My Father’s Faith Will Either Save You or Break You

Chapter One of REVIVAL SEASON by Monica West, recommended by Jami Attenberg

southern church

Introduction by Jami Attenberg

cover of revival seasonFall 2019. I was on book tour, nearly the end of it, on the West Coast. I did an event at The Ruby, an arts & letters–focused work and gathering space for women and non-binary artists and writers in San Francisco, run by the brilliant novelist Rachel Khong. There is something about collapsing into a space like that when you’ve been hustling for months, worn down from flights and unfamiliar beds. What a relief it was to be there, with smart people who give a shit about books and art and life. Out in the world. Where we will be again soon enough, if not a little bit already by now.

One of the attendees at the reading was Monica West, who told me quietly afterward she had just sold a book, Revival Season. She seemed serene, smart, and happy, or at least content at that moment. And I found myself wanting to know what she knew, to see things through her eyes, which is what a good book does for us, allows us into the brain of the author, hooks us into their gaze. All right, I’ll bite, I thought. Send me your galley when it’s ready, I said.

And then, however many months later, she did send it to me, and Revival Season was tremendous, just so intimately written and swollen with feeling, and somehow both elegant and raw. I felt lucky to have read it, and I blurbed it, and now here I am introducing an excerpt from it, and all this goes to show you that it’s worth it to show up and put yourself out there, whatever that looks like for you now (or in the future), and open yourself up to new ideas and spaces and people and opportunities, because you never know when you’ll be blessed with a wonderful book to read in return.

Revival Season is told by Miriam, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a popular Southern Baptist preacher whose fame comes from his ability to heal. This power comes into question just as Miriam’s begins to grow. What I ended up loving most about this book was the care and precision West takes with every single sentence, character, gesture. She inhabits them, of course—this is what we’re supposed to do as writers—but also she clearly cares deeply about what happens to all of them and that she gets their story right. And because of this, we, the reader, feel urgently about them, too.

There is suspense to the book: What will happen to this troubled, struggling family out in the world? With a supposed protector who is actually the real threat? But the attachment to this family surfaces before we even know their whole story. We never wonder why we are spending time with this group of people. We are there because West told us to be, because we trust her immediately because of her writing gifts. We are there because she told us to care.

Jami Attenberg
Author of I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home (Ecco Books, January 2022)

My Father’s Faith Will Either Save You or Break You

Chapter One of Revival Season by Monica West

We rumbled toward Georgia from the west, the direction from which all great and powerful things originated. “Except the sun,” Caleb said, feeling particularly feisty as the novelty of another revival season settled in. Ma turned and shot him the look where her dark eyes narrowed into slits. Then she spun back around, closed her eyes, and mumbled a prayer: “Lord, watch over these Your children. Use us to do Your will. Amen.”

Done praying, Ma refocused her attention to the map she was holding in the air; her finger landed on a bold black dot, far from the big star at the center of the state. We always went to smaller cities—tiny dots that surrounded the capital’s star like satellites. Her stubby, unmanicured nail tracing the winding path to Americus, Georgia, was nothing like the polished nails in the magazines that I snuck glimpses of in the library. Nails that we would never be able to have, since vanity was an unforgivable sin. I’d learned that lesson the hard way last spring when my best friend, Micah, and I had sat in the middle of her bedroom floor, an open bottle of nail polish between us. Micah lifted the wand and smoothed the shiny orb of light pink lacquer on my thumbnail. So faint no one will notice, she said. When I got home the next morning and linked my hand with Papa’s to pray for breakfast, he forced me to remove the polish under his watchful eye before anyone could lift a fork to their mouths.

I watched Ma in the rearview mirror as the minivan merged onto the Texas highway. Papa turned up the radio as our van became one of an anonymous throng of vehicles barreling beneath an overpass. But none of the other cars had the important task that we did: driving nine hundred miles to bring the word of God to people who needed to be saved from their sins. The exhilaration before the first revival of a new season meant I could barely sit still between the cracked windows whose building pressure buffeted my ears. We’d been doing this for years—twelve, to be exact—but somehow this first moment of revival season, when everything was possible, never got old.

We pulled into our ceremonial first stop—a tacky diner 281 miles away from our house in East Mansfield, Texas. Soon, conversation flowed as we pierced straws through plastic lids and drank the syrupy sweet soda we were only allowed to have during this inaugural revival season meal. With our hands curled around sweaty paper cups, Papa dreamed out loud.

“I might break the two-thousand-soul mark this year. Wouldn’t that be a blessing?”

It would be more than a blessing—it would be a miracle. The two-thousand-soul mark had been elusive for all of Papa’s years of leading revivals; it was three times more than last year’s soul count, and it would be even harder to accomplish this year.

I might break the two-thousand-soul mark this year. Wouldn’t that be a blessing?

“There will be lines around the tent waiting for me when I arrive. This is the year, Hortons.”

My eyes searched the table’s shiny surface as I took another deep sip. The caffeine made the lights extra bright as they bounced off the orange plastic tables, and amplified the clink of ice coming from surrounding booths. The combined effect made Papa’s words seem slightly forced.

“Any naysayer would tell you that’s impossible, but they don’t know my God,” he said.

I wondered if a small part of Papa believed what those people said, especially after what happened at last year’s revival, but I pushed the doubts out of my mind. Doubt was a sin.

“Back to the van, Hortons!” Papa urged. I savored the last sips of my soda and stilled the jitter in my limbs as I took my half-eaten lunch to the trash. Each rotation of the tires brought us closer to Americus, and the promise of what this revival season might have in store came into focus as we slid beneath the mournful weeping willows of Louisiana. As Louisiana passed us off to Mississippi, a thick wall of humidity smacked us in the face. By the time Georgia’s plump peach welcomed us on the highway sign, the weight of this year’s revival season fell on the car like a lead blanket.

Papa cracked the front windows to let in the moist air. “You smell that? That’s the smell of pagan land.”

My little sister, Hannah, rocked next to me; clicking sounds rose from the back of her throat, and her elbows were frozen in acute angles in front of her chest.

“Can you make her be quiet?” Papa hissed toward us in the back seat. I patted Hannah’s knee and handed her the soft rubber ball that was reserved for moments like these. She reached out a claw-like hand and pulled it toward her chest, rolling the ball between her fingers and kneading it like dough. Her limbs slackened, and she loosened her jaw.

Ma and Papa never told me or my younger brother, Caleb, what was wrong with Hannah. At least not directly. Once, back in Texas, I woke up long after I thought everyone else was asleep. As I tiptoed past my parents’ bedroom on my way downstairs for a glass of water, I overheard Papa say that Hannah had cerebral palsy, but his accusatory tone sounded like Hannah’s disease was the result of some flaw in Ma’s faith. I hurried away before I could hear her response.

Papa pulled in front of a tiny brick building with only a narrow white steeple to identify it as a church. It was much smaller than the churches we were accustomed to visiting. He took a long glance at the parking lot with only a few dozen spaces and released a sigh that sounded like it had built up over the entire ride.

“Here we are,” Papa announced in a flat tone before getting out of the car.

Through the windows, we watched a large, dark-skinned man with a swollen belly that protruded over the top of his pants approach Papa. They embraced in an awkward hug; then the man looked over Papa’s shoulder and pointed to the car where we all sat. As he lifted his arms to beckon us, two oblong stains darkened the armpits of his dress shirt. We tumbled out of the van: first Caleb, then my mother, then eight-year-old Hannah, then me.

We followed Reverend Davenport into the claustrophobic sanctuary of the New Rock Baptist Church, where three rows of folding chairs faced a raised pulpit. Behind the altar, an ornate gold cross was situated between two paintings of the crucifixion.

“Thanks so much for inviting us.” Papa scanned his surroundings, probably comparing this sanctuary to the cavernous ones of last year’s circuit. “This is my wife, Joanne; my son, Caleb; and my daughters, Miriam and Hannah.”

Ma handed Hannah over to me—I folded my arms around Hannah’s chest and felt her fragile rib cage like so many bowed toothpicks, her rapid heartbeat, her body’s metronomic perpetual motion. Ma stepped in Papa’s long shadow to meet the reverend, but he looked past her to Caleb. Ma, Hannah, and I were barely a blip on his radar.

We followed the reverend to the fellowship hall, where a platter of fried chicken, a bowl of mashed potatoes, and a plate of crisp string beans were arranged on a long table. Reverend Davenport dipped his chin ever so slightly. I couldn’t even tell that he was praying until I heard his soft words. “Lord, bless these gifts that we receive for the nourishment of our bodies and the building of Your kingdom. Amen.”

We sat down to eat. The food was passed in silence, first to Papa and Caleb, then to the reverend. When my mother received the platter, she carefully selected a breast—not too small, not too big. When it was finally my turn, I selected a drumstick for Hannah before reaching back on the platter for my piece.

“Don’t take too much,” Ma whispered as I selected a thigh. She yanked the plate from me before I could get another piece and nodded at Papa. I gnawed on the crispy skin as Reverend Davenport pulled Papa aside during the meal. They walked to the far wall and stood below an oil painting of the Last Supper. I pretended to study the Apostles as I tried to hear what they were whispering. Reverend Davenport drew invisible shapes in the air with his index finger. He shielded his mouth with his hand as they talked, but snatches of the conversation about money and revenue and how to bring the most people to Christ rode the air back to me. Reverend Davenport was saying something about healing when his gaze found my face, and I hurried to shift my stare to the translucent grease spots that the chicken had left behind on my plate. But I was too late, my eyes too slow in their sockets to change course.

“You’re curious, aren’t ya?” He said it like a joke, but it wasn’t—the emphasis on curious made sure of that. I kept my eyes fixed on my plate; when I looked up, my mother’s eyes were once again narrowing, this time at me.

“We’ve had a long drive. Do you think that you could show us to the house? Then you and my husband could have some quiet time to talk. Alone.” My mother spoke up with a mouthful of partially chewed chicken. I thanked her with a sheepish glance that she didn’t return.

Before Reverend Davenport could respond, a thin, light-skinned woman appeared from the kitchen adjacent to the fellowship hall. She wiped her hands on an apron and offered to walk us back to where we would be staying for the weeklong revival.

“I’m Frieda Davenport,” she said when we got outside. She shook hands with Ma. As they walked beside each other, Ma’s short stride quickened to keep pace with Mrs. Davenport. With each step, Ma’s knee-highs slid farther down her calves and pooled around her ankles above the scuffed flats that she always wore on long trips. Hannah and I trudged through the grass several yards behind them.

For most revivals, they put us in a mobile home or a small house attached to the church, but Mrs. Davenport opened the door to a house so new that it still smelled like plywood and drywall. Hannah broke free of my grip and dropped to her knees, her knotted hands running along the hardwood floor in a back-and-forth motion, the corners of her mouth lifting into the closest thing to a smile she could manage.

“I’m glad someone noticed the floor we just had done,” Mrs. Davenport said. “Reverend Davenport ordered it all the way from Chattanooga.”

Chattanooga. The Sunday school kids back in Texas had likely never been to Chattanooga and probably couldn’t even point it out on a map, but we’d driven through it last summer on our way to a weeklong revival at City of Eternal Hope Baptist Church. I remembered how the heavy air seeped into the walls of the tent, and how Papa had converted 218 souls in that seven-day period, more than any other revival in the church’s history.

I unzipped my duffel bag in the room I would share with Hannah. Hannah’s clothes were always easy to fit into the top drawer—small T-shirts with logos of zoo animals, long skirts in earth tones, and knee socks that covered her leg braces. I placed her stuffed tiger on top of her pillow: it was the one thing that could bring her comfort during rough nights when she thrashed herself awake under the covers.

When I finished unpacking, I changed Hannah into her pajamas and helped her into bed, then climbed in beside her. Her body grew still, and I leaned closer to the curved cartilage of her right ear to tell her my favorite bedtime story: Miriam and Moses. I invented details about the way Miriam’s mother’s fingers bled on the papyrus reeds as she wove a basket to save her newborn son, Moses, from Pharaoh’s proclamation that all baby boys should be drowned. As I spun words into the dark cove of her ear, I imagined my namesake watching over her baby brother in that basket, doing as her mother told her.

Hannah’s body grew heavy as it leaned into mine; her snoring, full and sonorous, cut off the end of my sentence. I nestled behind her with my arms around her expanding and contracting chest, playing the rest of the story out in my head, even as I kept the ending pressed behind stilled lips—about how Miriam’s actions saved her brother and how her bravery was overshadowed by Moses’s later success. I told Hannah the story the same way Ma had told it to me—with Miriam as the hero—even though Papa always emphasized Moses. When Hannah’s breathing was slow and steady, I slid out from behind her, careful not to wake her.

The cloistered room blocked out the noise from outside. I knelt beside the patchwork spread that Ma had given me five years ago for my tenth birthday. I brought it on every revival trip—it took up the most space in the single duffel bag that each of us was allowed to shove in the back of the van. It was the only quilt I had ever prayed on, and Papa had once told me that the best thing I could do for revival was to pray every night. There was so much that we didn’t have control over during these trips—summer thunderstorms, low turnout. So I took that charge seriously. When we had standing-room-only crowds that were packed inside the tent’s vinyl walls, I knew I had some role in it.

I ran my finger along the jagged seams where each memory shared borders with another. In the middle of the quilt was a heart patch where I placed my elbows—close enough to each other so my hands could make a steeple with the pads of my fingers pressed together. The narrow space between my palms was the perfect size for my nose. I closed my eyes and exhaled the day. I filled my lungs with air that I liked to imagine was purified by the Holy Spirit, even though it smelled just like the old air. Back out and then in. After the third exhale, it was time.

“‘Our Father, who art in heaven,’” I began. The words of the Lord’s Prayer spilled over the quilt. As I prayed, tension that I hadn’t even known had built up in my shoulders and back released. I stayed on my knees until I had covered everything— healing the world, watching over my family, blessing this revival season, making me obedient. Some of those requests seemed harder to grant than others, but I had to ask anyway. God didn’t ask us to limit His power, and when we only ask for things that feel achievable, we question Him. And questioning God is the root of evil.

“Amen.” I ended the prayer and rose from the side of the bed. My legs felt heavy when I stretched them, but the evening’s devotions had just gotten started. Climbing into bed, I opened the Bible and skimmed the chapter in Proverbs that I knew by heart before ending with a prayer of gratitude for arriving safely in Americus. I flipped open my prayer journal, past the scrawl from several years ago when I wondered if Jesus loved Baptists more since that’s what we were. Papa said that even though all Christian denominations were equal in God’s eyes, God looked on our family more favorably because we traveled around the South each summer, bringing the word of God like manna to the starving.

I closed my Bible and journal. For a few moments after I finished reading, a feeling of warmth settled over me. In our house, God was more than the being that people blindly worshipped on Sundays and forgot about until they needed something else. To us, God was more flesh than spirit, more being than ghost. Each morning when I thanked Him for a new day, I didn’t just speak into an echo chamber. As I lay in an unfamiliar bedroom, I felt God right next to me, His breath in my ear like wind.

Even though our God saved souls and healed bodies, He needed someone on earth to be his intermediary—that was where Papa came in. There were always doubters who shut doors in our faces as we tried to bring them into the light, but they didn’t know what we knew. That the “song and dance” that they swore was a performance for money was real. All across the South, Papa had touched people and removed incurable diseases from their bodies. And those people who swore God wasn’t real, who claimed that we were deluded Jesus freaks, had never set foot inside a revival tent and felt the spirit of God descend when Papa began to heal. And even though he hurt that girl last summer—something I could barely even admit to myself—that one failure didn’t negate the fact that countless people who had been wheeled into the tent had walked back outside after Papa had touched them. If the naysayers had seen him when he was on fire, he would have turned them from skeptics to believers in one service.

I woke up disoriented and bleary-eyed in the unfamiliar bedroom, its paisley wallpaper making patterns in the indigo dusk. Slowly, the walls came into focus, then the prayer quilt that sat on top of the comforter, and finally Hannah, who was stirring in the bed across the room. I snapped into action as the house came alive—the whistle of a teakettle, Ma milling around with her loud footfalls on the floorboards. There were a million things to do in the few hours before we were scheduled to arrive at the revival tent.

During revival trips, long before the sun could tint the horizon with waxy crayon shades of maize and rose, my first chore was always Hannah. I stumbled out of bed and filled the bathtub with lukewarm water just high enough to cover the nubby bottom. I eased Hannah into the tub, first by swinging her knees over the edge and then lowering her into the water. Her bent knees touched each other above the water’s surface, and I gently pressed them down. While I rinsed her lathered hair, I could hear Papa and Caleb through the thin walls—Papa’s loud voice speaking the words of Christ, the ones that were typed in red on the tissue pages as another reminder of His sacrifice for us. Caleb’s voice as he repeated Papa’s words was less confident.

“‘They who wait upon the Lord,’” Caleb began. Then he paused one beat too long.

“‘Shall renew their strength. They shall mount up on wings of eagles. They shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.’” I whispered in the blanks where Caleb couldn’t finish Isaiah 40:31. Isaiah—the name of the baby Ma had two years ago. As the word stillborn had drifted to where I was standing, I wondered why people couldn’t be straightforward and say that Isaiah was born dead. And why they had named him after my favorite book in the Bible.

For months afterward, a ragged hole had ripped through all of the verses I had known and recited, burning everything in its proximity. I knew that trials were a part of life, but rationality seemed impossible in those days, especially because my mind kept floating back to the idea that the same God who had promised us a baby—another son for Papa to groom into ministry—had snatched him away from us before he had even taken a breath.

I straightened Hannah’s limbs and lifted them out of the water: first her arms and then her legs. Minuscule soapy beads formed on her skin as I glided the washcloth over one arm and then the next. She closed her eyes in delight as I cupped warm water in both hands and spilled it onto her back, so I did it a few extra times just to hear her squeal. She followed the squeal with a labored grunt—the doctors had told us that it was the closest that she would ever get to speech. When she was clean, I spread her towel on the floor by the tub and guided her out of the water—only then could I lift the lever on the drain. If I did it in the wrong order, she would shriek and only stop when I let her touch Tiger’s sightless plastic eyes with her forefinger.

When she was fully dressed, I loosened the Velcro straps from her thick plastic leg braces and fitted them around her calves. Lifting her from the floor, I slipped her forearms into her crutches. As she stood, her joints preferred to stay bent rather than straightening, so I ran my palm over her elbows and then down to her knees, stopping to massage the knobby joints with my thumb and forefinger. She liked when I made a whooshing sound as I did that, like I was the one who magically helped her walk a little taller.

I brought Hannah, clean and dressed, to the kitchen. Papa always waited until we got to the new revival site to tell the host pastor about Hannah. Maybe he thought it would ruin the reputation he’d worked so hard to perfect—the flocks of people who crowded into tents would never believe that a man with healing powers could have a daughter like Hannah.

Caleb bounded down the stairs last, already wearing his suit and tie. He flopped into the chair, right in front of the stack of pancakes. During revival season, I only got to see glimpses of Caleb in passing before Papa whisked him off to meet the elders or the deacons. He was fifteen, too—younger than me by ten months— yet it felt like years divided us when I had to watch him straighten his tie and leave with Papa to do “men’s work.”

“Let’s start breakfast with a prayer,” Ma said.

I knew the revival prayer by heart—it came from Matthew 28:19. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

As Caleb scarfed down spongy triangles of pancake, I reached for the Bible in the middle of the table. It was Ma’s Bible—the one she carried with her everywhere. Ma’s and Papa’s names and their wedding date were written in cursive inside the front cover: Joanne Renée Taylor and Samuel David Horton, July 11, 2002. It was hard to imagine that they even existed a year before I was born—when Ma was just Joanne—but I’d unearthed the wedding picture from a shoebox in the attic while packing for this revival. In it was a faded photo of an eighteen-year-old Ma, her face a carbon copy of mine. Through the sheer cream-colored veil that partially hid her strained smile, the lonely, distant look in her eyes reached back to me.

Behind the only picture of their wedding was a black-and-white local newspaper clipping whose edges had started to curl. When I flattened it, there was a small, grainy photo of Papa with bushy eyebrows and a head full of hair—his lips protruded around his mouth guard in a grimace as he held boxing gloves in front of his chiseled abs. “Samuel Horton Prepares to Defend Title,” the headline read. I skimmed an article that may as well have been about someone else—someone with an 8-0-1 record with a right hook like a freight train and fast feet. I imagined Papa bouncing on the balls of his feet, moving from the ropes on one side of the ring to the other. I felt the anger that swelled in his body for his opponents before his glove made contact with their stomachs or ribs, heard the muffled sound of a glove striking flesh. I folded the article along its crease and placed it back with the other mementos—the cut hospital bracelet from Hannah’s birth, a yellowed gauzy square of veil, and an old picture of Ma sandwiched between her sisters. Her smile as she squatted in front of a pickup truck with Claudia and Yolanda was such a stark contrast to the wedding photo that now sat in front of it in the shoebox that the bride and the girl might as well have been two different people, even though the scrawled date on the Polaroid revealed that the photographs had been taken only four months apart.

A horn honked in the driveway, and Caleb shoved one final bite into his mouth before running outside to join Papa. I walked to the front window and slid my finger into the narrow opening between two metallic blinds. Through the visible diamond of dusty glass, Papa gripped Caleb’s shoulders in front of Reverend Davenport’s silver sedan, shaking him every few seconds as though to emphasize his words. I imagined what Papa was saying—What’s mine is yours or maybe One day this can be yours—as the warmth of his hand seeped through the shoulder of my dress instead of Caleb’s suit jacket. Even as I pretended, my imagination couldn’t wrap itself around such a frivolous fantasy.

With a piece of glass between us, it was easier to imagine Papa saying things to me that he never said when he was inches away. Whenever I had questions about the Bible after dinner, he excused himself to the study to prepare a sermon, letting me lob unanswered questions to the back of his retreating suit. When it was time for his nightly snack, I held the plate and knocked on the study door, requesting permission to come inside. The snack was always a ruse; I needed to be close enough to hear his words about disease and God’s healing so they would stir the Holy Spirit in me more than they did when I was in the fourth row of a church or a revival site. But rather than asking me to come inside, he spoke to me through the door, telling me to leave the plate outside.

I needed to be close enough to hear his words about disease and God’s healing so they would stir the Holy Spirit in me

“Another ninety-degree scorcher,” the radio announcer—Gus “Good News” Stevens on Heaven 1310 AM—broadcast from the kitchen. Then Papa’s booming voice came over the airwaves and filled the room, sending a shudder through me even though the commercial had been recorded weeks ago. I released the blinds before they snapped together like lips keeping a secret. It always shocked me to hear his voice in these far-off places—“Come all of you under the sound of my voice. Come to the well that never runs dry.” And with those words, revival officially began. Ma shushed me and Hannah even though we weren’t making any noise, as though our breathing would overshadow Papa’s voice, which could fill up any space it entered. 

“Americus, this is Reverend Samuel Horton, the Faith Healer of East Mansfield. If you are hungry for a touch from the Lord, if your hearts are weary or heavy-laden, come to the big tent tonight. Take this step of faith and Jesus will be there to meet your needs and heal your bodies.”

It was the same message, the same confident tone, from city to city. Though I knew the words by heart, they reformed themselves as they filtered through the pin-size holes in the speaker of the plastic transistor radio, and suddenly all the people who might have been listening to him in their kitchens vanished—it was just me and him. His words of deliverance and new life took me back to the cold shock of the lake back in East Mansfield when I was seven, my adult’s baptism robe getting soaked as I walked over to where he stood away from the shore with his arms stretched out from his sides. I wanted to run to him, but the lake dragged my sopping robe behind me like an anvil. When I finally stepped into his arms, he whispered the words of the Lord to me.

“Miriam Ruth, do you accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior and promise to renounce the devil?” I nodded and folded my arms over my chest the way I had seen so many people do before me.

“Miriam Ruth Horton, child of God, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Sp—” Before he could finish the sentence, his strong forearm under my back dipped me into the lake. His words sounded loud and muffled under the water, but I could hear the congregation cheer. When I was upright again, Papa gave me a soaking hug and planted a kiss on my forehead. Though I should have been happy to have eternal life, I was happier to lean into the strength of his embrace and feel the prickle of his wiry forearm hairs as he squeezed me tighter.

His voice faded away into a cereal commercial, but my heart still raced the way it did that day half a lifetime ago. I couldn’t wait to get to the revival tent—to see its majestic colors and watch Papa redeem himself from last summer’s scandal the way I’d been praying that he would.

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