UMES’ English and Modern Languages department has adopted a “common reader” project for the 2021-22 academic year. Ross Gay’s “The Book of Delights” inspired faculty member Carmen Parks to write this piece, which she has shared with her students who also are reading Gay’s book as part of the class syllabus.
Decades ago, on the way to a vacation in the Blue Ridge Mountains, as I squirmed impatiently in the back seat of our wood-paneled Ford Country Squire, anxious to arrive, I spied a hand-painted sign on a rusty chain-link fence in front of a modest house by the side of the road. As a first-grader, I was proud of my newfound ability to read and showed off at every opportunity by reading everything in sight, so I read it out loud to my parents: “Honk If You Love Jesus.”
From the driver’s seat, my father praised my reading, but disappointingly, did not blow the horn. We loved Jesus, didn’t we? I learned about Him from the nuns when I went to Holy Trinity School in my plaid uniform every day; so, since my other favorite hobby, aside from reading, was asking questions non-stop, I asked, “Dad, how come you didn’t honk?” and – as often happened when I asked my father questions – was mystified by his reply: “Only hillbillies do that.”
Fast-forward to the COVID-19 pandemic. I was now a widow, living alone, and, while I certainly still loved Jesus, I could not stand one more Sunday of sitting home alone, watching an inanimate church service on a computer screen. A friend had told me about a drive-in gathering in a church parking lot near her home, and, in desperation, I decided to go. I doubted I would like it – it was so untraditional – but I really needed to be with my fellow human beings.
Pastor Dennis, a self-identified “hillbilly” from West Virginia, pulled his Toyota Tundra pickup under the portico and climbed up in the bed to speak to us. It was winter and the air was frosty cold, but he was bundled up and held a microphone, and we could hear him on a closed-circuit station on our radios. I was reminded of high school dates at the drive-in movies in my teens.
The parking lot was full, and people were rolling down their windows to stick out their hands and wave. Some, in nearby vehicles, waved to me, including a child, who waved the arm of her doll, and I waved back. The music began, piped into the parking lot on speakers from the sanctuary. Instead of clapping after the song, everybody blew their horns. The honking went on jubilantly for several minutes, and I joined in. It was as if we were all letting the world, and each other, know that we were there.
We honked enthusiastically again after the hope-filled sermon, and when it was time for Communion, we were told to turn on our blinkers if we’d like one of the masked and gloved volunteers to deliver an individually wrapped small cup of juice, topped with a tiny wafer, to our window. Sharing this commemorative meal with others, undoable via Zoom, was something I had sorely missed. When it was time, we all, temporarily unmasked, held up our little cups, as if toasting each other, before drinking the juice and eating the bread together.
It was a moment of close connection and pure joy.
Afterwards, we drove up to greet Pastor Dennis, who had climbed down from his truck to stand at the edge of the lot. When I rolled down my window to thank him, I asked, “Aren’t you cold, doing this out here for us?” He showed me the blinking light on the battery-powered hunting vest beneath his Eskimo-style parka.
“I’m toasty warm,” he told me. “See? It’s heated!” I couldn’t see his mouth under his mask, but his eyes held an unmistakable smile, and he offered me an air hug as I drove away.
On the way home, happy and no longer lonely, I remembered what my father had said to me on that long-ago trip in the mountains. I still loved Jesus, and now I also loved “hillbillies,” and I had a feeling that Jesus loved them, too.
The author is a retired elementary school educator who joined the UMES faculty as an adjunct lecturer in the fall of 2020.