Billy Joe Russell

Published on January 18th, 2022 | by Billy Joe Russell


I’ll Take My Stand: “Give Me That Oldtime Religion”

“Every story of conversion is the story of a blessed defeat.” (CS Lewis)

In my last column, I wrote about Inherit the Wind’s attack on religion as the enemy of progress. Notably, the singing of the very same song by Evangelical Christians was cast in glowing evening light by Hollywood in 1942, but in the harsh light of day in 1960. In the interim, the politics of Hollywood (and Broadway) had rotated 180 degrees. (Yet again. But that’s a topic for another time.)

Inherit the Word: Not long after I’d moved to Oxford in 2010, I visited the Dollar Tree store that’s in the same mall as Walmart and Goodwill. The moment I passed through the threshold, Patricia (“Trisha”) Pratt, a formidable but warm and friendly woman who worked there, shouted out, “Here comes Mr. New York!” I was dressed similarly (sans shotgun) to the photo in the banner atop this essay. I hadn’t said a word, so my accent didn’t give me away. As with Paula knowing I hadn’t clapped for Tinkerbell, how did Trisha know I was from NYC? (Obviously, I do give off a certain vibe.)

c. Patricia Pratt

As I soon learned from her, Trisha hadn’t gone to college, but she had gone to prison. So, she’s smart about stuff that actually matters.  She’d lived in 5 or 6 other locales before moving to Oxford. All the rest were unsatisfactory in one way or another. For example, in Chicago she’d felt unsafe. In Ann Arbor, the places she could afford were the size of rabbit huts. Here in the county, she had an entire home. She felt like drawing a smiley face on her monthly rent check of $400.  

Trisha and I became fast friends. I saw her recently at Walmart. As always, she gave me a big hug. (I was happy to socially un-distance for the occasion.) She’s currently working for Aramark in the Ole Miss Student Union. She tells me, “I am secure in my job. They love me, and I  love them and the students I have met.” 

It wasn’t always this way. Earlier in life, Trisha was imprisoned because of her  involvement with drugs. In her words, “I spent my time behind bars like most  addicts, counting the days till I could get high again.”  

While in prison, she was diagnosed with, and treated for, cervical cancer.  Fortunately, the surgery she underwent has left her cancer-free ever since. 

After Trisha’s release, she lived for awhile with her sister, who had moved to Oxford to help her get back on her feet. But once her sister returned to Jackson, Trisha’s own children refused to have anything to do with her, or allow her contact with her grandchildren — because they could tell she was still using drugs. 

However before her sister left, she changed Trisha’s life forever by insisting to all 3 generations living under her roof at the time: “If your job doesn’t have you booked for Sunday morning, you’re going to church!” 

The church was Spirit of Excellence. In Trisha’s words: “I kid you not — when I stepped into the church, something went through me, and I’ve been there ever since!”

Even though she didn’t stop using drugs right away, she kept worshiping at Spirit of Excellence. Soon, a young woman at the church became her “mentor”. By now, Trisha was working at Dollar Tree. By day, her mentor called her while she was at work. By night, the mentor called Trisha at the place where she was renting a room. Finally, Trisha got sick and tired of being sick-and-tired, so she quit using. 

Once she was off drugs, Trisha started hearing the voice of Jesus telling her, “Go get your sisters — tell your sisters …” For a year she answered back, “No, Jesus, I will  not go back into that living Hell!” 

But after one long night of wrestling with her conscience, the next day she talked it through with her bishop, Kelvin Ransey. As of this coming Spring, it will be 9 years since she began bringing the message of Salvation through Christ to women in the Lafayette County Detention Center. Of course, for a number of months visitors were kept out because of covid. But recently, visitation has been allowed again, and Trisha has resumed going there.

On a recent Sunday she intended to visit for 1 hour, but wound up staying for 3 (till closing time). She explained, “We started studying the Book of Matthew. The ladies had lots of questions, and I love to fellowship with them. To see someone come alive through Jesus is such an amazing event! Although I’ll say to myself, I’m only going to stay 1 hour, it seldom turns out that way.”

Before she let Jesus into her life, Trisha was lost. Through her faith in the Bible as the literal Word of God, she now is found. In her own words, “Isn’t God a wonder!  God has restored the relationship between me and my children. And, I’m now a  full-time granny. In my past, I could never have imagined how God could turn my  whole life around. I am a new creature!” 

Trisha’s not concerned with whether a rock is 4 thousand or 4 billion years old.  What she cares about are her family, friends, and community — especially helping  sisters who are still lost find their way back. 

Evangelical Christianity looks so different here in Mississippi than it does on the  Broadway stage, or the Hollywood big screen. 

In closing, I’ll mention that there are many renderings of “Give Me That Old Time Religion” on the playlist I pre-recorded for the music box mounted on my bicycle.  This one is my favorite.

I’ll Take My Stand: "The American Faith"
I’ll Take My Stand: "Me and Donald Trump (III)"

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