Churches were still hosting revivals when I was a kid. Often held all week or maybe over a series of weekends, they were big community events meant to appeal to folks who weren’t coming to church on a regular basis. Out-of-town preachers might come–sometimes they were even preachers with TV programs! There was LOTS of music, loud preaching, and an almost festival-like atmosphere.

Brush arbor meeting, 1975.
Photography by Stephen Hough.
Springfield-Greene County Library.

I suppose they still happen, but I sure haven’t heard of any in a long time.

And back before the modern church or tent revival was the brush arbor meeting. In When Silence Sings my hero, Colman, preaches under a brush arbor. Originally, these were temporary structures built quickly in areas where there wasn’t a church. If a preacher or circuit rider came through, people would set some poles, lay cross pieces to make the skeleton of a roof, and then lay leafy branches (brush) across that to keep off the sun and at least some of the rain. People would come from miles around and camp out for as long as the preaching lasted.

Hmmm. Maybe a viable alternative in these coronavirus days?

Here’s a snippet from When Silence Sings–Colman wants to preach a sermon at his first brush arbor meeting but resorts to telling a story instead . . .

“Over in White Sulphur Springs, there was a farmer who had twelve strapping sons. Ten were by his first wife and the last two by his second wife, who was the prettiest, sweetest thing you ever saw. And maybe because of that, the farmer loved those two least boys more than the first batch—especially the next to youngest, who was named Joe.

“Well, as you can imagine, boys being the way they are”—a chuckle ran through the crowd—“the older ones got jealous and decided they’d teach Joe a lesson. But things got out of hand, and they ended up talking some gypsies into taking their little brother away with them as little more than a slave. . . .”

And so he told them the story of Joseph and his wayward brothers as if they lived in Fayette County. He told about Joe rotting in jail until he earned the jailer’s trust, how he eventually made his way to the mayor’s house, and how the mayor’s wife tried to seduce him. He told about Joe getting to be deputy mayor in spite of all those troubles and how his brothers showed up one day needing help.

“Then Joe had ’em right where he wanted ’em,” Colman said.

He could see folks leaning forward, some of the younger ones with their mouths hanging open. These people liked a good story, and Joseph’s tale was one of the best.

“And you know what he did?” Colman leaned over the pulpit as though he had a secret to tell. “After he toyed with them awhile he . . . forgave them.”

Those who knew the story smiled like they were in on a joke, and the ones who didn’t know it looked like he’d just tricked them.

“I know what some of you are thinking,” Colman went on. “Why didn’t that boy get his revenge? Why didn’t he make his brothers suffer like he’d suffered? That’d be fair. But here’s what ole Joe had to say: ‘But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good.’” He let that sink in for a minute. “Basically, Joe said his brothers had failed when they tried to do something bad to him because God’s plan was bigger and better than theirs. God took the bad that was in their hearts and turned it into something better than even Joe himself could have dreamed.”

Colman settled back on his heels. He was tired. He’d been storytelling for a long time now. His throat felt dry and his legs shaky. Worst of all, his gut was telling him he might need to excuse himself before long. But he wasn’t quite done. He looked to Ivy whose expression was one of utter delight. He took a deep breath.

“You see, we can do all kinds of things to try and make our situations better or someone else’s worse, but in the end, God’s got us beat. Whatever His plan is, that’s what’s going to happen.” He gripped the side of his makeshift pulpit. “Do you folks want to be at peace?”

Heads nodded, and a sprinkling of people voiced an amen.

“Do you want to feel joy?”

This time the amens were louder.

“Then stop fighting God,” Colman said. He bowed his head, then raised it again. “It’s like a fly trying to move an elephant. You might think you’re making headway, but if you are, it’s only because you and the elephant were already headed the same direction.”