“Going up!” said a man as I passed by on my way to the Wednesday night Men’s Bible Study at Midway Baptist. His speech suggested that he might be developmentally disabled, but he and his upturned thumb were right all the same — I was going up to the second floor of one of the campus classroom buildings. Only that’s not what he meant. “No more down — to hell,” he continued, smiling. “Only up!”
The man wore an ID on a lanyard, and it seemed he was in the care of the people walking with him. “This is a put-up-or-shut-up congregation,” said Chris, who had recently joined. “They say it, they do it — in terms of their outreach and their ministry. And Pastor Baize, every Sunday, it’s like he’s found God all over again. This whole church is a big family; it’s just amazing.” A sizable number of the Wednesday night attendees (and there were plenty) wore green T-shirts, marking them as members of a sober living community.
“This is the church my kids latched onto,” said another recent arrival. “They feel so comfortable. That’s a huge thing; if they’re not welcomed immediately, it’s, like, ‘Oh, we’re not going back there.’ The first time we visited here, it was a Wednesday night, and everybody was like, ‘Oh, hello — how are you?’ My kids said, ‘Oh, Mom, we’re staying here tonight.’ It seems Biblically sound, and the pastor is a very nice guy.”
In the canvas Quonset hut behind the main sanctuary, the youth gathered around the pool table and coffee bar while the band prepared to play. Others kicked a ball around the parking lot below the church’s blinking lighthouse tower, itself surmounted by an unblinking neon cross.
Women gathered for their own Bible study in a cozy meeting hall set by itself a little ways off. But the masculine counterpart was cancelled — the leader had thrown out his back — and so I headed into the sanctuary for the Wednesday night service.
The stripped-down band — drums, acoustic guitar, a few backup singers — banged out a couple of praise songs to warm things up in the gray-green sanctuary (most notable feature: the tiny squares of metallic tile surrounding the baptistery up front). “What can wash away our sins? What can make us whole again?/ Nothing but the blood, nothing but the blood of Jesus.” But praise was not the focus — the night was given more to prayer and teaching, led by David Pollom. “Pastor Baize called me up to the pulpit on Sunday and said, ‘I need you Wednesday.’ So I said, like I always say to him, ‘Yes.’”
Pollom was trim and powerfully built; his white hair and beard the only solid indication that he was a man in his mid 60s. Now and then, turns of phrase would hint at his Kentucky heritage: “right away quick”; “the man can flat paint”; etc. I mention it because, while I did not get to study the Bible, I did get to study a Christian — a Baptist out of the South.
“Over there is David,” he said, welcoming a Hispanic visitor. “Another David. What did you say to me? Tocayos — meaning, we have the same first name. I have to learn all this stuff because last Saturday morning I learned that when Christ comes again, He’s not going to say, ‘Come on,’ He’s going to say, ‘Vamanos.’ I want to make sure I don’t miss it, you understand.” Laughter followed.
His talk was about experiencing joy, but it was full of personal asides. I learned that Pollom was a registered Democrat who loved guns and America and did not love Obama. “I turned my back to the wall and wailed,” he said, referencing Hezekiah. But he was not caught up in bitterness. “It may be it’s time for things to get bad. Or it may be that I’m wrong, and things are going to go good. That’s the kind of thing that we’re dealing with when we pray — we just don’t know what God thinks. Every time I pray, I say, ‘Father, You know best,’” he said — even when that prayer was for a two-year-old to be healed of a brain tumor. Still, he stressed, “We need to become fervent in prayer.”
I learned that he had been a hard father, but that it had kept his son — now a police officer — on the straight and narrow, and both men were grateful for it. And that he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the stars seen from 8600 feet. “That’s what we’re seeing,” he said, reading from a Psalm. “‘The earth trembles at His glance...He is the source of all my joy.’”
Pollom warned against confusing pleasure with joy. “The joy that you really want is not that which you paint on top of the rust of your lives. He quoted Proverbs: “‘Laughter cannot mask a heavy heart.’ The rust always bleeds through. The joy you really want is the joy that Christ gives you when you get in close contact with Him. Joy is a fruit of righteous living; it results from knowing and serving God.”
After the talk, a woman approached him. “Sometimes, when I do the right thing, I feel the joy. It’s overwhelming, overflowing.”
“And if you’re like me,” he replied, “when that happens, you think to yourself, ‘I want to stay here. How do I do this?’”
What happens when we die?
“If you have accepted Christ as your personal savior,” said Pollom, “you go to be with the Lord.... If you have not received Christ, that’s it, it’s the end of the line — that’s hell. People want to tell me, ‘That’s so black and white.’ I say, ‘God’s black and white.’ This isn’t me talking — this is what I’m quoting. That’s what this church stands for. When we have a question, we go to the Bible.”