We soon shall join the throng
Their pleasures we shall share
And sing the everlasting song
With all the ransomed there
There in celestial strains enraptured myriads sing
There love in every bosom reigns for God Himself is King
-- Our Happy Home, sung by The David Crowder Band
Neches street is less than a quarter mile long and connects Cherry and Concord streets, both of which bring the west side of Chandler to County Road 2010 on the north. When I was growing up there were only three houses on Neches, five if you counted the two on the corner that faced Concord.
It was typically a quiet neighborhood, although at the time my limited perspective made me believe it was the center of the world. Ms. Tucker lived across the street and generally kept to herself, although she was friendly. The Peyton's were our next door neighbors on the east side of the house. They had four kids, all boys. (A daughter would be born after they moved away.)
Split Neches in half and on the East side were ours and the Peyton's houses. On the west, heading to Cherry street, were three or four acres of nothing but trees and underbrush.
Most southern towns have a street that historically acted as a dividing line between blacks and whites, and Cherry street was ours. On the east side of Cherry, just past the woods outside our house were winding roads that led down a small valley in which dozens of trailers and old clapboard homes rested. The people who lived in this neighborhood were all a part of the Faith Tabernacle Church of Deliverance. Their pastor was the Reverend J.D. "Papa" Hamilton. We called their neighborhood Black Town. (The older folks in Chandler called it something else.)
Although Black Town was virtually a part of our neighborhood, we never crossed Cherry Street to wander down the valley. Occasionally someone with an overload of bravado would proclaim they had, but we all knew better.
"Papa's kids," as they were called, all went to school with us. We were friends inside the hallowed halls of academia (the lunchroom,) but we never dared speak to them of the lives they lived after the bell rang. What we did know was that they were only allowed to be with us in a classroom setting. During any school-wide assemblies or field trips they all were taken to another room, along with a few other kids whose parents, based on religious convictions, wanted them to stay away. As time progressed this was always a given, and we rarely asked questions. It was also understood that the children of Black Town would never participate in extracurricular activities. (It's often said by the townsmen that "We could've won state back in (insert year here) if Papa's kids could've played football.")
Their community was often shrouded in mystery. Rumors spread about what went on down there. Cannibalism. Child Abuse. Even, horror of all horrors, sex. What is known is that at the age of 12 most of the children were separated from their parents and moved to a dormitory style dwelling that was overseen by one of Papa's sons. The men, and some of the women, worked in in town(many worked at the Kelly Springfield plant with my dad,) and it is widely believed that the entirety of their paychecks went to Papa Hamilton, who in turn distributed the funds according to his discretion. It also got around that they had their own grocery store (although that theory was later debunked.)
These things go a long way in creating distrust in a group of people who can't see past their front door.
One time when I skipped church after Sunday School to watch wrestling, I stepped outside for some reason and heard a commotion coming from down the hill, just past Cherry Street. I decided to sit on the back porch a while to hear it out. It turned out to be the worship coming from the Faith Tabernacle Church of Deliverance. I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't a little scared at the sounds coming from the congregation. Loud doesn't do it justice, although it was loud. (The actual church was probably a half-mile away from my house.) There was something primal about it. Ancient, almost.
The tambourines and the voices and the clapping and foot stomping carried all the way to Neches and reached a kid who didn't know another way of living and breathing was even an option. These sounds reverberated in a corner of my soul I never knew existed. As I said, I was scared. I'd probably still be a little scared if I heard it again.
But what these people had, at least for a moment, and even with the possibility that it was manipulated hysteria, was what Barbara Ehrenreich calls "collective joy." That feeling that you are part of the whole outside of yourself is a capacity we all possess. Yet when it occurs to a group we are not part of and don't understand, it's easy for us to categorize as "savage," or, at best, "base."
A couple of years ago, in a moment of delayed bravery, I decided to cross Cherry Street and explore this place that once brought so much trepidation and intrigue. The community was much smaller than I had expected, consisting of only two or three roads that ran parallel to each other before rounding out into a complete loop. I saw an old apartment building that was probably the dormitory where some of my classmates lived as teenagers.
J.D. Hamilton passed away a few years ago and in the aftermath much of those in the community began to expand their social boundaries. They now can play sports, much to the delight of Brownsboro Bear fans, who followed a football team well into the playoffs this season. They no longer pool their resources into a communal fund. I guess, if you would, they have become more "normal," whatever that means.
It was in the dead heat of an unbearable Texas summer, so not many people were out and about. The few people I did see were on their porches, mostly the elderly. I waved, which is a requirement anywhere in East Texas when you are behind the wheel. I was received at first with eyes of suspicion, I guess as anyone in any small community would greet a strange car. But once it appeared to them that I was not out selling something, the feeling became more comfortable and neighborly.
I often think about the distance that separates groups of people. It can seem like such an expanse, even if it's just a block down the road. The customs of the people of the Faith Tabernacle Church of Deliverance were, and probably still are, foreign and a little frightening to me. Yet there is a kinship among humanity that cannot be denied. We all seek a closeness to a group of people, a closeness that has no adequate word in language to describe. In this closeness we sing and dance and even sit on porches passing the day, waving at strangers, and in it we hear an echo of a city in which the Streets of Gold are streets that connect, but don't divide.