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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Holy Ghost Girl


I have not experienced the kind of religion described by Donna Johnson in Holy Ghost Girl, but I have long been curious about what really happens in some of those large tent revivals that one ran across so frequently in past decades (and in lesser numbers even today).  How much money is actually used for the purposes for which it is donated?  Are any of the healings unexplainable, or are they all preplanned fakes?  What are these “men of God” like after hours, behind closed doors?  Are they believers or performers?  Donna Johnson, whose family became part of David Terrell’s traveling ministry when she was just three, is certainly in the position to answer these questions and, in Holy Ghost Girl: A Memoir, she does answer many of them.

From Johnson’s earliest memory, her family was part of David Terrell’s inner circle.  Her mother was Terrell’s organist, and with her mother and brother, she traveled from city to city in Terrell’s personal vehicle alongside his wife and two children.  The families’ relationship was a close one, but it would be some time before Johnson was old enough to figure out just how close her mother and Terrell really were.

Johnson very effectively tells her story through the eyes of a child.  What she reveals from one chapter to the next is largely how she perceived events while things were happening around her.  She speaks both of the awe she felt at some of what she witnessed and the utter boredom that came with having to sit in a folding chair night after night (and during afternoon sessions) during the nearly weeklong revivals that she experienced for several years.  Johnson’s account of the ministry’s early days, days during which there was barely enough money for gasoline and fees to set up in the next city, is particularly affecting.  But she also visits the other side of the coin, when the money was coming in so fast that Terrell could squander much of it on separate, hidden homes for the lovers (including her mother) he stashed around the country.

Telling this story through the eyes of a youngster, however, allows some questions to remain unanswered.  There is little doubt that David Terrell did some good things.  Particularly impressive was his willingness in the 1960s to physically stand up to the KKK thugs who threatened his life, and tried to shut him down, when he refused to close his ministry to blacks even while working in the deepest South.  Less impressive is Johnson’s revelation about what Terrell and his inner circle really felt about blacks during that period – in their closed door, inner circle moments.

Donna M. Johnson
Frustratingly, no truths are revealed about the healing aspect of this type of ministry.  Johnson describes many of the successes she witnessed without ever questioning their validity.  Some of what she describes, if it really happened the way she recalls it, would certainly qualify as miraculous.  My disappointment with the book is that, considering how young its author was when she witnessed most of what she describes, I feel no closer to the truth about the healings than I was before I read her story.

But how anyone could possibly resist a memoir whose prologue begins with a sentence as intriguing as this one left on Johnson’s answering machine: “Donna, I don’t know if you’re coming to the funeral, but I heard Daddy’s gonna try to raise Randall from the dead.”

I could not.

Rated at: 4.0
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