Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 2 February 2017

I hated the money-grubbing preacher but the singing, oh the singing

Low life | 2 February 2017
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Dr Mindlin called. I needed cheering up? If I fancied a week in Antigua as his guest I should be at Gatwick airport by 9 the next morning. I packed in 15 minutes, caught the last bus to Nice, flew to Gatwick. Next day he flew us to Antigua and we checked in at an upmarket beach resort hotel called Blue Waters. While the Doc negotiated a business deal, I swam in the warm sea and read my book and worked out in the freezing gym and slept. A business associate of Doc’s came over from St Kitts to assist him. Joseph had a snowy beard, an unruffled manner and an avuncular chuckle. The three of us took meals together and Joseph drove us on a sightseeing tour of the island’s capital in his hire car.

On Sunday morning I overheard Joseph say he was going to church. Everyone on the island was going to church, it seemed. Even the lady who stood at the hotplate and made omelettes every morning, and was the only outwardly discontented local person I encountered all week: yes, she too was going to church. So I went with Joseph to church. Before I left, Doc said that if I ever found any irrefutable proof that there is a God I was to let him know.

My vision of a pastel-coloured Victorian clapboard church shaded by palms was far from the reality. We swung on to the vast cement forecourt of a new Pentecostal church that resembled a multiplex cinema. A team of stewards in red T-shirts beckoned us towards a parking spot. We asked the final one how long the service would be. ‘If the spirit leads, my brothers, who knows?’ he said. We joined a stream of worshippers in their Sunday best funnelling through the doors. A woman intercepted me and asked me if I was a visitor and if so would I sign the visitors’ book. I apologised to her for not being more smartly dressed. When I’d packed my suitcase for Antigua, I explained, I hadn’t prepared to come to church. She looked me significantly in the eye, and said, ‘Sir, I am telling you. You are prepared.’

As we walked into the auditorium the place was rocking. We found seats right in the centre. Up on the stage a choir and a five-piece band had already found the groove. A wide, moon-faced woman with a voice as spine-tinglingly pure and massive as Aretha Franklin’s was belting out a song, the lyrics of which were projected on to an overhead, cinema-sized screen. The congregation, about 500-strong, was singing with her and moving to the rhythm. The woman next to me was singing with her eyes shut and swaying, arms outstretched. Her bright-green false fingernails languidly brushed my cheek. In front, three young women were shaking their hips, now this way, now that, like a trio of lithe backing singers. Beside them an elderly lady in a hat worthy of Ascot was seated and conducting amiably with her forefingers. Next to her, a young man with a middleweight boxer’s back and a gleaming bald head was jiving. Every face was lost in desire for the Holy Spirit to come down and consume them. The singing was electrifying. I held out strenuously against unbuckling my mind and joining in, but resistance was useless. I could feel Joseph standing motionless beside me, and I sensed, too, that his own resistance was crumbling. This I took as his permission to cast off and I began to move. I moved my body as I might move it when drunk at a party to, say, ‘Memphis Soul Stew’ by King Curtis. I could sense those around and behind me introducing some extra liberation into their own dance moves to welcome me to the party. I looked at the woman beside me. She added a low, formal bow of welcome to her dance routine.

The love song to the Holy Spirit went on for about 20 minutes. The intensity varied as tides of powerful emotion swept over the congregation. Finally, the words on the screen changed to other words, and Aretha Franklin stepped back, and another female took the microphone to lead us with a warmer, mellower voice that might be compared perhaps to that of the great Dionne Warwick. My undermined reason was unable to determine whether the words we were singing over and over again were trite or unfathomably deep.

We sang and danced for an hour without ceasing. Then the preacher bounded onstage and gave a roaring hour-long sermon, the sole purpose of which, it seemed to me, was to extract as much money out of us as possible. I hated him. But the singing, oh, the singing.