Just As I Am

By Nancy R. Fullbright


Savannah, Georgia

“Long before I became a child of the King of Kings, I was the King of Rock n’ Roll’s stepbrother. I lived that life. Sex. Drugs. Rock & Roll. I was lost.”

With regret and maybe a hint of reminiscence, the young, lithe, blonde evangelist thundered red-faced at the altar as he paced back and forth, back and forth. I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen anyone — certainly not our uptight music minister with the shellacked hair — move so much during a church service. It stood to reason, though, that the spirit would move this man, Brother Rick Stanley. Not only had Jesus saved him, but so had the one and only Elvis Presley, after Stanley’s mother, Dee, hit the jackpot and married Vernon Presley, Elvis’s father, back in 1960.

“But when I came to know Jesus, he changed me completely.”

During that summer of 1983, right before I entered fifth grade, I wouldn’t have minded a cataclysmic transfiguration in the manner Brother Rick described, but I cared more about school, my friends, and singing “We Got the Beat” into my hairbrush. Instead, I was at revival, a special occasion where I could sit with my friends and other youth during the service. This — and the fact the visiting preacher was a mere one degree removed from the Original Hunk-a-Hunk-a Burning Love — were the only reasons I could tolerate nightly church services with their hellfire-and-brimstone messages. (Plus, I thought going five nights in a row would surely warrant a “get out of jail free” card in the hereafter.)

Revival meetings are Christian church services for the purpose of gaining new converts to the faith and stoking the fires of fervor in the lukewarm.

Services happen every night of the week and last longer than usual because folks are always getting swept up into a frenzy. It was the last night of revival, and the end was so close I could taste it — and the end tasted like a Dilly Bar.

They designated the east transept of our Baptist church in Macon, Georgia,  as the youth sitting area. It was in a direct line of sight from the pulpit, which made passing notes scribbled on the backs of offering envelopes difficult. I sat next to my best friend, Angie, and, despite being in the line of fire, brazenly wrote, Do you think your mom would let you hang out after church tonight?

I knew my thoughts should be on Jesus. Instead, I was wondering if my mom would let us stop by the Dairy Queen on the way home for said Dilly Bar. I started to pass the note, but I noticed the platinum preacher had Angie transfixed.

“I became a new creation in Jesus!” Brother Rick shouted, holding his Bible aloft. “I got a second chance!”

I winced as I peeled the sweat-soaked backs of my thighs from the shiny, polished wood of the church pew and silently wondered why we didn’t have cushioned seats like my fancy friends at the Methodist church. In fact, our church didn’t have a lot of the niceties afforded Methodists. Although our church sat scenically atop a hill, it was decorated simply with white brick walls, plain glass windows (instead of vibrantly colored ones), and a sparse pulpit. And instead of a robe and shawl, our pastor wore a three-piece suit, like a bank president. He was simultaneously slick and crisp.

“Just like the shepherd who left behind 99 sheep to find the one lost, Jesus is looking for you tonight. And when he finds you, he will surely rejoice,” Brother Rick explained, his feathered blonde hair quivering as he spoke. “Now with every head bowed, and every eye closed, raise your hand if you’re a lost sheep tonight. Won’t you let the shepherd guide you home?”

As Brother Rick’s pleadings hung in the air, the organist struck the familiar strains of one of the go-to hymns of invitation: “Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me. And that thou bidst me come to thee, o lamb of God, I come. I come.”

The slow cadence and multiple verses of the hymn allowed time for any stray sinners to make up their faltering minds about following Jesus. Just then, I felt Angie dig her elbow into my side. Her brow was damp with sweat and her eyes filled with tears.

“I’m thinking I should go forward and rededicate my life to Jesus,” she whispered. “But I’m afraid.”

The church heaved with people packed into the pews — members and non-members alike — lured there with the promise of Elvis’s stepbrother’s final sermon of the week. It was intimidating to walk to the front of the church under the judgmental eyes of everyone, wondering just what kinds of sins you had committed as a 10-year-old that necessitated salvation from hellfire.

I knew how daunting it was because that is precisely what had kept me from ever leaving my seat at the end of a service. I loved Jesus and believed in his teachings, but I had never been officially saved and baptized for the simple fact I was afraid. And despite being taught lessons to the contrary, I also questioned whether this was what Jesus really required of me. I certainly didn’t want all those eyes on me. Couldn’t Jesus and I just work out a secret agreement? Why did it have to be so … public? But Angie was my best friend, and she needed me. I could be there for her, even when I couldn’t be there for myself.

Although Angie had been saved and baptized three years earlier, she had been losing confidence in her salvation. We’d recently learned about the unpardonable sin, blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. I wasn’t exactly sure what that was, but Angie was sick with worry she may have committed it. She voiced her concern to our Wednesday night Girls in Action group leader, who hissed, “Well, Angie, you … better … pray.”

So, the Rick Stanley Revival Show came at just the right time for my best friend. Again, I pried my suctioned thighs off the pew, and Angie and I tentatively made our way to the front of the church with a dozen other sinners. Angie re-committed her life to Christ and wiped out all of her earlier transgressions. I stood by dutifully as her best friend but made no commitments or pronouncements of my own. But that’s not what my God-fearing mama saw.

“Nancy!” Mama shrieked, as she hugged me tightly after the service. “I have never been as proud of you as I was tonight.”

“Huh?” I asked. “I wasn’t getting saved. I was just going up to support Angie.”

And just like that, Mama’s bright face crumpled like the wadded-up offering envelopes now lining the vacant pews of the east transept, where the youth of Macon had just been dreaming of Jesus and chocolate-dipped soft serve.