To Kill a Mockingbird (Page 37)
I agreed: they did not want us here. I sensed, rather than saw, that we were being advanced upon. They seemed to be drawing closer to us, but when I looked up at Calpurnia there was amusement in her eyes. When I looked down the pathway again, Lula was gone. In her place was a solid mass of colored people.
One of them stepped from the crowd. It was Zeebo, the garbage collector. “Mister Jem,” he said, “we’re mighty glad to have you all here. Don’t pay no ’tention to Lula, she’s contentious because Reverend Sykes threatened to church her. She’s a troublemaker from way back, got fancy ideas an’ haughty ways—we’re mighty glad to have you all.”
With that, Calpurnia led us to the church door where we were greeted by Reverend Sykes, who led us to the front pew.
First Purchase was unceiled and unpainted within. Along its walls unlighted kerosense lamps hung on brass brackets; pine benches served as pews. Behind the rough oak pulpit a faded pink silk banner proclaimed God Is Love, the church’s only decoration except a roto-gravure print of Hunt’s The Light of the World. There was no sign of piano, organ, hymn-books, church programs—the familiar ecclesiastical impedimenta we saw every Sunday. It was dim inside, with a damp coolness slowly dispelled by the gathering congregation. At each seat was a cheap cardboard fan bearing a garish Garden of Gethsemane, courtesy Tyndal’s Hardware Co. (You-Name-It-We-Sell-It).
Calpurnia motioned Jem and me to the end of the row and placed herself between us. She fished in her purse, drew out her handkerchief, and untied the hard wad of change in its corner. She gave a dime to me and a dime to Jem. “We’ve got ours,” he whispered. “You keep it,” Calpurnia said, “you’re my company.” Jem’s face showed brief indecision on the ethics of withholding his own dime, but his innate courtesy won and he shifted his dime to his pocket. I did likewise with no qualms.
“Cal,” I whispered, “where are the hymn-books?”
“We don’t have any,” she said.
“Sh-h,” she said. Reverend Sykes was standing behind the pulpit staring the congregation to silence. He was a short, stocky man in a black suit, black tie, white shirt, and a gold watch-chain that glinted in the light from the frosted windows.
He said, “Brethren and sisters, we are particularly glad to have company with us this morning. Mister and Miss Finch. You all know their father. Before I begin I will read some announcements.”
Reverend Sykes shuffled some papers, chose one and held it at arm’s length. “The Missionary Society meets in the home of Sister Annette Reeves next Tuesday. Bring your sewing.”
He read from another paper. “You all know of Brother Tom Robinson’s trouble. He has been a faithful member of First Purchase since he was a boy. The collection taken up today and for the next three Sundays will go to Helen—his wife, to help her out at home.”
I punched Jem. “That’s the Tom Atticus’s de—”
I turned to Calpurnia but was hushed before I opened my mouth. Subdued, I fixed my attention upon Reverend Sykes, who seemed to be waiting for me to settle down. “Will the music superintendent lead us in the first hymn,” he said.
Zeebo rose from his pew and walked down the center aisle, stopping in front of us and facing the congregation. He was carrying a battered hymn-book. He opened it and said, “We’ll sing number two seventy-three.”
This was too much for me. “How’re we gonna sing it if there ain’t any hymn-books?”
Calpurnia smiled. “Hush baby,” she whispered, “you’ll see in a minute.”
Zeebo cleared his throat and read in a voice like the rumble of distant artillery:
“There’s a land beyond the river.”
Miraculously on pitch, a hundred voices sang out Zeebo’s words. The last syllable, held to a husky hum, was followed by Zeebo saying,
“That we call the sweet forever.”
Music again swelled around us; the last note lingered and Zeebo met it with the next line: “And we only reach that shore by faith’s decree.”
The congregation hesitated, Zeebo repeated the line carefully, and it was sung. At the chorus Zeebo closed the book, a signal for the congregation to proceed without his help.
On the dying notes of “Jubilee,” Zeebo said, “In that far-off sweet forever, just beyond the shining river.”
Line for line, voices followed in simple harmony until the hymn ended in a melancholy murmur.
I looked at Jem, who was looking at Zeebo from the corners of his eyes. I didn’t believe it either, but we had both heard it.
Reverend Sykes then called on the Lord to bless the sick and the suffering, a procedure no different from our church practice, except Reverend Sykes directed the Deity’s attention to several specific cases.
His sermon was a forthright denunciation of sin, an austere declaration of the motto on the wall behind him: he warned his flock against the evils of heady brews, gambling, and strange women. Bootleggers caused enough trouble in the Quarters, but women were worse. Again, as I had often met it in my own church, I was confronted with the Impurity of Women doctrine that seemed to preoccupy all clergymen.
Jem and I had heard the same sermon Sunday after Sunday, with only one exception. Reverend Sykes used his pulpit more freely to express his views on individual lapses from grace: Jim Hardy had been absent from church for five Sundays and he wasn’t sick; Constance Jackson had better watch her ways—she was in grave danger for quarreling with her neighbors; she had erected the only spite fence in the history of the Quarters.
Reverend Sykes closed his sermon. He stood beside a table in front of the pulpit and requested the morning offering, a proceeding that was strange to Jem and me. One by one, the congregation came forward and dropped nickels and dimes into a black enameled coffee can. Jem and I followed suit, and received a soft, “Thank you, thank you,” as our dimes clinked.
To our amazement, Reverend Sykes emptied the can onto the table and raked the coins into his hand. He straightened up and said, “This is not enough, we must have ten dollars.”
The congregation stirred. “You all know what it’s for—Helen can’t leave those children to work while Tom’s in jail. If everybody gives one more dime, we’ll have it—” Reverend Sykes waved his hand and called to someone in the back of the church. “Alec, shut the doors. Nobody leaves here till we have ten dollars.”