The Navajo in the Balcony

It happened just as the ushers reached the front of the church with the offering plates. The choir had finished a powerful song called "Peace on Me," and the minister, a maestro of good timing, waited a beat and then another while stillness reclaimed the sanctuary.

He stepped to the microphone, opened his mouth to bless the offering – and a voice called out from the balcony. A man’s voice, measured, somewhat muffled, but forceful and commanding.

The minister bowed his head. The ushers, choir and congregation bowed their heads. The voice continued in a sing-song cadence, biting off the word endings, not one word of it comprehensible, and from the back and to one side of the sprawling sanctuary I think the same thing I think every time I hear it: Navajo.

But it’s not Navajo. It’s glossolalia – speaking in tongues – and this Mt. Paran Church of God in suburban Atlanta, a place where speaking in tongues is regarded with the same reverence as a good altar call and a heartfelt sermon. It’s the fourth time I’ve heard it in my sporadic attendance here, and the next step is the translation by someone in the congregation.

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A Touch of Scarlet

Thomas Nash and a woman named Martha are shoulder to shoulder at an easel looking at her painting. "There’s a lot right going on here," Nash says, "but you didn’t come here for me to tell you that."

"Here" is a room in a bright new community center 20 miles north of Atlanta where 10 other artists – seven women, three men – stand at easels earnestly mixing paint and applying it to canvas.

Gray-haired, erect and tanned from a recent trip to Antigua, Martha wears bifocals, blue rubber gloves and a black apron over a red flannel turtleneck and dark slacks.

Nash is a tall, lean man with dark, curly, collar-length hair, a pink complexion and an all-black wardrobe: jeans, golf shirt and athletic shoes. Now in his mid-50s, Nash is a nationally recognized portrait artist – among his current commissions is a portrait of former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson for the Atlanta airport – and is in the fourth day of teaching a portrait-painting workshop.

In the center of the room are two low platforms, back to back. Each has a chair facing in opposite directions bathed in light from overhead lamps and separated by a curtain. In one chair is a regal African-American woman named Mollie who is wearing a billowing multicolored outfit and purple jacket. In the other is your correspondent, wearing jeans, navy turtleneck, dark sportcoat and red paisley silk scarf.

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