God and the Tupelo Tent Meeting

August 1974: I was checking out at a mom and pop motel near Tucumcari, New Mexico when a couple of Indians, the kind from India, came in and asked for a room for a couple of days. They were rug salesmen with samples in their van.

The clerk, an older man, looked up and said, “Nope, All filled up.”

One said thank you and they left.

I looked at him and he said, “Don’t want no Indians in here. They mess up the place.”

I got in my Ranchero, loaded down with my gear. I just received my discharge from the Security Service, an intelligence-gathering branch of the National Security Agency. I wanted to stay in Thailand but the Air Force refused because of my top secret crypto clearance. So I headed for my home on the west coast of Florida, a place that was still wild, with bears and panthers (rare) and plenty of springs and streams.

I drove all the way to the outskirts of Waco, Texas and found a place where the locals gather to get some food and coffee, read the paper and socialize. I was the only stranger so I found a table and ordered some pancakes and coffee. I rarely make stops if I have a destination unless I’m on vacation.

By 8:00 pm I was in Mississippi headed south, staying mostly on two-lane highways, generally in a direction that would take me to Homosassa Springs, Florida. A feeling of deep sadness swirled through me. It was the smell that told the story of a dystopia, a place where joy is only make believe, even for the rich. This state of tension and hatred permeated the air, a place where everyone played their part.
The sights and sounds, and the smells, were all around to remind me; the miles of piney woods, the choking smoke from wood shavings being burned at a sawmill, tin-roofed shanties in the corn fields, and little towns with old frame houses full of people with no hope and no knowledge of life beyond a few miles from their homes.

I was driving within the speed limits and trying to stay awake when I noticed a vehicle had pulled out of nowhere and stayed about ten cars lengths in back. I was thinking it could be the local police because I had a California tag and that always makes locals suspicious. I might be one of those pot-smoking hippies up to no good.

I saw a sign that read ‘Guntown’ but there were no buildings around so I kept going until I saw a bar-be-que place on a hill off to the right. I pulled in, got out and stretched. A deputy sheriff drove up and went in for a break. I decided to get a large cup of coffee and walk around a little.

On the road again, I made it to Tupelo, where Elvis was born and learned to sing a little. It’s a tiny wooden house right next to the street and the family was poor, like a lot of folks in this part of America. I spent a little time in Memphis, Tennessee when Elvis was living in Graceland. He owned that town. It was true about his generosity. He would buy cars and motorcycles and give them away but it’s hard to separate the myths from the truth. But if he had stayed off of drugs, he could be doing oldies shows now. Click image.

Somewhere south of Tupelo I pulled into a self-service station. It was across the street from a large tent in the center of a grassy field. With the sides raised to provide some circulation, the sounds of ‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus’ being sung out of synch drifted across the highway. The tent was filled with about a hundred people, and about a hundred fans moved back and forth like windshield washers, trying to move the moisture from their bodies. Ushers made their way down the two aisles and collection plates were being passed in front of each member of the congregation.

The people stood with their backs to me, facing the figure strutting across the stage with his sleeves rolled up and his collar open. He was a lean man with a full head of hair and elegant sideburns that reached below his ears. He exhorted them to raise their voices in praise of the Lord. I noticed a sign next to the street, ‘REVIVAL TONITE, with Pastor Dave Tipley. EXPECT A MIRACLE’.

I checked the oil and water as the chorus was ending. Some of the assembly began to pick up their personal items in expectation of the benediction. I closed the hood and paid for the gas, not wanting to get caught in traffic when the services let out.

But as I walked back to my truck, the voice of Pastor Tipley rang out.

“Brothers and sisters, I can’t let you go yet. You see, we depend on the generosity of our Christian friends to support us as we bring God’s word to the world. We must have more help here tonight if we are to continue our wonderful mission.

“So please, as we sing the first and second verses again, say yes, I’m going to help Pastor Tipley. And when that collection plate goes by, put something in. Whatever you have, five or ten dollars, or even a dollar, you will be blessed!”

He nodded to the pianist and the congregation began again, though it seemed with a little less enthusiasm than before. The plates went around and some reached in their purses and billfolds again to help Pastor Tipley in his worldwide crusade.

“Let’s sing the chorus now as the ushers make their way to the back. Open up your hearts, brothers and sisters, so that others can hear the word of God. Remember, you have to help others if you want God to help you.”

He paused, wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and surveyed the audience intently. “If you have needs” he proclaimed and pointed at the people, “You’ve first got to sow some seeds.”

The chorus ended and I started my truck. The ushers added up the take and one gave the count to Tipley on a piece of paper.

As I idled up to the highway, a somewhat angry and desperate voice rolled through the air.

“I can’t let you go!…I won’t let you go until we meet our goal.

“Now,” he said in a more restrained voice, “We need three hundred dollars tonight in order to meet our expenses for one more week. And I want you…GOD wants you to put something in that plate.”

“So as we sing the second verse once more, let God speak to your heart, and sow those seeds when the plate comes around.”

I leaned on my steering wheel. Home again. I smiled, shook my head and pulled out onto the highway and headed south while the people broke into song once more, but a little more quietly this time.

I still wonder to this day if they paid the ransom since God was making the demand now. What if they gave all their money and it wasn’t enough. Would they be punished? These were hard times and these were poor people.

Based on a true story.


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