewed over the list of potential preachers to interview, Bert's wife, Nettie, walked into the room, carrying a tray loaded down with sandwiches, potato salad, pickles and olives, caramel and pineapple coconut cakes and sweet potato pies cooked by one of the church's five missionary societies. Bert grabbed himself a thick, juicy, home-cooked ham sandwich as his fellow Deacon and Finance Board members heaped their plates high with food. Nettie had gotten an earful of their conversation on her way up from the kitchen, and it hadn't escaped her that the men had quit talking the moment they saw her struggling with that tray in the doorway.
Now they all sat there so self-satisfied, with that we-is-in-the-Upper Room look on their faces—the same men whose political head-butting had led to the appointment of Clydell Forbes, as spineless and weak a pastor as the church had ever seen. Helping them to their choice of iced tea or fresh coffee, Nettie pressed her lips together, mad enough to want to shake up these smug, never-did-know-how-to-pick-a-good-preacher men.
So she ignored Bert's signals that they were impatient for her to leave. Avoiding his eyes, she asked, as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, "So, who's on this list y'all talking about?"
No one seemed to hear her but Mr. Louis Loomis, the oldest member of both boards, who was chewing on the fat from his ham sandwich. He slipped his reading glasses down to the tip of his nose and resumed where he'd left off. "Like I said, some of these here preachers out of our price range."
Bert looked at the paper without acknowledging Nettie, picked up his pen, and asked, "Which ones?"
"Rev. Macy Jones, Rev. David O. Clemson, III, Rev. Joe Joseph, Jr. . . ."
Bert started drawing lines through those names until Cleavon Johnson, the head of the Finance Board, stopped him. "Keep Rev. Clemson on the list," he said.
"Why?" Mr. Louis Loomis shot back. He and Cleavon Johnson mixed like oil and water. Cleavon might be a business leader who had grabbed hold of the church's purse strings, but to Mr. Louis Loomis he was still the arrogant punk he used to belt-whip.
"Because—," Cleavon started to say, then slammed his mouth shut, staring pointedly at Nettie.
Pretending not to notice, Nettie grabbed one of the chairs lined up against the wall, pulled it up to the conference table, and sat down like she belonged there. Then she looked straight at Cleavon and asked, still sounding innocent, "Just what is it that we're looking for in our new pastor?"
Cleavon Johnson glared at her, as if to say, "Woman, you way out of line." His "boys" on the Finance Board coughed and cleared their throats, Bert's cue to get his woman straightened out. But Bert locked eyes with Wendell Cates, who was married to Nettie's sister, Viola, and caught his smirking wink.
Wendell's expression told Bert, "Your girl on a roll. Let it be." Bert gave Wendell a sly smile that implied, "I hear you," and sat back to watch his wife give Cleavon a good dose of her down-home medicine.
When it became clear that Bert was not going to chastise his woman, Cleavon decided that he had to intervene. Puffing himself up to his full dignity as head of the Finance Board, he began authoritatively, "Sister Nettie, the senior men of this church, including your husband, have carefully formulated this list based on reliable recommendations . . ."
Nettie stole a glance at Mr. Louis Loomis, but all he did was adjust his glasses and crumple his napkin, as if to say, "My name is Bennett and I ain't in it."
Taking that as approval, she interrupted, "What I'm asking is, who—"
Cleavon tried to cut her off. "You'll meet our choices along with the rest of the congregation—"
"Or rather, what kind of men are being 'formulated' and 'recommended' to be our new pastor?" she continued, as if he were not talking.
"Sister Nettie," Cleavon scolded, "it's time for you to run along, like a good girl. You have your own proper duties as one of the church's handmaidens. We have ours, and you are stopping us from carrying them out." His voice grew stern. "You are not a duly appointed officer of this church, and until you are I think it would be wise on your part to let the heads of this godly house run this house."
Nettie pushed her chair away from the table, rose, and wiped her hands on her apron. Cleavon thought it was a gesture of defeat, that she was accepting his rebuke. But Nettie wasn't conceding defeat or retreating. She was retrenching as she stacked the dirty dishes and mustered up her sweetest, most chastised-woman-sounding voice to say, "Brother Cleavon, only the Lord knows what moves you. Only the Lord knows what makes you so forceful in what you do and say. But I am thankful that you express yourself so openly. Pray my strength."
As Nettie left, Cleavon nodded self-importantly to the group, not realizing she had just told him that he was in a class by himself and too dumb to try to keep it to himself.
Bert and Wendell stifled chuckles, but felt unsettled by Nettie's exit. She had to be up to something more than needling Cleavon Johnson. The encounter felt ominous, leaving them both with the impression that Nettie was throwing down a gauntlet, as a declaration of war.
When Nettie got back to the kitchen, she slammed her tray down on the counter so hard that she almost broke some of the heavy, mint green glass cups, plates, and saucers that were always in plentiful supply at church.
Her sister Viola jumped up, startled, and Nettie cussed, "I be doggoned and banned from heaven!"
"What's all this banging and ugly talking?" Sylvia Vicks demanded. "Nettie Green, you ain't out in them streets. You up in church. And you just best start remembering that."
"Sylvia, pray my strength, 'cause I am so mad at our men up in that room." Nettie pointed toward the ceiling, shaking her head in disgust. "I mean, they should have learned something worthwhile about hiring a preacher after Rev. Forbes. But they not even talking about character and morals—"
She stopped herself—"Forgive me, Jesus, for speaking ill of the dead"—then continued, "Lord only knows how much money they wasted bailing Clydell Forbes out of his women troubles—"
"What 'women troubles,' Nettie Green?" asked Cleavon's wife, Katie Mae Johnson. "I never heard about the church spending money like that. With Cleavon on the Deacon Board and being head of the Finance Board, I think I would have heard if he was making payoffs to errant women."
"Humph," Sylvia interjected. "Don't know how you missed all that, with the way Pastor Forbes had such a weakness for loose-tail women in booty-clutching dresses—bigger and fatter the booty, the better, I hear. And sad thing, Sister Forbes had a big fat rumpa-seat hangin' off the back of her. Don't know why he wanted all those other women, seeing what he had laying up next to him in his own house."
"Y'all, we should not be up in this church, talking all in Sister Forbes's business and up under her clothes like that. It ain't right, and it sho' ain't Christian."
Viola sighed out loud and raised her hands high in exasperation. "Katie Mae, it's Christian charity to tell the truth about the truth."
"And you should have known something, Katie Mae," Sylvia added. "We all keep telling you that Cleavon keep too much from you. He your husband, and all he ever tell you is that you think too much and read too much and always working your self up over some nonsense. Then he go out in the streets, and when he come home, be acting like he just got through passing out the two fish and five loaves of bread to the multitudes."
Katie Mae sneaked and wiped her eyes with the edge of her apron. Sometimes even your best friends didn't truly understand the magnitude of your pain. She sniffed once and put on a brave face before saying, "Aww, Sylvia, you can't judge my Cleavon by your Melvin. Melvin Sr. tells you pretty much everything and lets you run your house. But in Cleavon's home, the woman is beneath the man. He believe in the strict Bible ways."
Sylvia had to stop herself from quoting one of Mr. Louis Loomis's observations about Cleavon's "strict Bible ways" mess. "That boy always pontificating about a woman being beneath a man 'cause his tail always so intent on being on top of one."
"Well, it don't matter what Cleavon believe," Nettie said. "The fact is, he used church money to get the Reverend out of trouble. But it ain't just the money that makes me so mad—it's our men using they man pride and they man rules to pick our preachers, acting like I committed a sin just by asking them a question. Look at us down here in this hot kitchen, fixing food and washing dishes, while they upstairs eating, talking, laughing, and acting like they the Apostles. This is our church too. It just ain't right. And I ain't gone stand for it no more."
"But what you propose to do?" Viola asked. "We not on any of those boards. So I don't see how we gone select a preacher."
"That's right," Katie Mae said. "You doing all this big bad talk and you don't even know how to go from A to B."
Nettie took off her apron and closed her eyes, praying for direction. When the inspiration came, she snapped her fingers.
"Viola, Sylvia, Katie Mae—here's what we'll do. Our mens thought they could put me in my place. So what we gone use is our women's place to make them do right. We're gone get us a woman's secret weapon."
"And what in the world would that be?" Sylvia asked.
"Who is more like it," Nettie stated. "We need someone who's an expert when it comes to sniffing out a man. Someone who can tell us which one of those preachers on they list is decent. And I know just the secret-weapon girl who can help us. My neighbor, Sheba Cochran."
"Sheba Cochran?" Katie Mae snapped, incensed that Nettie would even form her mouth to utter Sheba's name in her presence. "The heifer with all them baby daddies? Why that party-hearty club girl used to be one of Cleavon's women!"
For a moment, none of them breathed. Ever since high school, Cleavon had believed he was "fine as wine and every woman's kind," and even though he was staring forty in the behind, he was still running around and chasing tail like his life depended on it. And no matter what Cleavon did, Katie Mae defended him. It infuriated her friends, but if Katie Mae pretended he acted right, they felt obliged to hold their peace.
Now the truth was out.
"I didn't mean to hurt you," Nettie said softly. "And you have a right to be angry."
"Why would you or any other married woman even want to cut your eyes at that thang?"
"Katie Mae, there's something you should know. Cleavon lied to Sheba."
Katie Mae opened her mouth, but Nettie went on before she could speak. "Cleavon met Sheba over in East St. Louis at the Mothership Club. He claimed to be legally separated from you, and she honestly believed his marriage was over. So did I, until I learned he was still spending some nights with you. When I told Sheba, she broke it off. Remember Cleavon's black eye?"
Katie Mae nodded.
"Sheba did that, while she was cussing him out. I've known Sheba since we were kids, Katie Mae. She's never purposefully gone with a married man."
Tears streamed down Katie Mae's face. She was hurt, angry, and convicted in her heart all at the same time. She knew how Cleavon operated. And her grandmother constantly told her: "Baby, just a 'cause you let Cleavon run you, don't mean nobody else will. You better understand that there more folks than not who want to set his tail straight."
Sylvia handed Katie Mae a paper napkin and then gave Nettie the eye, hoping she could think of something to soften the blow she had just delivered. Nettie got the message and went to Katie Mae, taking both of her hands in her own. "I'm so sorry," she said.
When Katie Mae regained her composure, Nettie added, "Please trust me about Sheba. Cleavon picked Clydell Forbes, and he ain't picking our new pastor. But the fact is, none of these men—including Bert, Wendell, and Melvin Sr.—have the sense to find a man who can lead the church, bring us together for the anniversary, and do right by the women. It's got to be up to us."
Katie Mae sighed heavily. Nettie was right.
"And for that we need Sheba," Sylvia said.
"Yes," Viola chimed in. "That Sheba knows men like I know my name. If one of these preachers on they list is bad, she'll find him out."
"And if one is a good man?" Katie Mae asked.
"Then she'll know that, too," Nettie answered. "She the one always told me to quit worrying about Bert. Said, with a good man, if you take care of him right, he ain't going nowhere. But with a bad man, ain't nothing you can do. Whatever he looking to find out in the street ain't about you. It's just some of his own mess that he ain't ready to deal with."
Katie Mae sighed again, as if taking Nettie's words to heart.
"So, are we agreed?" Viola asked.
They all clasped hands to seal the bargain.
"Now how do we plan to get Sheba next to these preachers?" Sylvia said. "Some of them slick as slick oil and liable to slip from a tight spot. And what if our men catch her East St. Louis, love-to-party-self up in church? One of them bound to ask what got Sheba up so early on Sunday morning."
"Hmmm," Nettie said, turning it over in her mind. "I think we'll have to leave it to Sheba to get to the preachers, and we'll each have to find a way to handle our men ourselves."
"Okay, I can see that part. But, Nettie, will Sheba help us?"
"I bet she will. She'll see it as a challenge."
"Wait a minute!" said Katie Mae. "What if Sheba decides she wants to lay up with one of those preachers?"
She paused, and her eyes got big and round. "And, and what if one of those preachers real low-down and try to get some from her, when even she don't want to give it to him."
"Katie Mae, why you all of a sudden so worried about Sheba Cochran? I thought you said she was nothing but a party-hearty hussy."
"I did. But I don't want to have a hand in her sinful ways."
"You won't. If Sheba will help us, it'll be for her own good reasons. Look, the girl is tough—she's raised four kids alone. I've seen her box down her old men when she needed her child support payments. And do you think preachers are rougher than those men she meets out in the clubs?"
"Yeah," Viola said, laughing, "if she do want one of those old men, she can have him. And that'll be between her, her sheets, that man, and the Lord—and then we'll know for sure that preacher ain't worth a poot."
"Shoot, I say let the chile have her fun," Sylvia agreed. "It'll be worth it to keep some trifling no-good thang out of our pulpit."
Katie Mae closed her eyes and clasped her hands to her chest. She hoped that the Lord would understand and forgive their wayward souls.
Sylvia looked over at Katie Mae agonizing and praying over Sheba Cochran, when what she needed to pray and agonize over was that no-count, trouble-causing man of hers.
- On Sale
- Mar 1, 2009
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Grand Central Publishing