In the South Where Banana Trees Grow
by Jamica A. Whitaker
It was like any other Thursday night service in United Baptist Church. The blue wooden church in the middle of the woods was alive with the energy of worshipers and a pastor who lit everyone’s soul on fire. The light from inside the church made the surrounding forest glow, almost eerily. The shadows of trees danced with the parishioners inside. The wooden floor didn’t creak. It sang along and asked God for salvation and grace.
The people giving their lives to God inside United Baptist were all shades of brown. They spoke different versions of English, but their praise brought them together. All dressed in white, one could easily mistake them for ghosts of the past. The sweltering heat inside the sanctuary didn’t bother them. They didn’t feel it, despite the sweat running down their backs and faces. The sweat was part of worshiping.
The pastor stood in the pulpit wearing a black robe with red crosses stitched on each breast. His white handkerchief was soaked in his sweat but he used it as if it were fresh from the clothesline. The word of God poured from his lips and drenched the crowd who readily drank every syllable. The choir would sing a word or two here and there to emphasize the pastor. The piano would play and the tambourine would work everyone into a frenzy. Some people would get so worked up that the Spirit of the Lord would envelope them. The air around them would change as if it were on fire, and they would speak a language that no one in the church knew. Their eyes would turn white and their skin would get ice cold. They would move about in a way no regular human could. This didn’t scare them. This encouraged them, let them know that God was indeed among them, regular people who no one else on earth seemed to love. The shouting and praising was so engulfing that they didn’t notice the crowd growing outside the small church.
They rode through the forest quietly, almost silently. The hoofbeats of the 15 horses were steady like a collective heartbeat. The heartbeat of a monster lurking amongst the trees. The men atop the horses were monsters dressed as men. Flesh and blood human with a fire burning in them that was fueled by hate. That same fire lit the torches that illuminated their path through the darkness. The fire made the white of their robes appear to glow and the windows to the soul a loveless abyss.
As they came upon United Baptist Church, the glow from the church beat back the glow from the torches. The church was surrounded on three sides and its glow contained by the uninvited. The forest behind the church was a sentinel. It was everready to receive those who sought refuge from a world that didn’t welcome them. The sounds of the churchgoers praising and dancing didn’t fade. It got stronger. The ground around the church began to tremble. Lightning flashed across the sky as deafening thunder rolled through the trees. The wind blew and put out some of the torches. They were quickly relit as the monsters sat silently atop their horses. They raised their torches high into the sky and every other person threw their torch through the church’s front and side windows. No one screamed. The churchgoers continued to praise their God as the torches set fire to the back pews of the church. Slowly the pews burned. Black smoke oozed out the back windows before it was carried off by the growing winds. The remaining torches were thrown through the already broken windows. Black smoke filled the interior of the church. The stomping was punctuated with the sounds of the floor caving in. The songs now included the sound of the roof collapsing. Slowly, the songs faded, carried away by the wind, and drowned out by the thunder. The monsters on their steeds turned around and left United Baptist to burn with all of her parishioners inside.
But, they didn’t know that the forest protected them. They went deep into her bowels.
The pastor had been preaching about a dream he had months ago. In his dream, God told him to build a tunnel under the church leading out to the river behind the forest to carry them away from those who hate them. He and few of the deacons has labored away in secret, digging out a tunnel under the church big enough for a grown man to stand upright and walk to freedom. There was nothing above ground to suggest the 2-mile tunnel hidden beneath the forest floor. The walls of the tunnel had been lined in fresh banana leaves. As they escaped in secret they were surrounded by the smell of wet earth and sweet bananas.
That wasn’t all God told him. God instructed the pastor to make a recording of their service, one of the high energy services. Pastor didn’t know why until that night. He saw the monsters on horses in the distance and explained to his congregation how they would escape. One of the deacons began to play the recording. As the monsters grew closer, he turned up the volume. There was a makeshift stairwell under the floorboards beneath the altar. The deacons moved the concealing boards and ushered the churchgoers down. The elderly first with able-bodied escorts, then families went one behind the other into the tunnel. They hummed “This Little Light of Mine” as they walked to the river. The church burned down and collapsed into the entrance of the tunnel. They couldn’t turn back. Something kept the smoke from the fire from clogging the tunnel. Pastor said it was God keeping his people safe.
The earth birthed the congregation at the edge of the river. They smelled of their mother as they looked to the river to carry them to their new home.
Jamica A. Whitaker is a longtime writer and communicator based in Durham, North Carolina. Professionally, she’s been a journalist, public relations professional, and is most recently, a middle school teacher. Married, she is a new mom who writes to leave a legacy and history for her family.