My introduction to organized religion came by way of vacation bible school during my first “big boy” summer visit to my grandparents’ farm in Santa Anna Texas.
The year was 1955, and at six years old, by my grandmothers’ observation, I was a heathen child. Being raised in the big city of Fort Worth on a steady television diet of Popeye, Bugs Bunny, and Superman, I was living in a religious void. I saw the “good book” as a large decoration that sat on the dining room table and read at Christmas, Easter, and family funerals.
My Granny, a wise Cherokee, and self-proclaimed Texas Biblical scholar said a week at the First Baptist Church Vacation Bible School would fix me right up, and assure my acceptance into Heaven. I had no idea where Heaven was or when I would be required to visit, so I trusted my Granny would make my reservations.
Miss Ida Belle Mae and her younger sister, Rita Rose Mae are the self-appointed teachers of our bible school class of twenty children ranging in ages from six to ten years old.
The two of them, homely as a sack of poultry feed, are old maids and prolific spinsters that are rumored to survive on a tidy income from a single pumping oil well on their farm. It has been a long-standing gambling bet at the domino parlor on when that gasping little well will give it up. To date, no one has won the wager.
When the holidays come around, the two sisters are rumored to donate substantial sums of cash to the church. The kind, but milk-toast preacher, to appease the ladies and keep the cash flowing, is forced to let them do what they please. Their pleasure this summer will be teaching bible school. The preacher will regret this decision.
On the first day of school, our class, cut, pasted, and signed over two-hundred and seventy prayer cards for the sick misfortunate children in Africa. Quite a feat for twenty kids.
Miss Ida sent us outside to lounge under the trees to recover from our stint on her assembly line. There is no recovery; it’s 93 degrees and not a rustle of a breeze. But its better than forced child labor.
A black Cadillac sedan stops in front of the church, and an older lady escorts a boy of maybe nine or ten into the main building. The boy wears a black suit, white shirt, and red bow tie. We assume he is here for a funeral or a Baptism, but don’t care because it’s too hot to move, or think. Miss Ida rings the lunch bell. Yummy peanut butter, grape jelly sandwiches, and lukewarm Kool-Aid await. The usual menu for bible school attendees.
After we are seated, Miss Ida brings the “suited boy” to the front of the class. She is beaming like a schoolgirl attending her first prom. In a giddy voice, she addresses us,
” Children, I would like to introduce Master Stewart Sweet. His daddy is the famous tent preaching evangelist and faith healer from San Angelo, the Right and Honorable Doctor I.M. Sweet.
Master Stewart will be attending our Bible school and leading the children’s Bible study on Sundays for a few weeks, and I can assure you that he is quite capable since he read the Bible three times before he was six years of age, and preaches at his fathers’ tent revivals.” Miss Ida doesn’t know the back story on this kid, and neither do we, but it will soon come to light.
As a class, in childish camaraderie, we are not impressed and form an instant dislike for this brat. This kid, dressed as a department store dummy, is going to preach to us? At our young age, the worst thing we could have done is tell a few small lies or steal a cookie or shoot a chicken with a BB Gun. Hell and damnation are years away for us.
Young Master Stewart steps from behind Miss Ida’s table, slams his ten-pound Bible down on the floor so hard it sounds like a firecracker. A young girl called Bitsy is shaken and begins to whimper.
The young reverend Stewart raises his hands to the Heavens and cuts loose on a tirade that can only be considered appropriate for adults designated to visit Hell within the hour.
After ten minutes of our first “hell and damnation” sermon, we are ready to wrap this kid in scotch tape and send him to Africa with the prayer cards. Suddenly, he stops and begins to bless our food. He bows his head and in a reverent whisper says,
” Dear Lord, these children, wretched little hayseeds that they are, cannot survive on the butter of the Peter Pan and the mush of Welches. They need substantial sustenance so they may be healthy to accept your holy spirit. Starting tomorrow, a glorious feast of grilled sausages wrapped in soft buns, the salad of the potato and the ruby-red fruit of the melon will be their mana from Heaven. Amen.”
Miss Ida is speechless. The little preacher has called her food, garbage, and she has to sit there and take it. The class is now a bit impressed. This kid is good.
The sisters, rattled by young Sweets’ blessing, need time to recover and devise a plan to send this kid back to San Angelo as soon as possible, so they send the class outside to again, suffer in the heat.
Miss Rita delivers the ice cream freezer and instructs two of the larger boys to start churning for the afternoon desert. Allowing us to have ice cream may be the one kindness these two witches grant us.
Twenty-five minutes into the churning, the ice cream remains a pitiful mush. The class, now impatient for their treat, gathers around the freezer, demanding an explanation. We are kids and know nothing of how these machines work. You add ice, salt, liquid, and churn. That’s all we know.
Young Stewart parts the crowd and approaches the ice-cream freezer. He kneels and places both hands on the contraption. In a soft, almost inaudible voice, he says a small prayer and violently shakes the machine a few times. He rises and declares, “there shall be delectable ice-cream in five minutes.” He is right. This ice cream might be the best we have tasted in our whole young lives. Little Master Stewart healed the ice-cream machine. A girl calls it a miracle.
After ice cream, Miss Ida calls the class in for Bible study and a story. Her stories are known to last a bit too long, and kids tend to lose interest and fall asleep. Her voice is that of an older man that smokes two packs of Camels a day — raspy, and accentuated by the occasional hack.
Bitsy Bell, the smallest and youngest girl in class, is seated at the front table and is in distress. Most of the new kids in the class are unaware that she has an immobilizing speech defect. She stutters, and her vocabulary is limited to a simple yes or no.
Miss Ida knows her problem, and when Bitsy politely raises her hand to request a visit to the bathroom, Miss Ida insists that she must stand and ask aloud in front of the class. Of course, Bitsy, immobilized with embarrassment, wets her pants. Miss Ida snickers and calls her a baby.
The young Reverend Stewart comes from the rear of the class and stops in front of Bitsy. He turns and gives the two sisters a “stink-eye” that makes them fall back into their chairs, white with fear.
He bends down, takes Bitsy’s head in his small hands, and declares,
” Take this affliction from this small child. Purvey upon her the diction of William Shakespeare and the wisdom of Mark Twain. Let her words flow forth like the singing of Doves on the south wind. She will never again stammer or grasp for words, and will someday, speak to massive gatherings of people who will clamor to hear her message. Amen.”
The class sits in stunned silence. Healing the ice-cream machine was a warm-up compared to this.
A girl from the back of the room yells, ” thankyou Sweet Baby Jesus.” And there it is, Young Stewert is now known as Sweet Baby Jesus.
Miss Ida and Miss Rita sit rigidly in their chairs, eyes glazed and staring into nothing. The amount of “stink eye” Sweet Baby Jesus put on them must be compelling.
Stewert approaches the two women, lays his small soft hands on their wrinkled sweating foreheads, and mumbles a few words. His back is to the class, so we have no idea what is said. The two evil sisters shiver a few times and awaken from their “stink eye” trance. They stand, gather themselves, and tell the class they are going home. Master Stewert will teach for the duration of the Bible school. They depart the church as if in a zombie trance.
Sweet Baby Jesus takes his Bible, sits on the edge of Miss Ideas’ desk, smiles, and says, ” now, let’s hear some real Bible stories straight from the source.” It was a beautiful afternoon full of unexpected laughter and acceptance.
The next morning, the preacher greets us with the news that young Stewert is back in San Angelo, and he will be teaching the class for the remainder of Bible school. We were, of course, sad to see our Sweet Baby Jesus depart our Bible school. Bitsy, in between constant talking, sniffles and wishes him the best.
The class wrote Sweet Baby a letter thanking him for his kindness to Bitsy and for putting the evil sisters in their place. He never replied.
I attended the vacation Bible school another few summers, but it wasn’t the same without Sweet Baby, and I attended my last one at eight years old.
A few decades later, I read that the Right and Honorable Reverend Stewert Sweet, with assistance from his wife, Bitsy, had established an enormous ministry in Africa and healed everything from Beri-Beri to old automobile engines.
It looks like Sweet Baby Jesus is still doing a great job.