The Pentecostal preacher leads us in a series of hymns. At the end of each, there’s a fluttering of voices, people saying, “Thank you, Jesus” or “Praise the Lord.” They repeat the same phrase over and over, each time with such feeling that it’s like a brand new thought—like they’ve never said it before. I’m starting to get the hang of this, these waves of exuberance washing over us. Here are the “Holy Rollers” I’ve heard about. I once imagined that nickname referred to writhing on the floor, but I’m starting to think it has more to do with the way the energy of their services climbs and dips like a roller coaster.
The preacher is a neatly coiffed older woman wearing chunky turquoise jewelry. I would never in a million years peg her for a Pentecostal preacher—more like a painter in Santa Fe or an art teacher in Berkeley. She is talking about feelings now: how they start as thoughts and end in actions. We are climbing. She says that while all those things matter, they are not the primary focus. She shouts, “God looks at the heart!” I brace myself. Any second, someone will yell in an incomprehensible language I’ve heard described as sounding like Hebrew. It is the perfect crescendo, the logical conclusion. Instead, the repetition of each person’s pet phrase of praise or gratitude winds down into something softer, more guttural, though I can’t make out if they are words. If I closed my eyes, I might think it was a stream running over rocks.
My ex-Pentecostal None friend insists it doesn’t always happen like that—sometimes people really will shout stuff in what is considered a foreign tongue. Others, she explains, might follow up by calling out the English version of those first shouters’ words. So what sounded like unfamiliar words might be translated as “God hates money!” Different individuals have the propensity towards one or the other—some have “the gift” of tongues, some the ability to understand those tongues.
But what I really want to know is how my friend feels about her own history of speaking in tongues. I expect her to claim it was all hogwash. It would certainly be an easier sell among her new crowd to dismiss this past behavior as an aberration—but she doesn’t. She can remember twice being moved to speak in tongues and both times, she says, it felt like a genuine response coming from the depths of her own being. She says she made the same sound over and over again. She tells me, “Maybe I was saying, ‘red’ in Hebrew or ‘squash’ in Korean, but it felt like I was saying, ‘God, you’re cool!’”
I leave the Pentecostal service feeling more upbeat than I have in weeks. All that exuberance has rubbed off on me and I’m almost giddy, like I’ve popped a dozen Prozac. It reminds me of the part of the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy is in the dark forest and unexpectedly one of the big trees starts to talk. When I saw the Wizard of Oz for the first time, I thought nothing could be more frightening: the trunk shifted to reveal facial features, the bark formed a mouth. I wanted to scream. I wanted switch off the television and run from the room. But I waited, frozen in place. I looked out from squinted eyes as the tree says a few things, and then Dorothy says a few things back. Then I laughed at my initial reaction: what’s so scary about a talking tree? Even if it has a face, it’s still just a tree. It can’t chase you. A tree that talks is kind of cool. It doesn’t even compare to the flying monkeys.