It was Easter and I was attending a Baptist church service in St. Thomas.
We had been in the Virgin Islands for a month. Each morning, Marilyn, a local woman with skin the color of melted chocolate, dressed in oversized T-shirts and black spandex tights, would sing out “Good morning to you” as I came through the doors of the market. She would stick by my side, helping with my groceries, telling me what was good that day and suggesting how to cook the exotic fruits and vegetables.
One morning, Marilyn inquired about my plans for Easter. Replying I had none, she told me, “You’ll come to church with me.” There was no room for discussion.
She pulled into the marina parking lot, transformed from the woman I met every morning, wearing a purple polyester skirt and matching jacket with fabric-covered buttons the size of silver dollars. Tulle, flowers and pearls adorned her hat. An island Jacqueline Kennedy.
We bumped along the pothole-strewn roads to the center of the island to a one-room white church in an open field with goats grazing on the lawn. Dozens of cars lined the roadside. We had to park a hundred yards away and walk to the church, stopping to chat with every person we passed.
“George, how’s your foot?” Marilyn patted the arm of a man with a limp.
“Henry, I missed you at choir practice last week,” she said to another.
“Denise, how’s your mamma after her operation?” She knew everyone.
The temperature pushed 85. Sweat trickled down my back. Inside, people dressed in suits and their Sunday best piled into pews or crowded the back of the church. Extra folding chairs sat along each aisle.
“Christmas and Easter are our best days.” Marilyn preened. Loud, haunting groans of an organ filled the room. The choir, dressed in heavy maroon robes, began to sing as they filed in through a side door and climbed onto a stage at the front of the church. I felt hotter just watching them. They swayed back and forth, belting out the song with searing vocal intensity. The room filled with sound, building stronger and stronger as the choruses went on.
By the last lines, the music vibrated in my chest.
A spindly black man with hollow sunken cheeks jumped on stage. “There is no more glorious a day than this!” the preacher called out.
“Amen!” the whole congregation responded.
“There was no more glorious a day in history,” he called again.
“Amen!” the congregation replied louder and clearer.
“Today is the day our Lord went home.” He lowered his head.
“Praise, my Lord.” Marilyn’s deep voice as soulful as Nina Simone’s repeated the words again with more smoke and gravel in her delivery, “Praise, my Lord.”
The preacher opened his mouth to continue, but a new sound came from the back of the church. It wasn’t the soprano of a choir member or the ferver of a blessing, but the bleating of a goat. One had left the flock on the lawn and was walking down the aisle calling out his own praise, “baa-baa.” Three men in the back jumped to action and shooed him out. But he’d broken the heavy spell.
The choir sang us out as we filed out the back doors, where the smell of fried chicken filled the air. Set up along the side of the yard were picnic tables piled high with a potluck Easter spread. Bowls of creamy macaroni salad, goat stewed in tomato, rice and peas, golden fried chicken, string beans, coleslaw, buttery corn on the cob and barbecued ribs dripping with sauce sat waiting.
“Preacher calls this home, now mamma gonna feed you.” Marilyn said laughing, as she led me through the line to make sure I didn’t miss a thing. “You have to try Virginia’s Johnnycakes. Hers are the best.” She leaned in and whispered, “It’s cause she still fries them in lard.”
Marilyn worked that churchyard like a pro, stopping to talk to every person, never forgetting anyone’s name or what was happening in their life that week. There was no doubt this was her home. The preacher approached, looking more like Sammy Davis Jr. than I had noticed inside the church. Marilyn shook her head and introduced me, “Girl had nowhere to go on Easter.” The man grabbed my hand and looked deep in my eyes. “You always have a home here.”
By the afternoon’s end, when I had heard all the island gossip, been introduced to a community of new friends and dined on the wholesome, tasty meals they shared, I knew he was right about one thing — I had a home in the islands.
½ cup butter, room temperature
⅓ cup sugar 4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ cup water
¾ cup milk
1 teaspoon sea salt
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Beat the butter and sugar together until combined.
Add the flour, baking powder, water, milk and salt to the bowl to make a sticky batter. Do not overmix.
Transfer dough from bowl to a greased 9-by-9-inch pan. Gently flatten the dough in the pan.
Bake for one hour or until the edges of the Johnnycake are browned.
Let cool for 20 minutes and then slice into squares.
*Alternatively, you could fry scoops of batter in lard in a frying pan over medium-high heat like a pancake for three minutes each side until golden brown. This is how they were done for the church potluck.