December 9, 2012

Joseph Bathanti

PRAISE THE LORD

I was so new to North Carolina, I thought The PTL Club a satire, in the vein of Saturday Night Live. Jim and Tammy’s spoof of televangelists was brilliant. I laughed—even after I found out the truth. When I arrived at Heritage Village, the PTL compound, with five invited black felons, outfitted in forest green Honor Grade, the Bakers met us in the parking lot. Sobbing, we lurched from the white prison van: the day before, two guys had been maced in it for pulling shivs and the fumes hadn’t dissipated. Interpreting our tears for transports of the spirit, Jim and Tammy began to cry and took us, one by one, into their arms.

Their lavish grounds had an etched storybook opulence as if traced from a template and its colors coded in. As we strolled the packed studio, the guys affected, as they often did in public, a stoic gangster nobility—upon their faces a cross between glowering and bemusement, more than anything glad to be out of the joint for the afternoon, but ready to cut and run in a heartbeat.

At a predetermined time, the inmates were to exclaim ensemble, during the show, when the cue came: Praise the Lord. We rehearsed it a number of times. The guys loved seeing themselves on the monitors. They waved and mugged like kids. Then we were live: Jim’s smile and big lapels, Tammy’s face in the fiery stage lights, Andre Crouch and the Disciples singing gospel, a litany of Praise the Lord drizzling over the immense crowd.

We saw on the monitors what free folks at home saw as they watched us on TV in their living rooms: at intervals the inmates flashed among the mendicants like returned prodigals. Then: from the offstage sound man they received their cue. He held up finger number one, Jim suddenly holding the mike, like a torch, to their shocked faces as, on the count of three, each camera in the studio pivoted toward them.

They said nothing, nor smiled, nor moved—as if God, in His almighty wisdom, His good taste and discretion, His infinite love for the very least, had struck them stone.

from Rattle #37, Summer 2012

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Joseph Bathanti: “I came to North Carolina as a VISTA Volunteer in 1976 to work with prison inmates at Huntersville Prison, North of Charlotte. Since then I’ve been actively involved with various kinds of prison work, especially teaching creative writing inside of them. My writing and teaching is heavily influenced by my prison experiences. My second novel, Coventry, for instance, is set in a fictional North Carolina prison. ‘Praise the Lord’ is almost journalistically accurate, more a memoir than a poem. I teach at Appalachian State in Boon, NC.” (website)