The Summer Preacher
1973, A few years before Boston, Massachusetts was ordered to desegregate the public schools
By Nancy Haydon Gray
The children were in the empty cellar of the apartment house where John lived. There were eight of them being very, very quiet. John opened the door in the floor and softly let it lay back on the dusty floor. One by one the children slithered into the hole, down rickety steps, and crawled on their knees for about fifty feet till they got to the cellar of the church. There, without a sound, they tiptoed to the place John said was beneath the pews. They sat down on the cool concrete cellar floor, all in silence.
Above them, the summer substitute preacher started to talk. The children listened while he said a prayer. Then, he started to talk slowly and persuasively. He said that this whole town could be theirs. That they should run the shops and the cinema. He said they should sell the cars and sell the drugs. He said they should be the landlords and the real estate agents. He told them they could do it if they would follow him and do what he says. They should listen very carefully and don’t anyone leave till he was done. He warned them, “Don’t say anything to anyone.
This was his plan: They were going to be the soldiers in a revolution like the city had never seen before. They were going to change the world. “Didn’t they want a change? Didn’t they want to run things?”
The children heard foot stomping and the men and women in the pews shifted in their seats. A few shouted “Yes, yes!” The Summer Preacher said they were going to run each and every business man or woman out of town and take over stores, services, all the businesses. They’d run every one of them out by fair or foul but run them out, regardless, and take over. This fiery rhetoric was not like their regular preacher, not like him at all.
The children heard it all, the plans to burn the drycleaners, rob the drug store till the owner gave up, harass the man who sold cars, and intimidate his family.
The preacher’s voice got low and like he was talking secrets. He said they would need money for guns and volunteers to go out and collect money. They could trust to him to buy the guns. He knew where to go. The he said, “Go home and pray for our revolution that it may give us the power we deserve in the city.”
At the sound of these words the children nudged one another, and John got up quietly and started to the tunnel. They all followed. They crawled back to the other end and up the steps. John let down the trapdoor just as carefully and quietly as he had opened it a half hour before. They all went out into the summer night. They sauntered home as quickly, casually as they could so not to raise suspicion. The next morning the all met in Ronnie’s apartment, because it was empty of adults.
The children were nervous and excited at the same time. John, who had lead them the night before, said it would be very bad if the parents got guns and had a revolution. Anthony said lots of the parents might be killed and then what would we do. Gina and Ruth thought it had better be stopped now, but how? TC said they could all be so bad that the parents wouldn’t have time to have a revolution. They like this plan. They talked about how they could cause so much trouble they could keep the Summer Preacher’s revolution from happening. Each child left determined to be bad, and, for sure, ruin the adults summertime. There would be no time for guns and trouble.
The children were left on their own the following Wednesday night while the parents had another prayer meeting. Once again, John raised the door to the cellar for them and they were so quiet going under the church – nobody made a mistake, nobody even sneezed. That night the children sat under the church and heard the Summer Preacher raise his voice to a roar and boast that he had collected money from the townspeople; he didn’t say what townspeople. He was going to buy guns and explosives in a week or two. He started to plan who would be leaders in the revolution and who would be members of the bands of guerilla fighters. Anthony’s mother was six feet tall, tough as anyone, and hated the storekeeper – she was named the leader. David’s brother was another; so was Alex’s brother. A prayer closed the meeting and the children made their way back out the tunnel to the trap door. They were all well on their way home before the adults finished their good nights.
The next day they met in Fred’s cellar. Nobody was allowed in Fred’s house ever, but his parents were away and he brought them in a cellar window. Fred’s little brother played upstairs. They decided Reese would go into the Summer Preacher’s apartment and see if there were any guns yet or anything dangerous and report back to the children. If there was nothing that would explode, the children agreed they would start a small fire to scare the Summer Preacher away. Maybe he would leave town and all the trouble would be over.
Gina and Ruth lured the preacher out to get a coke with them while Reese snuck into the apartment and saw nothing but the usual things. No guns or anything he figured would cause trouble – at least not in the apartment. He looked all around, under stuff, in the closets, and opened a few boxes. Papers on top of the desk didn’t look like plans for a revolution, just bits of sermons on scraps of paper. He looked out the window and saw Gina, Ruth and the Summer Preacher rounding the corner. He walked out of the apartment house just as if he lived there.
This time they all met in Ruth’s apartment while her mother was at work, Clarence, Anthony, John, Gina, Ruth, Ronald and Alex, were there waiting for Reese’s report. He said there didn’t seem to be anything suspicious in the apartment. So, who was the best person to go in and start the small fire? Who was the most level headed? Ronald was picked, because he wasn’t awkward, and he was small and quick. Their plan looked good and they were excited and scared at the same time. Ronald would fill up a baby food jar with gasoline from the public works garage. This time, it was TC and Anthony’s job to lure the Summer Preacher to go get some lemonade.
Ronald watched them leave and slid into the apartment, the door was unlocked. He lit a small fire in the living room under a drape and then he got out quick. In minutes, the fire was so hot it cracked the window. Somebody saw flames and called 911. The fire engines sounded immediately. Just as they sped round the corner a ball of fire flew out of another window. It sparked the bush by a cellar window. The glass cracked open with the heat; the frame began to burn; the curtain was in flames. Suddenly, as the firemen were getting out their hoses, a blast ripped out the side of the cellar wall. Whoom! Sparks landed on the roof of the apartment where Alex lived. By the time the hoses were connected, the whole house was aflame. It happened in minutes.
Clarence was at home. He saw how close the fire was to his apartment house, and he ran to get TC next door and both of them got out with her little brother and sister. They ran out near the main street to get out of the way. The fire spread to houses, buildings, trees. More fire engines came, this time up Main Street. TC ran into Anthony’s house and got him. They went through the halls shouting and got all the rest of the people out. Fred looked at his little brother and felt surprised as tears came into his eyes. He wrapped a blanket around the child and trudged down the steps with him. TC and Anthony gave him a big smile. They all went downstairs and into the street.
Just as Clarence was getting Gina, Ruth and John and his sister and his sick father out, the gas line caught and an explosion rocked the ground. The whole four-unit apartment house swayed; they made it down the stairs and outside. Then, it too was on fire. By midnight, the whole neighborhood was burnt to the ground. The families were out in the street clutching their children. The fire department notified the mayor. The mayor called the Red Cross and asked them to bring blankets and supplies. Grown-ups, children, grandmothers, grandfathers, neighbor and street people all slept in the church that night.
The next day they separated into two groups and used the church and the school gym. They were not so crowded. Within a week, the city was moving house trailers into the big field across Main Street, one for each family. The children agreed they would break up into smaller groups so nobody would think to suspect them. TC, Clarence and Anthony were one group, John, Gina Clarence another, and Ruth and Reese were another. They avoided each other just in case anyone was suspicious. They were all proud at how everything worked out, but knew they couldn’t look pleased. No big smiles, be serious, don’t say a word. This was hard, but they agreed they could do it.
The trailers were in place on July 1. The families moved in. All that summer a strange transformation came over the grown-ups and children, this new village of trailers. The Summer Preacher was never seen again, and thoughts of revolution were driven from their minds. The rumor went around that the Summer Preacher must have had guns and ammunition in the basement of the apartment, all stacked up for the revolution. Was he some sort of criminal?
The children felt they had done what had to be done. They wished that it hadn’t caused so much damage, but they liked the new situation very much. It was fun. As the summer went on, children and grown-ups grew happier and happier. The people found themselves away from their usual run-down apartment houses. The trailers were clean and bright. They had to entertain themselves. They talked and shared their lives, jokes and stories. They became closer to one another and made new friendships. They took pride in how the trailers and grounds looked. They all sat and cheered with the honey dipper came to empty the toilets. They were very fussy when the trash men came so that not a bit of paper was left to make the place look trashy. It was a real pretty place.
TC’s mother began giving charm lessons and ballet lessons. Gina and Ruth ran the crèche so the mothers could keep going to work. Clarence’s mother taught everybody how to sew, boys and girls alike. David’s mother taught reading classes and helped Fred and Reese to be so much better. TC helped her. John’s father and Ronald’s mother taught how to cook good, healthy food. Ruth’s mother taught how to cane chairs. The effect of all this friendship, learning and cooperation was that the neighbors were more and more confident of their talents. It turned out to be the best summer ever. As the winter came on, they began to drift off from their cooperative duties and got jobs for themselves. Many of them got better jobs than they had ever had. By the time the new apartments were built, all the parents were working. The new apartments cost more but were an awful lot nicer. Ever been.
As they carried stuff up stairs to their apartments, David said to Ronald, “Well, we really stopped that revolution didn’t we?” They put down their stuff and shook hands and gave each other high five.