Zeebo cleared his throat and read in a voice like the rumble of distant artillery:
“There’s a land beyond the river.”
Miraculously on pitch, a hundred voices sang out Zeebo’s words. The last syllable, held to a husky hum, was followed by Zeebo saying,
“That we call the sweet forever.”
Music again swelled around us; the last note lingered and Zeebo met it with the next line: “And we only reach that shore by faith’s decree.”
The congregation hesitated, Zeebo repeated the line carefully, and it was sung. At the chorus Zeebo closed the book, a signal for the congregation to proceed without his help.
On the dying notes of “Jubilee,” Zeebo said, “In that far-off sweet forever, just beyond the shining river.”
Line for line, voices followed in simple harmony until the hymn ended in a melancholy murmur.
I looked at Jem, who was looking at Zeebo from the corners of his eyes. I didn’t believe it either, but we had both heard it.
Reverend Sykes then called on the Lord to bless the sick and the suffering, a procedure no different from our church practice, except Reverend Sykes directed the Deity’s attention to several specific cases.
His sermon was a forthright denunciation of sin, an austere declaration of the motto on the wall behind him: he warned his flock against the evils of heady brews, gambling, and strange women. Bootleggers caused enough trouble in the Quarters, but women were worse. Again, as I had often met it in my own church, I was confronted with the Impurity of Women doctrine that seemed to preoccupy all clergymen.
Jem and I had heard the same sermon Sunday after Sunday, with only one exception. Reverend Sykes used his pulpit more freely to express his views on individual lapses from grace: Jim Hardy had been absent from church for five Sundays and he wasn’t sick; Constance Jackson had better watch her ways—she was in grave danger for quarreling with her neighbors; she had erected the only spite fence in the history of the Quarters.
Reverend Sykes closed his sermon. He stood beside a table in front of the pulpit and requested the morning offering, a proceeding that was strange to Jem and me. One by one, the congregation came forward and dropped nickels and dimes into a black enameled coffee can. Jem and I followed suit, and received a soft, “Thank you, thank you,” as our dimes clinked.
To our amazement, Reverend Sykes emptied the can onto the table and raked the coins into his hand. He straightened up and said, “This is not enough, we must have ten dollars.”
The congregation stirred. “You all know what it’s for—Helen can’t leave those children to work while Tom’s in jail. If everybody gives one more dime, we’ll have it—” Reverend Sykes waved his hand and called to someone in the back of the church. “Alec, shut the doors. Nobody leaves here till we have ten dollars.”
Calpurnia scratched in her handbag, and brought forth a battered leather coin purse. “Now Cal,” Jem whispered, when she handed him a shiny quarter, “we can put ours in. Gimme your dime, Scout.”
The church was becoming stuffy, and it occurred to me that Reverend Sykes intended to sweat the amount due out of his flock. Fans crackled, feet shuffled, tobacco-chewers were in agony.
Reverend Sykes startled me by saying sternly, “Carlow Richardson, I haven’t seen you up this aisle yet.”
A thin man in khaki pants came up the aisle and deposited a coin. The congregation murmured approval.
Reverend Sykes then said, “I want all of you with no children to make a sacrifice and give one more dime apiece. Then we’ll have it.”
Slowly, painfully, the ten dollars was collected. The door was opened, and the gust of warm air revived us. Zeebo lined On Jordan’s Stormy Banks, and church was over.
I wanted to stay and explore, but Calpurnia propelled me up the aisle ahead of her. At the church door, while she paused to talk with Zeebo and his family, Jem and I chatted with Reverend Sykes. I was bursting with questions, but decided I would wait and let Calpurnia answer them.
“We were ’specially glad to have you all here,” said Reverend Sykes. “This church has no better friend than your daddy.”
My curiosity burst: “Why were you all takin’ up collection for Tom Robinson’s wife?”
“Didn’t you hear why?” asked Reverend Sykes. “Helen’s got three little’uns and she can’t go out to work—”
“Why can’t she take ’em with her, Reverend?” I asked. It was customary for field Negroes with tiny children to deposit them in whatever shade there was while their parents worked—usually the babies sat in the shade between two rows of cotton. Those unable to sit were strapped papoose-style on their mothers’ backs, or resided in extra cotton bags.