In a car more suited to light grocery shopping or picking the kids up from soccer practice, our friends Conor Creighton and Kendall Waldman are travelling across the bottom half of the USA on a road trip from South Carolina to California. They’ll be trying to swerve the cliches to send us updates on all the cool stuff they come across. The series' name is From Sea to Shining Sea.
This is Primus and his wife Nonie. We met them by chance in a parking lot in Savannah, Georgia. It was a Sunday morning and the previous night’s storm had sprung a leak in the car roof, making the inside damp and smelly. We were beat; slowly dying on a diet of Wendy’s, Waffle House and Zaxby’s Chicken. We spotted Primus’ suit like a beacon on a foggy shore and he spotted our vulnerability and saw a golden opportunity to win some souls, and that's how we ended up in his church. Everyone knows that God is big business in the South, but at first it seemed like Primus and Nonie were struggling to attract a congregation, because myself and Kendall almost doubled it. But, as the service drew to a close, more and more believers stumbled in, apparently looking for a quick chat with God rather than anything too deep.
Primus and Nonie run a place of worship that belongs to The United House of Prayer for All People. It began almost a hundred years ago in a small timber shed and now has so many franchises across the South that you could attend a new service every week for years without seeing the same faces. The church as a whole is currently headed up by a bishop called Precious "Daddy" Bailey, whose portrait was hanging a good three-feet higher than Jesus’ on the wall of the chapel we visited. Testimony is what keeps them on the edge of their seats at the United House. It’s like a rustic form of reality TV where people get up, and with great candour and honesty lay their misfortunes out on the table. We, the audience, are invited to applaud and grunt our sympathies. If we’re not believable the pastor shouts: "Can I get a witness?" and we grunt louder. The only thing that could possibly make you feel more white and more out of place than this experience is sharing a shower with a basketball team.
Primus’ testimony is a ten-minute ride that begins in church and ends in hospital with a stop-over at Burger King. At some point in his past, Primus was attacked by a very slow-moving form of stroke. When neither church nor Whopper meal could fix him, he did what most people do when they feel unwell, and went to the hospital. As his testimony reaches the climax where God intervenes and restores his numb face and de-weirds his voice through his divine grace, the congregation add to the racket with washboards and tambourines, dancing in the aisles. For just ten people they make a healthy noise. When the service finishes they keep us there a while talking God, but mostly food and clothes. Primus is famous for his grill. He’s so good, he’s bad (his words, not mine). We’re invited along for an evening prayer service, but our God quota has peaked for the day.
We’ve been getting lost in pretty much every town we pass through. I blame American signage, but it’s got more to do with the amount of stuff happening outside your window. When we got confused while trying to leave Savannah, we asked a guy named Buddy Hoover for directions. Between telling us how to get on and then off of Interstate 20, Buddy pointed out that he was a Mormon. Didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t gamble, but loved the ladies. Buddy had killed Nazis in the South of France in the 1940s – had we any interest in attending a service with him? We said: "No thank you, Buddy."
It was a shame, but religion is like food in the South: Their age-old code of hospitality means that, as soon as you open your mouth, they will always try to feed you.
Follow Conor on Twitter: @conorcreighton
Previously: From Sea to Shining Sea - Don't Ask, Don't Tell