A unique book chronicles a persistent journey from an isolated Appalachian area mired in deep poverty. Illegal bootleggers and nasty mountain villains haunt the young man’s family. A fundamentalist preacher condemns the young man to hell. Numerous episodes in his misspent youth ring outrageous. The young man frantically struggles to find acceptance and eventually receives a surprise calling. He is the founder of a first-of-its kind publication for clergy and a clergy conference that renowned theologian Walter Brueggemann calls “a major piece of work that will stand when the history of the U.S. church is written. It must be providential that you were led from your start to that great work.” Experience the epic travels from hillbilly obscurity to encounters with fame and the sacred. Paths cross with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, civil rights activists, U.S. senators, and world-famous musicians. (Available on Amazon—click here)
“. . . a lovely, readable style . . .”
—Barbara Brown Taylor, New York Times bestselling author
"David Howell's tales will engage you, amuse you, provoke you, and keep you turning the pages to read more. For all those blessed with an open mind, who refuse to settle for false platitudes and condemnations, who hunger for real substance...there is much here to feast upon."
--The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry
Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church
Salvation’s Slippery Slope
Thunder rattles the sky. Evening storm clouds race away over the mountain peaks. Sun shines brightly for a few moments and slips beneath the earth. A flock of blackbirds flutters into the dusk.
Several men stand outside Born Again Church, a building with old, white clapboard siding, rust-speckled tin roof, and sacred windows depicting the life of Jesus like many small churches scattered across the Appalachian Mountains. On one side of the church flows a small sparkling creek with empty pork and beans cans and bottles washed down its edges. On the other side, a caramel brown, clay bank with no vegetation towers over the church building. The storm leaves the sweet smell of summer rain filling the air.
The men outside the church know what's in store for them inside. As a distraction, they talk quietly about the upcoming hunting season for they know the fiery preacher's words will deeply unsettle them. Eddie Crawford last attended church on Easter Sunday, months ago. He wears the same dress clothes today: baggy black pants, cowboy emblem belt, and white shirt with embroidered pockets. He stiffens and says to the others: "You boys ready for this? That preacher goin' make believers out of us yet! We're goin' to Hell if we don't get saved!" Toby Greene shakes his head in begrudging submission, wishing he could have flown away with the flock of blackbirds. Waiting until the last minute to enter the sanctuary, feet squirm side to side mashing out cigarette butts on the ground. Already inside the church, women mill around and chatter quietly among themselves, then start finding their seats.
Already seated, Jack Howell, a rugged miner with wavy brown hair and blue eyes, uncomfortable in dress slacks and white shirt, stares out the open church window at a large mackerel tabby cat toying with a gray mouse. He sits nervously on the well-worn, rickety back pew on this warm August evening in 1951. Jack’s gaze switches back and forth from the cat's deadly game to the pulpit where the flamboyant preacher in a raspy baritone begins to bellow out eternal condemnations on sinners. Full of rhetorical adrenaline, his message sizzles on the brains of the uneducated farmers, miners, and mill workers in the pews.
Jack's wife, Lena, with her auburn hair and green eyes, is skinny thin from a life of poverty and poor nutrition. Keenly interested in what the preacher says, Lena worries she's not “saved.” The intense preacher with a full head of thick, greased, combed-back dark hair, and bushy, imposing, eyebrows proclaims convincingly the “unsaved” will roast in the fires of Hell. With salacious details, the golden-throated preacher describes eternal agony in the flames. Extinction is preferable to Hell but not an option, he warns them. Will Lena get saved? What about Jack?
Born Again Church buzzes with life as the center of the community in Boonford, North Carolina. The explorer Daniel Boone fords the roaring North Toe River here, and leaves behind a few relatives, my ancestors. Folks here are miners, “baccer” (tobacco) farmers, and mill “hands.” It is a community where you are either a member of the church or else you are a sinner and a reprobate in the eyes of church members and the pastor, Reverend Leroy. The Reverend is neither seminary educated nor does he want to be. Seminaries are not only liberal, but most are agents of the Devil himself.
Reverend Leroy escapes a tough life in Transylvania County, North Carolina. After high school, Leroy hitchhikes to Burnsville and secures a job working the graveyard shift at Glen Hill Hosiery Mill. Five years later, falling asleep at the wheel on the way home, he swerved into the other lane striking a small car carrying two women on their way to their jobs as cooks in the cafeteria of Cane River High School. One woman died on the scene and the other a few days later in the hospital. Leroy slipped into a deep depression, “took to the bottle,” and lost his job.
Two years after the accident, Leroy walks into the Sunday morning service at Born Again Church, noticed by all the fine folks in church since Leroy never set foot in a church before. Aging Pastor Jones gives a slow, plodding sermon on the Apostle Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road. Pastor Jones issues the obligatory altar call after his sermon. Not a single soul has responded to the Pastor’s altar calls recently, only Maybelle Fortner after she got her cancer diagnosis more than a year ago. But this morning the call from the altar does not go unheeded. Leroy confidently strolls forward putting his arm around feeble Pastor Jones. Standing nostril to nostril with Pastor Jones, Leroy says he is ready to confess his sins and give his life to the Lord. He is on his knees before Pastor Jones can invite him to kneel. Leroy prays one of the most eloquent prayers Boonford has ever heard. Jaws drop in the congregation. Husbands and wives turn to look at each other in amazement. A little boy whispers to his mother, “Mama, where did he come from?”
Six months later, Pastor Jones dies of an apparent heart attack on Christmas Day. Newly appointed Sunday School teacher Leroy has a packed house every Sunday morning during the Sunday School hour. Arrive early for Leroy’s class for a seat or stand around the walls as many do. Pastor Jones’s widow asks Leroy to lead the service for her beloved husband’s funeral. Leroy graciously accepts, preaches “as fine a sermon as we’ve ever heard” and leaves people saying “Leroy should be a preacher!”
The Board of Deacons meets the next evening, decides the funeral sermon was Leroy's trial sermon, and enthusiastically issue him a unanimous invitation to be their next pastor. Like many mountain preachers, Leroy does not study for the ministry. He experiences "a calling from the Lord" and abruptly switches careers overnight, from a drunk to a hellfire and brimstone preacher. He is now Pastor Leroy. Some say so persuasive and charismatic, he could sell sand to a man dying of thirst.
Lena and Jack Howell aren’t members of Born Again Church, nor do they attend any church. But there are lots of new faces this summer evening in Born Again Church. Reverend Leroy's golden tongue reputation spreads like wind-driven wildfire. Normally the church invites a guest preacher to preach the annual August revival series (Monday through Thursday), but church members are so enthralled with their new pastor’s electrifying sermons they vote for Leroy to preach every evening of the revival. Church members whisper rumors he does not have to prepare his sermons. He simply prays, and the words come to him.
Lena’s friends insist she attend the Monday evening service. Jack suffering from a life-long social anxiety disorder has no interest in attending, but he talks about buying a new twenty-two caliber rifle. Buying a rifle is a big deal financially. They are so poor at this time that they cut each other's hair and pull each other's teeth when needed. But Lena really wants to go to the revival. A deal is struck . . . go to church and Jack can buy the gun.
Jack’s family (Howell) already condemned to Hell by the pastor, so his attendance is doubly interesting. One of the Howells is a functional polygamist with two common-law wives, one in Boonford and one in South Carolina (“down off the mountain”). He simply splits his time between the families as he hauls produce (cabbage and beans “produced” in the mountains) to Spartanburg and returns with peaches and watermelons grown in warmer climates in the south. From the pulpit, Pastor Leroy in a scorching sermon pronounces damnation upon the polygamist.
With good reason to be nervous, Jack sits on that shaky old back pew in the Born Again Church. Like all the Howells, already condemned to Hell, his tormented fate awaits him in the after-life. On the other hand, Lena, not a “blood” Howell, wonders if there might be some eternal hope for her? As her heart hammers in her chest, Lena wonders if maybe she goes forward as they sing "Amazing Grace" she will escape the unending torture and torment described so vividly by Pastor Leroy. Five people walk the aisle to the altar during the singing of the hymn.
Pastor Leroy roars, “Five people came forward. They will escape the blistering, flesh-burning fires of Hell, but there're others out there, and you know who you are! You're on a slippery slope straight through the wide-open gates of Satan’s Hell! We’ll sing "Amazing Grace" one last time. It might be your final chance to be saved, to spend eternity with the righteous where there is no pain, no suffering, no more death. The unrighteous will spend their every second in eternal agony! Do you want that? You want your families someday seeing you roasting in Hell? Won’t you come while we sing?”
As the congregation sings, the unexpected happens. Two women sitting about halfway back rise up and head toward the rear pew where a nervous Jack and a hyperventilating Lena, a mass of terror swelling up in her stomach, are seated. Lena happens to be closest to the aisle. The first woman, a gnarled strong mill worker with skin from hard work as tough as old leather, grabs Lena’s left arm and pulls her into the aisle. The other surly built woman with a face like a puckered prune takes the right arm. They pull Lena up toward the altar where a smiling Pastor Leroy waits with open arms. The gnarled woman says to Lena, “We want you to go to Heaven with us. We’re taking you to the Lord!”
Lena wants to get saved, but part of her wants to stay with Jack . . . it doesn’t feel right to leave him alone in the pew. Jack spent his adult life in the mines, dodging falling rocks and near disasters. So he learned to respond quickly. Jack jumps to his feet, takes huge strides down the aisle, and wrestles Lena away from her would-be angelic rescuers. Out the door they flee, never to set foot again in Born Again Church, as Pastor Leroy boasts loudly to his congregation, "See I told you, all the Howells are going to Hell! They turned their backs on the altar of salvation!"
Lena is eight months pregnant this warm August evening in the little church on top of the mountain. I am in her womb. And as my uncle, who told me this story, says, “Dave, you almost got saved that night! You almost got to the altar.”
“David, you have lived a charmed life.” New York Times bestselling author Barbara Brown Taylor says to me at a conference in 2015 after I share my plan to semi-retire. I have not shared my story with Barbara. She doesn’t know about my close call with salvation on that warm evening in 1951. She doesn’t know about my growing up poor as dirt in the Appalachian Mountains or my desperate search for acceptance. Nor does she know about my life-long struggle, like my father, with a social anxiety disorder. I earned seminary degrees and enjoyed a life crisscrossing the globe. I spoke in the National Cathedral in Washington DC. I've been in the company of Nobel Peace Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, U.S. Senators, Civil Rights activists, famed musicians, U.S. Poet Laureates, and for all I know still might not be saved? Can the Howells escape the curse of damnation from Reverend Leroy? Will I ever find salvation? Does it even matter?
So this is the story of a womb dweller who barely misses out on salvation before birth and of a theologically confused young man who struggles to find acceptance and meaning in a world while tethered to an Appalachian curse.