A View From the Congregation: The Church of Lavonia Elberton

Air I am. Fire I am. Water, earth, and spirit I am. . . the words began rolling with my own breath, simultaneously keeping time with the nearly thirty other bodies in the dim wood paneled room as we churn the phrase in innumerable sequence. The affirmation of nature and spirit swelling through me seemed to summon and conjure new or perhaps long dormant energy. Air I am. Fire I am. Water, earth, and spirit I am.

From the depths or the distance, I could not tell which, a low voice. Was this rising in me or in the space around? Air I am. . . it grows louder still. Water, earth. . . it fills the hallway just beyond our shared quarters. Spirit I am. . . a new presence enters.

ONE MORE TIME! AIR I AM FIRE I AM WATER EARTH AND SPIRIT I AM.

The room reverberates and pulses with the trance we created together. I am left with this call echoing between my ribs. I open my eyes.

Lavonia Elberton stands in the center of the room, beginning her call to worship, but a deity is absent, or rather, displaced. She offers this time to us, and suggests that we are both the creators and the destroyers, a swarming possibility nested in our very human nature, often condemned and now embraced.

She led us through a practice both familiar and fresh, both farce and foundation. Though it dripped with satire, borrowing language and structure from the Christian church services I grew up knowing, the hour and a half I spent in that room dug deep and woke me up. Truths were offered with a spoonful of humor, and punctuated with an overwhelming hallelujah.

Upon returning to the practice the following week I was skeptical. Would it be the same? Or have the roots spread? Will we peel back new layers or, in typical Southern fashion, will we keep things surface level and “civil”?

We began the same way, only this time Lavonia’s arrival was simpler, whittled down to the bare essentials. We have been here before. As in previous weeks, the practice includes bodywork and yogic influence. I graze my neighbor’s hand with my foot; we are a puzzle of bodies and cushions on the wood floor. No one is bothered; we are making this practice together.

This communal theme was overwhelming. It took everyone in that room, all of our energy and spirit, to conjure new depth. The dedication and openness in the room was palpable at each service. Perhaps this is due to the crowd this particular engagement drew, a veritable choir for Elberton to preach to. Or perhaps it was Lavonia’s unwavering commitment to taking us somewhere, a successful bid in my account. Regardless, these seemingly simple exercises and stretches seemed to open new channels, and provided a way in to every participant, background or experience level notwithstanding.

One exercise that stood out involved slices of orange. Full disclosure, I have never liked oranges. I hate their texture, and when they end up on my plate I gladly give them away. All the same, this Sunday I took not one, but two slices. I closed my eyes and at Lavonia’s invitation, I thanked the orange tree and the earth for supporting it. I began to eat the first slice. The pulp caught and tore between my teeth. It was sweeter than I remembered, and had a biting freshness I wish I felt more. Before I knew it, the slice was finished. And I picked up the second. Lavonia reminded us that this fruit was a sacrifice of a living thing. This was the orange tree’s chance at new life, and now it was going on to nourish us instead, a different journey but providing life nonetheless. I bit into the second slice and this time savored the popping flesh with each bite, the juice quenching and actually satisfying.

What was this magic? How does this thing I hate become so heavenly in this moment? Simple. Perspective. Something so rarely offered, and even more rarely valued. Throughout her intoxicating service, these injections of reality are strangely sobering, but not in the buzz-kill kind of way. She offers them as she does the orange slices: “Y’all eat these and take a lot because I have to give them away,” leaving a sweetly tart taste in your mouth, and then providing the space for you to decide what to do with it.

Whether she is a witch, or a preacher, or a spiritual guide, or all three, I will leave to you. But what I took away was this: the true power and beauty is within us, and around us. Appreciate it. Thrive in it. And goddamn it, be your own savior.

 

Kristina Brown is an Atlanta native with a BFA in Dance from Point Park University. She is an artist currently living and working in Atlanta.