by Leroy Morganti
Many years ago my college roommate and I met at Smokemont Campground near Cherokee, North Carolina, for one of our frequent reunions. We were veteran campers, having graduated from small tents to a solid-state, pop-up camper with all the accessories and amenities that campers just seem to accumulate.
We enjoyed Smokemont. Its cool nights were perfect for conversations around campfires, and the nearby Oconaluftee River provided soothing background music as only a roaring mountain stream can do. Mix those two elements with a bit of bourbon and you can easily convince yourself that all is right in this world and in the star-studded heavens above.
One morning shortly after we had finished off one of our favorite activities - a full southern breakfast featuring eggs, bacon and biscuits cooked on an open fire – we were just sitting around drinking coffee and wondering what the po’ folks were doing that day.
In a campsite behind us, we spotted a middle-aged man, his wife and teen-age daughter attempting to erect a tent and appearing very puzzled. Being the great guys we are, we walked over and did the job for them.
The gentleman, who was almost a dead ringer for a shorter Tennessee Ernie Ford (mustache and all), revealed that he was a Pentecostal preacher from Florida, and he and his family were spending their vacation visiting churches of their faith in the Cherokee area. He was a part-time preacher who made his living the way Jesus did by carpentering. He impressed my buddy and me as a very sincere man of the cloth who was totally devoted to his faith. The family had never camped before, so they had borrowed the tent from a member of their flock.
That night, while sitting around the campfire philosophizing in the comforting company of Jack Daniel, my buddy and I thought we heard soft celestial sounds emanating from the area of the preacher’s tent and went to investigate. Inside the tent, with only a flashlight for illumination, the preacher was playing the guitar and singing those good old-fashioned hymns, accompanied by his wife and daughter. He explained that the family had a Saturday morning radio show back home, and they were rehearsing. Feeling left out, my buddy and I enticed them to move to our campsite where we had lights, campfire and plenty of chairs.
We joined them in making joyful noises and soon thereafter came a man and wife bearing folding chairs to join the choir. Then came another -- and another -- and another until we had a congregation of some 50 people, all “Gathering at the River,” “Bringing in the Sheaths” and “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” It was a regular old-fashioned “singing on the mountain campground meeting” and an uplifting experience, helped in no small part by the spirits of the bottle, which we cleverly concealed in the camper so as not to offend the preacher.
After numerous hymns and the consumption of several sneaky cups of coffee by my buddy and me, the preacher dismissed the congregation as he had to arise early the next morning to continue his scheduled visits. I slept peacefully that night.
While drinking coffee of the unembellished sort around the campfire the next morning, an affluent-looking lady in her 60s came to our campsite and inquired, “Are you boys going to sing again tonight?”
“Ma'am,” one of us replied, “that’s up to the preacher, we only provide the props.”
She explained that her husband had been a banker until a heart attack six months earlier had forced his retirement. “He’s been a bit depressed and last night singing with you guys is the first time I’ve seen him really enjoy himself since his heart attack,” she said.
“I’m sure if we tell the preacher that story, he will feel the calling to lead the meeting again,” we said.
When the preacher returned, we told him the parable of the banker’s wife, and he immediately consented to her request.
That night, we repeated the same singing (and coffee drinking), but our choir numbers grew considerably as the first night’s participants had spread the word. We had, I think, something approaching a multitude – however many that is.
After the closing hymn and the dispersal of the flock, the preacher hung around a few minutes and thanked us for helping him pitch the tent and sharing our campsite.
“We’re going to be leaving in the morning, but I’m going to pray for you boys,” he said with a sly grin. “I’m going to pray that y’all don’t drink so much of that coffee.”
Leroy Morganti is a native of Rosedale, Mississippi. He spent the early years of his professional life as a reporter for various Mississippi newspapers and The Associated Press. He joined Delta State University in 1971 as Director of Public Information and retired in 2002 as Vice President for Executive Affairs. He resides at the Benoit Outing Club.
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