The women around me were wailing and cheering, and I thought about how when I grew up I would learn to worship as they did and delight in the Lord. There was a thundering sound system, shouts, and waving arms. The rolling of tongues praising, “Allellulia-lia-lia-liaa, Alleluliaaaa.” The rows of chairs had recently been replaced with rows of padded, salmon-colored pews, maybe in an effort to keep the members willing to attend the four-hour services. In the morning we had Sunday school. At night we had service. In Portuguese it’s called a culto. Every week without fail my brother would complain about missing The Simpsons. Usually by ten p.m. I would be allowed to curl up under those padded benches among women’s purses, covered in my mother’s coat. Sometimes another sleepy child would join me and then we would make a game of dodging the arms of our mothers as they discreetly tried to pinch us for being disruptive.
On this particular night, my parents said I had to stay up and listen to the Message. The head pastor’s name was Oriel, but I liked to call him Pastor Oreo. Pastor Oreo had invited a guest preacher. The rented building on Washington Street was packed to capacity. A detail officer had been made to stand outside and keep the Brazilians in order.
The traveling preacher spoke with his mouth pressed against the microphone and with dramatic pauses he held the churchgoers captivated: “Tonight, for one night only, God will be blessing those that believe with the gift of gold teeth.” At school all of my Catholic friends had received their first communion. In their homes, their walls were decorated with crucifixes and portraits of them in their white, lace gowns, like little brides. I wanted to feel that I was in communion with God, too, but in our church the children were only baptized once they decided to be a lifelong servant of the Lord. Six-year-olds were rarely baptized for this reason.
I looked to my dad, who to everyone else was Pastor Ramos. His long brown fingers rested on the pews ahead of him as we stood through most of the Message. To me he was just a daddy; one who made quirky sound effects throughout his day and took me on afternoon drives. At the corner store he would let me buy Little Debbie snacks, and he bought lottery cards that I was allowed to scratch the film off of with a penny to reveal two-dollar prizes disguised as a row of four-leaf clovers or cherries. He would explain in the car that the Bible said everyone had luck. My mother said it was gambling, like having a hole at the bottom of a pocket. Once, the day after he’d won eight hundred on The Numbers Game, part of the ceiling in their room had filled up with water like a swollen brown belly and poured its contents onto their bed beneath it.
I was nervous to tell him I wanted to go up and pray at the front of the room.
“Daddy,” I said as I tugged on his suit sleeve. “Let’s go up?”
He looked at me and shrugged with a nasal grunt of consideration.
We made our way up the aisle to the mosh pit of bodies ahead. I looked up at the crying faces and felt the vibrations of the speakers thrumming in my chest, winced at the screech from feedback, and my belly churned as we passed the low moans of those in a state of euphoric worship. Some members had fallen victim to the Holy Ghost’s grasp and others were wailing and trembling with arms open, waiting for an embrace from above to take hold of them. The air was thick and cloudy from poor ventilation, but through most of my childhood thereafter I would think this was the presence of God.
The guest preacher was pacing on the stage and his tan, round face was scrunched tight. His rebuking echoed through the speakers at the corners of the room. Pastor Oreo stood impassive at his pulpit with eyes closed, he stretched out his hands and prayed silently over the mass, and I thought of blessings coming from his fingertips like laser beams. The deacons made their way through the crowd and, with gentle nudges nobody could be sure they saw, would send the people falling back, seemingly overwhelmed by the spirit. My brother and I always thought this was the utmost sign of a religious experience, along with the alien sounds that emerged from gaping mouths of women and men, speaking in tongues. We would try to categorize which people sounded the most alike and think of a heaven with angels whose words got lost in translation.
My legs felt hot and itchy in my tights and I leaned closer to my dad as we made our way to find an opening in the crowd. My confidence began to waver, and I kept my head low, making sure to furrow my eyebrows. When the deacons passed by, praying fervently like auctioneers, I tensed up and waited for their shaky, thick-padded hands to rest on my forehead or the back of my shoulder like a game of Seven Up. I made the quick decision not to pray for gold teeth—I didn’t think they would look all that good—but really, there was the issue that if it didn’t work, it would be real and sudden proof that the Lord knew I wasn’t good enough.
After the fever pitch passed and final hymns were sung and the mass of people were sweating and crying and the children were shrieking from exhaustion, it was time for fellowship. The families made their way out to stand on sidewalks and in the parking lots illuminated by the headlights of the cars, talked in hushed tones about what happened. “Did you pray for them?” I heard one woman ask her friend while her children chased each other around her legs until finally one stepped on her foot. “Malcriado!” she hissed, and gave them a quick hard slap to the back of the thigh.
At midnight the phone calls would start. The Silvas, the Mirandas, the Coelhos, and the Carvalhos all had someone in their home who’d found treasures in their mouths. The men had slipped off suit jackets and loosened their ties. Women had uncoiffed their hair and slipped out of their kitten heels. They set down their Bibles on kitchen tables and made their way to their bathroom vanities. Their reflections showed gilded surfaces on bottom-front teeth, or on the back teeth of others. “Quick!” they called to their spouses. “Call so-and-so, let them know. Let them hear, all those who doubted.”
A few days later, at school, I told the story to my friends who stood around in awe of what I had seen. My popularity hinged on my ability to tell a good story, and my experiences at church provided fresh material each week.
The following Sunday word had gotten around that someone with the gift had gone to a dentist to confirm the legitimacy of the miracle and found out they had other teeth rotten to the point of needing surgery, but yes, they claimed, the gold was real. Someone else claimed there was a diamond embedded in his enamel. Others, who at night had been blessed, in the morning had no sign of transformation left over. I remember thinking maybe those people had mistaken yellowing of teeth for the buttery gleam of gold.
A new member of our church called my father, her Sunday school teacher, to ask for guidance. She cried as she told him she didn’t understand what God wanted from her. Her gold-tooth blessing had started to throb and get inflamed. When she checked in the morning, the tooth looked covered in something black and slick, like oil. If she was scared, then I was scarred. I didn’t understand this flighty God that one moment offered you treasures packed close to your tonsils and the next spoiled them so they dripped down your open gullet. But a perfect love cast out fear I knew, so I kept my concerns to myself.
I checked with my mother to verify this story one evening while I was writing it. She sat on the soft green chairs of my dining room set, eating takeout from the churrascaria up the street, and I asked her if she remembered that night. She said of course she did. She recounted, too, how many of the people had their teeth turn black and even crumble. That traveling preacher with his inexplicable witchcraft had been invited as the first of many devices Pastor Oriel used to show the congregation that he was a real and chosen tool of God, a close second to the Son and his prophets. Offerings and tithing tripled. Eventually the members started to fall away from what had become a mega-church to attend smaller, tamer congregations. They’d become too practical, Pastor Oriel said to the dwindling attendees of his sermons; America had begun to rob them of their faith. I remember the faces of the people whose lives had taken sinful turns: those who became lesbians, or junkies, or atheists, just like a garble of seeds thrown in the thorny ground, The Word never able to take root.
After the night of gold teeth, another pastor came and prophesized the untimely death of a child in the church. On the drive home following that service, we sat in stunned silence with our Bibles in our laps. My father stretched his neck to look at us in the rearview mirror and asked us what we learned in our Sunday school lessons. My brother and I took turns mumbling what we half-remembered about blood lines of the rulers in the Bible and their hard to pronounce—and even harder to translate to Portuguese—names.
I made it to my room and took off my tights and, still in my Sunday school dress, lay on my bed rubbing the soft bottoms of my feet against each other. From beyond my door, I could smell the beginnings of our Sunday meal; the garlic my mother would sauté in oil before she introduced the washed grains of rice to plump up in the heavily salted water. I felt safe then, away from the calamity on the street, and farther still from the fits of those so firmly rooted in the faith.
Fabia Oliveira is a recent graduate of Lesley University’s low residency MFA program. She lives with her two beautiful children in Somerville, Massachusetts. She is a Brazilian American writer who writes about navigating both of her inherited cultures. Her essays have appeared Sisters Born Sisters Found, an anthology, Perversion Magazine, Rigorous, a journal by people of color, and her poetry has appeared in Lesley’s literary magazine, Common Thought. She is currently working on promoting her collection of essays entitled Threads.