Jesus, Send Money: Prosperity, Pt. 1

In little Talco, certain lines were sharply drawn. Railroad tracks literally separated black from white in this rural East Texas town. And on the black side, you had a further division, of darkness and light.

Darkness: The men, plus a few sad-faced women, who gathered to drink whiskey and beer under what they called "The Demon Tree." Light: The folks who piled into the back of pickup trucks or hitched a ride with someone who had a car to the holy-roller revival meetings in tiny White Oak, some 20 miles up the road.

There was a simple church house, a Church of God in Christ, where a charismatic young evangelist named D.L. Smith would often preach. On Friday nights the sounds of washboard and gi-tar wafted out in the summer heat. Inside, folks sang, stomped and "shouted"--danced under the influence of the Holy Ghost, no butt-shaking allowed--on the wood-plank floor. Window fans circulated a rumor of cool.

Every night saw a full house. The revival meetings caused such a stir, people would gather around the open windows in dirty work clothes and peer in.

Lola Mae Hines was a teenager in the late 1940s, and she would pull on a skirt and get in the back of an open truck with her sister and cousins for the meetings that often stretched till midnight. She was invited by an older woman named Sister Savage--the holy rollers called each other Sister and Brother--who knew Lola hung out at the Talco honky-tonk, dancing to Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters on the jukebox while the young men slapped dominos, played cards and drank home-brewed beer.

Kindly but insistently, Sister Savage told Lola she was on her way to hell. Really, in Talco, there were dual hells in store: an earthly life of poverty, heartache and back-breaking work, and an everlasting one of fire. A two-for-one deal.

Lola chose heaven instead.

One day, after many evenings of "tarrying"--kneeling at the altar bench, calling out to Jesus in prayer--she "got the Holy Ghost" and began speaking in tongues. It happened in Sister Savage's two-room house in Talco, where the Sisters gathered to pray.

Today, at 71, looking back on her life, Lola Hines considers herself lavishly "blessed." Elegant, trim and in perfect health, she owns a home in Fort Worth's Highland Hills neighborhood, free and clear. She buys colorful, intricately sequined church-lady dresses at a special boutique. A couple years ago, she even went on a Caribbean cruise.

Something beyond imagining back in the day. Um-hmm. Back in the day.

As a toddler Lola was dragged along the rows on a canvas sack as her mother picked cotton. (Cotton-picking was one of the last areas of farming to be mechanized.) When she got old enough to "pull her weight"--at 7 or 8--she slung a flour sack on her shoulder and joined in. It wasn't right, she says with a chuckle, but she learned to pack pebbles and dirt in her bag--along with four-lobed cotton bolls--to boost her haul at weigh-in.

Mama hid her cash in a money belt under her skirt. And believe it or not, Hines says, cotton-picking season was the richest time of the year. The earnings bought shoes for Lola and her two sisters, plus a weekly quarter to spend at the general store. When cotton harvest was finished, the girls attended segregated schools. But Lola dropped out in 11th grade to help Mama. There was no man in the house.

By that time, the entire family were tongue-talking Pentecostals.

Their beliefs brought order to her life. An order for the family: "Sorry mens" who disdained work couldn't sit comfortably on a Church of God in Christ pew, and "silly women" who slept around found their rightful place at the altar. An order for daily life: No more carousing at the "Cafe"; each day belonged to God, and he had ordained work and family and church, honest pursuits.

He even rendered his judgment on The Demon Tree. One day, a tornado spiraled out of the sky and ripped it up. (The drunks just moved to another tree.)

The old black Pentecostal churches taught a simple creed concerning money. Giving was blessed; withholding was cursed. You had to pay your tithes--one-tenth of your income--because the Word of God said so. If you didn't, you were robbing God. And, as Hines notes, "can't no robbers go to heaven."

Giving, mixed with faith, planted seeds for a future harvest. As sure as the cotton was ready for picking in August, Jesus would provide too, in his own season.

"It was a blessing to pay tithes," Hines recalls being taught. "God would open up a way for you. When you were in need, he would come to your rescue. It was not always money--he blessed you in health, in all different ways."

She and her late husband observed that in their own lives while raising six kids. "The Lord has made ways for me that I didn't know how I'd survive," she says. "Every day hasn't been sunshine, but we paid tithes."

Achieving well beyond her educational level, Hines got a good job with Halliburton in Alvarado, where she assembled explosive charges for 26 years. Her testimonies in church went something like this: There was an explosion this week, but God saved me. Earlier this year she retired, and she went out with a different kind of bang. Numerous co-workers, black, white and Latino, gathered to send her off to retirement. They lined up at a squeaky mike in the Holiday Inn to praise her steadiness, her character, her hard work.

Hines passed on her beliefs about money to her children. Bless other people's kids--with a hot meal, taking them in if a parent dies--and God would make sure your own children had their needs met. But when you bless someone, she always cautioned, don't expect them to bless you back. God would repay as he saw fit.

And he would repay: "God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." This, in fact, is the foundational premise of what would come to be called prosperity teaching, uniquely found in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches.

Prosperity teaching is the subject of much criticism, and certainly it has its excesses. Used to be folks fell at the altar crying out for forgiveness, for a wayward child to be "saved." You're just as likely today to see men and women calling out for McMansions and Benzes.

While the excesses beg for balance, the scales are biblical. The Scriptures contain numerous passages affirming the principle of sowing and reaping--generous giving that is followed by some kind of return. That return is to be sown as well into the "kingdom of God."

Many people are unaware that the Pentecostal Movement--birthed in 1906 in a former livery stable in Los Angeles--drew from the lowest strata of society in its first 50 years. Its followers had little status or wealth, and their buildings were often the humblest in town, the refuge of washerwomen, laborers and field hands. They made up for it with unbridled faith, a belief that God would reward righteous living here and in the afterlife.

Some of the Pentecostal Movement's most prominent early leaders were women and blacks, including Charles Harrison Mason, son of freed slaves and founder of the Church of God in Christ. His vision was to recapture the fervor of slave religion: the passionate prayer and exuberant worship he heard about in his youth. He lived to 95, but did he know he'd become the father of the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States?

The truth is, I have met quite a few Pentecostals like Lola Mae Hines who've prospered far beyond their birthright. Some day, historians and sociologists will recognize that Pentecostal teachings--on giving generously, staying sober, working hard and cultivating hope--have helped pull hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty.

From Nigeria to Argentina to Talco, Texas, Christians have kept the faith that God "is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him."

Sowing and reaping, reaping and sowing. Sure as the unfurling of cotton bolls, and the harvest that follows. --Julie Lyons

Next week in Bible Girl: Why prosperity preachers drive us crazy.

A note to Bible Girl readers: Bible Girl appears each Thursday on Unfair Park, the Dallas Observer blog. If you want a link to the new Bible Girl column when it appears, drop me a line. And if I forgot to include you on last week's mailing list, I apologize.

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