Doing the right thing

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Not long ago, I received an invitation to the wedding of Richard and Marvel. The ceremony was to be held at the Church of God in Handsworth, Birmingham. I had met Richard a few times at the home of his distant cousin, Sister Ruth, in a terraced street behind the Gothic-towered Public Library in Soho Road, Handsworth. Sister Ruth is a short, placid, pleasant-faced lady from Guyana, while Richard is tall, amiable and ambitious. He had arrived from his home-village of Adventure only a few years earlier, and now worked in an uncle's garage.

Guyanans, like closely-related Trinidadians, seldom join the Pentecostal Church of God, having a preference for more formal worship. Sister Ruth, however, has been in England so long that she has become Jamaican. Her daughter, Marvel, had met Richard in church and they had fallen in love.

Church of God weddings differ only slightly from traditional English Nonconformist ceremonies. At one that I attended, cider was served at the reception, with an air of great daring. A long list of hoped-for wedding presents had accompanied the invitation, another English (and futile) touch.

But attitudes to marriage might be slightly different, I realised, when a Barbadian deacon explained why young people must leave their mother and father's house when they marry.

"Suppose my dear daughter Angie was to marry," he suggested to the church. "If she and her husband stayed in my house, and he beat her, I would naturally come to her rescue. So there would be quarrels and taking sides and the marriage might be ruined."

Like most of the middle-aged members of that church, the deacon himself enjoyed a happy marriage. Younger members were not always so fortunate, for women sometimes married "unsaved" or non-churchgoing men who grew impatient with Church of God piety and Puritanism. Richard and Marvel were not full members - they each had "one foot in the Church and one in the world", and, presumably, would have to stagger through life together.

On arrival at church, I was handed a programme inscribed "Perfect Harmony". It included the words of the choruses to be sung - "I Will Enter His Gates with Thanksgiving In My Heart" and "This is the Day" - known to all English evangelical Christians.

Marvel sailed slowly down the aisle, her long white train held by her sister, who was also dressed as a bride. Four tall bridesmaids in blue satin followed. I heard a panting noise, and Sister Ruth, the bride's mother, sat down heavily beside me. She had managed to bag a lift to the church at the last minute, as she couldn't afford the bus fare. Her husband from America had paid all the wedding expenses. A boy-girl gospel duo sang in Brummagem-Tamla Motownesque tones, and the wedding began.

First of all, the pastor, a kindly old man, declared that the couple would grow together and merge like a twining, climbing plant. Then a young guitarist stepped forward from the church band and serenaded them. Smiling bashfully, the young couple exchanged rings and kisses, to loud applause. Richard's mother, who had flown in from Guyana, seemed entranced by the beauty and wonder of it all. A solo gospel singer in a shimmering dress came on, as the couple disappeared into a back room to sign the Register. Claps greeted her efforts, then the couple reappeared, holding hands and radiant. Together with bridesmaids and relatives, they decamped to a nearby park for the photo-taking. Showing of wedding photographs is an important part of after-service socialising among church girls.

Two hours later, the reception began at the Civic Hall. There were enough rows of tables and seats for everyone. At the high table up on the stage, a three-tiered cake was cut and the couple fed one another tenderly. Sister Ruth's wealthy, worldly ex-husband sat in state, dispensing champagne to non-churchgoers. Down at the tables, relatives carried plastic bottles of Coca Cola around on trays, and paper cups were speedily replenished. I was glad of this, for curried goat is a little hot for me. Up on the platform, Sister Ruth's son, Kevin, sat proud and fascinated beside his legendary father. The bearded, superbly-dressed grandee had flown in from New York where he worked as a welder, though he looked like a jazz musician. Kevin later told me his father knew many mystic secrets of "obeah" - the occult - but then Kevin tells me lots of things.

Most Church of God members, myself included, streamed out to cars and bus stops when the tables were cleared away and a reggae dance began. Richard and Marvel had left earlier, in a hired car driven by an elderly chauffeur in brown and yellow livery.

In my friend Pastor Spring's church, marriage is held up as an ideal, and young sisters are constantly urged to be patient and steadfast, until "God will provide husbands for you". Whenever he says this, the girls look wistful. Middle-aged couples frequently testify of their love for one another.

"You know, when I hear a bishop in the Church of England say he refuse to condemn homosexuality, I get shock up," a Brother testifies. "Me, I don't need a man when I got a nice lickle wife to stand by my side. Here she is! (Points). She's good 'nough for me!"

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