It’s called the Sawdust Road, the evangelical highway that crisscrosses the South and Southwest bringing Jesus, healings, hope and salvation to those who open their souls and wallets under the extraordinarily huge white tents (“the size of 2 football fields”). It is traveled by God’s own men and women anointed to speak in His Name and to perform His Miracles. It was Oral Robert’s path to popularity and prosperity, and functionally illiterate David Terrell’s, too.
Donna Marie Johnson, a three year old toddler, and her year old brother joined Rev. David Terrell’s heavenly “holy roller” all-star circus with their mother Carolyn Johnson. Carolyn became the tent revival’s organist after she was moved to sell or give away all their possessions to be one of God’s (or Terrell’s) people. They were homeless, dependent on the kindness of strangers and fellow believers to house them for a few weeks at a time while Terrell spoke to the desperate masses who filled the tent. Housing was more than likely a combination of muddy surroundings, moldy walls, mildewed bedding and other unhealthy factor.
The Sawdust Road was hardly a healthy environment for children. The leaders in this ministry had a calling higher than nurturing their offspring. There were a few half-hearted attempts at home-schooling, but mainly the children who were old enough to walk were dressed up at meeting time and placed on hard folding chairs to sit for 5 hours at a time as the preaching unfolded and the spirit entered the fortunate attendees who began speaking in tongues. During other times they wandered in the yards dirty, parasite ridden, and hungry. Brother Terrell was never one to spare the belt, especially with his son Randall. Carolyn toured several times with the ministry while leaving her two children in the care of complete strangers. Some of them took advantage of the situation to add their own form of abuse of the children to Carolyn’s detachment.
Donna’s family traveled in the vehicle with the Terrells and their children from place to place, a fact that Donna soon understood to mean that her family was special to David Terrell, that they had earned his approval. And that’s what all his followers ultimately wanted – to earn the approval of this self-appointed prophet, to be enfolded into his promises. Innocently eavesdropping, Donna learns that her mother is considered David’s other wife. Gradually are revealed his affairs with other women followers and the hidden children whom they bore him .
Attendance at the services dwindled as radio and TV took on a larger role in getting religion to the masses, and eventually David caught on. (Today you can donate on the website.) The last hour of his sermons was dedicated to passing the buckets and to asking for money for the church. Then he began to wear the apron-of-many-pockets which followers would stuff with their last dollars, even wedding rings, for David and his family. Eventually the caravan of hoopty-like cars driven by the Terrellites from place to place became Mercedes, Lincoln Continentals, and Thunderbirds. After an IRS audit, Terrell served jail time for tax evasion.
Donna Johnson left Terrell’s entourage at age 17 conflicted about faith and David Terrell, her step-father. What was he really? A preacher, an adulterer, an actor, a prophet, a con artist, a healer? She had seen him perform successfully each of these roles. Johnson says, “Sifted and shaped over time by the adults around me, my recollections have distilled into a mythology of faith, hard to believe, harder still to deny.” Today Donna remains,”a doubt-ridden Episcopalian with Buddhist tendencies.”
RCW – Neighborhood Reader