by Mark Poe
The distant glow of flood lights gave a point to follow through the thin path amongst the underbrush of the swampy surroundings. The chorus of the creatures of the night was joined by the crackling speakers blaring a rendition of Church in the Wildwood. As the low call to “come, come, come, come, come to the church in the wildwood” bellowed among the cypress, I was drawn to the small clearing just as a teenager on countless Sunday nights fighting the urge to go to the altar. The urge would eventually win out, and I would go, but not without a strong fight to hold on to my own stubborn will. Something was telling me this was one of those times I should be fighting the urge because the sight before me was baffling, but still so intriguing. Large chunks of fallen trees had been cut and set on ends for makeshift seats under the grey tent with a drooping roof. Each stump was holding a body. Fifteen of those bodies belonged to some of the roughest men known across the Mangrum Community where I lived. Not bad men by nature, but rough from a sense of their upbringing. Most were hard men who worked from kin-see to cain’t-see to provide for their families. The intriguing part was that most had never darkened the doorway of any of the countless churches around the area. What drew them to this place at this certain time? Was the preacher so full of the spirit they couldn’t resist his call? Most of the ones who made up this calamity of a congregation had spent much of their lives in these river bottoms so, just maybe, they felt more comfortable and at home worshipping in the style of an old tent revival. As the call carried me closer, I finally caught sight of the man leading the service. Weathered broughans and slicked over jeans, a black coat, and a red collarless shirt buttoned to his Adam’s apple. His hair slicked back smooth. A bushy yellow-gray beard bounced with the rhythm of the music as he called out the words to the last line of the song.
“Welcome sinners to the Church in the Moonlight. For any new worshippers tonight, my name is Reverend Josiah. I’ve been sent here on a call. A call to provide and meet the needs of this small community. I will be here for as long as you need me or until I’m released from this congregation or needs arise elsewhere.”
The beginning of the speech was stopped once he noticed me. Pastor Josiah stepped from the makeshift stage and headed in my direction, stopping just short of the outer edge of the tent.
“Seems I see another precious soul who has been led to our meeting. Come on in young man and join with the group. I’m sure someone can rustle up another stump.
Don’t be shy. I don’t count it as an accident for you to show up tonight. Tonight, we will be sharing communion for the first time.”
I felt the eyes of all the men present on me now. I knew them and they knew me. By the time I had fully approached the tent, a new stump had been placed for me. I topped my perch and settled in to feel the urging in my heart once again. Reverend Josiah had begun his sermon, before leaping effortlessly back on stage. With his worn black leather Bible in his left hand and his right hand stretched mostly to the Heavens, his booming voice called down Glory with a strong southern accent. The slightest pause for a breath gave way to the call of the night woods to announce their presence. Tree frogs, locusts, and owls amen-ed their approval of the words of the prophet.
As his voice trailed into a lower and slower cadence, all who were present knew it was getting close to the prayer and call to the altar. A final prayer was offered for the souls of the sinners, but the altar call was replaced by the appearance of a helper of Reverend Josiah setting up a table in front of the stage. He was introduced as Jeremiah, the Reverend’s brother, and traveled with him as his helper.
“Brother Jeremiah will be setting up the table for communion. To take part in this service, you only have to admit to the Lord above that you are a sinner and ask him for forgiveness and be willing to enter into a covenant with him by accepting the sacraments offered. For those needing to know, these sacraments are prayed over personally by me and Brother Jeremiah. At the end of the service tonight, we have a limited amount of the blessed juice for those who feel the need to partake until we can meet here again. We’ll place an offering plate by the jars. Give as you are led and take a jar. It’s the Lord’s way of making sure Brother Jeremiah and I can eat and have money to use to grow our congregation. Now, let us go before the table prepared and meet the Lord on our own terms.”
The sight before me was surreal. The hard men of the woods silently mouthing words to the Good Lord above while holding a small communion cup of grape drink and a small morsel of bread. Each had found their own spot in the moonlight for his personal moment of reflection. Within no time, it was my turn. Chills covered my body in the awesomeness of it all. I offered my plea for mercy and ate the bread. A strange burning hit my nostrils, as I raised my cup to my lips to drink. I downed the drink and felt the burn in my throat. I had tasted it before, and it definitely wasn’t the grape juice of my Sunday morning youth. It was moonshine. The slightest taste of muscadines flavored it perfectly, but there were no doubts as to the burn. My system was in shock as I turned to see Reverend Josiah standing with Brother Jeremiah, beside a table that was holding the jars. Brother Jeremiah was waiting with the offering plate in hand, as Reverend Josiah hugged all who passed. The men formed a line and dropped their money on the plate before heading back up the trail that led to the parking area. I chose the trail without the stop at the table.
The Thursday morning following my first worship service with the Church in the Moonlight started like all other mornings. A stop at the local quick shop for biscuits and gravy and two cups of black coffee. This morning would be different, trying to process it all from the night before. Were Reverend Josiah and Brother Jeremiah real in their heart and following the Lord? Or were they merely snake oil salesmen playing on the minds of hard-working men? I sat with my head down, staring at the pepper flakes in the gravy, when I felt another person slide into the booth and it broke my thoughts.
“Morning Mr. Adams. You doing good? Sorry if I’m disturbing you, but I heard a rumor about you and thought I would come directly to the source.”
The voice was familiar, and I knew who it was before ever focusing on the face. “Morning, Sheriff. What’s on your mind?”
Sheriff Carlton was the County Sheriff in our district and had been a friend of my Dad’s. I had known him since I was old enough to remember.
“Well, I heard you may have attended services at a new church last night. What did you think? Good ol’ fashion tent revival was it? At least that’s what the flyers around town claimed.”
“It was different for sure. Why the interest?” Sheriff Carlton sipped his coffee and began his morning’s story. “I drove up to my office this morning with three vehicles waiting on me. I don’t have three people in my office in a week. Three wives whose husbands supposedly went to the church service last night all came home blitzed. Through a little coaxing with iron skillets and a fair number of threats of more, they were able to persuade them to provide a list of the men who were there with them. Your name was on that list. With you not being married, I thought that maybe I could get a fair story without having to work a domestic. I remember hearing in Sunday school that the disciples would become drunk in the spirit, but something tells me this is a different spirit.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of the Sheriff facing down three barrels being unloaded at once.
“Let’s just say, the water from them swamps didn’t get turned to wine without a fair amount of mulberries and a little distillation.”
“You talking moonshine? The good shepherd was selling Moonshine? How the hell did he pull that off?”
“Technically, he didn’t sell it. If you gave an offering to the church, you received a jar of sacramental juice that Pastor Josiah and Brother Jeremiah had blessed personally. I was the only one of the bunch not feeling the call to tithe.”
“I wished you had’ve. Been nice to have a bit to use for evidence. That is, if I can ever find the right reverend. He’s probably three counties gone by now,” the Sheriff said disgustedly.
“You must be living clean, Sheriff, cause him and his brother just pulled in at the gas pump,” I said, pointing out the window.
Brother Jeremiah was busy filling the tank as Pastor Josiah made his way across the parking lot smiling like he was chewing on briars and glad-handing every farmer on the way to their trucks. He swung the front glass door wide to announce his presence. His eye caught mine and he headed my way. Another chuckle came to my lips as I now thought of the firestorm he was diving headfirst into. His politician smile reached us before his offered hand.
“Good morning, Son. Good to see you again. I’m hoping the service last night stirred you into opening your heart for the spirit to work.”
The sheriff didn’t wait to fire the first volley. “Yeah, Preacher, I’ve already heard three accounts this morning of how the spirit flowed freely last night.”
“And who might you be, kind sir?” The preacher turned his attention to the uniformed Sheriff, like he was just another civilian. It was curious that a moonshiner could show so little fear in the face of the one caring cuffs.
“I might be the redneck version of the Pope. But then again, I might be the guy who’s going to take you to jail for selling illegal liquor at your so-called church meetings,” the Sheriff replied with power mixed with a touch of sass.
“Now, hold on one second there, officer. God doesn’t shine too well on those who wrongfully accuse one of his chosen, even though the Good Book tells us that we will be persecuted. I’ve done nothing illegal.”
“Well, Preacher, my name is Sheriff Carlton, and, in this county, moonshining is illegal. Now, I’m sure you have justification in scripture for what you do but the laws of the land are what I’m interested in most right now. Would you like to explain to me how you feel you’ve done nothing wrong? ‘Cause my good book says you did.”
“Ok, Sheriff, why don’t you show me the error of my ways? What law have I broken in your fine county that the Lord has sent me to?”
“For someone who hears from as far aways as Heaven, you don’t hear well right here!” The sheriff was getting frustrated with the Pastor’s brashness. He was stuck in the position of half standing but being slumped due to the table catching his belt, which didn’t help soften his mood. He raised his voice in an exaggerated fashion and replied, “Selling moonshine is illegal! Did you get that, smartass?”
The Pastor remained calm and smiled. “There’s no need for cursing, Sheriff. I haven’t sold any moonshine. I offer a blessed sacrament to those willing to make a donation to the church. No one is forced to give, just as no one is forced to take the sacrament. We follow the ideal of free-will.” He then turned to me. “Wouldn’t you agree? You were there last night. Did I try to sell you anything or make you pay for the message?”
“Then, where is the harm Sheriff? I am an ordained minister of a permitted and fully accredited traveling tabernacle. Being as such, all donations made to the church are tax deductible and I pay no taxes on the services provided. No one is required to pay offerings unless the Lord lays it on their hearts to do so. Moonshining is illegal only because of it being untaxed. My church is tax exempt. So, as you so gracefully put it, minus the foul name-calling, do YOU get that?”
I could feel the heat from the Sheriff before I ever looked at his reddened face. The veins were protruding from his neck, as he spoke in a low growl of a voice.
“Why don’t you just have a seat here while I make a quick phone call.” He stood and shoved the door open with enough angered force to bounce it off the paper dispenser outside.
“Your Sheriff seems to be quite the ball of nerves today. If his anger is always like this, he may have chosen the wrong line of work,” the pastor said with a come-and-get-me grin.
“He’s a good man, but he’s had a heck of a morning.”
“Well son, if that call is to who I think it is, it’s about to get a lot worse. Too bad I won’t be staying around long enough to try to lead him to a place of peace in his heart.”
“Pastor, I have a sneaky suspicion you’ve traveled this path before.” “At almost every stop, Son. Every stop.”
The sheriff took the phone from his ear, slid it in his front pocket, stared at the truck that Brother Jeremiah was sitting in with his hands planted firmly on his hips.
He dropped his head and turned to walk back inside, muttering under his breath as he came in.
“So, Pastor, tell me. How many more services you planning on holding around here?” “I was just going to tell my young friend here that Brother Jeremiah and I got the calling last night during prayer that there were souls in need in a county a bit south of here and we will be on our way out today. Matter of fact, gentlemen, we’re burning daylight as we speak. Sheriff, if you have nothing else for me, and I’m figuring you don’t, I’ll bid you both a farewell and God bless you.”
With a tip of his hand, he turned and walked out, whistling “Amazing Grace” as he went. He strutted to the truck, with his head held high and waved as he pulled from the lot onto the highway heading out of town.
“Ok. What’s the story? Who did you call?”
“Not much of a story at all. According to the prosecuting attorney, it wouldn’t be worth chasing. Everything the pastor said was true. We have no evidence that it was moonshine. We have no still or still parts. And what he said about being tax exempt? Attorney said charges would never hold up in court, due to it being a gray area.” “Was you just hoping he was leaving town when you asked him about more services?”
“Hell no, I was gonna go and pick me up a jar of Jesus juice. I’m gonna need it trying to explain to them three wives about how I couldn’t do a thing but watch him drive out of town.”