2011-08-04 / Opinion

Praise the Lord, Brother, and pass the grape jelly

I rarely cop to this in public: I am enthralled by televangelists. Whence springs this strange affinity is not entirely clear, but I believe it owes to an early viewing of “Elmer Gantry,” the superb screen adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s novel about a charismatic tent preacher.

Over time, I have built a small list of favored performers, always topped by Ernest Angley. If you’ve never caught Mr. Angley’s act, you’ve missed a sublime pleasure. Just the astounding sight of the man is worth the investment of time. It is hard to summon a proper description, but he’s always reminded me of something you might discover discarded in a Dumpster behind Madame Tussauds.

Many years back, this interest in men (thumping the Bible seems to be a very masculine line of work) who purport to heal and save led me to an impulsive act, which, in turn, led to a memorable encounter.

Here’s the story:

I was lounging in bed in a Miami hotel room, channel surfing, when there appeared on the television set a presence so mesmerizing and compelling that I was brought up short. It was Herman Stalvey, who, according to the information on the screen, pastored at the First Church of the Last Chance in Vero Beach.

Brother Herman Stalvey was Elmer Gantry incarnate.

Without thinking, I reached for the bedside telephone and called the donation line. I asked to speak with Brother Stalvey, and, after several minutes of jousting with the minion on the other end, the man himself took the phone.

I was honest. I said I had seen him for the first time that morning and wanted to attend a service. Sure, he said, everybody’s welcomed at the First Church of the Last Chance. Then I said I wanted to meet with him personally. Brother Stalvey, to my surprise, agreed.

Keen with anticipation, I arrived early for services the next Sunday. The church held roughly 250 to 300 people, I estimated, and filled almost at once.

When Brother Stalvey appeared, there was a collective gasp. He wore a jump suit the color of a Concord grape. Embroidered upon it were gold, sequined treble clefs. It was as if the clothes designers for Elvis, Liberace and Evel Knievel had shared a joint and then collectively sketched an outfit. Long sideburns framed Brother Stalvey’s narrow face, and his 1950s-style pompadour glistened under what appeared to be a liberal application of a kissing cousin of 10w 40.

He immediately launched into a beautiful rendition of the Cristy Lane classic “One Day at a Time.” What a voice! The evening proceeded apace with an appropriate number of healings, confessions, bouts of weeping, fainting spells and spontaneous outbreaks of people speaking in tongues. When it was over, I made my way to Brother Stalvey, introduced myself and asked if we could talk.

He gave me the once-over twice, obviously taking my measure.

“We’ll have breakfast, Brother!” he said.

The next morning at Denny’s I was relieved to find that Brother Stalvey had arrived in more conventional dress. The place was packed.

Brother Stalvey told me a bit about himself. He was from rural Georgia. He had traveled the road of the transgressor. Drank, chased women. About what you would expect. And for years, like Gantry, he had preached from a tent.

“Would you like to hear about the miracles?” he asked.

At this I perked up and so did diners around us. Brother Stalvey had not mastered his “inside voice.”

He told me that he had been in an accident and lost an arm.

“But God reattached it, praise Jesus!”

Then he told me about the time he died. He was headed toward the light (“Brother, that light is brighter than anything you can imagine; brighter than anything you’ll find in a disco!”) when he heard God’s voice.

“Go back! It’s not your time!”

People gawked, but I was long past embarrassment. Besides, who were they to judge?

After we worked through a few lesser miracles and discussed some minor problems he was having with the IRS, Brother Stalvey shared his dream.

“If I could just get Burt Reynolds to come to the church! Think about it! Burt Reynolds and me! Together! If only he knew what it would mean, I’m sure he would come.”

I pointed out that Mr. Reynolds had a place down the coast in Jupiter — perhaps he would come, if Brother Stalvey just asked.

“Oh, I’ve tried,” he said. “Called and called. Dozens of times.”

“And?”

“He doesn’t take or return my calls.”

Sadness engulfed the man sitting across from me, and that made me sad. Perhaps this is why I am a person of little faith, for if God could reattach Brother Stalvey’s arm, surely He could move Burt Reynolds to pick up the telephone. I did not share this thought with Brother Stalvey, saying instead that I needed to be on my way.

Outside, we shook hands. When I attempted to withdraw, Brother Stalvey kept a tight grip.

“Pray with me, Brother,” he said as he sank to one knee, taking me down with him.

Brother Stalvey began to pray. Then he prayed some more. And then he prayed just a little more. I cannot recall what he said, exactly, but I do know Burt Reynolds’s name came up at least once.

After the “amen” was rendered, we stood and shook hands again. I bade Brother Stalvey farewell, and he made his way to a vehicle that looked as if it had seen the worst of it at the Battle of Jericho.

As he drove from Denny’s, diners at adjacent tables began to file out.

“Who the hell was that guy?” a man with a New York accent asked. “Some sort of nut job?”

“His name is Brother Herman Stalvey,” I replied. “He’s a famous preacher.”

The New Yorker gave one of those bigcity shrugs, hitched his pants and moved on. Good riddance.

Two things resulted from this encounter. I have never placed another call to an evangelist. And I cannot stand the sight of Burt Reynolds. ¦

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