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THE LORD'S MOUTHPIECEPORTRAIT OF A PREACHER AS A YOUNG AND VERY MUSICAL MAN

THE CHURCH IS in an uproar, everyone is standing. An organ is emitting a frenzy of notes. A teenage girl is shaking and dancing, eyes closed. Two middle-aged women encircle her with their arms, smiling gently. Half a dozen people are banging tambourines. An old woman is repeating "Thank you Lord, Thank you Lord."

Eddie James has just left the pulpit and is dancing like James Brown--on one leg, arms extended.

He arrived at this church an hour ago. He drove past a knot of men on the corner of Pima Street and 13th Avenue. One of them made a smoking gesture--crack for sale. He drove past a group of men just outside the church, one carrying a baseball bat.

He seated himself behind the pulpit while the Sunday afternoon service proceeded. He listened to a young man report on a youth retreat. He watched while the congregation filed to the front of the church in two lines to drop dollar bills into two pots. He sat while ladies fanned themselves with the cardboard fans black churches supply, while the ever-present babies were passed back and forth across the pews. He waited while he was introduced, then mounted to the pulpit and began to talk.

Quietly at first, stating his point: God is Light. First Epistle of John, he said, pronouncing the "t." He asked the congregation to bear with him because he was nervous.

Eddie James is only 20. His mother is here today.
"This is the message, which we have heard of Him and declare unto you: God is light."

Eddie began in a conversational tone, explaining that the epistle was addressed to the church at large, explicating the ideas the Apostle John wished to convey. But soon he picked up speed, and a rhythm began to assert itself. Soon he picked up speed, and the rational discussion of ideas fell away, leaving only the skeleton of rhythm. Soon he picked up speed, and Eddie James and the congregation of St. John Institutional Baptist Church fell into a pattern.

"Once we fix the fellowship problem . . . "
("There you go!")
"Then the joy supply will be enough!"
("Yeah!")
"The preacher is nothing more than a mouthpiece!"
("Tell us!")
"He is God's vessel!"
("All right!")
"He is God's answering service!"
("Come on now!")
"Can I get a witness to this?"
("Yeah!")
"You can call me in the midnight hour!"
("Yeah!")
Eddie said a line, punctuated it with a grunted "Huh" at the end.
"God is light--huh!"
"God is faithful--huh!"
Now Eddie James was almost singing, singing the praises of the Lord.
"You can call Him, He's a heart-fixer!"
"You can call Him, He's a burden-bearer!"
"You can call Him, He's a heavy-load-sharer!"
"You can call Him, He's joy and sorrow!"
"You can call Him, He's hope for tomorrow!"

Eddie James worked toward a crescendo, the congregation keeping emotional time with him. He was out from behind the pulpit now, tossing a microphone from one hand to the other. People were standing, swaying and shouting.

"This is the message!"
"This is the message!"
"This is the message!"
"God is light!"
"God is light!"
"God is light!"

Eddie James did his one-legged dance, and two women fell on the floor of the church in a swoon of ecstasy, as if Eddie James had caused the gates of paradise to open before them and they had been stricken by the light streaming through.

IT'S 11:45 ON a Wednesday night, and Eddie James is standing behind the counter at a 7-Eleven, making change for a guy buying a turkey sandwich and a Snickers. On a shelf behind him is a nightstick, and a series of slots and holes into which the clerks shove the money so there won't be more than $30 in the register.

The graveyard shift is the most dangerous. It's also when the most employee thefts occur. That's why the owner of this branch hired Eddie. The owner had been suffering losses, and wanted someone he knew he could trust. He asked around at his church--a natural social center in the black community--and a friend suggested Eddie.

His first week on the job--on Thanksgiving night, in fact--a woman got belligerent when she felt she wasn't being waited on fast enough. When she opened her purse to get out her money, Eddie saw she had a gun. "Because I was nervous, I shorted her $2," he says. "She pulled the gun out of her purse and pointed it at my head. I just began to pray on the inside.

"I said, `Ma'am, I'm very sorry, here's the $2.'
"Then this week's episode--stay tuned!--there's this business where guys who work in Circle K or 7-Eleven, they let people steal things in return for cash. A guy came in and offered me that kind of a job.

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Anna Dooling