Did I ever tell you how I learned that song?

It was the summer of 1965. My best friend Peter, and I, hitchhiked from Toronto to Mexico. Traveling through the Deep South, we were stuck of a Sunday evening on a quiet 2- lane blacktop. We walked until we came to a crossroads. Our map indicated that if we went down that red dirt road about 10 miles we would come to the 4-lane. We commenced to walk and we passed shacks and shanties in that Black community, and saw the worst kind of poverty—the kind where folks had all but given up.

After a mile or so we heard the sound of a vehicle approaching. We turned to see a big red rooster tail of dust coming up behind us, as that 50’s vintage, beat-up pick-up slowly drew abreast.

The old black gentleman pulled over and glanced in quick succession at our city clothes, our backpacks, our outstretched thumbs, and finally at our pale white faces. He was wearing a black tie on a white shirt and there was a Bible on the bench seat beside him. “You boys lost?” he asked us.

“No sir,” I said---glancing at his Bible, “I believe I’m saved--- but my friend here is a pretty bad sinner!”

His face broke into a toothy grin and he laughed slow and easy, like old friends do.

“Git in! git in!” he told us, “y’all came to the right place!”

“I’ll drive you through to the highway after church. They’s a big truck stop out there. Here’s our church, ahead there. We be colored, but you boys is welcome.”

The place was packed, and service was about to begin. He was a Deacon. He seated us before going to the back. A gracious middle-aged lady beamed a welcoming smile and passed us a hymnbook. “I’m Sister Beulah”, she said as she slid over to make room. I can’t remember much about the inside of the Church or the Preacher and I don’t remember the name of the Deacon, but I’ll never forget Beulah!

She couldn’t have been more accommodating had she been welcoming royalty. Her big round face shone and her eyes sparkled. She sat alone, but a narrow gold band on her ring finger indicated she was married.

I wondered if she had a boy or two, our age, fighting in Vietnam, or maybe her kids were gone to work up north in the big factories of Detroit or Chicago. They weren’t sending much home though, as her clothes were worn and threadbare.

She was wearing her best brooch on the collar of a white blouse and a big-brimmed straw hat sat at a jaunty angle on her salt and pepper curls.

It was quite evident that the Church was the highlight of her very life.

Towards the end of the service they started singing, “I’ll Fly Away”. She was singing her heart out and clapping along with the music and I glanced over as tears streamed down her cheeks. The look of joy and peace on that lady’s face was simply unforgettable. Let there be no doubt, that sister knew just exactly where she was going someday.

I’d seen enough on our trip through the south to tell that it contrasted pretty well with where she’d been.

When they got to the chorus where everyone else was singing “O Glory”, she was singing “Sweet Jesus”, and the tears were still rolling down her wonderful face.

I never saw Sister Beulah again, after that evening. When Church was over we got our ride out to the highway and by the next night we were a few hundred miles closer to Mexico.

That was many, many years ago.

---and sometimes when I go down a dirt road, I think about Sister Beulah, long since gone to her reward, no doubt.

---and whenever I hear that hymn, I’m reminded of Beulah and the countless millions of faithful, like her, who had so precious little on this earth, but still praised God.

---and whenever I sing it, I sing --------“Sweet Jesus”.


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