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am a sinner. I stand with one foot in each world, one called sin, the other called grace. I stand in the midst of sins I have committed today and yesterday and those I inevitably will commit on tomorrow. And whatever my sins—and they are many—none of them are greater than His grace that by the blood of His Son can make me—us—in the words of a Gospel hymn, “whiter than snow.” I stand because of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ—He who remembers when others forget but also He who forgets when others remember. I stand. And yet, without Him, I can do nothing.
I stand here, somewhere on the timeline of Christianity—more than 2,000 years after the Day of Pentecost, 18 centuries after Roman Emperor Constantine the Great placed his thumbprint on Christianity, and many years after the Great Awakenings. I stand somewhere in the afterglow of the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, California, which gave birth to modern Pentecostalism in America. I stand. Between the cries of ancestral slaves in the cotton fields of southern plantations, between my great-great grandfather’s pastoral prayers in Pulaski, Illinois, where he—Burton Roy—migrated from Atlanta, Georgia, after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation set him free from the bonds of slavery he inherited from birth. I stand.
I stand on the prayers of my grandmother and grandfather, Florence Geneva and George Albert Hagler, who, in 1943 made their way, like millions of southern blacks during the Great Migration to Freedom Land up north—in their case Chicago. I stand as testament to the prayers and faith of the “prayer warriors,” those gray-haired church mothers with whom on Tuesday and Friday mornings at one storefront church or another we petitioned God for my soul, health and future. I stand as proof that God hears even the cries of a ghetto boy.
Shaped in iniquity, even in my mother’s womb, I am the son of an alcoholic father, predestined, at least having a predisposition to dysfunction, death and damnation. And I am certain that it is the grace of God that I have not been consumed and have found instead of my father’s tragic fate a life filled with more blessings than the curse, pain and sufferings of sin. I am as certain that the church, the institution, the building, the place where I have gathered more times than I can count since I was a child had a critical hand in the faith that pulled me through poverty, hardship, and away from the very gates of hell, toward life.
"At my worst, I felt like I needed a drink to go to church.
I felt like I was dying in church, hemorrhaging in the pew,
my mind drifting in and out of consciousness..."
my mind drifting in and out of consciousness..."
And if I close my eyes, I can tunnel through time, through the years of Sunday worship service and Sunday School, of singing in the choir at one storefront church or another, or my roles in countless Easter and Christmas plays since I was knee-high. If I close my eyes, I see me standing in the front of the sanctuary as a teenage junior deacon, or plucking my lead guitar during worship service. Or I see me as a young adult, standing in my one and only suit—dark blue and shiny from wear and tear—near the offering collection plate at the wooden table in front of the church as a full-fledged deacon. Or I stand preaching from the pulpit as a minister of the Gospel, Grandmother shouting Amens and the saints egging me on to preach the Word. I see me, walking with my bible outside on weekdays, up and down the 1600 block of South Komensky Avenue, where I grew up and later lived as a young man with my wife and three children on the West Side of Chicago. It was the same block where my grandfather owned two apartment buildings where nearly all of our family lived at one time or another. Toting my bible, I would knock on my neighbors’ doors, telling them about Jesus, asking parents if they would allow their children to attend Sunday School at my church. “The church van will swing down the block about 9:15 or so on Sunday morning,” I would say, adding that the kids would be in for treats and games. On to the next door…
|John Fountain as a child and sister Gloria|
If I close my eyes, I see a different man than I am today: Younger, fervent, more idealistic. I see me, standing to testify of the goodness of God and of my steadfast faith in Him, despite not having money to pay my electric or gas bill and having them subsequently disconnected. Despite my inability to find a job after months and months of unemployment. I see me as a young man, walking to church with my young family on Sunday evenings, up Pulaski Road to Roosevelt Road, then east to True Vine Church of God In Christ, my grandfather’s storefront church at 3915 W. Roosevelt Road. I can still see True Vine’s neon-lit marquee with the red letters “Jesus Saves” in a white globe, lighting the way. And inside those doors, if I close my eyes, I can hear the organ revving, cries of “Yes Lord,” the exaltations of the saints: Amen’s and Hallelujahs. And I can feel the Spirit. It rises from my belly, seems to spread like electricity across the congregation that rises to its feet, praising and worshipping on one accord. I see Grandmother, standing across from the church mothers, dressed in all white, her face aglow with a light not of this world and Grandpa sitting in his suit and clergy collar at attention in the pulpit, between the other ministers as it appears that the worship service has now come under God’s divine control. And I stand in the midst of it all—inept, incomplete and insignificant in my own strength, ability and status in life—but completely oblivious to my failings, shortcomings and insufficiencies. I stand in the glory of this moment in which God has become the focal point of our hearts, souls, minds and strength. And in the awesomeness of His power, we, the church—a body of believers—exists as one, with one purpose, one Lord, one faith, one hope. One.
|True Vine Church of God In Christ circa early 1970s was|
founded on Chicago's West Side by Fountain's grandparents.
And yet, when I open my eyes now, I stand mostly alone these days—at least apart from the church I once knew. I arrived at this state unintentionally, though it has since become clear to me that it was far from happenstance and that my collective experiences in the church—my tears and my joys, my hurts and my triumphs, my acceptance and rejection and far too many disappointments in the church—have their part in my bittersweet exodus. It wasn’t something I planned necessarily, nothing I had ever quite imagined would ever happen to me, especially after years of going to church, having been raised a PGK—a pastor’s grandkid—and with Pentecostal pedigree running through my veins like blood. But I was church hurt. Church angry. Church wounded. By pastors, by so-called brothers and also sisters. By a lifetime of backbiting, browbeating, by slights, over-the-pulpit berating and pastoral oppression. By that deep hurt that I have seen sting so many within the House of God at the hands of “the brethren” or the “sisters,” and which seems among the deepest of all hurts and betrayals.
Slowly, I began slipping away—first, a Sunday here and there. I stopped attending bible study. Sunday School. Eventually, Sundays became days to sleep in or mornings to sit and sip a cup of coffee at a local café. It was preferable to the weekly hemorrhaging in the pew that Sunday’s at church had become, listening to Buffalo fish-sermons, prosperity preaching, political spiels from visiting election candidates, or hype-‘em-up hooping and hollering, half-sung homilies that had about the same effect as a sugar sandwich on white bread. I say “Buffalo fish-sermons” because the tasty, flaky white fish is filled with so many bones that the sifting for the bones that can kill you make the meat for me not even worth the while, and, in fact, safer to avoid altogether. I had also come by then to believe that the church prefers the majority of men to be spineless, speechless and sack-less—at least with regard to criticizing the pastor or the church or the status quo within it. I had come to believe that for some, attending church has become the Sunday ritual for proving how much better or holier “they” are than “us.” But I digress.
By the time I stopped attending church on a regular basis in 2005—aside from the visit to one church or another on some Sunday when mostly a feeling of guilt mixed with a longing for the cultural ritual of worship I had known since a child—I was sick of church, literally. Toward the end, I would get a migraine on Sunday that lasted for about a week then returned once Sunday had rolled around again. At my worst, I felt like I needed a drink to go to church. I felt like I was dying in church, hemorrhaging in the pew, my mind drifting in and out of consciousness and my soul longing for rescue from the agony of enduring another church service that neither fed me nor filled me but only seemed slowly to suck the life away from me with dogma and with irrelevant or inept sermons and the recital of canned “church-isms” that drew a near robotic call and response from the congregation. By the time of my departure from the Sunday ritual, it was clear to me that attending served little practical purpose for my life. That my money, along with my silent, non-threatening, unchallenging attendance was what a pastor really wanted from me, along with mine and my wife’s and children’s bodies occupying the pews each week. I felt like a piece of meat. I felt used. Overlooked. Diminished. Insignificant. And I felt marginalized in a world where even at small churches, there is no role for brothers who are not preachers, pastors, deacons or in the choir—and no room for bucking the status quo, even when the status quo goes contrary to the Word of God, or the pastor or the church have gone South of the Gospel. I felt like the focus—of time, tithes and talents, of our collective energies as a branch of the body of Christ—were too often misguided and leadership shortsighted. That Jesus himself, bearded and not adorned with the scent of Dolce & Gabbana cologne, or a designer suit and gators, would not be welcomed into the pulpits of our churches, let alone the pews. That the focus was too often on raising money rather than on saving souls. On meetings and conventions and anniversary celebrations, Men’s Days and Women’s Days. On teas and banquets. On buying new choir robes. On spending more time and energy in deciding the important stuff, like what would be the designated color theme for the clothes everyone was to wear for the pastor’s anniversary celebration and little-to-no time on helping the poor and needy, on evangelism—on being the church rather than on having church.
|Once a licensed minister and ordained elder, Fountain no|
longer regularly attends church but has found a place for him.
There were other things fueling my angst, though it would take me years to unravel that thread. By the time I wrote the essay that eventually ran in the Washington Post, whatever it was, it gnawed at me, vexing my soul. Whatever it was, it would take years to unravel because it would take a process—time to look in the mirror, time to forgive, time to sift through my hurt, time to remember what is most critical to my faith, time to write. When I sat down to write the essay, later titled, “No Place for Me,” I had no intentions of publishing it. It was for me an exercise to try and exorcise my torment over my disconnection from the church. A search for answers. In fact, by then, my wife had asked me many times why I no longer wanted to attend church. And whenever I answered, there was a mini-volcanic eruption mixed with anger but mostly hurt that arose, but that to neither her satisfaction nor mine explained why it had really come to this. What was clear was that buried deep within the core was a truth that I needed to reach—for my good, if not also perhaps for the good of others.
Now, after years of soul searching, and writing on this subject, I have some answers and also reflections to share, even if this part of my journey remains incomplete. What I have found, at least what I have made, is peace…
About The Book
|No Place For Me:|
Letters to the Church in America
Release Date: May/June 2015
They are not alone. In fact, researchers have identified a trend of millions of American Christians—from baby boomers to millennials—who continue to leave the institutional church, a group being referred to by researchers as the “dechurched” or the “dones” (as in done with church).
Fountain, himself once a licensed minister, ordained elder and former deacon who grew up in his grandfather’s storefront Pentecostal church on Chicago’s West Side, chronicles his faith journey in this book. From his earliest childhood memory of being first introduced by his mother to the concept of God; to attending Sunday School and bible study, revivals and countless worship services; and his questions, even as a boy, about the potential impact of God, religion and church on his own impoverished community plagued by crime, blight and other social ills. The author recounts in vivid detail his conversion experience while praying over a bathtub late one night in his family’s apartment on Chicago’s West Side—which began his own personal walk of faith. It is a walk filled with highs and also lows, a walk that ultimately led him away from his home church on a quest to seek his own God-ordained destiny. That led him away from the gray-haired, little old church ladies known as prayer warriors, including his grandmother, who were his mothers in the faith. That led him away from his strict doctrinal upbringing and into a wider world of religion, faith and varied doctrinal beliefs, customs and practices, even within the Christian faith. That ultimately would lead him to question how he and the Christian church in general practice their faith. That would leave him disheartened, wounded and in some ways broken as eventually he walked away from the church he once loved but would lead to his rediscovery of a single shining truth to heal his soul.
Publisher: WestSide Press, Chicago
Release Date: May/June 2015