E5B.T. Harman

There's Something Happening in Pensacola...

E5B.T. Harman
There's Something Happening in Pensacola...

About a year after the first kiss, the Trapps loaded up the mini-van for our annual family vacation. In north Alabama, everyone vacations on the white sand beaches of the Florida panhandle.

Growing up I always heard, "Summa tha prettiest beaches in the world down there, ya know?" I thought they were just being biased until, later in life, I went to beaches in Galveston, Texas, Biloxi, Mississippi, and Ocean City, Maryland. If you've been to these beaches, you know just how dreadful they are—like stinking brown mush pies sprinkled with pea gravel. All those people were right about the panhandle.

That year, we went to Panama City Beach. One of my good friends tagged along with us.

We rented a condo in one of the high rises. About mid-way through our trip, mom started talking about something happening in Pensacola, a beach town about two hours west of where we were. She called it a revival. How I grew up, a revival was a special, 3-4 night church event held where Jesus and hell were talked about a lot. A lot of people got saved at revivals.

But this revival was different, and it was taking place at a big Assembly of God church. The AoGs were Charismatics through and through—lots of bedazzled banners—and much more exotic than we Baptists. They were like peacocks of the religious world and we were like the robins...just a lot more to look.

Mom said the revival had been going on for about a year and that God was really moving there. I had never heard of a revival lasting a year.

Spiritually, mom was always a bit more adventurous than dad. So she convinced us all to go. I wasn't real excited about going to a church service during vacation, but...whatever. So one afternoon we left the condo, jumped on Interstate 10, and headed west to the Brownsville Assembly of God.

We pulled into the parking lot right before the service started.

The church building was huge, even bigger than ours back home...a classic megachurch. It had a big red-brick triangular facade that pointed straight to heaven and was surrounded by palm trees. 

The parking lot was jam-packed all the way out to the road. We parked and walked to the main entrance. As we got closer we could see a big cluster of people huddled near the front door, waiting to get in.

A line? For a church service? Never seen that before...

We took our place in line and waited. Some old men, ushers, kept it all very orderly. We made it to the foyer, pushed through the crowd, and into the sanctuary. The sanctuary was laid out in a fan shape and had a massive vaulted ceiling made of wood. It was a big open cavern of a place filled with white oak pews and paved with a thick mauve carpet. We found an open pew towards the back left and took our seats.

The place filled up quickly, and I noticed there was a very distinct buzz—a palpable excitement—amongst the crowd.

It felt like they had all done this before, and they knew something great was going to happen. Finally, a choir began filing into the choir loft and everyone in the crowd instinctually stood to their feet. The energy in the room kicked up a notch. It was about to begin. 

A long-haired music leader came out on the stage and took his post behind a big black keyboard. 

He was a young guy—30 maybe—long flowing brown hair, named Lindell Cooley. Lindell Cooley! I mean...how could God not use someone named Lindell Cooley. It was the perfect name for a beachy worship leader...or a cocktail.

At our church we just had a piano and an organ, maybe a classy "orchestra" on some Sunday mornings, but that's it. Brownsville was next level—full band with keyboards, guitars, backup singers in long dresses, and horns...lots of horns. 

When the worship music began to play, people's hands shot up in the air as if on cue.

I had never seen this before. You didn't lift your hands during the music at Woodmont...people would have thought you were weird. But here, everyone did it. And jumping...lots of jumping. Middle-aged women would just bounce up and down like pogo sticks in long skirts. I had never seen anything like this before. We all just stood there and watched, stunned I think. 

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The music went on for a long time, and then a guy named Steve Hill took the stage.

Steve was the evangelist of the revival which, I believe, met 4 or 5 nights a week back then. Steve was a cool guy—a little portly, bulging eyes, and a very strong mustache that Ron Swanson would have been proud of.

Steve's preaching was spicy. He shouted a lot. But it wasn't an angry shouting, more like a desperate shouting. It was like the way a mom might shout after looking out the kitchen window and seeing her toddler playing in the street.

I remember the crowd interacting a lot with Steve as he spoke. People would jump up and shout something when they liked what they heard. They cheered and clapped a lot. This was a lot to take in for a 14 year old Baptist kid.

I only really remember one quote from his sermon that night (but you have to imagine Steve shouting it):

"Jesus + anything = Damnation!

Jesus + nothing = Salvation!"

This really wasn't all that different from something I might hear my dad say from the pulpit, but for some reason, on this night, it stuck. It was as if those words were a flashing pink neon sign bolted to a black wall in front of the eyes of my soul. They just sat there...blinking.

For me church had always just been a very ho-hum thing. Pastor's kids can get jaded to it all because we're around church stuff so much. It's just another part of your life like school or sports or video games. That's how Christianity was to me. If Christianity was a football game, I'd just casually glance at it on the TV on Sunday afternoons. But I certainly wasn't on the field. 

The service ended that night and we began the long drive back to Panama City.

We talked a little in the car about it but not much. I was sunburned and exhausted from the week.

But my mind was racing as we drove past the darkened sand dunes and sea oats. This...was different. It felt alive, real, pulsating. Jesus plus nothing... 

There was a heartbeat there. And a warmth. And an electricity. And though the people seemed a little weird, they were sincere. They had something. It was undeniable. 

Up to this point, life had been very beige for me—almost brown—like the beaches in Biloxi. 

But after this night, it was like a new color palette began to appear—gradually, coming into focus. And I could sense it—a big, bold, rich, technicolor universe just beyond what my eyes could see.

I couldn't see it yet, but I would. About a month later, I would... 👊


B.B.P.S. — Here's a great video of a service at Brownsville. 

B.B.P.P.S. — Or click here to skip to an amazing shot of a bedazzled church banner. Sequins for days!

B.B.P.P.P.S. — These days, I send new Blue Babies Pink updates exclusively to my BBP-Mail subscribers. Scroll to bottom if you want to be added.  

B.B.P.P.P.P.S — All the street art in this post is from my neighborhood, Cabbagetown. The artist is ATL's very own Molly Rose Freeman. Check out her work!

All photos by Sterling Graves. Copyright Blue Babies Pink & Sterling Graves. 

B.T. Harman is the creator of Blue Babies Pink, a Southern Coming Out Story in 44 Episodes.

B.T. is a consultant, writer, and speaker living in Atlanta's historic Cabbagetown neighborhood. He was previously a vice president for Booster, an Atlanta fundraising company, where he helped the organization raise $150 million for elementary schools.

B.T. is passionate about storytelling, leadership, good design, Seth Godin, SEC football, Chick-fil-A, Taylor Swift, archaeology, European Travel and CS Lewis.

B.T. also serves on the boards of directors for Beloved Atlanta and the Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity.

To learn more about B.T., visit his personal site at btharman.com