By Sean Dietrich
A pretty day. An Episcopalian chapel. I am seated beside my friend, Tonye. We are singing along with eighty other people who hold song books. Everyone is smiling. Big, cheesy smiles.
“Would y’all turn to page one forty-one?” the bishop says.
This is the first time I recall hearing the word “y’all” used from a pulpit. The Deepwater Baptists of my youth mostly used King James English. But then, this is not a Baptist church. The bishop, for instance, is barefoot, wearing shorts and T-shirt.
I was not raised anywhere near an Episcopalian church. In fact, I couldn’t even pronounce this word until I was twenty-four.
Still, I write about Episcopalians a lot. Not on purpose. I do it because I like them, I guess. And more importantly, I do it because I like their parties.
My people did not party. I was raised around foot-washers who knew all the lyrics to “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and tuned into Lawrence Welk.
But there is no Lawrence Welk here at Camp Beckwith. This place is a primitive lodge in the woods of Baldwin County where Episcopalians commune, fish, camp, laugh, boil crawfish, and of course, throw shindigs.
The noseeums eat your flesh, the mosquitoes commit immoral acts upon your skin. There’s music, dancing, and a long line outside the women’s bathroom. It’s great.
Camp cabins are filled with couples and families from South Alabama and Northwest Florida. These are people who use the word “y’all” liberally. They all know each other. And they all actually like each other.
What kind of church is this?
Last night, I was on a porch with thirty of them. We sat on rocking chairs and lit the woods on fire with laughter. They sipped longneck bottles and told stories.
Katie told a funny story about her senile granny. One woman talked about surviving cancer. One man leaned backward in his chair and began singing “Stayin’ Alive” at the top of his lungs, then paused to break wind.
And this morning, I rose early and met my friend Tonye for service.
The bishop asks us to sit. He preaches. I won’t retell his sermon because it’s not only what he says, it’s his heartfelt delivery.
He makes me laugh. He makes me think. He uses the word “y’all” at least fourteen times.
After the bishop’s brief sermon, he tells us to stand in a circle. Eighty folks join hands in the chapel. A woman plays piano, a man plays guitar. People sing. The woman next to me is singing with eyes closed.
The bishop roams the room, whispering with members of the congregation. And even though this is probably supposed to be a reverent moment during the service, everyone seems so chipper. Everyone is still smiling and acting very un-Baptist.
It’s a little weird.
But this weirdness fades when the bishop gets to me.
He winks at me. I’ve never been winked at in church except when my cousin, Ed Lee, once placed a garter snake in the women’s restrooms. Ed Lee winked at me from across the sanctuary and gave me a thumbs-up. That was a very good Sunday.
But the bishop is doing more than winking. He is carrying a Styrofoam plate with globs of paint on it—a finger-painting palette. He dips his thumb into red acrylic color and traces something onto my forehead.
“Love you, brother,” he says. And he sounds like he means it.
He makes his way around the room, touching foreheads. And soon, I see what’s going on. Everyone has different colored crosses on their heads.
All hues. All shapes. All people. All kinds. Everyone smiling.
We sing. We hold hands a few more times. We form a single-file line and sip wine from a cup. The man serving me wine tips the glass too far and spills merlot onto my white shirt inadvertently staining it with the Blood of the Lamb. I look like I’ve been stabbed with a pool cue.
People snicker at me. A few snort. So help me, snorting in church. Then, we sing again. We hear more scripture. We say a few words of liturgy. And these people do something to me. They make me feel good inside. I don’t know what it is about them.
When service is over, the bishop recites what is called a “benediction” prayer. Not only, I am told, is a “benediction” a popular way to prepare eggs, but it is a formal blessing.
Here’s a small piece of it:
“Go out there, y’all,” he benedicts. “And love everyone you meet. And I mean everyone.”
And well, I wrote this because I love Episcopalians, and I’m just trying to do what he said. Y’all.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist and novelist known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.