That No-Time Jackson Religion

MORE than 1600 people crowded into the Zion Baptist Church a Sunday or two ago to hear a politician and smell the same snake-oil their great-grandfathers did back when politics was a circus--not a situation comedy.

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who was dressed better than most of the Midwest congregation, was sitting on one of the old wood chairs to the back of the white pulpit. In the 1984 presidential campaign, Jesse would have stood, but he's calmed down quite a bit. On most of his campaign stops, he's a real gentleman now.

The rain outside was no more than a hum to those crunched in the hard pews. The first to show that morning had been Earl Hendricks, the local political expert in this small town of five gas stations and half a movie theater (there were only shows on Friday and Saturday). Earl was in the front row, double-chin set and eyes lowered to watch Jackson ready himself for his speech.

And it was to be a speech. It was certainly advertised in the town paper as such. Nowadays, Jesse only gives sermons to Black congregations. He must figure that whites want something a little more structured, whether it was Sunday or not.

GIVEN that, the Rev. Martin Thompson was not the man to be put in charge of a political event. Not that he was the man to lead a Sunday service either, but he certainly had no idea of the nuances of a modern political happening. He wasn't neat, photogenic, or thin himself, and he had no awareness of the need for those qualities for others. But he was the minister of the largest church in town. So he got to introduce Jesse, right after "Shall We Gather By the River."

As the shrill notes died up in the rafters, Thompson rose slowly. He waddled to the pulpit, and all those lined against the church wall who felt safe talking during the choir number now settled into quiet.

The white wall above the heads of these people were as bare as a baby's newborn behind. No nativity scenes. No crosses hung outward from the wall at an angle. And no clocks. Thompson was notorious for his disregard for time, which may or may not have something to do with his declining congregation in recent years. He had the queer belief that the Lord's word was too large to be contained between a regular amount of time each week, and Thompson was once moved enough to speak on Mark 1: 6-7 for an hour-and-three-quarters.

THOMPSON'S introduction of Jackson was unmemorable. After five minutes of glory, God And America-as-pulpit, and a claim that he and Jesse were brothers, Thompson called his fellow servant to the Lord forward. Jesse strode to Thompson's side with no idea what was to come.

Thompson put his hand on Jesse's pinstriped arm and continued, to the bewilderment of much of the audience. "Most of you do not come to our humble house of prayer on most Sundays." He paused to let the guilt sink in and the momentary snickers to die down in the back of the hall. "So most of you do not know of our tradition here.

"It makes me uncomfortable to ask a visiting minister to our church to contain the glories of God in a few short minutes, to force them to water down the holy message of the Scriptures." Someone shuffled their feet, and Jesse started to pay attention to Thompson's words.

Thompson smiled, and said, "So I'm going to ask the Reverend Jackson to give me his watch,"--and a fine gold watch it was--"And speak to you for as long as he likes this morning. May God be with you, Reverend."

It was a beautiful gimmick. And Jesse, who loves a good political gimmick as much as anyone and who can do more with them than anyone else can anyway, was smiling heavily.

Unfortunately, Jesse had to be in Madison at 12:30 p.m. to speak to a dairyman's luncheon. In the days when Jesse wasn't a frontrunner, he could afford to play with his schedule and work a crowd longer if he wanted to. Well, he always wanted to. But now was not the time to indulge himself. There were 2000 dairymen who would not be happy that Jesse went long with 1600 parishoners.

JESSE'S schedulers were panicking in the pew across from Earl Hendricks. If Jesse got going too good, they had a special sign to cut him off at the appropriate time, and they knew it would mean nothing if the candidate couldn't see the time. Jesse lived in slow time--preacher time, that is, and he would naturally assume at the given time that he had a few more minutes to speak, even as the sign flashed from the nervous front row.

Jesse enthusiastically had his watch halfway off before one of the schedulers rushed the pulpit in the name of modern political decency. The scheduler swung up the steps at the left of the small riser, but he was intercepted by the Reverend Thompson. Thompson had a weight advantage over the scheduler and placed himself between the frantic man and his mission.

An argument started. Well, it was more like a theological discussion on the Reverend Thompson's side and more like a wrestling match on the scheduler's part. But it was entertaining, regardless.

Getting out from behind the restrictive pulpit was even better than losing a watch, to Jesse's and the crowd's thinking, so he used the fight as an excuse to glide to the right side of the stage, his wingtips over the edge and his volume equal to the task of overriding the debate on the opposite end.

At this point, Jesse's watch was in the hands of Melinda Peterson, one of the top sopranos in the choir. Melinda has always admired fine jewelry, and she was sitting far back enough in the choir section to be out of reach to Jesse's advisors. She has that watch to this day.

Jesse jumped right past his usual drug and unemployment statistics and went right to his one-lines. Which left him plenty of room for some old-fashioned brimstone. And the good people in the pews got a sermon instead of a speech.

To my knowledge, the service turned into a full-blown revival. Jesse had quite a bit to say about quite a bit, and after an hour or two, Emily Foster felt the power of God move her to rush the stage herself for Jesse's guidance and blessing. It was all certainly better than television, and more lively than actually voting, and before it was over, 24 people were converted. Melinda was among the number, but Earl, who held a dimmer view of the spectacle than most, thought he would wait until after the primary. If Jesse won, then he would join.