A Christian Education: A Short Story By Julie Showalter


A Christian Education by Julie Showalter was published as the opening entry in Other Voices #22: Spring/Summer 1995. This short story can be read below in manuscript form. To download a PDF version of Julie’s A Christian Education, go to Download: A Christian Education

Note: Originally posted May 27, 2006 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com

Julie Showalter

Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman with whom I had a outrageously wonderful marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a brilliant scholar, the mother of our two sons, and a prize-winning author. Many posts on this blog are about her and still others consist of her writings. Julie’s Story is the account of our unlikely romance, Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ.



A Christian Education
Julie Showalter


I was raised a Baptist, a Southern Baptist, a Southern Baptist in West Texas, so I’ve always had a strong sense of sin. I was, in fact, something of a religious prodigy, feeling sinful enough at five to want to be baptized, and convincing the grown-ups that I knew what I was doing.

The first time I told my mother I wanted to be baptized, she said, “That’s silly. You’re not old enough to understand.” The second time, she said, “Not until you’re at least ten.” The third time, she asked, “Why is this so important to you?”

“I want to be good. I want to be as good as I can be so Jesus will love me.”

“Jesus does love you, Honey. And you can be a good girl without being baptized.”

“But I’ll be better if I’m baptized. I’ll be closer to Jesus. I won’t do so many things wrong and I won’t go to hell.”

“Is that what this is about? God doesn’t send children to hell that are too young to understand.”

“But I do understand. I understand it all.”

That night from the bedroom where I slept with my two little sisters, I heard Mother talking to Gramps.

“She really wants this, and I just don’t know what to do. Ever since the divorce, people have been watching like I’m bound to go crazy or go wild or something. Nobody thinks I can take care of these girls by myself. If I show up wanting to have a five-year old baptized they’ll think I’ve gone off the deep end, that I’ve turned into some kind of fanatic.”

Everything was so quiet that I could hear Mother strike the match to light her cigarette. I could even hear her inhale and let the smoke out. Then Gramps cleared his throat. “Well, folks might talk some, but it’d be a horrible thing to have on your conscience if you didn’t let your daughter come to the Lord when she was ready.”

“I know. I know. But, Daddy, she can’t know what she’s doing, can she?”

“I don’t know. She’s a real smart little girl. She knows more Bible verses and Bible stories than some of the elders, maybe even more than me. And she’s faced some things that a little girl shouldn’t have to face.” Mother snorted, but Gramps went on. “I know you did what you thought you had to do, and you know your mother and I stand behind you and these babies. I’m just saying that it’s been hard on the girls, especially Jaynice because she remembers things.” He cleared his throat again, and his chair squeaked as he shifted his weight. “Anyway, this really isn’t up to us to decide. Take her to see the preacher. He can talk to her and see if she’s ready.”

Brother Washburn had been at the Dimmitt church since Mother was a teenager. He’d married her and Daddy, and she’d talked to him a lot before Daddy left. He was big and old, and sometimes it was hard to keep him and God straight. Mother and I went to see him the next day, both dressed for church, even though it was a Wednesday. I was in my Easter costume — a pink organdy dress that stuck out all around, white anklets with lace trim and black patent leather shoes. The first time I wore it, Gramps said, “You’re pretty as a picture. You’re my good, pretty girl.” Mother was wearing the shiny black suit with the imitation lamb collar and tight skirt that she’d worn when she was looking for a job the year before. She had the nervous look she always had when she wore the suit. She’d worn it the day she’d gone to court and come home and cried.

I’d never been in the preacher’s office before, I wondered if any kids had. Behind his desk were a picture of Jesus going to heaven and the American and Christian flags. Beside it was a big Bible on a stand so he could read standing up. He motioned us to the purple couch across from his desk and sat down in the matching chair next to it. I didn’t know preachers sat down, at least not in front of people. I was pushed up against the arm of the couch with him on one side and Mother on the other. Brother Washburn said, “Jaynice Ray, your mother called and told me why you’re here. Before we talk about it, I think we should pray. Jaynice, do you know the Lord’s Prayer? Could you lead us?”

A few months earlier I’d come home from Sunday school and told my sisters, “I know where Daddy is. He art in heaven.” We got straightened out pretty quick when people started offering condolences to Mother. Daddy wasn’t in heaven; he was in California. Now when I said “Our Father who art in heaven” out loud, I thought, “Our father who art in California” in my head.

After we finished the Lord’s Prayer, the preacher kept going. He prayed for rain for the farmers and he blessed the servicemen overseas. He prayed for those who were ailing. And he prayed that God would guide us during our meeting about this sweet little girl’s soul. The couch scratched the back of my legs, and even though my eyes were supposed to be closed, I could see Mother’s long red fingernails picking at the Kleenex she was holding. She wanted a cigarette.

After we all said “amen,” the preacher leaned toward me and smiled. When he was preaching you couldn’t see the hairs in his nose or the red marks on his cheeks. “I’ve seen you in church,” he said.

“You have?”

“Most children your age stay in the nursery or sleep through my sermons, but you seem real interested.”

“Yes, sir. I am, sir.”

“Why don’t you tell me why you want to be baptized.”

* * *

The Baptist Church doesn’t deal much in ritual and mystery, and baptism was the closest thing we had to an observable miracle. Every week, at the end of the morning service, the preacher issued the invitation — “Come forward, sinner. Jesus is waiting to welcome you. Accept the Lord. Be saved and baptized in His name.” The congregation would sing verse after verse of “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling” or “Just As I Am” or “Have Thy Own Way, Lord,” interrupted only by more exhortations from the preacher. Sometimes he’d pull out all the stops: “There was a man, a good man, who would say to me, ‘Next week, Preacher. Next week I’ll come forward and give my life to Jesus. Next week.’ Brothers and Sisters, that man was hit by a train and killed. He’s burning in hell’s fire right now. And he’ll be burning in hell’s fire next week and the week after that and the week after that. He’ll burn in hell forever because he didn’t say yes to Jesus when he had the chance. Come forward, sinner. Come to Jesus.”

As we began the third verse of the invitation hymn, the curtains behind the pulpit opened, revealing the baptism tank — a glass front so you could see how deep the water was, a picture of Jesus and John the Baptist at the River Jordan painted on the wall behind it. There it was, a visible sign of the miracle awaiting any sinner who came forward.

On the best Sundays, a sinner did come forward. The congregation rejoiced and the baptism was scheduled for evening services that night.

Baptism was so important that the Dimmitt Baptist Church split when Brother Washburn stopped baptizing on the spot, right after morning service while the congregation was still sitting there. “Folks like to come to church knowing when they’ll get home. These ladies have pot roasts in the oven. I’ve heard that there were Brothers and Sisters who were less than joyful when a sinner came forward because they were hungry and worried that their dinner was going to be ruined.” Some of the more hide-bound asked what would happen if a sinner got hit by a train before evening service. They started meeting in the old International Harvester showroom and declared it a blessing that the showroom didn’t have a tank. Jesus wasn’t baptized in a glass tank with fluoridated water, they reasoned. He was baptized in a muddy river. There was no river near Dimmitt, so every few Sundays as our congregation was standing around shaking hands, we’d see the members of the True Word Baptist Church driving past on their way to Herbert Findlay’s irrigation ditch two miles outside of town.

But our church had a tank, and on nights when a soul was saved, we had our miracle. The sermon would be shorter and the preacher would leave, going through the side door behind the pulpit. The congregation would sing a hymn of rejoicing. We’d sing until the song leader got a signal. Then we’d sit and wait. The red velvet curtains would open, and there would be Brother Washburn standing waist deep in water, dressed in a white cotton gown with Jesus and John the Baptist behind him. He would summon the sinner, also dressed like an angel, who would walk down into the tank to him. Brother Washburn would remind the sinner to hold his nose, or her nose, then say the magic words: “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Then came the miracle. Brother Washburn pushed the sinner backwards in the water, like you teach someone to float on their back, except that he would make sure their head went completely underwater. Then he lifted them back up. It only took a few seconds, but the sinner who was going to spend eternity in hell was transformed into someone whose sins had been washed away, someone bound for glory. The curtains closed and we sang some more.

* * *

“I want to be baptized because all my sins will be washed away.”

“Yes?” He wasn’t pleased with me. He was waiting for more.

“I want to be baptized like Jesus.”

“Yes?” He still wasn’t happy

“I love Jesus and I know he died for my sins and I want to be like him and make everybody get along like the lion and the lamb.”

Brother Washburn smiled. “Sister Hopewell,” he said to Mother. “I think she understands more than a lot of adults I’ve baptized. Now, Jaynice Ray,” he turned to me, “I want you to pray hard every day and night to make sure this is what you really want to do. On Sunday, if you’re still sure, you come forward and give your soul to Jesus.”

Sunday morning Mother and I sat close to the front on the aisle so I wouldn’t have to walk over anyone if I came forward. The sermon was short today because it was Lord’s Supper Sunday. Once a month, the trays with the broken up saltine crackers were passed, then the trays holding the tiny glasses of Welch’s Grape Juice. There was no miracle associated with the Lord’s Supper. Brother Washburn was always telling us that we didn’t have anything to do with that Catholic mumbo-jumbo where they actually thought they were eating flesh and drinking blood. “This is just crackers and grape juice,” he’d say, “just what our fine church women have prepared in their kitchens.” I longed to hold one of those tiny glasses, smaller than the smallest doll’s tea party dishes, with the sparkling purple juice inside. But I wasn’t even allowed to touch the glasses as they went past. Only people who had been baptized in the Baptist Church were allowed.

When the invitation hymn started, Mother whispered to me, “You don’t have to do this if you’re afraid,” but I took her hand and we walked down to where the preacher stood in front of the pulpit. We turned and all the people watched me while Brother Washburn told them how I came to his office and answered his questions. “It was like Jesus among the elders,” he said. “I was sore amazed.” Mother and I were dressed exactly like we had been on Wednesday in his office. She looked like Lauren Bacall and I looked like Shirley Temple.

When I was a baby Mother and Daddy had a big fight because he wanted to have me sprinkled by the Methodists. Maybe if he found out how good I was and that I was baptized, he wouldn’t be mad at us any more.


That night while my family was settling into the two front pews, one of the church ladies took me into another room behind the pulpit. I had never been there before. It was full of books, most of them old hymnals. The only furniture was a big round table in the middle of the linoleum floor surrounded by metal folding chairs. “This is where the deacons meet,” the lady said. Two other ladies were in the room. They all told me their names, and said things like, “You know me, I’m in sewing circle with your Granny,” but I didn’t know them and I couldn’t tell them apart. They all had gray hair held tight by hairnets. They all wore flowered print dresses, and they all smelled like lilac talcum powder. “We’re the ladies’ baptism committee. We get females ready for baptism,” one of them explained. Another one opened a door in the side of the room. “Come over here, Honey. Here’s where it’ll happen. Inside the door was a landing with steps down into the tank. There was just enough room for two people to stand — one to pull the curtains and one to go into the tank. She pulled the curtain aside a little bit and looked out. “Look here, Jaynice Ray. Look at all the people. This is twice as many as we usually have at night services. I guess a lot of people want to see you baptized.” From back here with the curtains closed, the tank didn’t sparkle. I smelled mildew, and saw black splotches at the bottom of the River Jordon. Jesus and John the Baptist were scary this close, their eyes giant black holes. “Aren’t they life-like?” the lady asked. “The committee painted them with a stencil set we ordered from Dallas.”

I looked down the three steps disappearing into the water. “How deep is it?” I asked.

“Only about three feet. About waist high.” She looked at me. “Somewhere between your chin and your nose.” She turned away, “Myrtle, Hattie, we’ve got a problem.”

One of the ladies went to find a stool for me to stand on while the other two put me in the angel costume. The smallest robe, meant to come to the knees of twelve-year olds, dragged the ground and nearly slid off my shoulders. “That’s OK, Honey, we’ll just pin it.” As soon as the gown was fixed, they said, “Now take off your panties and put these on.” They handed me a pair of white cotton drawers with a draw string. The legs came past my knees and the string wouldn’t hold them tight enough to stay up. The ladies didn’t know what to do.

“We could pin them.”

“I only have straight pins and they might stick her. Anyway, they might not work.”

“She could go without.”

“I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s proper. I don’t think the preacher would want to baptize anybody bare bottomed, especially not a bare-bottomed female.”

“She could wear her panties.”

“But they’re not white. They’ve got little rosebuds printed all over them. The baptism committee guidelines say everyone in the tank should be wearing white.”

The third lady came in flustered carrying a step stool from the kitchen. “I’m so embarrassed. I had to walk right past all those people with this stool. Brother Washburn just acted like he didn’t even see me. Just kept going, but I felt so clumsy banging this old stool around. Jaynice Ray, he’s preaching about you. He hardly ever preaches about a real person who’s about to be baptized, and then it’s usually about some really bad sinner like Willie Snipes who’s been in and out of jail so many times we all lost count. You should feel very proud.”

The other two told her about the drawers. “Neither way is right,” she said. “And there’s no time to go get her some white panties. We’ll have to use the rosebuds. It’s better to have rosebuds than a naked bottom.”

“But the preacher. . .”

“I don’t think we need to tell the preacher. If she was naked, it’d be sinful. But the rosebuds are little and they’ll be hidden. I don’t think they’ll be a sin.”

Then it was time. The lady led me to the landing. Brother Washburn came into the tank from the other side. “Here, she has to have this,” she whispered as she handed him the stool.

He nodded. “I’ll come get you,” he said to me. He scooted the stool along the bottom, then nodded to the lady and she opened the curtains. The ropes squeaked. Brother Washburn raised his arms in blessing. One of his sleeves opened like an angel’s wing, but the other one was wet and stuck to his arm. Then he came to get me. He picked me up with his hands on my waist and held me as far away from himself as he could, like he didn’t want to touch me. The water was cold and my gown billowed up, making a balloon that almost hid my face. Once he put me on the stool, Brother Washburn punched my gown down as much as he could. Then he put my hand on my nose, said some words, and pushed me backwards. I came up sputtering. The curtains closed. He carried me back to the lady on the landing. And that was it.

I had expected to feel like one of Jesus’ angels on the way home. Instead I felt cold and clammy, and hoped no one would think I’d wet my pants. I knew it was a sin to be worrying about my wet bottom. Just baptized and already a new sin.

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