I stuck my foot in religious waters a few more times before finally acknowledging church attendance didn’t work for me. One of the most memorable and frightening encounters that helped clinch my decision happened at a tent revival when I was about fourteen years old. As I mentioned in an earlier writing, I was coaxed by my neighbor’s same-age daughter into attending a Pentecostal healing tent revival at the nearby community of Linda. I hadn’t yet learned how to say no to invitations from friends, so I squeezed into their station wagon with the other five kids and we took off.
The parking lot had filled, and nearly all five hundred folding metal chairs held a warm body, but we managed to find vacant seats in the back row of the big billowing tent. A choir on an elevated stage in front led the audience in a soul stirring rendition of “Are You Washed in the Blood”. Directly in front of the choir a large pulpit or ambo awaited the night’s reigning star, reverend Jack Coe Sr. Banners and posters plastered along one side of the tent featured touched-up, close-ups of the preacher and his lovely wife. They promised hope for those who had none, and cures for the incurable, if only you believed. A clothesline of crutches lined the other side of the tent. Another song, fast and lively brought the preacher on stage and the audience to their feet with a round of applause a chorus of hallelujahs. The reverend delivered his fiery sermon pacing back and forth, fist-pounding, shouting, sweating, threatening, and promising. The crowd came to their feet with a profusion of clapping, arm-raising, swaying, and more hallelujahs, but that was just a warm-up for the main attraction—faith healing.
A little old lady rolled up to the preacher in her wheel chair. He asked her to describe her symptoms, then laid his hands on her head and told her to stand up and walk. She did and the crowd swooned. More halleluiahs and praise Jesus’s came from the crowd. The preacher strutted like a cocky bandy rooster. The crowd came to their feet, preacher Coe placed his hands on another woman, almost like a push. She fell over backwards in a swoon. Some people began talking in tongues, others dancing, raising their arms toward Jesus. A long succession of infirmities made their way to the pulpit, wanting that miracle, believing. “Do you feel any more pain?” Coe asked an arthritic old man. The man flexed his shoulders, wiggled his fingers, raised his arms. “Not now,” he said. “Praise Jesus.”
The evening continued, more miraculous healings, more hymns, and finally, with a rousing crescendo, the plate was passed around. The crowd donated generously, but at fourteen I had already become a skeptic, a doubting Thomas, and not only because my last name was Thomas. I held onto my two dollars and left the revival vowing to stay as far away from places like this as I could, though I liked some of the music. I felt terrified I would become a victim of this mass hysteria and couldn’t wait to get back home.