HOLY ROLLER: Finding Redemption and the Holy Ghost in a Forgotten Texas Church
One night in April 1990, journalist Julie Lyons, a young crime reporter for the Dallas Times Herald, drove the drug-infested streets of South Dallas looking for a story based on a church --- a preacher --- that claimed to have seen miraculous healings from addictions, particularly to crack cocaine. Through circumstances that by hindsight seemed miraculous, Lyons found a small Church of God in Christ congregation, The Body of Christ Assembly, led by its founding pastor, a tall, humble but forceful man named Frederick Eddington. The feature ran that Sunday on the paper’s front page. But for Lyons --- a white woman from the Wisconsin suburbs who had struggled to maintain a reasoned evangelical faith --- that wasn’t the end of the story. Something about the people she had interviewed drew her back to the black Pentecostal-Holiness congregation, which she and her husband joined. Even now, nearly 20 years later, they are the only white members.
HOLY ROLLER is a hard book to categorize. Lyons is a journalist, and some of the text, especially at the beginning, is an engaging reportage. She introduces the South Dallas neighborhood, relates the miraculous healing (from drugs and mental illness) of Pastor Frederick Eddington, and summarizes the life journeys of several other church members and the founding of the church. Later in the book Lyons critiques neighborhood political dynamics, the white evangelical church milieu for its lack of wonder-working power, and the black church at large for its moral laxity.
But in large part, the book is not written in a distanced journalistic voice. It is Lyons’s spiritual memoir. In this small church community, she felt spiritual conviction and underwent personal transformation. “Pentecostalism is the religion for basket cases,” she writes. “I’d been brought up in a faith tradition that emphasized Bible knowledge, superficial piety, and paying a few religious professionals…to do the work of the Lord in our stead. At The Body of Christ Assembly, I was confronted with a crucial reality: the sin in my life put me in exactly the same place as the men and women sitting in the pews with me…. All the biblical trivia I’d acquired over the years meant nothing if I didn’t believe it and work it just like Jesus did.”
Toward the end of the book, readers see Lyons on a church-sponsored mission trip to Botswana. Here she describes worship services and dramatic exorcisms. She also observes and senses a pattern of clergy power plays and posturing that disturbs her sense of justice for women. (In these chapters about ministry in Africa, you see that her personal story is never far removed from her journalistic passions --- her search for getting to the bottom of things and uprooting injustice.)
After leaving the Times Herald, Lyons became editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer, an “alternative” weekly newspaper owned by Village Voice Media. In that capacity she started a popular though sometimes controversial blog called “Bible Girl,” in which she talked about her Pentecostal faith and personal journey, including her release from chronic depression and from same-sex attraction. In the pages of HOLY ROLLER she tells this story and enough others to challenge the assumptions --- and comfort level ---- of most any reader.
You may resonate with her story or think she’s living on another planet. Either way, I think you’ll find there’s something disarming about her prose and her search for an authentic life of faith.
--- Reviewed by Evelyn Bence
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