For a long time nothing much has changed for the poor black congregation of the Sweet Pilgrim Baptist Church of Clearwater, Mississippi. Eastertime has dutifully rolled around again. The azaleas are in bloom.
And then off in the distance comes a wondrous music-a music that thunders throughout the sky with sweet majesty. It brings in its trail a celestial cloud and signals a heavenly visit: Jesus and Simon Peter have come to town. But they are women. Jewish women-well dressed and built like runway models, to be exact. "At times I've come to earth in the form of a man. But this time I've come as a woman. Is something wrong with me appearing as a woman?" Ms. Jesus asks the surprised churchgoers.
In short order, this unexpected turn of events becomes the norm. Jesus and Simon Peter drink chablis with the locals; arrange for oil drilling on black families' tiny lots; make some folks rich and a few bitterly envious; get caught up in civil rights matters; and figure in a suspense-filled series of events that bring joy and prosperity, hatred and murder, and, as a final surprise, redemption.
When Clayton Sullivan first published Jesus and the Sweet Pilgrim Baptist Church with Doubleday in 1993, many sang his little fable's praises. Morgan Freeman called the book "A delightful, if reverent, romp up and down the aisles of a Mississippi Baptist congregation. Fun!"
Eugenia Price said, "That Jesus the Carpenter of Nazareth was the Son of God occurred to almost no one until coarse and uncouth people as well as legalistic, brainy, religious types began to see Him live, act and speak in a way unlike anyone else. Whether they spoke in vulgarities or in pious-sounding platitudes, people were taken off guard by the fact that He was a common workman, homeless, lived simply-even crudely-did and said startling, unorthodox things that shook people to their roots, as in Clayton Sullivan's remarkable fable, Jesus and the Sweet Pilgrim Baptist Church. This is a fable. No one is claiming that Jesus might come again as a well-dressed Jewish woman. So, put aside your prejudices and read it. The Gospel is here in all its simple, shining power."