Wed to Freedom
by Evelyn Stetzer
Editor's note: the pieces in our Interregnum 2017 series were originally submitted to the Creative Writing competition as part of Interregnum XIII at The King's College. The following piece placed third. It was submitted on behalf of the House of Truth.
Based on the true story of Sally Maria “Pinky” Diggs and her day of freedom at nine years of age in Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights on February 6th, 1860.
Had I seen it sooner, I would’ve given her my whole damn house. But it was only last week that Reverend Harry Ward Beecher brought up another slave to the pulpit and stood over him like a firework exploding while the dark boy sat on the matted green carpet. The Reverend fancied pulling out his best auctioneer act to rile up the Sunday morning church-goers to buy the children’s freedom. If I sat in the first-floor pews instead of the second, I might have seen his spit spray overtop the pale pink hat of Mrs. Amy Talcott that meant to hide the sweat she couldn’t fan away. But I liked the pew all the way in the back left corner of Plymouth Church. I sat here to observe the bronze organ pipes that looked like they forced their way right out of the top of the Reverend’s head while he did what the Brooklyn Daily Eagle paper kept calling “theatrics” every Sunday.
Reverend Beecher caught a congregation quick with his way of talking. I’ll never forget when I heard him preaching that “Gospel of Love” for the first time, even from outside of the open doors on Orange Street. I just wanted to get home to Margaret after another all-night argument with the boss about how New York City’s ports are losing business to New Orleans. I didn’t want to hear anything but Margaret’s sinkers coming out of the oven, hot and ready for a slab of butter. But I waited for lunch to have my biscuits when Beecher’s voice boomed that Sunday morning last Autumn. I had to know what all that clapping and hollering meant.
I’ve been coming every week since I walked through the large white doors. It wasn’t because there were plenty of others coming in late to the Reverend’s sermons, maybe finishing their night shifts like me. It was who everyone’s eyes stayed fixed on—a simple man with long hair and a black jacket. He kept launching off the edge of the pulpit shouting into the ears of those facing him. He didn’t waste anyone’s time with formalities. It was evident that Reverend Beecher never wanted to be a normal preacher because if he were like the others, I’d forget what he had said before I left the sanctuary. Despite my tardiness, that “Gospel of Love” churned in my mind all week and it made me leave my coins with the homeless man I passed on my way to work. By February, the Reverend’s words still had me stirring in my pew. I fingered the items in my pocket until they no longer felt like they were mine. They belonged to her.
Based on the true story told by Raleigh Sadler, founder of the anti-human trafficking agency focused on equipping local churches called Let My People Go, established in 2016.
Had I only known it sooner, I probably would have done something. Because if anyone knows how to do church, I do. I stand in the front row for worship every week at Family Church Brooklyn. This row is a plague-ridden zone to the other church-goers, so I have ample space to spread my arms out and lead the congregation by example. But in part, it helps me with my weaknesses. I get distracted easily and anything obstructing my focus on God enrages me. People that know nothing about how to worship and just stand there like brick walls or people that sing off-pitch particularly bother me. I stand in the front to avoid this and, luckily, closing my eyes kills two birds with one stone: blocking out disturbances and focusing on God alone. But it was last week when someone sat right next to me in the front row as if she didn’t understand the courtesy mandate of New York City.
Has she never paid attention on the subway? If there are multiple seats open, one seat courtesy space is required. Anyone that’s lived in the metropolitan area knows this. I live in an eight hundred square foot apartment with two other roommates, so the least I deserve is a cushy seat boundary between me and anyone else in the front row I’ve lived in for the last four years. The intruder sat in her polka-dot skirt draped seamlessly across her lap, hands folded neatly, during Pastor Eric’s sermon. I looked over from my knees poking out of ripped jeans to her bruised ones and wondered why she didn’t have a Bible open like I did. Have I seen her before?
“Hi, my name is Angela,” I offered with an outstretched hand to her after the sermon wrapped up and Justin Bieber played. “That sermon…so good, right?”
“Yeah!” The woman said with a jolt. She didn’t accept my hand but weakly returned my smile before gathering herself up to leave. Could she hear my silent thoughts expelling her from my personal space the whole service? The realization of my foolish thoughts flushed my cheeks burnt pink, and I determined to be more welcoming the following week. But I still didn’t have her name.
“Pastor Eric, sorry to catch you on your way out, but did you happen to know the woman sitting beside me?” I asked. His tattooed arm lifted his belongings up so he could scratch his beard. While he thought for a moment, my mind trailed off to the kid playing in the seats behind us. Pastor Eric brought me back.
“I believe that her name is Kelsey! She usually sits in the back, so I remember now being surprised to see her up front. She’s been coming here for a few years now…serves on the children’s team every once in a while. You should get to know her!” As he wished me a good afternoon, I resolved to show Kelsey the ropes of the front row next week.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind…are you getting it, church?” Reverend Beecher implored as he jumped for emphasis with drips of sweat running from his temples. He couldn’t stop there. “You, you, and you! Get your purses ready. Behold! We are here to auction off this slave for freedom.” From my second-floor station, I could see the back rows of the first-floor slowly ascend to bob their heads atop the sea of people in front of them. They craned their necks to get a view of who Reverend Beecher brought to the pulpit this time. “Let it be reckoned! We are here to do what Christ did—to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” With his final line quoting the Gospel of Luke, he slid aside to reveal her.
“This is nine-year-old Pinky, church. This is her year of the Lord’s favor.” The Reverend stretched out his hand and let his mouth flat-line to a matter-of-fact resolve. Silence cascaded over the previous ruffles in purses and pockets as we all gazed upon Pinky. Her skin was light, mulatto blood, and her curls fell into her eyes. She looked fixedly on the green carpet as if it were the mat and she was the lame person tied to it. Her striped dress rumpled up over her left knee, revealing tender skin decidedly a slave’s. All I could do was stare at her small features.
“Buy her freedom or let the next sinner buy her bondage! What’s your Christianity, worth, huh? Think of the price Christ paid for you to get out of bondage! When’re you gonna put your freedom to use?” Reverend Beecher’s words cumulated storms in the church’s atmosphere, and as the buckets passed, coins clanged like rain. One after another, hands surrendered their money for groceries, their month’s wages, their pocket watches, and their spare change to Pinky. Reverend Beecher had the riches dumped on the pulpit in front of her as they were gathered. “Let the sound of freedom ring over you, Pinky! We’re going to get your thousand one hundred dollars! Betsy, start counting,” he directed the plump choir master.
“Terry,” Mark said beside me. “It’s your turn.” I took my hand out of my pocket, not realizing how tightly I clenched it. My hands were clammy as they grasped the bucket, warm from being passed along in an urgency matching the pace of the auction below. I opened my fist to reveal the large fire opal ring I had to surprise Margaret for our anniversary. It was all I brought to church today. Margaret wasn’t expecting me to come home with anything—I never did on Sunday. And after today’s church service, she’d be right again if I dropped the ring in the bucket. What Margaret won’t know is that I’d be willing to give Pinky the whole damn house.
“Does anybody else want to treat this little girl as their equal in Christ?” the Reverend called to the top corners of the sanctuary. I thought about all the sermons I’d heard since last Autumn. I remembered how that Gospel of Love set me free from the first day I heard it in the back of Plymouth. I looked down at Pinky. How could I deny her of her freedom when mine was a gift? Why did she have to earn hers? I dropped the ring into the bucket and watched the usher carry it to Reverend Beecher who poured it on top of the cash and jewelry pile. As the final count came to a conclusion, Pinky’s chin raised to peer at Reverend Beecher who stood in anticipation. Betsy whispered in his ear. He kneeled to pick up Margaret’s ring before meeting Pinky’s eyes.
“With this ring, I do wed thee to freedom,” the Reverend said placing it on her hand.
By the time the last song of worship ended, and Kelsey had yet to arrive. I looked behind me quickly during prayer in the dark auditorium and can’t see the last row, where she might have returned. After all, she did spend years there without me knowing. With all heads bowed and eyes closed, I prayed, God, give me the chance to show that I can learn how to give up the right to my personal space this week instead of being the way I was before—that I can be like Christ and love someone who I don’t even know. Because like your Word says, it’s nothing notable to love someone that’s easy to love. Awareness of Pastor Eric’s prayers interjected my personal one, saying, “Lord, grant your mighty peace to the family of our church member who passed away this weekend. Equip the NYPD with what they need to catch the trafficker and solve this case. Do what only you can do, God.” Who was he talking about? I had to know.
Following the congregation’s collective “Amen,” I still couldn’t bear the weight of knowing someone had died. Who the hell was it? I ran through the list of people in my head that had been writing prayer requests for sickness, but I didn’t remember hearing a follow-up about those. What if it was Emily? Emily was the best keyboard player we had, and I knew her pneumonia was bad last fall, but I thought she got better. Did I ever text her back about helping her make meals while she couldn’t walk around? I hated the thought that I forgot to do that. I’ll text her tonight and just tell her I forgot to hit send on my message.
I resolved to pull out my iPhone now, knowing I’d probably forget to do it with grocery shopping looming over my Sunday afternoon. It might not hurt to Google the news in Brooklyn, while I’m already on my phone. But if I knew anything about people having their phones out during church, I should probably open a notes page first. Except that wouldn’t work since Pastor Eric was only giving his opening story that’d probably be a metaphor in the sermon later on. Why would I even pretend to take notes if all he’s talking about getting stuck in traffic? My curiosity overcame my concerns. I needed to clear my conscience of knowing whether or not I could’ve done something if I found out sooner. I clicked the article from yesterday titled: “Brooklyn Murder and Unexpected Trafficking Bust.”
Kelsey’s name lit up my screen. She went home Friday to be reported dead the next morning and abandoned by what her neighbors called a loving boyfriend. My eyes scrolled furiously to read that the NYPD found further evidence of pimp activity. Her boyfriend had been selling her to the neighborhood for sex—evidence that traced back to years of business—but he escaped the scene. The last sentence of the article included a quote from Pastor Eric’s interview. “As a victim of human trafficking, her hidden Bible in the kitchen cabinet is evidence of a miracle at hand…to somehow come to church every week without her boyfriend knowing and to keep believing? Praise God she never actually married him. Now she can find true freedom in Christ in heaven!” Well, I guess that explains the bruises on her knees. It’s a shame no one asked what they were from.
Pastor Eric’s story ended, and I locked my phone to pay attention. “Turn with me to Luke 4:18-19. This week we will continue our series on how the freedom of Christ impacts our personal lives…”
Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.