Tent meeting


We have a photo hanging in our entranceway, a large panoramic group picture posed by a professional photographer, a religious meeting under a tent. The camera is stationed at the rear looking forward, at an elevation, so that the preacher or minister and other platform worthies, including a number of choristers and musicians, are in the distance, while the congregation sitting in the benches turn to face us. A summer tent meeting.

The place is a vacant lot in Sunset Park, in Brooklyn. The year is 1939, the year I was born. I am not in the picture, nor are my parents, but I recognise most of the people, and indeed I remember some of these tent meetings, which continued through the 1940s. When they ceased we somehow acquired one of the benches, and it sat in our back garden, up against the dining room windows, for many years.

These are austere non-conformists, chapel-folk, Pentecostals, and they are under a tent, and so there are no religious objects, no statues or pictures. But there are printed banners at the front, just below the platform, words that dominate and define the scene. Bible verses, from Acts of the Apostles, in an archaic Dano-Norwegian with much the flavour of the King James Bible in English. Acts 1:8, But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you. Acts 2:39, For the promise is unto you, and to your children.

Power and promise. Thus neatly bracketing the paradox of all apocalyptic sects. For the power invoked is the power to dissolve all preceding particularities of race and culture—the Holy Ghost, after all, has no features, no history, no stories or sayings. Power to speed the end of history and precipitate the final destruction of all things. While at the same time promising perseverence, a tribal inheritance, a gift for generations to come. A circle never to be squared, but fertile ground for unbearable psychic tension, violence or apostasy the only strictly logical outcome.

But this was Brooklyn. The war came and went. People died, their children moved away. Very different powers. Very different promises.