That One Time I Couldn’t Speak in Tongues

“Hundalay, hundalay, eebashabababa”…….I’m 12 years old in the back room of a non-denominational, evangelical, country church situated in a west-central Minnesota cornfield; surrounded by three women who are praying, laying hands on me, and speaking in tongues inches from my face.

One of the tongue speakers was a friend of my mom and the other two were members from the church.  One of the women was one that I thought I wasn’t supposed to trust. It’s funny how I interpreted my parents likes and dislikes of other adults as the person being “bad” or “good”. My mom’s friend kept repeating, “Speak it, just speak it” between more chanting of “hundalay, hundalay”. One of the other women kept telling me to open my mouth. She kept repeating, “It’s on the tip of your tongue!” I look around the room at the four or five other kids in clusters of adults and wonder what they’re thinking as I open my mouth…..

Let’s back up. How did I end up in this bizarre, to most, situation?

My parents were both raised in North Dakota in church-going families but left the Methodist church when I was three for something more exciting: the Assembly of God. Where the pastor was young and cool and The Spirit was moving. After that, we moved to Minnesota and briefly attended another Assembly of God church until my family visited the cornfield church for a week of services put on by a man named, Nigel.

Nigel was a traveling preacher who performed a popular form of service full of singing, shouting, dramatics, the passing of a collection plate for “offerings”, and a grand finale where people from the congregation would go to the front of the sanctuary to receive prayer for any number of reasons. As Nigel moved down the row of people standing shoulder to shoulder, he prayed for them, lightly touched their forehead and they would fall back, trust fall style, into the waiting arms of two ushers who lowered them to the ground.

Some people would cry, some people would lay still, but most would laugh uncontrollably and roll around. It looked like fun so, as you can imagine, a lot of us kids joined in too.

During one service, Nigel called all of the kids to the front and told us that he was going to pray over us and then, on the count of three, we were all supposed to start speaking in tongues. Cool. I was sort of curious to see if I had that “gift” but I also remembered reading in the Bible that everyone has different gifts and not everyone has the gift of tongues…..and I was pretty sure already that I didn’t have that gift. If you’ve never heard of this “speaking in tongues” I’m sure a quick google search will enlighten you. Basically all I have to add is that, if you want to attend most evangelical churches, you need to speak in tongues and raise your hands during the worship music. Bonus points for swaying and/or taking your shoes off (holy ground and all).

Anyway, I walk to the front with my sister Tina and take my place in the cluster of kids as Nigel begins to pray over us. He prays for what seems like an eternity then stops and repeats that he’s going to count to three and we will all start speaking in tongues. One, two, three…..all around me everyone starts speaking what sounds like gibberish to the unchurched but what I knew to be the “tongues” dialect of that particular evangelical church (Side note: most churches also have a specific style or two of acceptable hand raising so look around first at a new church to see what’s appropriate before reaching for Jesus).

I open my mouth and wait….nothing. “Oh well, must not be my gift”, I think to myself.

Then Nigel says, “Everyone who can speak in tongues move to the walls and everyone who can’t, stay where you are. Most of the kids move to the walls and Tina goes with them as I watch, in awe of her gift. Nigel starts praying fervently over the handful of us left up front and a couple more burst into tongues and move to the side. You can probably tell by now that I’m not as quick on the uptake as some. By now, the collection plate needs to be passed so Nigel sends those of us that remained to a back room for more focused prayer as we clearly need more work. And that’s how I ended up opening and closing my mouth like a fish gasping for air while waiting for some sounds of words to come out. Still nothing.

By the time the service had adjourned and my mom came looking for me, my three “prayer warriors” were out of hundalays, and I was still not speaking in tongues.

On the ride home I asked Tina how she was able to speak in tongues. She just looked at me and said, “I can’t speak in tongues”.

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