Praying Deep in Kentucky

The Seattle Times
October 2, 2001
By Alex Tizon

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky  — The Expedition raced through the last of the High Plains, cut through the Great Lakes states of Illinois and Indiana, and as the sun set on our 16th day on the road, our truck rolled like a tired old buggy into this elegant Southern city on the Ohio River. Here we met a mother and daughter named Birdella and Ollie May Walls. They had God on their minds. And they’d noticed that much of America seemed to be thinking of God right now, or at least dropping his name.

“An airplane goin’ into a building will do that,” said Ollie May. “Praise be to Jesus,” said Birdella.

Their chairs rocked on a creaky porch. Birdella is 74; Ollie May, 49. They live on public assistance in a century-old clapboard house on the West End. Mother and daughter spend a lot of days rocking on the porch and talking to neighbors passing by.

The “West End” is what people say when referring to the black section of town. It’s a wide area that varies from tidy little flats to desolate brick sprawls — the South’s version of “projects.” The young Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, came from here. A main boulevard is named after Ali, one of the best-known Muslims in the world. The West End butts up against downtown, a striking contrast, with its wide streets and pillared European-style government buildings. A statue of King Louis XVI of France stands across from City Hall with its grand architecture.

Louisville is one of the oldest river ports in the country, and also the northernmost Southern city of any size. In twang and style, it’s closer to Memphis than Chicago. Birdella and Ollie May came to the big city from the hills of Tennessee. “Country folk” is how they describe themselves. They were raised up on grits and church hymns, and God was as much a part of life as the Great Smoky Mountains that rose up and sheltered them. Ollie May used to be a nurse’s assistant, but she found it harder to compete with younger, more educated workers. Maybe she wasn’t cut out for city living. A part of her never left the Tennessee hills.

The day we visited, she wore overalls, a flannel shirt and a straw hat over pigtails. She did most of the talking. Her face was as stretchy as a rubber band, her voice, happy as a banjo. She referred to the terrorists as “Kamikazmi-nauts,” which if it isn’t a word, should be. Birdella, a wizened old matriarch with cataract eyes, rocked and mostly kept quiet. When you thought she was asleep, she’d blurt out “amen” to correct you. The two sometimes spoke in duet, as in church liturgy, with Ollie May extemporizing and Birdella affirming.

Ollie May: “We’re foot-wash Baptists.”

Birdella: “That’s right, but don’t look at our feet.”

On Sept. 11, Birdella and Ollie May recited the Lord’s Prayer out loud several times, alternating lines. They went to church, where the pews were packed, as they’ve been in churches all across the country.

Ollie May: “Faith and trust in God. It’s all coming out now and bringing us together.”

Birdella: “Amen. God is good.”

Not everybody in the neighborhood took such a generous view of the sudden outpouring to God. Next door stood King Solomon Baptist Church, an imposing building with a red-brick facade, where two ministers expounded on the divine reasons for the attacks. The Rev. Charles Elliott Jr., a dapper, gray-templed man whose claims to fame include marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and baptizing Colonel Sanders, worked himself to a froth, pounding a table and reaching a crescendo of indignation.

“God won’t destroy America, but he’ll give America a whuppin’! That’s how I see this. I see it as America getting a whuppin’, and we’re getting a whippun’ because we have strayed so far from righteousness!”

Elliott knew that evangelicals Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were criticized for making similar statements on TV. But, unlike those two, he won’t apologize and won’t take back the words. When he was done sermonizing — the second he finished — Elliott changed back to the soft-spoken gentleman we met at the door.

Others in the black religious community spoke about the disingenuousness of praying to God only in times of crisis and ignoring him all other times. “I hear people saying, ‘God Bless America,’ ” said the Rev. Franklin Hill III, a radio personality known in town as The Spiritual Doctor. “Be real. God has been blessing America. He’s blessed America abundantly, and America has taken him for granted.”

Elliott and Hill agreed whatever the reason, people turning to God could be a real opportunity for spiritual renewal — if it’s done humbly and with a seeking attitude. But being spiritual during war, they cautioned, wasn’t the same thing as recruiting God to your side, which they see as foolish. What army doesn’t think God is on its side? Seek the truth, they said. That’s all.

Across a vacant lot, back on the porch, Birdella and Ollie May rocked on their creaky chairs. They didn’t want to clutter up their thinking with all this theologizing.

Ollie May: “I don’t know nothin’ about religion. I just know the Lord. And I know the Lord wants us to come together, all of us — black, white, brown, rich, poor, whatever — even the Kamikazmi-nauts. We need to pray deep. We need to get together and pray all the time. It’s the only way.”

Birdella: “Have mercy, Jesus.”

Their porch was built 105 years ago, and gave the impression that a strong wind could blow it down. It was now a rickety ledge on which two women perched. The porch was part of a house of broken windows. The windows looked into a home with no telephone. The home was on the edge of a neighborhood forgotten by the rest of the city. Mother and daughter had each other, and little else, except the God they brought with them from the hills of Tennessee. They were a trio. And tall buildings crashing only made them sit a little closer to one another.